Brooklyn-based indie-folk singer-songwriter Ali Aslam has released his debut album The Last American. A Pakistani-American who grew up straddling two cultures, his new album depicts his journey of learning where he belongs, and to whom. Anyone who has ever felt they don’t quite belong, for any reason, will relate. Described as a “supersonic folk” record, The Last American makes a nod to American pop culture’s most recognisable sonic moments, combining American folk, rock, and pop into a sound that outmodes traditional classification. At the heart, though, lies the formative expectations and experiences of the American Dream, in all its complexities, fulfillments, and shortcomings. Check out our interview with Ali below.
YMX: Can you tell us about yourself as an artist? Where are you now, how you started, and what are your goals.
ALI: I’ve been a songwriter in some way shape or form for quite some time, first in a band and then as a solo artist after the band broke up. The thing that’s always been appealing to me is the storytelling of it, and the relationship with the audience. I am a 1st generation America…my parents are immigrants from Pakistan. So much of how I engage with my own life, my religion, my heritage, is informed by that. Adding to that mix, America is place that seems to constantly at odds with itself about who belongs and who doesn’t. You can imagine there’s a lot of confusion swirling around my head. I have just released my first solo album trying to tell that story and capture that relationship, and stake my claim over America too.
YMX: Some of our readers might not be familiar with you yet, how would you describe your sound?
ALI: I call it “supersonic folk.” I know that’s not a genre it I think it captures it for me. Its about context. In a live show you can create your own context, tell people what the songs are about and so on. But with a recorded project, you have bake all the context in to the music. So in all of these songs about identity and belonging, its almost as if we are trying on all of these pieces of things that feel and sound “American,” and seeing how they fit, and what does to our story. Its important to me that these songs are folk songs. American folk seems so caught up in this myth of Appalachia, and western hats, and big sky… a kind of nostalgia that is inaccessible to me as much as I love those songs. But in every other culture, folk songs are the ones that people sing around a fire, to ennoble themselves and tell their own stories. This is American folk, for someone whose story in America begins when his dad came here in the ’70s.
YMX: Who have been your biggest influences so far?
ALI: There are so many, but the biggest ones are probably Bruce Springsteen, Tegan and Sara, The Killers. Then there’s Prince, and Marvin Gaye. In New York we have communities of songwriters, many of whom are heroes to me, Niall Connolly, E.W. Harris, who both had a lot to do with “The Last American”.
YMX: You just released ‘The Last American’. Could you tell us how the project came about?
ALI: The Last American, is an idea I have been living with for a long time. Growing up I was taught about this America that was inclusive and diverse and how that was a unique and powerful experiment at the heart of our prominence in the world. As I grew up and came of age in the new world after 9/11, I began to think that maybe we were the last generation of people to believe in that inclusive, hopeful America. Since I started writing songs they’ve always bee about my doubt and confusion and identity, but the last few years had given so much urgency to the songs that I felt like it was time. I have been embedded in this Folk music community that gave me access to some wonderful collaborators, most importantly E.W Harris, and we started scheming.
YMX: 2020 has been a hard year for everybody, especially for musicians such as yourselves with the absence of performing live. How have you been coping this year? musically speaking.
ALI: Its rough having big plans for an album release and building a live set only to have that upended. I miss being able to celebrate the music in person. So everything went on hold while we figure out what the world looks like. I’ve been writing songs that I think will end up on a future record. Its a way of processing. Then I remembered that so many of the songs on ‘The Last American’ were written to help me cope with difficult things, so maybe these songs could do some good now.
YMX: What does playing live represent for you? a way to make yourself known or a way to express yourself?
ALI: Its a bit of both for sure. Having someone discover you because they saw you live is always wonderful. but I really think about the live show as another avenue to tell a compelling story. A record is hopefully more than collection of songs right? Its a sustained thought process that chases ideas down their own ends, and ends up telling one big story. A live show is another way of doing that, but you have the added benefit of space and proximity. There definitely some pathos here. I write songs about belonging because that’s something that’s always uncertain for me. but when you play live you can see and feel when you have resonance with an audience. Wherever I feel that, I know I can belong there.
YMX: Finally, what are your plans for the future? in terms of releases, live streams, gigs?
ALI: I cant wait to play live again. I hope to do a physical release show in New York when that’s possible. I want to tour these songs in as many places as will have me. That is still a little intangible right now, but I’m also not ready to think about the next thing yet. This record is so new in the world, I’m going to do what I can to help people discover it. I’ve been toying with a live stream formats to keep me satiated until we can do something more.
Check out ‘The Last American‘ and follow Ali Aslam below!