“Goodbye always starts with hello,” Faouzia’s bronze voice warns at the dawn of Stripped, her debut EP, dropped on August 5, 2020. Though immediately foreboding in its suggestion that new encounters inevitably end with loss or disappointment, this six-song project was one of the best things to happen in a largely terrible year. It presents a scarred, yet triumphant selection of Faouzia’s old and new songs, “stripped” down to the acoustic setting that highlights the warmly metallic, self-proclaimed “Arabic tinge[d]” pop vocals and penetrating lyrics for which she has garnered a massive digital following over the last two years. Despite COVID-19 canceling her first worldwide tour, the trilingual Moroccan-born Canadian singer was determined to deliver that intimacy around the world, leading her to ultimately pair the EP with a livestream performance: “Stripped: Live In Concert from the Burton Cummings Theatre,”which she filmed before an empty auditorium and released on YouTube.
The concert opens with a shot of fingers dancing with classically-trained deftness across spotlit piano keys. Adorned with long pink acrylic nails, they speed up in an anxiety-inducing flutter to build a micro-concerto before evaporating into darkness. Faouzia rises from behind the piano in a mauve dress, glides to center stage, and grasps the microphone. The piano is played in her absence. She begins belting “How It All Works Out” from her 5’2” frame as purple cannon-like backlights fire an aurora above her.
Compiled as a thematic patchwork of songs written from when she was 14 (“Bad Dreams”) through the album’s newest addition (“100 Bandaids”), written at age 20, Stripped’s collection of aching yearnings speak to a universal desire to be revealed—shedding layers of facade—till our vulnerability is laid bare. Despite its concision (the album and concert both run under a half-hour), Stripped is temporally expansive, the songs reflecting an ongoing and intimate journey through unreciprocated friendships; the experience of never being fully seen or considered, and of ending up emotionally numbed as a result. An ode to woundedness, the EP leaves us believing she’d “rather be heartless / Than have [her] heart in pieces”(“Born Without A Heart”).
Stripped’s lineup evokes the chronology and circularity of growing up, trying to escape an addiction to the toxic triad of hope, hurt, and hardening. The portentous “Bad Dreams” of Faouzia’s adolescence, which desperately collects shards of premonitions, “shadows,” and “glances,” bleeds into the time-weathered perceptions of her young adulthood’s “Born Without a Heart,” in which she has become a scarred “nightmare” and “a bitter pill.” At Faouzia’s emotional rock bottom, the EP’s most-streamed song, “Tears of Gold,” her generosity becomes her “enemy” in an economy of unrequited “platinum love.” Giving and giving and giving with nothing in return leaves her “broke” and “your heart rich.” “And the worst part is [she’d] do it all over again./ No, the worst part is, [she] know[s] it’s never gonna end.”
These lyrics sear through agile belting, yodel-cracking, and bullet-like vibrato, ranging from dulcet alto depths to flute-like whistle tones, techniques executed with masterful control. Though Stripped’s resonance lies in its rawness, the intensity with which she bludgeons the listener over the narrative arc renders the EP a hard-to-binge maelstrom of bedroom catharsis.
However, the live-streamed concert gives the audience space to breathe between each song. In each interlude, Faouzia reflects on the song’s personal history. We learn that as she moved from rural Canada to university, “I would always hear people say they don’t like me… How do you have an opinion about me?” Hence, “You Don’t Even Know Me.” We learn that “100 Band-Aids” is a take on the dreaded “other point of view,” when she has to do the heartbreaking and fumbles “to make it all better.”
And yet, Faouzia’s darkly angelic beseech is not without hope for future revelation and communion. With mesmerizing poise, she bares herself in real-time, unleashing this musical tension as relatable stories that intersect and entangle with the immediacy of a first in-person meeting. On stage, she dazzles with an intimate show of literal “shadows”’ and “glances.” As the camera pans into the singer’s face, she makes side-eye contact with the viewer. Lights beneath her feet dance like sunlight breaking through water. We are submerged in a pool of her kaleidoscopic emotion, rising to the surface with each of her upward air-grasps and arm-strokes. Though she asserts in “You Don’t Even Know Me,” that we “don’t know about the way I am when I am all alone,” we sure do now.
In a preview of what’s to come, Faouzia ends the concert with her most intimate act yet, a bonus track titled “Elon,” which she invokes sitting cross-legged in a state of surrender to the truth that she’s “been throwing daggers / In an auditorium / All alone,” but has the agency to realize her self-worth and transcend her wounds. With a backshot of her staring into the theater’s void, we witness her final purgation:
“All the smoke and mirrors are long gone
All the pretty flowers are dead in thorns
Every little thing we do is toxic, it’s so toxic
So I’ll go
Cause I don’t like this anymore
It doesn’t take an Einstein, doesn’t take an Elon
To learn that it’s all wrong.”
This live performance of Stripped leaves us bare but emboldened. In a precarious socially-distant moment, it’s oddly cozy—not merely because I can watch in bed—but because it cares about us, the ghosts in the auditorium, who, like Faouzia, will leave having stripped all the dead thorns in our sides, all that is toxic.