AHI Captivates With Poignant Songwriting Chops & Earns Recording Artist of the Year by Folk Music Ontario Awards (INTERVIEW)

AHI, the breakthrough artist from Ontario, who’s receiving international acclaim for his sensational second record In Our Time, is celebrating being named Recording Artist of the Year by Folk Music Ontario Awards, a healthy stay at #2 on the iTunes singer-songwriter chart and #1 on Apple’s Hot Canadian Releases. AHI is humbly basking in his success, while touring across the US and into the UK. During a recent stop in Boston, AHI sat down with Glide Magazine to discuss In Our Time, his writing process and why he decided to go against expectations and focus on a career in the music industry.

A.H.I. are your initials and I assume your full name, Ahkinoah Habah Izarh – is often mispronounced. What do you prefer people to call you by?

AHI. It’s pronounced the same as eye. It’s much easier.

 Your new record, In Our Time is wonderful. But, before we talk about it, can you share a little bit about yourself and your musical history or experiences with our readers?

I didn’t start with music. I’ve loved music my entire life. We used to create talent shows at home just for fun. We didn’t have any musicians in our family. My mother and father didn’t sing. There weren’t any instruments around the house. I was probably going down the path of becoming a teacher or a professor. My mother, father and sister were teachers. Even my godfather was a teacher. There are a lot of teachers and lawyers in my family and that was probably the direction I was going to go. But, I had a passion for singing.

I listened to a lot of reggae and calypso. However, in the era that I grew up in – hip hop ruled. So, naturally, I gravitated towards hip hop and in high school I started rapping. I wrote a lot of lyrics and poetry. When I got to university, I started a four-piece band. But, we never played a show. We’d practice and then just go jam in the park. We wanted people just to come and engage with us, hang out and enjoy the music.

I did some singing in the band and dabbled in combining rapping and singing. I remember my guitar player said that I had a cool voice and that I needed to listen to myself. He said my voice was an instrument and that put things into perspective for me. Of course, that band fell apart. But, my then guitarist actually gave me his guitar. I taught myself how to play it, starting with the E and E minor chords and just singing to that – teaching myself to sing.

At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in the music industry?

When I was between the ages of 22 and 27, I was doing a lot of traveling and learning how to play music. I was playing guitar and learning how to sing. But, I wasn’t taking it seriously. My timeline might be a little off, but when my daughter, who is eight years old now, had just turned one – that’s when I made the decision to take it seriously and make it a profession. That’s when everything changed, and I started honing my craft.

Do you think the pressures of being a parent pushed your decision to just focus on music?

It’s possible, but I didn’t look at it like I was being pressured into it. I’m a wayward kind of person. I backpacked across Ethiopia, Ontario and Trinidad. So, before even getting married – I did all that stuff. I didn’t have all those lofty ambitions of becoming a professor or a big-time musician. I was had more elements of being a hippie in my life – though I don’t like using that term. So, it was more perspective than pressure when my daughter turned one. I had done enough soul searching by that point and I was writing a lot of songs. I thought that they were horrible, but I was writing a lot. Something really clicked, and I remember telling my wife that we needed to book some shows. Of course, they were all pay to play gigs, but it was a start.

Getting to the new record, there is a strong element of storytelling going on in your songs and your lyrics come across as very personal, open and honest. Did you find inspiration in other-people’s music or lives to be so open and honest yourself?

Oh, yes. Bob Marley, who is my favorite artist of all-time. I come from a Jamaican and Trinidad background. I first heard Bob Marley through my parents. His honesty is so pure. I remember there was a time where I was buying every CD. I loved the Jim Morrison An American Prayer record. I bought all of the Led Zeppelin albums. I was listening to everything, Mars Volta, Portishead – anything I could get my hands on. But eventually, I gave all of my CDs away. Except, I held on to all of my Bob Marley records. As I’d listen to his work, I kept thinking that there wasn’t any other music that made me feel like this. I wanted to write music like that – music that resonates where I am in my life and music that speaks to my human condition. I felt that if I did that, I’m sure that other people out there would feel the same way. Bob Marley helped me tap into that honesty. He’s also a great storyteller. I also think of Tracey Chapman, who’s a great storyteller. I took all of Jason Isbell’s lyrics and just studied his work. I love that guy. I love storytellers, but Jason is on a whole other level of storytelling. I’m more of a conversationalist. I want to have a conversation about things that have happened in my life with the audience.

“Breaking Ground” is an amazing song. It’s got a great message. Could you elaborate a bit more on the song and how it came about and how it resonates with you?

It was the first song that we recorded for the new album. When I said that I was going to focus on doing music, that came to me when I was backpacking across Ontario. It’s a long story, but I’ll give you the short one. I met someone on the road, when I was about nine kilometers outside of Thunder Bay. I met this guy and he helped me put my whole life into perspective. It was so deep. He basically shared with me that I didn’t need to search for all of these answers that I was looking for but to go home and focus on what I was passionate about. And, the only thing that I could think about at the time was music. So “Breaking Ground” is about me getting to a very difficult place, out in the middle of Ontario without any money. And, Ontario is huge. It took days to get to this place. I stowed away on a Greyhound bus. The bus came to my stop. I didn’t have money for the next ticket and I looked out the window and it was pouring rain out and I just didn’t get off the bus. I just closed my eyes and went for the ride. They didn’t kick me off. You know, I didn’t come from a broken home or anything like that. My parents were still together, and I had a decent upbringing – I was just spiritually searching for something. “Breaking Ground” is the song about my purpose, what I decided to do without any excuses.

“Just Pray” is very deep. The lyrics leave the listener with a lot to think about and to connect with.

I want the listener to reflect, maybe even cry and I’d say that one is auto-bio-fictional. Ha! People think that one is about my life, but it’s not. It has elements from my life, but I created a story from that. It’s definitely about domestic abuse, alcoholism and existentialism if you want to go that deep. It’s from the perspective of a child who’s looking at his father, someone who taught him his faith and who taught me about and believing in God. And his father is also destroying his faith as well. And he’s in a position of wondering if he wants this person to live or to die. It’s a scary question, but maybe for some – life would be better without those types of people in it. That’s the darkest thing that I’ve every delved into.

“Penny” has a different feel than the other tracks on the record.

Yes. The producer of In Our Time, Andrija Tokic, listened to my demos and commented that this one sounded as if I wrote it differently. And I did. Usually, I just sit at my desk with a pen and some paper. And for “Penny”, I was sitting on the floor in my studio room. I grabbed my guitar from the corner and started strumming and humming away. The approach was different, and the song came very quickly. Andrija picked up on that and he connected with that one the most, because it is more his style of music. The other Americana-style music was not so much for him, but with “Penny”, I kind of pulled him in that direction.

The album starts and finishes with my favorite two tracks, “Breaking Ground” and “Penny”. Do you have a favorite?

“The Honest One” is one of my favorites. “On My Side” just kills me every time that I hear it. “Just Pray” is up there. “Made It Home” is beautiful. I was aiming for something totally different with that song. It started off a lot faster, like a pop song. But, we slowed it all the way down and it turned into something else. Everybody involved in that one, when it was finished, was taken back by it in the end. Overall, I think “The Honest One” is my favorite.

Can you describe how your writing and recording process for In Our Time was different than your first record?

I spent ten days in the studio for the first album. Recorded and mixed, but not mastered. We had the band on the floor and that was all of the time that we had because Eric Masse was working on Miranda Lambert’s album at the time and he only had a short period of time to do it. We had great musicians on that album. And with ten days, you get what you get – no regrets. No looking back.

For In Our Time, we talked a lot and debated many things before getting started. There were moments where Andrija and I were slightly at odds over what each other wanted. We didn’t fight. Ideas were allowed to live and to die. We really just compromised and went with the best ideas. And at the end of the day, he respected that I was the artist and that I wanted to enjoy the music that I listened to. We had so many great musicians on the album. I can’t say enough great things about each and every one of them. Andrija is great too. He’s a quirky, analog guy. We recorded everything to tape. Most of it was live. We polished it up a bit in Pro Tools, all organic stuff – no auto tuning. Then we bounced it back to tape.

As In Our Time was just recently released. Have you had time to reflect on the record as a whole?

I finished recording it in January, so I’ve been sitting on it for a while. My children listen to it all of the time. I listen to it less than them, of course. I’m very happy with it, though I’m very critical of myself. But, I think that it gives people an amazing entry point as me as an artist. I have a lot of songs written on my computer that I’ll dig into sometime in the future. But the songs on In Our Time are a great entry point to AHI as an artist. A lot of people don’t realize that I made an album before it. So, hopefully those who like this one, will take a gamble on the first one too. I’m very happy with In Our Time and I know people are going to respond to it, because it’s honest. I want people to listen to the music and hopefully see themselves in the songs.

What’s one of the greatest lessons that you’ve learned thus far in regard to your experience in the music industry?

Oh, man. There are so many lessons that I’ve learned. The first thing that comes to mind is that no one owes you anything – not even applause. Once I realized that, it changed my approach to everything. I don’t come from a musical background, so I don’t know what it’s like to think like a musician. I’ve seen a lot of musicians who take an entitled approach, expecting attention and applause. Once you realize that what you do to get and keep their attention is very important. I’m willing to tell a seven-minute story, if it means that what it will take to get someone’s attention. But, no one owes you anything.

Is there a particular song from In Our Time that you’ve come to enjoy performing more, as the tour has continued?

We’ve only been playing about four cuts from the album live, so far. “Breaking Ground”, “Made It Home”, “Straight Ahead” and the title track, “In Our Time. With “Straight Ahead”, people really get into it with the hook in the chorus. People fall into it and get it, immediately. I knew playing “In Our Time” was going to be fun with the rapping bit. “Straight Ahead” and “In Our Time” are the two that really stand out.

In regard to performing live, what do you hope people walk away with at the end of the night?

I want them to feel a little closer to themselves. I hope that my music allows people to reach deep inside themselves and into their souls. I want people to see themselves, or someone in their life a little better. There’s a song that I play called, “Closer From A Distance” and people thank me after the show for doing so. They tell me how they relate to the song and inadvertently putting their feelings, into perspective. I did my crazy soul searching and hopefully my music can save someone from having to do the same soul searching as well.

The last date on this tour is at the Pilgrimage Festival in Franklin, Tennessee – just outside of Nashville. And after you wrap up this tour, what’s next?

 More touring! I’m going to head to the UK with my drummer to play with the Lone Bellow. And then, we just announced some dates with Lauren Daigle – with over forty dates.

So, one last question. Is there symbolism behind the all black wardrobe and the equestrian hat?

Ah! Yes. But, people will need to come to my show to find out. Ha!




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