Photo Provided by: AHI
Ahkinoah Habah Izarh, better known as AHI, is singer-songwriter originally from Brampton, Ontario.
He released his first album We Made it Through the Wreckage in 2016, his sophomore album In Our Time in 2018 and his most recent album Prospect in 2021. Prospect earned him a nomination for Contemporary Roots of the Year at the Junos Awards and has also earned him a spot on Polaris Music Prize’s longlist.
Coming this fall, he will be back on his Prospect tour alongside special guest, Milow.
I had the chance earlier this month to sit down with AHI to discuss his influences, the Prospect album, having toured with Mandy Moore and much more.
Carly Kutsup: I read in another interview that you played in a band while in university, but never actually played any shows. What led you to go from that to where you are today?
AHI: Oh, man. Well, that was early, early stages. So, was still learning how to find my voice as a singer. I was doing a lot of spoken word poetry and rapping kind of stuff, just lyrical things. I was more of a lyricist. We didn’t really even think about doing shows. We didn’t think about booking shows or doing concerts. It was more just write songs and rehearse. We used to do these things called Party in the Parks. It was called Engage because the park was called Gage Park in Brampton. It wasn’t even like a thing where we really invited a lot of people. We’d just go to the park’s jam session. People would just show up and hang out with us and like we freestyle and stuff. A lot of us were in university and they weren’t as, let’s say, they weren’t committed. University was priority, while for me, it wasn’t a priority. When that band kind of disbanded, I picked up a guitar and started writing my own songs and realized “Okay, I need to learn how to sing properly now.” That just led down the path of me writing my own songs and being self-sufficient in terms of writing music. I’ve always had a lyric book, but in terms of playing chords and just learning how to put together a song, those songs in the early stages were horrible. They were like two chords, three, if I was lucky. From there I just started thinking “Okay, how do I make music? How do I how do I actually do music? What is this?” So, that’s kind of the first step away from me picking up a guitar myself and saying, “I’m going to write, focus on writing songs myself.” It’s not that I wasn’t doing that before, but I wasn’t really. It became something where like, “Oh, this is just me now. I’m doing this just by myself right now.”
CK: Other than the guitar, are there any other instruments that you know how to play or want to learn how to play?
AHI: I can’t say I know how to play piano, but I can tinker on it enough to hash out a song if I had to; just chords, and that would take really long. I think there’s value in learning how to play piano. If I had time to just really sit down and study the piano, it would open up a whole lot of worlds musically. In understanding music, piano is a beautiful instrument. Then in this modern era of music, when you understand how to use piano and pads and triggers like that, it’s freedom. They haven’t figured out how to program on guitar. You can’t program a song on guitar where you could do a piano and keyboards, right? So that’s a great one. Then string instruments like the violin, viola, I love all those. If I if I could learn those, I would, but I can’t.
CK: Three weeks ago, Polaris Music Prize nominated Prospect for the Polaris 2022 Longlist. Tell me more about that.
AHI: Yeah. So, the idea of Polaris, if I’m right about this, is that it’s journalists and people who are the lovers and critique-ers of the music. They’re not bought and they’re not industry people. These are lovers of music people who do reviews of music because they’re in the scene of music. So, it’s not about how many sales you have. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s just about, according to them, is about just the art of the music. So, this is my first time being longlisted. So longlisted means you’re on a long list and then they make that list shorter, and is then becomes a short list. I think after that, it’s nominations. There’s a lot of nominations and then they pick. So, I’m on the long list and we have a long way to go before I actually get a Polaris Prize.
CK: I’ll definitely be following it. Speaking of another nomination, back in March, you were nominated for Junos for two categories for Prospect, and then you attended the award ceremony in May. Tell me what that experience was like.
AHI: Well, that was like the first big event in Toronto like that. So, I got nominated for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. The second nomination wasn’t my nomination, but George Sir mixed my record. He included my album in his Recording Engineer of the Year. He included mine and Shawn Mendes album on there, which is kind of insane to me because like he’s done some big records. For him to include my record, an independent record alongside Shawn Mendes as his offerings to the Junos, I was like, “Man, you didn’t have to do that.” But he’s like, “It’s supposed to be about the art, right? It’s not supposed to be about commerce or how popular you are when it comes to the recording engineer. It’s about the art. It’s about what you created.”
So going to the Junos, this is the first time and I’ve got to be honest, it felt weird leading up to the Junos because I knew I was going to lose. You kind of understand how some of this works and I know the people from the Junos. I have a very good relationship with them so it’s not a knock on them; it’s just how sometimes how the music industry works. You kind of can see the writing on the wall or where the hype is leaning or who everybody’s talking about as we go into it. So, I was kind of like, “Man, I don’t feel good about this. Why don’t I feel good about going to the Junos” as I was talking to my wife. Then as we led to it and as I got there, seeing everybody that I knew in that space, experiencing friendship, experiencing the people you enjoy in the music industry and the people who actually appreciate what you do coming up to you, that was something I didn’t I didn’t expect. I went in there a little bit curmudgeonly, and I shouldn’t have because I had a great time and I was presenting an award. I’m just being honest. I was blown away. I brought my family, wife and four children. It was an overwhelming experience. And I was like, “I think I’m the only one doing this, like bringing my family on the red carpet with me.” That’s not something that people typically always do. It was a statement because not only is it a family, but it’s also a black family. I wasn’t trying to make a statement. This is my life. My wife is my manager. To be very honest, we’re not trying to get a babysitter. I really have a real family. So, it was great. I don’t know what kind of statement people got out of it, but for me, there was a statement that I didn’t know I was making until I saw it, until I experienced it and got to connect with certain people.
Congratulations to the Junos for pulling that off. I did get COVID after that. I think it’s just the reality we live in now. I think that them pulling that off was amazing. It just opened up my heart a lot and it just made me realize, “Oh, my gosh, we’ve been in hiding, been in seclusion for the past two years.” Some of us have been lucky to get out and do some shows. Not a lot of us. I did some shows. Some people tried to do tours that are canceled, but most of us had nothing in the music industry. So, for them to pull that off, kudos to them.
CK: I love that you brought your family into it because, like you said, not many artists will do that. I think another artist that does that a lot is Pink. It seems that her kids are always on the road with her. She even has her daughter doing all those aerial stunts with her at the Grammys. Her daughter recorded a song with her as well. So, I love seeing that family dynamic.
AHI: Right. Absolutely.
CK: What was the catalyst for you to finally step into the light and show your face for the first time on an album cover, that being on Prospect?
AHI: Yeah. So, I design my album covers; every one of them I’ve designed. For better or worse, I designed them all and I showed my face, but it’s kind of just a little bit of it. It’s like a silhouette or it’s just a little light of it. There’s nothing wrong with my face. I don’t have a problem with my face. If you look at my other two album covers, they’re both train tracks. The album cover that I was creating for Prospect was also another train track. I don’t even remember what it looks like. So, I was going down this path. Essentially, it’s just another train track, but the difference with this one is it was from beneath the train tracks. It’s in New York City and the light is pouring through the grates of the train tracks. It’s pretty cool. I still love it when I look at it right now, but I was having some issues with something when I was making it. Then, the printer was a giving me some problems with how it looked in the black point, all this stuff. We did some press photos with a lady named Caitlin Cronenberg. Her father’s the famous Cronenberg. She did a photoshoot for the press photos for this album. I was just testing something out and I put the one of the pictures in that series in place just to see something. I said to my wife, “You know, this should be the album cover, right? Like, this is the perfect album cover.” The only reason why I don’t want to do it is because I don’t want to show my face. I didn’t show my face before I’ve experienced being judged off of the perception of what people think I look like. My first two EPs have my face on it and my second EP, a label in Canada, said they don’t make that kind of music. So, I let that kind of put me in a shell, not realizing it. I thought I was being smart and being clever and thought “Oh, I’m going to trick the system,” but what I was doing was hiding myself. This is the first time I’m like “I’m going to show myself” because this album is more me than any album I’ve ever done. It’s not to say the other albums weren’t me, but it was me finding certain things about myself, finding out my musical world. I know who I am. I’m very confident in who I am, but musically, I’m less confident because I don’t come from a musical background. So, this album was me just kind of stepping into the light and saying, “This is me. This is what I sing. This is what I am.” Musically, I feel the same way. So, it was half essential and half accidental, in a way. The album cover I had before I was going to print; it was ready. They were just kind of going back and forth on little things like “This is not going to show up.” So, they were just giving me issues about the way it’s going to print. Then, in like the last week I said, “Okay, I’m changing my whole album cover. This is what I’m going to do.” Then they gave me issues about that, but I had someone help me with this thing called Black Point.
CK: Yup. It’s kind of like what’s going to show, what’s not going to show.
AHI: Yeah, that was a headache and a half, but now I understand it.
CK: You say Prospect is your favorite album to date. What specifically makes it that for you?
AHI: I’m an honest artist, and I’ve always prided myself for being honest and telling honest stories, but there’s a thing when your music, the sonics of your music, the sound of your music, the way your music is arranged and produced, that also speaks to that honesty. That’s a beautiful thing when your lyrics and your words and your singing is honest, but when the music compliments that honesty, it’s just like magic. It’s like it doesn’t happen all the time. To me, this album doesn’t have the industry acclaim that bigger albums may have or albums that are on major labels may have, but the response I’m getting from people who have had opportunity to hear this album or who have stumbled across it on Spotify or wherever, it has like a cult classic energy to it. For example, if you know AHI and you know this record, you’re like, “Oh, THAT record.” I don’t think it’s going be my biggest record because I’ve got a lot more to offer, but it’s like the jump off point where it’s like, “Oh, this guy he’s serious; he’s real.” That’s why it’s also partly called Prospect. The word prospect has a lot of layers and a lot of meanings to it, but one of the meanings is like in the NBA. When you’re looking at a prospect, it’s the next one up, the one that you want to select for the team. There’s a spiritual connotation to it as well. I was kind of like, “They’re (this industry) going to know who I am now. Like they’ve been ignoring me for this long. Now you’re going to know who I am.” That was one part of it. That’s not the whole meaning of it. This album, it’s just it’s just honest and it allowed for my voice and my storytelling to shine in a way that I’ve never done before. I maybe had glimpses of it on other record or songs on other records, but as a whole record, I don’t think you skip a song on this record, personally. I think you listen to it from beginning to end and feel very content with every song.
CK: Speaking of honesty, I was in the at the Mandy Moore Show in Atlantic City.
AHI: I love her.
CK: I had heard your song Danger and it just brought tears to my eyes, particularly because of the climate that we’re living here in the United States. Danger, to me, is an extremely honest, emotional, raw, powerful and deep song, especially in the times that we’re living in. What was the motivation for you to write such a powerful song, notably one about gun violence?
AHI: I mean, it was handed to me like I had a dream. I dreamt the song. I don’t know if I said this in Atlantic City, but like the song literally came to me in a dream, well at least the chorus. Then I woke up in and I started mumbling the melody for what would be the verses. The next day I wrote this whole song. I’ve always had a fascination with songs like, I Shot the Sheriff or Johnny Was. I don’t know if I was trying to rewrite a song like Johnny Was. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a song like that and this one just came through in a dream. I can’t even take credit for the honesty in the song, because literally, Evelyn Fox ended up being a real person. I have like a booklet here somewhere where I have a bunch of names in it. Evelyn, Isabel, Mary, a bunch of names I was going to say. Evelyn was the one I landed on. I could have picked any street in Toronto. I said Adelaide, but I could have picked any street in Toronto and it would still be mind-blowing because of one, Evelyn Fox, and two, why doesn’t she live in like news like Swaziland or even New Zealand or Croatia? She can be from anywhere, but she’s from Toronto. Her son was murdered within 5 minutes walking from Adelaide. It’s a longer street, but where it is on the map, it’s very close to where he was shot. The honesty comes from my willingness to tell that story and my openness to reach out to her. Somebody told me she exists and I had no clue. At that point I could have been like “Okay, whatever. I’m not going to reach out to her because she might feel that is weird and creepy or she doesn’t like the song.” I also thought, “What if she doesn’t believe me?” But she believed me. She was in my music video for the song, so I feel like the honesty is being a receptacle.
So, I was a receptacle for this song and the receptacle for this story. Why was her story told to me in my dream or came to me in my dream? I don’t know, but that stuff happens to me a lot. So, I think when you say honesty, it’s like pre-honesty. It’s like “Okay, here’s the betting for you to allow you to be honest about this. Just tell the story.” That’s what I did, and she loves it. So that means more to me than anything.
CK: That’s amazing. Now, the woman that’s in the music video, that’s the actual mother?
AHI: Evelyn Fox. It’s strange that his name is actually Kiesinger Gunn. He had four children, like myself. He left his four children behind. Like I previously said, he wasn’t in a gang. It didn’t happen from a conflict. It wasn’t a cop. I think sometimes we lose ourselves in the political elements of these things. One thing I love about Evelyn is that she doesn’t care about the politics. Her whole approach is ending the violence, Communities for Zero Violence is her organization. It could be a woman or man who’s dealing with domestic violence, and one pulls out a weapon and boom, a kill from gun violence. So, the gun violence is a thing that has become a hot button issue in the U.S., but it’s one of the things where it affects us all so much because you have to go out and get a gun to kill someone with that gun. It’s not like a situation where someone is just angry that they punch you till they can’t stop. A gun is a tool that one is using for destruction. I don’t have any political positions on whether people should or shouldn’t have guns. Well, I do, but I don’t think it matters. What matters to me is the life that is lost and the suffering that is left behind when that life is lost. That’s what we never talk about.
CK: I don’t know if you heard, but there was another mass shooting here in the States on July 4th in Illinois. When I was a high school teacher, I’ll never forget when we had to participate in an active shooter drill training session. The local police came in and fired off dummy rounds so that all faculty and staff could hear what it’s like for a gun to go off in schools. I remember when it was down the hallway and around the corner, it literally sounded as if somebody punched a locker or kicked over a garbage can. Then, as it got closer it literally, shook me to my bones. I can’t imagine being in an actual live scenario because just having that training experience, it literally shakes you to your core.
AHI: It’s unimaginable because nobody is supposed to be in that situation. No, not at all. Especially in North America. Why does this have to exist? I don’t want to go too deep into my opinions about why this stuff happens, but there is a part of it where there’s mental health issues, obviously. I feel like when there are mental health issues involved, people go to what they see. So, mass shootings are going to beget mass shootings, especially in the communities of mental health because that’s what you see. I don’t know if I’m going to make any sense here, but when they went on stage and they tried to tackle Dave Chappelle, the biggest commentary was that I thought was interesting was that it’s going to make other people feel like they can jump on stage, which is true because we copy each other. I don’t want to bring Will Smith into it, but maybe there’s some truth that Will Smith crossing that line allowed other people to feel like they could cross that line. So, yes, the guns are an issue. Yes. [Limiting gun access] will stop the ability to kill people in mass situations like that, but it won’t stop the mental health issues and the violence that comes from those situations. It’s not always mental health issues either; sometimes it’s orchestrated. Sometimes there’s political reasons for it. So, I always look at it like this: We remove the guns. Fine. If that’s the angle people want to go in, that’s fine, but how do we remove the violence and the sensationalism of violence and the feeling that life doesn’t matter? One of the things people say all the time, “Oh, he did this” or they go back and dig up his criminal history and it’s like does somebody not have an opportunity to change their life? Do we need to start doing a minority report on everybody’s conscience and souls and seeing what they’re capable of or what they have been capable of and just start offing people? So, there’s an issue with violence. There’s an issue with how we value life and there’s an issue with, dare I say, classism that creates and perpetrates some of these problems.
CK: Right. I also think that, especially with the younger generation, they’re getting so desensitized because it’s happening so frequently. I ran through the numbers regarding school shootings, specifically since Columbine, there has been 256 school shootings. So that’s on average 12 school shootings a year. Some of them have become so desensitized to it because they’re like, “Oh, you know, it happens on the daily” and that’s the problem. It shouldn’t be happening on the daily.
AHI: Which is insanity.
CK: On a different note, back on March 8th, you made a social media post that you never feel like you belong anywhere and are always on the outside looking in. What do you say to those who feel the same exact way?
AHI: Being on the outside is a blessing sometimes. That post includes a video of me singing. So, that it takes it back to the idea of prospect. The prospect is also me choosing myself and saying, “I’m here, I belong, I’m worthy. I have value. My life matters.” Anybody who feels like they’re on the outside, I would say embrace it because sometimes the outside is a beautiful place you’re in, but also know that you’re not alone. One of the biggest premises of my music is that I write songs for me and me first, and I write songs that are going to help me get through what I feel like I need to get through in life. Since I do that, I feel like there has to be somebody else out there who feels the same way. I’ve been surprised constantly over it, over and over and over again, that there’s not just somebody, there’s a lot of people. Those who are dealing with health issues, those who are dealing with trauma, those who just want to get married to someone and my song is the soundtrack to their engagement or even their wedding. For me, if there’s somebody else out there listening to my music that means they feel what I feel. It’s not just I’m writing these songs and then they have no relationship to me. They are all born out of my heart, my spirit, my experiences, my fears. So, for them, you got to keep fighting through those dark moments. You got to keep fighting through the solitude and just know that you’re not alone in this world, even if you physically are, maybe you’re not. There are other things at play.
I’m a Christian, so I have a lot of faith in things like that. I never try to push my faith on people or try to get people to believe what I believe or feel like if they don’t believe what I believe, it’s over and I can’t talk to them anymore. I think we take for granted that there’s more to this life and these little weird things that we have, like Danger. How does that even happen? I don’t know how anybody can tell me that’s a coincidence. It’s just random occurrence of things. Maybe there’s some mathematician out there that will say “The probability of this happening… …because the name Evelyn is so common.” I’m sure they could explain it away.
I’ve only told half of that Evelyn story. There’s another part of that story. I’ve told it on other interviews before, but it’s such a long story. Essentially, my point is that Evelyn probably thought she was alone. She said that I give her a voice when she felt like nobody was listening. Then out of nowhere, this the song comes.
I never felt like I belonged in this industry. Black guy playing acoustic guitar in the folk singer-songwriter, somewhat Americana world. I just never felt like people gave me the appreciation that I felt like I deserved. I’ve always said, and I hate to bring up the racial thing, but if I looked differently, count the amount of labels that would be knocking on my door to sign me or give me a big deal. I also believe everything happens in perfect timing. Everything happens accordingly. If you’re working hard, putting your heart and soul into it, it happens at the right time. So, I don’t feel negative about that either. It has allowed me to make truer music and more honest music and find myself and be myself. So, I don’t mind being on the outside sometimes.
CK: Well, I will say while I was sitting in the audience, listening to you, I thought to myself, “Wow! He has such an amazing voice.” Like I previously stated, Danger brought tears to my eyes. You have such a powerful voice that really stands out amongst all the mainstream pop music on today’s radio. While yes, I do enjoy pop music, I also love rock and roll and folk and country rock. We need more of that on mainstream radio.
AHI: It’s a tough one because the radio is bought and paid for, but I do believe that every so often someone can come through, crack the code and just find a way to bring something on the radio that’s not supposed to be there. It takes a lot; it takes a team. It takes people to believe in you. It takes hard work. All these things have to come together, but it’s not impossible. The beautiful thing about the world now is we don’t need to listen to the radio. My car plugs right into my phone, and all the music in the world is right here. So, the radio they’re just playing endorphin exciters. They just want to get your endorphins excited. Then when you stay on it, you end up listening to commercials.
CK: Then you go out and end up buying things because of those commercials.
CK: How did opening up for Mandy Moore’s tour come about?
AHI: So, I signed with a new booking agency. Shout out to Milow. Milow is a European artist who had a pretty huge hit song called Ayo Technology. He didn’t write the song, but he did a cover version of it. He is very famous in Europe right now. He’s been famous for a while. We have mutual respect for each other’s careers, and I reached out to him about co-writing. He said, “Hey, I’d love to talk with you.” Then a week later, his booking agents reached out to me and said, “Hey, we’d love to represent you.” Then a week after that, they said, “Hey, we have this Mandy Moore thing on our on our desk. Would that be something that would interest to you? We know it’s not a perfect fit, but we think it’s a good fit.” I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my career, so they put my name through and Mandy’s team loved it. They like Danger. It was exciting. They reached out to another booking agent who I worked with. He wasn’t my booking agent, but I was on a tour, and he worked with an artist that was on that tour, the Lauren Daigle tour. It was her booking agent at the time. He sang my praises because he saw what I did every night on the that tour. I got a standing ovation on my own. The fascinating thing about this industry, what I’ve learned, is if you treat people good and genuinely good, it comes around. So, with Lauren’s booking agent, we had a great mutual respect for each other. He loved my music. He watched how hard I worked every night. I had no clue that Mandy Moore’s booking agent would call him and say, “Hey, tell me about this guy.” He’s singing my praises. People don’t realize that you have to treat people with respect and you got to always show up because. I hadn’t talked to the other booking agent in forever and like these guys all make money off this stuff. He could have easily just recommended his own clients or his own artist, so why me? Because liked me and respected me so. That was kind of cool.
I respect Mandy and her team for liking my music and giving me the opportunity. She allowed me to sing Danger. I asked her permission because she’s a public figure and she’s famous. I didn’t know if she wanted to get into that political conversation at the heels of her show’s finale, but she was like, “Absolutely, you don’t need to ask that. Just go. We absolutely need that.” So, it was great. She’s awesome and I really appreciate that. It was really super. It’s something I needed, you know?
CK: That’s excellent. Now you’re touring with your guitarist Pascal. How did you meet him?
AHI: I just messaged him on Instagram. I was looking for a guitar players. To be honest, I wanted to find a black guitar player. In Toronto, it’s not saying there’s not a lot of them, but there’s not a lot of them. I found his stuff. I don’t even think I knew anybody who knew him. I just sent him a message and I said, “Hey, man, I’m doing this. I’m putting a band together. Would you be interested?” He was like, “Yeah, I’d love that.” He’s just been on board. He’s a good guy.
CK: And how long have you known him?
AHI: For less than a year.
CK: Oh, wow. The way you two have comradery on stage, I thought you’d know him, maybe like ten years or something like that.
AHI: No, no, no, ten years ago, he would have been 12.
I’ve toured for a long time on the road. I’ve had some great band mates have had some less than great band mates. As you gain more experience, you know what you want in somebody, and you see it really fast because you see all the signs. With Pascal, he’s a joy. He gets on stage, and he enjoys it. Out of all the people I’ve brought into my band over the last year, I would say almost ever, Pascal knows every single word to my songs. I’ve watched him sing the lyrics to my song and sometimes he’ll do it on stage and I’m like “You can’t really do that because you got to focus. Sing when it’s your time to sing, not when it’s my time to sing.” Not in a bad way though. He loves what he does and he loves music. I love what I do, and I love music and we respect each other for that. And we just go on stage, and we pour out.
CK: You could definitely see that in Atlantic City. You could see that both of you have such a great vibe going on between each other. That was really good to see.
AHI: That’s awesome. Thank you.
CK: What has been your favorite moment on the Mandy Moore tour?
AHI: The night in Nashville. I mean, there’s been a lot of good moments, including people telling me stories about stuff and how my songs have affected them.
I recorded all my records in Nashville, and it’s just been an interesting city for me because I’ve had some really good moments. I haven’t moved there. I haven’t really fully been embraced by the Nashville world, but going to the Ryman, I felt like I was on a mission. Every night I pour out and I give it everything I’ve got, but for some reason that night felt like, “Whoa.” I don’t always feel that. I’m very critical of myself. I’m very like “Oh, we got to do this better. This is wrong. I’ve got to fix this. I did this wrong or whatever.” It’s not in a bad way, but I always want to see where I can improve it. The Nashville show at the Ryman Auditorium, I don’t know how many mistakes we made or not, but it just felt like, woah.
I just like people. I like getting to the merch table after and talking to people and just hearing their stories. One lady came up to me and she was just crying her eyes out. Her mother died that day. Her mother was suffering with addiction, and she just felt like she needed to get out. She came to the show, which I would not recommend to anybody if a parent died on the same day, but she said, “I need to go.” She saw me perform before, but she didn’t even know I was going to be at the show. It was just a show in the city. She saw me at Lauren Daigle’s concert and just came up to me crying. I remember saying to myself “Is that person crying? It looked like they were really crying” because it’s hard to see sometimes. She came up to me at the merch table and the moment she opened her mouth, tears.
I don’t want to say those are the best moments, but those are the moments that remind me of why I do what I do and why I write the songs I write. I could take the same melody for Danger and write something else. I mean, I could write a whole different story.
CK: To you, what makes Nashville a special place for music?
AHI: Songwriting. For me, it’s all songwriting. I mean, there are great musicians there. They have some of the greatest musicians in the world, but songwriting for me is the foundation of everything I do. I can have a great voice, but if my songwriting isn’t on point, then there’s no point. Even so, I learned how to become a better songwriter there. I learned how to find the story and the deeper meaning of songs somewhat from Nashville. I kind of always gravitated to stuff like that, but to learn it is a different thing, and to put your mindset in the mindset of a songwriter is different. So, I think the way Nashville has this community of storytellers is absolutely beautiful and it’s absolutely the best thing.
CK: Speaking of songwriting, what does the songwriting and recording process look like for you?
AHI: It’s always different. So, for example, usually in a studio like this, which is my home studio, I’ll just grab my guitar and just start writing here. I have a piano over there you can’t really see. I have also a book where I write a bunch of song titles in and sometimes, I’ll have a song title that I want to build a song around. A lot of times I’ll just grab my guitar, start mumbling something, and sometimes, like I said, it comes through dreams.
I’m currently working on a song with an artist. He sent me some beats. On the Mandy tour, I was in a hotel room writing to beats. That’s a different process too.
I think my most comfortable way is sitting in a place where I feel like I’ve established an environment for myself and where I can write songs from that space as well as collect ideas and things. I call them songs seeds and seeing if there’s something there with a song. My song Until You, which is my most popular song on the record, I started writing that in 2017. It went through like three different variations. When I say variations, I don’t just mean like I changed things. The title and the concept all just completely changed three different times. There are little things in each of them that I’m like, “I have to make something out of this.” Then I kind of developed it to where it is today.
Then there’s other songs, like Prospect, I was on the bus riding by Prospect Cemetery, and I just had that idea come to me. I sang “Wandering through Prospect Cemetery, Couldn’t be further from home” into my phone. Then went back and found it and said “Okay, there’s a song there.”
As previously mentioned, Danger was a dream.
So, there is a process in terms of just having the foundation, but once you have a foundation and a pattern of consistency, then you break that a little bit and things just start flowing to you. For me at least, you have to have some kind of pattern of consistency to execute and get good songs out of it. It’s very hard for me to just be on the road or just be like, “Oh, I can have a song here or there.” I usually just collect those ideas when they come to me, and then when it’s writing time, I go find those ideas and see if I could extract a song out of it.
CK: You mentioned Bob Marley and I read that he’s one of your influences. What makes him that for you?
AHI: My mom is Jamaican; he’s like a national hero. He’s like the emperor of Jamaica. I think it goes back to songwriting. His songwriting and storytelling, the essence of what he’s doing and the fact that he cares about humanity. You feel that in his music. I feel like he bleeds how I bleed. You feel humanity inside you. I’m not saying he was a perfect person. I’m not saying he didn’t have flaws, but he genuinely cared and wanted to see the best for all of humanity. Then there’s a spirituality to his music that I connect to, and he helped bring me out of dark places or feeling like I was on the outside. When you talk about being on the outside, Bob Marley helped me feel like I was not on the outside. He’s why I write the music I do, because I need to, I need to feel that again. Well, Bob might have made me feel I need to feel that, and if no one can make me feel that, then I have to find a way to make myself feel that. But Bob Marley made me realize that.
CK: Of all the places you’ve played, which includes Radio City Music Hall, the Red Rocks, the Ryman, the Greek Theater, and Massey Hall, what has been your favorite and why?
AHI: I don’t know if this is the accurate answer, but maybe if I had the scientific data on like how my brain reacted and all that stuff, but in my memory, there was something about Radio City Music Hall that I will never forget, for me and me alone. I feel maybe there may have been better responses at certain other venues. There may have been better merch and my merch sold more at other venues. I don’t know, but whenever I am asked this question, Radio City Music Hall was a moment for me. I think that it could have been also that everybody was super nice there. This is New York City, and you’d think everybody is going to be mean and kind of like hardcore. Everybody was super nice and the guy who ran the place that night came up to me afterwards. He said, and I’ll never forget it, “Hey, man, you’re going to go somewhere. You’re going to be playing here. Lizzo came here and she opened up for HAIM and about a year later or so, she was headlining here. You can do the same thing.” I say this respectfully, but sometimes it’s easy to please an audience. They just want to feel good, but when the staff members say it, that makes it special. It matters because the audience may have only seen that show all year. The staff members see every show every night. So, when they’re impressed by you, it has a little bit more currency, not in the sense that I value their opinion more, but in the sense that the criticalness of it. If I go to one show and that show makes me feel amazing, then that’s the greatest show ever, but if I see 100 shows and this show made me feel special, that it just kind of it gives you a little bit more objectivity. It just felt transcendent when I did that show and New York, crowds are not easy.
CK: That makes sense and yes, being from that area, I must agree, New York crowds can be hard to please sometimes.
AHI: They responded like really well too that night. I don’t even remember what the venue looked like that night. I have to go back and find pictures. I remember the outside doors and it’s a beautiful venue. I remember some of the staff members, but I can’t remember the stage or how the stage felt, but I remember the backstage and how nice the guy was.
Sometimes there are some smaller shows that have been amazing too, like some house concerts I’ve done where you just feel you’re on, you’re still telling stories and you’re able to engage with the audience and make fun of them and tell jokes. Things that you can’t always do on bigger stages, but Radio City Music Hall had everything. It had the size, the sound, the winning over of the audience and the response from the crew and the staff.
CK: Speaking of which, do you prefer the bigger places to perform or the smaller, intimate places to perform?
AHI: It all depends on one: who doing my sound. Does my sound sound good? If the sound is trash, then I don’t care where I am. It also what depends on what the audience gives me. So, if the audience is big, it’s giant and they’ve bought in to what I’m doing, you can’t beat that because you get the bigness of it. If the audience is big and they’re not bought in or you can’t communicate with them or talk to them, it’s not great.
I just did a festival in Montreal. There had to be at least 3,000 people watching me, 2,000 to 3,000 people watching me. I showed up. I did what I had to do, and I won over a large portion of Montreal. There are people that loved it, but when you’re in certain smaller venues, you can tell those stories and everybody’s laughing. Everybody’s like giving you back, but when you’re in a big space like that, it’s harder to hear everybody. It’s harder to tell if everybody’s responding. There are people obviously responding. It’s just so much more people. So, I like talking to people because I’m not here to just entertain. Well, I’m here to entertain you, but I’m not here to just perform at you. I want a conversation. I want interaction. I want us to do this together, so it’s a fine balance.
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