Inspired by magnifying social issues and stories from the Waterloo Region, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil officially released her much-awaited album this month. 

After two and a half of years of hard work with a pandemic sandwiched in between, Neil is thrilled to finally have her 10-track album I’m Who I Am released. 

Each track in the album contains stories about prevalent issues around the community, Neil explained in an interview with insideWaterloo on April 13, the day her album was released online. The album features contributions from different musicians and instrumentalists while tracks have narrations based on the topic they are about. 

“I never thought I was going to be a recording artist, that wasn’t in the plan,” Neil said from the front porch of her Kitchener home. 

Neil’s journey to her second album being released began in 2019 when she was the City of Kitchener artist in residence. As part of her role, she hosted many workshops and had a great time making songs, creating songs and working with people around the community. 

Songs created through her time there were released in her first album, Songs of Kitchener.

Through her work, a seed was planted, she says, which resulted in her beginning work on I’m Who I Am.

“There were some serious conversations going around in KW, like in the Region of Waterloo in general, about some of the challenges we were having growing as a community so rapidly,” says Neil. “The primary one being talked about at that point was the opioid crisis. It was the controversy around the safe consumption sites.” 

Neil came across a picture on Facebook that drove the crisis home for her. The picture was of a message someone had written on a bench in downtown Kitchener. The bench read, “Please everybody stop reviving me when I OD. I OD on purpose for a reason that I don’t want to talk about.”

“It dawned on me that there are people dying on our streets, that we have failed people,” Neil said. “For whatever reason that is like we’re growing so rapidly, or systems are not prepared, or systems are not as effective, we have a top-down approach to things—we could use all the terminology or all the jargon. At the end of the day, we are failing people.”

Inspired by the issue and wanting to bring community issues forward, Neil wrote “Lifted High”, the first song of the album. That song helped Neil get a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts to finish and release the full  album. 

“Part of this album is all about storytelling. One of the things I was kind of excited about doing and was very old school retro of me was that I created liner notes for this,” she said. “The thing that ties the album together is the fact there are stories within our community that tie us together.” 

Community research 

Neil’s background work for the album involved research with many individuals, community groups, and leaders from around Waterloo Region to put together the album. Jeff Cowell served as co-producer on the album. 

“Some of the songs have clips of the interviews I did with people,” said Neil. “Those were only little snippets of what actually fed into all these songs, and who I worked with, and all these different things.”

“I tried not to make it too pandemic specific because I wanted it to be something that could be listened to whenever we’re done with this, [although] I don’t know what that will look like,” said Neil. “Those stories, they are the same stories, they just got magnified during the pandemic.” 

Liner notes and bios for each song are listed on her website. 

Aside from this album, Neil, who graduated with a Master’s in Community Music from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2019, is a proponent for accessible music. 

Following completion of her degree, Neil focused on making “junk music” with people, which involves using  items diverted from landfills as instruments. This way of producing music allows people who do not play traditional instruments to feel less pressure to make and perform music in a typical fashion. 

“I’m always about breaking that barrier between the stage and the audience. I feel like the audience should really be on the stage and making music.”

Neil, a mother of an eight and six-year-old, offers customizable workshops and events for all occasions including creating and recording your own wedding song, educational workshops around music and sustainability and community events and drop-ins.