Twin sisters, Leila and Omnia Hegazy found their love of music together at an early age, but like any set of twins discovering their own identities was an important part of growing up. The Hegazy sisters attended separate high schools and colleges and embarked on their own musical journeys. This allowed both to find the style that fit them best.
In her early twenties, Leila had already established herself, performing in many of New York’s best-known venues including SOBs and the Apollo Theater. She earned a degree in Studio Composition from the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College while working on releasing her music. Her first EP was produced by Grammy-nominated Dr. Joespeh Ferry, and created momentum for her first full-length album. Looking Glass was made possible by Leila’s successful Kickstarter campaign.
While Leila was creating her own waves, Omnia too was working on her musical craft. While attending the Clive Davis Institute she worked the New York indie scene, playing up and down the Lower East Side. Inspired by the folk artists of the ’60s, Omnia became more outspoken politically. Her independently released EPs and fan-funded music video all had a strong feminist theme to them. Her unapologetic approach to feminism in her music drew attention from many media outlets.
The Hegazy sisters joined forces in 2012. After both graduated college, they moved in together and started writing songs together — something they hadn’t done since they were little girls. They were 11 years old when they wrote their first song. Both sisters say it was difficult at first to blend their different sounds and styles, but once they did it was magic. After the passing of their father, the two officially teamed up as HEGAZY. He always said they were more powerful together.
We spoke with Leila and Omnia about coming together after paving seperate paths, being women in the industry, and exclusively share the music video for their new song “Alive.”
How did you both end up loving music? Did you grow up in a musical household?
Our parents listened to a lot of music, but neither one of them were musicians. We realized that we loved music in NYC public school (we were chorus and band geeks). Our first instrument besides our voices was the clarinet, and from there we asked our parents for music lessons.
You wrote your first song together at a very young age, do you remember what it was about?
We were 11 and the song was about love (for the record, we had never been in love–it was just what every other song seemed to be about). Nowadays we both write from a much more honest place!
As twins, I’m sure it was a difficult and important task to find your own identities.
We both went to separate high schools and colleges and this was crucial for our development as individuals. Before that people basically saw us as a unit – other kids actually us called “Thing 1” and “Thing 2” in middle school. We always shared everything growing up: friends, interests, a bedroom, etc. In hindsight, being apart from each other was one of the best things that could have happened for us, as sisters and as artists.
Why was it important for you both to pursue music as solo artists?
We became solo artists pretty organically because we attended different schools and lived separately from each other. Looking back, we both feel it was a blessing to discover our own individual artistry before coming back together as a duo. It helped each of us to reach our full potential.
How did each of you develop your unique musical styles?
Leila: While Omnia and I were attending different high schools/colleges, I listened to a lot of jazz, soul, and Motown music. I realize now that I gravitated towards those styles of music because I needed serious vocal prowess to sing them. Even though I played piano, I was always a singer at heart. I found that there was a level of vocal mastery in those styles that you couldn’t hear anywhere else in popular music and this really drew me in. Plus, as a songwriter, I was able to write for my voice in a way that no one else could.
Omnia: We didn’t start writing songs separately until I started playing guitar and jamming on my own. Before that, Leila and I would sit at the piano while she played and write together. Though I loved writing songs with Leila, I also loved being musically independent and being able to accompany myself (I played violin and loved it, but couldn’t sing with it). I dabbled with singing Arabic covers in high school with help from our Dad (he was Egyptian), while writing some pretty angsty John Mayer-style pop/rock on my own. We became very different artists because we were exposed to very different things.
Being strong and outspoken women, did you ever experince pushback?
Leila: A thousand times, yes. The music industry is often dominated by men and this includes everyone from bandmates to sound people, to booking people, etc. – I’ve experienced sexual harassment from male musicians that was so terrible it led me to quit music almost entirely for a while. As a woman in any industry, it’s really hard to ask for what you want without being labeled “demanding,” “b*tchy,” etc. There’s also an interesting dynamic where a lot of men (musicians and non-musicians) don’t feel they can relate to music by female musicians. Many will even go so far as to call it “girl music.” Meanwhile, plenty of women listen to music by male artists all the time without ever seeing it as “guy music.”
Omnia: When I worked in the music business, it was not rare to be the only woman in a room full of men. As a musician and performer, I’ve often been the only woman in the band. A lot of men assume that I’m not a serious guitarist just because I’m a woman. Sound guys can be real jerks during sound checks and talk down to me (they don’t know that I went to school for music production and assume I don’t know anything). Going to music stores to buy guitar-related things is always an experience. I get asked when I walk in if I need the keyboard department (because I couldn’t possibly play guitar). It can be exhausting. I think that women have to try even harder than men for half of the recognition.
What brought you two back together after both having successful separate careers?
We shared an apartment together after college and wrote songs in adjacent rooms for about two years before we stylistically met in the middle. We accidentally copied each other’s songs a few times before we realized that maybe we should work together. Both of us did hit a wall at some point creatively by ourselves, and found that writing together helped us to get those creative juices flowing again.
You officially came together as HEGAZY after your father passed, has joining forces been healing for you?
Our dad always wanted us to work together. By the time he passed away, we were collaborating more often, so forming the duo happened pretty naturally. Using his last name as our band name was a way of remembering him and that in itself is very healing.
Can you tell us about your writing process as a duo?
Usually, we start writing songs separately, and then bring our ideas to each other for feedback. Very often, one of us will start a song and the other will finish it. Both of us have pretty strong personalities, so we can butt heads at times. We can go back and forth over lyrics for days (and we have!). But that’s why our music as a duo is stronger than our solo music – because two heads really are better than one.
Was it difficult blending your styles?
Sometimes. Even though our individual styles eventually became more similar, the types of music we studied were pretty different. This has led to differences in methodology. Both of us have had to learn to be more open-minded, and to accept the other one’s approach as equally valid to their own.
The song “Alive” has a very cool vibe to it, what inspired it and the video?
Omnia: I wrote the song “Alive” after quitting my day job in early 2016 to pursue my own music full-time. I worked in music publishing and though it was a creative job, I found myself burnt out, with little time to write songs. I felt like I was leading a double life: office worker during the day and musician at night. “Alive” was about breaking free of the 9-5 to do what I love. The music video was shot documentary style. We followed five real people in NYC around with a camera crew and chronicled their day-jobs and passions/side hustles. The idea was to show that many of us have multiple identities, and what we do to pay the bills isn’t necessarily who we really are.
What can fans expect from the songs in your upcoming EP Young?
You can expect the EP to be light-hearted and soulful, while also pushing some of the necessary buttons. We are young Arab-American women living in the Trump era and that comes with a lot. But at the end of the day, this EP is really about our experience as millennials (hence the title “Young”).
What song is special from the EP to each of you?
Omnia: Our single “Alive,” for the reasons above!
Leila: Our second single “Here To Stay.” For years I had wanted to write a song that tackled xenophobia, and this was it. When I took it to Omnia we agonized over the lyrics in a way that was very different from how we approached any other song. We really dug into all the stereotypes people have about immigrants (aka “the other”), and what they’re so afraid of. The point was to make xenophobia appear ridiculous while also flipping what people say about us on its head in a way that is empowering.
If you could go back and talk to young Leila and Omnia what advice would you give them?
Leila: Don’t be afraid to speak your mind.
Omnia: It’s okay to not fit in! Be a leader, not a follower.