Azam Ali embraces electronic music and draws upon early influences for “Phantoms”

With her new solo album, Phantoms, Azam Ali fully embraces electronic music and draws upon early influences previously not apparent in her music. Ali has been known as a world music artist with five previous solo albums and for her work with NIYAZ and VAS. But the intricately arranged electronic compositions on Phantoms bring to mind the music of bands like Cocteau Twins, Massive Attack, and Portishead. Ali even covers Cocteau Twins with a reimagining of “Shallow Than Halo.”

Born in Iran, Ali went to boarding school in India and moved to the US in 1985. In addition to her solo and band projects, she has done extensive soundtrack work. Film and television projects Ali has been involved with include Thor: The Dark World, The Matrix Revolutions, 300, The Fight Club, Dawn of the Dead, True Blood, Alias, The Agency, and Prison Break. With video games, she’s contributed to Uncharted 3, Call of Duty, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow for which she won “Best Original Song” at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in 2007.

This album is different from your past projects and solo releases. What were the inspirations behind it?

Azam Ali: I started off with a very acoustic band. My first band was purely acoustic. Over the past two decades, I’ve slowly been evolving more in this direction because I’ve always been very interested in technology in terms of how it can be both a destructive tool and an incredible creative tool. A lot of the music I listened to in my teenage years predominantly was a lot of electronic music. That’s really the era in the eighties and nineties that I became very much interested in technology. A lot of the music from the eighties and nineties was everything from industrial music to darkwave music and synth-pop to the entire 4AD catalog, sort of ethereal pop with bands like Cocteau Twins, Massive Attack, and Portishead. Those were huge influences on me, but they never completely came through in the work that I was doing because I was predominantly working in the world music genre and expressing more of my cultural background and trying to bring that into the modern expression. When I came to do the last album that I produced with my band Niyaz, I ended up doing the majority of the programming myself. I felt that I was finally ready in that sense to do an entire electronic album by myself, but I didn’t want to just repeat and do another world music album. I knew I wanted to do something very different that people who are familiar with my work were either going to love or they were going to hate, but it didn’t matter. I just wanted it to be a completely different expression. I needed to challenge myself more than anything else. So, I’m not a conceptual artist. I never plan what I want to do. I just started creating music. I didn’t even plan that it was going to be an entire English album. And the first song I wrote for the album was “Tender Violet.” Once that came together, I realized I was tapping into a lot of the music that had influenced me from the eighties and nineties, so I realized something was happening there. I decided to just keep writing, and it was a four-year process because I was on tour a lot. I would come home and then keep producing. Once I had three songs, it became very clear what the album was wanting to be.

At that point, it was quite exciting for me because I knew I had something very different on my hands. That’s when I came up with the idea of the concept of phantoms, of how we all develop multidimensional selves in order to function in a multidimensional universe. If we think about it, who each of us is with the different people in our lives can be so varied—who we are with our families, our friends, our lovers, so on and so forth. Because I was tapping into so much of my youth, it became a process of reconciling all the phantoms that were in me and forgiving myself for a lot and coming to peace with all the personas that are within me. That was where the concept came. Before I knew it, I had a full album and I was both excited and terrified to share it with my audience.

This is your first album entirely in English. Does the language choice affect your songwriting and creative process?

Azam Ali: With a lot of the music I sang in the past, I did a lot of vocalizing and not so much lyrics because often I feel that you end up compromising your melody in order to make the words a priority. But there’s another really beautiful aspect to that as well because if you have a beautiful lyric, it becomes a bit more challenging as to how you’re going to now make that a beautiful melody. For me, as a singer, I never really saw the voice as a conduit just for words. It’s so much more than that. You’re able to express something esoteric and transcendental that sometimes I feel words can confine you. But there’s also something powerful about lyrics and words. I think of songs that have stayed with me forever. The different languages that I speak, they mean so much to me because of the lyrics. So, that also holds just as much power as melody. The only times I struggle is when I feel I have to compromise the melody for the words.

For Phantoms, did you work with any other musicians?

Azam Ali: The majority of it I programmed. Sometimes, with synthesizers, they can be so cold. So, I flew in my bandmate from my other band from Niyaz. He’s an amazing keyboard player, and he flew out from Montreal and came to LA twice, and I basically had him play all the synth parts that I had programmed live. I’m sure you know Rhys Fulber from Delerium. Rhys and I are friends, and I went over to his studio one day, and he let me borrow his MS20 and his Juno. I really wanted that authentic 80s sound. So, I borrowed those from him. Then when Gabriel was here, we basically went through every song on the album, and we redid a lot of the programmed parts, and then we added a lot of the live synths with the MS 20 and the Juno.

So, that’s one aspect where I felt that even though it’s programmed, it doesn’t feel cold; there’s a warmth to the synths. And then my husband, who’s a phenomenal GuitarViol player, played. The GuitarViol was created by a genius here in Los Angeles. His name is Jonathan Wilson. My husband was one of the first musicians to use it. We’re talking many, many years ago; my husband is one of the first people to play it, and he plays it like no one does because he’s Eastern. So, he brings this sort of melancholy to it that is incredible. He played on the album as well. There are parts where you can tell it’s live instruments, like on “Love Is a Labyrinth.”

He played pretty much all the string parts. The beginning of “Tender Violet” begins with strings, and it’s him on GuitarViol as well as my son’s cello teacher, Leah Metzler. She played cello on the string parts as well. So, that was another way I brought the string sections to life. I had this fantasy to have a string quartet, but honestly, truth be told, I couldn’t have afforded it because I really did everything on my own for this album. Once I recorded Logan and Leah for the strings, I felt it sounded beautiful, and I was not going to mess with it. Then last but not least, on “Shallow Than Halo,” the Cocteau Twins song that I covered, I went to my longtime friend who’s a huge film composer, Tyler Bates, and he played the electric guitar. So, those are the four musicians who brought a live spirit to the album.

Do you feel that any particular tracks took on a new life with the contributions of others?

Azam Ali: I think all of the ones that have the strings, like “Tender Violet.” That is probably one of my favorite songs. Maybe it’s because it was the first song and it’s the baby of the album. I tapped into something new there; it kind of has a special place for me. In terms of the live players, I mean definitely “Shallow Then Halo,” the guitar. What was amazing about Tyler is that he never listened to the Cocteau Twins. I just went to him and said, I want this sort of dream pop-sounding guitar. He didn’t know who Robin Guthrie was or any of the band, but I told him about Robert Fripp, so I said, think of Robert Fripp and his ambient work, and he just nailed it. That for me just made the whole song complete. And then anything with the strings I feel on the string players came in. It just brought warmth to the string parts.

What made you decide to cover “Shallow Then Halo”?

Azam Ali: Well, I particularly chose a song that was not one of their most popular ones. If you look up my career, I’ve maybe done one or two covers. I’m not big on doing covers because first of all, I have to cover something I am very passionate about in order to make it my own. But there’s a part of me, this is not a judgment because a lot of people make careers on doing covers, but there’s always a small part of me, I feel that you’re almost riding on the coattails of someone else’s creativity and success when you do that. So I didn’t want to choose something really popular that immediately would stand out for everyone. It was more of a silent nod to other hardcore Cocteau Twins fans because if you’re a hardcore fan of the band, you would know the song.

But, if you kind of came to know the band later and you only knew their later records, you wouldn’t necessarily know the song. And this was one of those songs that when I heard it as a teenager, I would listen to it on repeat and sing along with it. Their music was the soundtrack to such an exciting yet tumultuous era of my life. When the album was done, it was the last thing I did for the album. I thought I should pay tribute to one band that made it possible for me to write this kind of music because I knew I had written a special album. I produced something special. I really came at it from the point of reverence, not so much from “I should do a cover song, and hopefully, it’ll do really well.” It was more about paying tribute to someone who influenced me and inspired me. It was kind of a no-brainer at that point as to which band it was going to be. Once I decided it was going to be Cocteau Twins, then it was the same thing. I didn’t even have to think twice which song it was going to be; I knew it was going to be that song.

You mentioned that after three songs, you had a sense of the direction the album was taking. How do you feel that it changed or evolved?

Azam Ali: There’s one song on there, “Twilight Sheds,” which is very different than the rest of the album. It’s so much more electronic. I could have written a very dance and electronic album. For me, that’s kind of the odd song on the album, but it’s a very exciting song to have on there because when I produced that song, suddenly I saw the potential for almost a different album. And then I thought to myself, oh, I should produce maybe an instrumental electronic album. And then that idea lasted for about two seconds, and I thought none of my fans would buy it because they want to hear me sing. So that was kind of an interesting song.

And actually, I have four more songs that I’d written for the album, which didn’t fit in the album. They ended up being a lot more minimal. When I tried to place them somewhere in here, they just didn’t fit. I decided, you know what, this wants to be something else. So, I have these four lovely tracks that are just sitting there that are a lot more minimal because this one is quite lush and so produced. Because I was doing so much heavy production, I was subconsciously trying to do more minimal stuff just to give myself a break. But I didn’t realize that at the end, the songs that were like that were not going to fit in the album. So they’re there, and it’s going to be its own thing.

Do you feel that the other projects you were working on alongside the album influenced it, or vice versa?

Azam Ali: I tour a lot with my band, with my world music project, and we have this stage multimedia show that we are now touring a lot worldwide. I know it’s necessary for artists, but for me, it’s the least creative aspect of it, unless you’re a musician who improvises a lot on stage. It’s not a very creative outlet. I love being in the studio. That’s my happy place. I love composing. When I’m on the road, I end up listening to a lot of music because I need to get away from that monotony of singing the same ten songs every night. And because I’m also performing world music, I need to offset that by listening to very different kinds of music. I listen to a lot of soundtracks as well, because I’ve worked so much in film and TV, and that has also influenced this album a lot. Just listening to music that is not world music has influenced a lot of this album as well — everything from electronic to soundtracks.

Do you think the electronic nature of this material lends itself to more live experimentation or improvisation?

Azam Ali: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done just a handful of shows now for this album, just sort of promotional. And what we’ve done is sort of have parts that are pre-set,  and parts that we leave open-ended. It’s just three of us. It’s my husband, Logan, on GuitarViol, Gabriel on keyboards, and myself. And then there are parts that we leave open-ended for whoever wants to improvise. So every night, when you get on the stage, you know that you’re going to have a few minutes here and there to just let go and express yourself in that particular moment.

You’ve done many different musical projects. Beyond the performance aspect, do you find any more creatively fulfilling than others?

Azam Ali: The most creative, in terms of when I work for others, is video games. They tend to be the most creative out of all the soundtrack work. The people are always really cool, and they’re very open to your ideas as well. When you work on film or TV, it’s so hard because you’re not there to express yourself. You’re there to capture someone else’s vision. Trying to decipher what that is often is extremely challenging. Whereas with games, a lot of times they just come and say, ‘I just love what you do; let’s just experiment and explore. ‘ And then you tap into something really incredible together, and that ends up becoming the direction you take. So, I would say over the years, the most exciting projects I’ve been part of are video games, even though they’re not the biggest; it’s not like working on a huge major Hollywood film.

You talked about influences, but what initially inspired you to become a musician?

Azam Ali: Originally, it was the last thing I wanted to be. I grew up in a British school in India. I went to a boarding school there from age 4 until I was 15. I was 15 when I came to the US, so just growing up in that environment gave me a lot of discipline. I studied Indian classical dance when I was much younger, and I thought that was going to be my expression. I always really loved it. As I got older, I got into writing and painting. For a good while, I actually really wanted to be a painter, mostly miniature detail-styled painting. I think it was somewhere around the age of 16 o 17 that I became interested in music.

But I wanted to play an instrument, and I wanted to play a really old instrument. I chose this Persian instrument. My friend at that time, his father is a master, and he was teaching. I just decided, you know what? I’m going to try it. And then I tried it, and I actually studied with him for eight years. There were some passages that you have to sing along with. It’s just part of it. There’s poetry, and then as you play them, you sing them. When I started singing, he said to me, have you ever thought about singing? I said, not at all. He said, “I think you can have a really incredible voice. Anybody can train their voice, but there are some voices that when you hear them just emotionally, something happens to the listener; I get that feeling when you sing, so just go and try it.” I went to college, and I took a singing class. At the end of the semester, the teacher called me out, and he said, “I think you should pursue this seriously, and I’m happy to give you private lessons.” So, that’s kind of where it all began. I started taking private lessons with him, and then I joined an early music choir because I love early music and music of Hildegard von Bingen. That also had a big influence on me. So I joined an early music choir and then before I knew it, nobody wanted to hear me play. They were like, just sing! So it was an unplanned and unmapped path.

There’s something about music that, for me, more than any other art form, enables you to transcend all the human barriers, be it cultural or societal. There’s something so universal about music and so intangible about music. That’s why it’s also the most mysterious. For me, it became the most powerful expression also. It became the most powerful way for me to be able to take my pain and transform it into something that could illuminate the lives of others. I didn’t feel that way with the other expressions for myself.

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