Collaboration has always been key for Tāmaki Makaurau-based producer and performer Mona. The Iranian-New Zealander started out writing rhymes and making beats in high school, first throwing ideas around with schoolmates and later with uni friends and other creative peers.
Studying spatial design at AUT gave Mona access to a recording studio that she made good use of. She subsequently decided to also train as an audio engineer, which gave her the tools she needed to work on tracks for the likes of killer emcee JessB.
These days Mona records and performs as CHAII, usually in cahoots with her fiance and musical partner Frank Keys – who also plays in CHAII's live band and electro hip-hop four-piece Yoko-Zuna, among other projects. She has a steady wider crew that she works with musically and visually to bring her many ideas to fruition.
"It's usually friends and people in the industry who are also really into the vision and the sound," Mona elaborates. "People that genuinely enjoy it, rather than, 'Oh, it's just another job.' That's really important for me, that we all get to get creative together."
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The collaborative approach goes both ways. Having worked with a number of other artists directing videos, producing music, and doing live sound, Mona already knew a lot of behind-the-scenes folk before making the bold choice to commit to doing her own music full-time at the start of 2020.
"It got to a point where I had the skills that I needed, but I also realised, if I don't give this my full attention then I'll never know what my music is capable of doing, or where it's going to go.
"I went a bit cold turkey, finished off all the projects that I was working on and just made that big move. It felt quite organic and comfortable, but at the same time it was scary, because when you give it your all then you really know if it is going to resonate and do anything."
The leap of faith paid off, despite her plans for the year being disrupted by everyone's favourite party crasher, Covid-19.
"We were a week out from going to perform in America at [music industry festival] SXSW. After that we were meant to do a tour around America, and go to Europe as well," Mona recounts. "It actually worked out alright, we ended up making more music and developing the music and our live show a lot more."
CHAII was still able to release her first EP Lightswitch, which drew all the right attention – including placement in high profile international ad campaigns and gaming soundtracks, and an opportunity to participate in Spotify's star-making RADAR programme.
The EP introduced audiences to the unique sound and vision that Mona had spent four years trying to articulate – bred by an improbable combination of Persian and western influences.
"I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Persian music, modern Persian music as well. Then, moving to New Zealand it was a lot of hip hop and rap, more western music, which I was so obsessed with. There was this sound [I was trying to capture] but I couldn't quite get it – that was another reason I started producing again, so I could get that sound out of my head.
One year on from the success of her debut, CHAII's back in limbo due to another lockdown, although things still haven't ground to a halt. She even has another EP release on the horizon.
"We're just rolling with the punches at the moment, but I'm always working on the next projects," Mona says. "A lot of admin work, a lot of planning the next chapter of things. It's been quite busy actually, but it's a blessing when it's busy."
CHAII's next single 'Get It Done' is out on September 24, with the EP also due for release at the end of October.
"The whole EP is quite playful and fun and light, they're very in-the-moment tracks. All the songs are quite different and I've vocally experimented a lot more – singing a lot more, rather than just rap.
"I'm just really, really happy to finally put it out. I've already got the next music ready to go."
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