Azam Ali‘s fifth and latest solo album, Phantoms, represents a new phase in her storied career. It’s the first that she has released without a record label, preferring the economic advantages that independence brings. It’s also the first album that she fully sang in English and created mostly by herself.
“I love collaborating, and the hardest thing for me about this record was working in isolation,” Ali admits to Billboard.
Phantoms is her 13th album overall — including with her former group, alternative world music duo Vas, and her current ethno-electronic band Niyaz — and the first to be created in such a solitary manner. With the others, “I worked with other musicians, so it was the one thing that I missed the most. I love collaborating, and that’s something I want to do more and more. Eventually, I really want to start producing for other artists.”
That will likely happen, for prominent musicians long have taken note of Ali’s talents — she recalls a chance meeting with alternative rock icon Tori Amos in the early 2000s at a bookstore where Ali worked earlier in her career. Amos, who already loved her music, invited the singer to her concert that night. Her résumé is vast: She has recorded with the likes of Kodo, Steve Stevens and Buckethead with Serj Tankian. Vas’ song “Svarga” emerged in Fight Club, while “Lila” was heard in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Since 2003, Ali has appeared on numerous movie soundtracks, including The Matrix Revolutions, 300, John Carter and Thor: The Dark World, plus the video games Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and Darksiders III. She also sang on the trailer for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and appeared as a band vocalist in the 2002 retread of Rollerball.
While her voice and music have been heard in multiple forms of media, Ali most enjoys the flexibility of video games because she feels there’s more freedom to express herself rather than fit into someone else’s musical vision. But she is grateful for all of the opportunities she has received. In a way, she’s like a Hollywood character actor whose face is recognizable but their name remains a mystery.
“Exactly,” concurs Ali, laughing. “Newer fans always will say, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t know you were the vocalist on The Matrix or 300, and now it makes sense that I heard [your voice] before.’ So it’s there in people’s subconscious, and I’m a firm believer in those invisible seeds that eventually manifest in the physical realm.”
The Iranian-born Ali spent her childhood studying in India before coming to America, where she began her recorded musical journey with Vas. Between 1997 and 2004, she and drummer Greg Ellis produced four albums of atmospheric world sounds that drew acclaim and racked up sales. She started a solo career at the end of that period to branch out into electronic-infused sounds, which led to her forming Niyaz in 2005 with future husband Loga Ramin Torkian and DJ-producer Carmen Rizzo.
Ali contends that she never wanted to be a solo artist, but she makes such records because she can’t find a place for certain things that she wanted to express. She calls her first solo album, 2002’s Portals of Grace, “my thesis [in many ways] because I sang in an early music choir, studied early music, and there was no place for that in Vas or Niyaz. I did that album because I really wanted to explore that sonic landscape.”
Phantoms, which is ripe with dreamy sounds and melancholic lyrics, bridges the gap between organic and electronic with grooves that gently ground the songs. While Ali tried composing in English for her second album, 2006’s Elysium for the Brave, she didn’t feel the quality of the writing was on par with her musical idols. “I wanted to be sure that I was doing it for the right reasons — that I was not doing it because I think it’s going to make me appeal more to a wider audience because they’ll understand what I’m singing,” she explains. After the song “Tender Violet” and two others manifested themselves with English lyrics, Phantoms — which was inspired by synth music, darkwave and music from the ’80s and ’90s — naturally evolved in that direction.
“I’m always dealing with shadows of past things, and my music always has been very introspective and melancholy and some would say dark,” observes Ali. “But I don’t think of it that way. For me, art is the place we come to for personal transformations. Ultimately, if you do it honestly and correctly, it can become a tool for audiences to find healing and transformation as well when experiencing it. That’s my relationship with music that I love when I listen to it. I’m talking about deep listening, not something I put on when I’m cleaning my house.”
Although Ali sang, programmed the beats and played many of the keyboards on Phantoms, she is “not a proper keyboard player,” so she flew in Niyaz member Gabriel Ethierm from Montreal to replace much of the synth pads with live performance. For the string parts, Torkian played the GuitarViol, “an amazing instrument that was created by Jonathan Wilson,” she says. “Loga is one of the first musicians to play it, and it’s now become the instrument that you hear on every single major film soundtrack. It was one of the key sounds on the Game of Thrones soundtrack.” Her son’s cello teacher, Leah Metzler, played cello, and for the Cocteau Twins cover “Shallow Then Halo,” she enlisted film-composer friend Tyler Bates to play Robert Fripp-like guitar parts.
Phantoms took four years to come to fruition because of Ali touring heavily with Niyaz, an electro-acoustic duo with robust Iranian and Persian influences that has its fifth album on the way. “We really pioneered a new sound,” asserts Ali, who also gives a nod to the influence of the Asian Underground movement in England and Canada that blossomed in the ’90s. “Now everyone is adding electronic music in terms of world music artists. The novelty has worn off, and we are much more interested in moving toward incorporating a lot more technology and making it more multidisciplinary. Our new live show, which we launched two years ago, is doing incredibly well.”
Meanwhile, the two-time Juno Award-nominated vocalist is preparing for another first: opening for Bauhaus on Dec. 1 in her home base of Los Angeles. The gig resulted from her relationship with frontman Peter Murphy, which extends back to when he first contacted her through Myspace around 15 years ago. Then Ali met pioneering world electronic DJ Cheb i Sabbah, a friend of Murphy’s. When Sabbah was ailing from stage four stomach cancer, he produced one final compilation album, 2012’s Samaya: A Benefit Album for Cheb i Sabbah, that paired Murphy and Ali on one track. The result blew Murphy away.
“From then, our bond became really, really tight,” recalls Ali. Murphy wanted her to open for his European solo tour, but she couldn’t make the numbers work due to being a full-time mother, and rock ’n’ roll “doesn’t pay the way world music does.” But when the opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance. “I’ve never, ever opened for a rock band,” confesses Ali. “There’s a certain kind of energy at a rock concert. It’s not the kind of energy that’s at my shows or a world music show. It’s very visceral, and it’s going to be very interesting for me to perform for that kind of a crowd.”
Supporting Bauhaus is apropos for Ali, given the aforementioned inspiration for Phantoms, which she feels came out at the right time to prepare her for this show. “If this had happened last year, I wouldn’t have known what music to play opening for Bauhaus,” she says. “But the fact that I did all the work to arrive to this point — that now I get to take the stage right before one of my biggest influences and perform the music that, in many ways, is a tribute to the legacy that so many of these bands launched — is incredible. You want to speak about how things come full circle. There’s a map out there where everything is connected.”
Ali’s music also has a sensuality to that can translate to a rock crowd. She says that many in her loyal fan base have procreated to her music. “That’s always what I get: ‘I made a baby to your music,’ ” she says, laughing heartily. “I always thought, ‘Wow, I’ve inspired so much sex in this life. I guess that’s a good thing.’ I recently did an interview for [radio show] Echoes, and [host John Diliberto] said I’ve inspired a thousand love affairs. And I thought, ‘That’s a beautiful thing to say, to feel about your music.’ ”