Hana Malhas knows what it’s like to travel in the name of music. The Jordanian-born, Ann Arbor-based singer-songwriter underwent a painstaking year-long production process between her two home bases to record her debut album Shapeshift, which she is self-releasing in March.

Hana Malhas

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Malhas graduated from the University of Michigan, and is currently working toward an MBA in the Ross School of Business with a focus on nonprofit management. She describes her music as “indie-folk pop” and counts Ray LaMontagne and Feist among her primary influences.

Malhas’s 2008 EP Olive Tree is filled with emotive, barebones acoustic songs with spare piano accompaniment that evokes comparison to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of The Swell Season. Unlike the spontaneous feel of her EP, Shapeshift’s evokes the labor involved in thousands of miles of travel between Jordan and Ann Arbor.

“I like the idea of bridging that gap between the two worlds,” Malhas said. “Musically, I like connecting with artists from both regions.”

Though Malhas feels a strong bond to her native country and its musicians, she is staying true to her own musical direction and instincts.

“(Shapeshift) is not a mix of Arabic music and Western music,” Malhas explained. “It’s not a fusion in that sense; it’s my own style. It’s just bringing contributions from other artists onto it.”

Malhas’s musical ties run deep. Classically trained in music as a young child — despite what she described as limited practice — she has been composing songs on piano and guitar for years. Last year she felt ready to take things to the next level.

“I think that at every point in a musician’s life, the music evolves,” she said. “And I just felt that my music was at a point of growth that I was ready to capture it in an album.”

Malhas had a very specific vision for her album, and wanted to ensure it reflected her growth as an artist.

“My goal was to just put out an album that was full of songs that I felt truly represented where I’m at musically… and I did,” Malhas said.

With the help of Ann Arbor-based producer Jim Roll, Malhas is finally satisfied with Shapeshift a year after its conception. With the album completed, Malhas has been hard at work on the local music circuit. After her 2009 spring and summer tour around the Midwest, she now plays venues like the Blind Pig, where she has opened for artists like Maria Taylor. Malhas finds the Ann Arbor music scene to be a welcoming one for burgeoning artists, in contrast to her hometown in Jordan.

“There are a lot of underground independent artists in Jordan who don’t get recognition or have enough venues to showcase their music,” she explained. “In Ann Arbor there are quite a few places … and in Jordan the scene is pretty small.”

Despite what she says is a lack of exposure for indie artists in the Middle East, Malhas is set on bringing the two scenes closer together by featuring cross-continental collaboration in her own music. Her two home bases allow for a unique group effort involving Middle Eastern and American musicians, as she recorded parts of the album in Jordan with Jordanian musicians, before returning to America to continue production with American musicians. Malhas has also played shows in each country.

Though Shapeshift is Malhas’s first full-length album, it’s the beginning in what is hopefully a long career.

“I would love to do music for the rest of my life,” Malhas said.

Hana Malhas will be performing at the University of Michigan Museum of Art tonight. Shapeshift will be officially released at the Blind Pig on March 12.

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