FACT catches up with the musical maestro just days before her performance at Atlantis The Royal’s Grand Reveal weekend.
Layla Kardan is onstage at Ariana’s Persian Kitchen inside the regal Atlantis The Royal. As she purrs through her songs in her signature sultry tones, she’s dressed in a flowing black and purple gown that is as much statement as it is style. It’s one of the biggest nights in Dubai as it will culminate with the GOAT Beyoncé Knowles concert. Layla isn’t just a warm-up act, though, as she is on fire: she may be captivating the country and the world’s media tonight, but she has been making a name for herself over the last half-decade.
Layla is a true global citizen. When her family fled Iran during the revolution, she was born in Belgium. The family then moved around the United States, Europe and finally Australia (where she has citizenship). Now, she is based in Dubai. We meet the 38-year-old over coffee in Nakheel Mall ahead of the opening of her new wellness venture.
Layla’s pathway to stardom hasn’t been straightforward. While she grew up listening to artists like Erykah Badu, Prince and Sade, it was a world away from her reality. Nowadays, singers get record deals off the back of social media or reality TV competitions, but what do you do if you come from a conservative family? She explains: “I grew up in a family where singing was not encouraged. I was allowed to be a classical ballerina and a pianist, but not a singer. So, I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.”
So, she completed a business degree and pursued a career in finance, but occasionally nabbed gigs on the side. Eventually, she turned her side hustle into her main hustle. She recalls: “I got to a stage in my life and I was unhappy. I hadn’t even given myself a chance to fulfil this dream. But from one day to the next, I told everyone I’m a singer and gave up my corporate career to focus on this.”
Despite having no professional training and switching careers five years ago, she has never turned back. She stepped into the spotlight by creating a niche, and singing at events for fashion brands including Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. Now, she is one of the most exciting artists in the UAE.
She shares: “I enjoy it more now, as I get to choose. Before I wanted as much exposure as possible and I wanted to make money, so I was doing everything for a really low rate. Now that I have established myself in this space, I can dictate which events I want to do and how much I want to charge.”
Today, Layla isn’t just dictating her fees but also where she’s playing. She is the driving force behind two buzzing venues in the UAE: Papillion and Penelope’s Brasserie and Jazz Bar Américain. In 2021, Papillion launched in The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, presenting dinner and a show. In 2022, she followed it up with Penelope’s, which brings a touch of the Cote D’Azure to Abu Dhabi.
Not many performers, especially women, open their own jazz bar. It was during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, that she found her inspiration. She declares: “I approached Q’s Bar and Lounge and said, ‘guys, I understand it’s Covid, you’re not flying in international acts, but just give me one night’. So, it was booked out three weeks in advance, and other venues were asking for me. I thought, ‘why am I making money for other people? Let me do it myself'”.
“I love the stage, theatre and production, and this was when there weren’t many dinner shows. Now in Dubai, it’s everywhere. I wanted to bring something risqué and daring that would push the envelope. I like to do that with my art and I’m glad that I did.”
Layla has now turned the volume up in Abu Dhabi with Penelope’s. Guests are entertained by talented jazz musicians – including her. She explains: “Abu Dhabi has a sophisticated crowd that are hungry for more options. So, it was a strategic decision. Penelope’s has got glamour, but it’s not unapproachable. So, you go in and there’s a vibe. We have some of the best jazz musicians in the country, and a beautiful view of Yas Marina. So, it’s a sensory experience on all levels.
“Penelope’s has been such a hit and we’re so proud of what we’ve created. We have an exciting new venue on the horizon, which we plan to open over the next four to five months. We also want to build a speakeasy to create a flow, so after people are done with the Penelope’s and the new concept, they have somewhere to go for a little party.”
If you want to watch her live, she performs once a week at Papillon and once a week at Penelope’s. Plus, you may be lucky enough to see her with a special guest. Recently, rapper and Fugees member, Wyclef Jean, popped into Penelope’s.
She laughs: “I grew up idolising the Fugees, and Wyclef Jean visited during Formula One. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t want to disturb him. Then he came back and not only did he take a picture with me, but we did a 20-minute jam session. I was weak in the knees. I was a little girl who never had any vocal training, but just loved to sing. I never believed that it could happen. And this whole situation was like, ‘wow’. He was so gracious and down to earth.”
The year ahead already looks busy. She has plenty of projects (“I can’t even wrap my head around how many things are happening”), and recently gave birth to her first son (“I’m launching a line of baby food with Spinneys”). There’s also wellness on the horizon for Layla:
“I’m currently working on a business inside Golden Mile Mall that revolves around contrast therapy. It will offer infrared saunas, ice baths, IV drips and speciality massages. I firmly believe that wellness isn’t an injection. It’s not a bandaid. It’s a lifestyle.”
While she has been writing and recording songs, she reveals that the current protests in Iran have been a cause for reflection. She shares: “I’m going to be recording a new project. I’m really proud of my Iranian heritage and want to do something that honours the old folk or pop songs, but with a jazzy twist.
Layla, the stage is yours.