Most people recognize Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin (aka “Yas”) as the brassy, big-voiced frontwoman of popular Knoxville neo-soul-rock outfit Electric Darling. But more recently, she’s gained additional traction with her side project, a duo (and occasional four-piece) she began with longtime local keyboard ace Ben Maney.
One of their earliest shows — and their first public performance — was at the opening ceremony for last year’s Big Ears Festival, a gathering at downtown’s Square Room. “Ben has been a teacher at the Community School of the Arts for a long time, and I attended the school from the age of five through age 18,” Yas explains. “So last year, the school asked the two of us to pull something together, to represent them for the opening.
“They sort of pitched it as ‘just a little thing at the Square Room,'” she laughs. “I figured we’d be background music. But when we got there, there were all these big performers from the festival attending and playing, too. It was very ‘official.’ But it was for the best, because the audience turned out to be very receptive. And Ben and I realized we might be on to something.”
Now in her mid-20s, Yas has already enjoyed an impressive career as a performer in Knoxville. As a child, she sang in church and at community events. Upon entering college, she majored in opera production at the University of Tennessee, and sang with both the UT and Knoxville opera companies, both before and after her graduation.
Then she started sitting in with rock and R&B bands at area clubs. “I was singing with the Knoxville Opera Chorus, and I was singing at jam nights at different places,” she says. “And I had a regular gig singing at Second Presbyterian. So I was singing R&B, rock, classical, sacred music, sometimes all of that in the same week.”
Yet it wasn’t until 2015 that she became a permanent member of a band, when now-fellow Electric Darling members Cozmo Holloway and Kevin Hyfantis recruited her for their new project, having themselves experienced her vocal prowess at various open mics.
As for her new work as part of a duo, Yas says she and Maney have taken the stage together perhaps eight times over the last year since Big Ears — sometimes as voice-and-keyboards duo, and sometimes as a four-piece backed by drummer Alonzo Lewis and bassist Daniel Shifflett.
“We do everything from old standards to our own take on modern electronic and R&B,” says Yas. “We do ‘Summertime,’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ We do some Fiona Apple songs; we do Solange. Anything that moves us, we’re willing to adapt to piano and voice.
“I’d say that the things we collaborate best on are jazz-pop, or adult contemporary. We do some of Ben’s original songs, too, which have kind of a Jamie Cullum kind of sound. Those work well, too.”
Yas explains the creative sympatico of her partnership with Maney as a combination of comfort and chemistry. “I think we’re really comfortable playing with each other,” she says. “Together, we create this free and open creative space. It’s a passionate, fun, play-anything-you-want kind of situation.
“And it makes for a very lush sound. As a keyboardist and pianist, Ben fills up a lot of space. And I’ve always thought of my own voice as an instrument. So there’s a lot of things going on, even as a duo.”
Yas says she and Maney have tried writing songs together on a couple of occasions, but that their schedules don’t allow for too much collaboration. Maney has been an in-demand teacher and sideman around town for at least 20 years, and Yas has been busy recording a new EP with her Electric Darling bandmates. “That doesn’t make for a lot of down time,” she says with another chuckle.
“Maybe we’ll write together more in the future,” she continues. “We’ll definitely be playing more together. And who knows? Maybe we’ll end up recording one day.”
Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin and Ben Maney will play Scruff City Hall Friday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.