“I want to save people with music,” Imaad Wasif writes, with unabashed sincerity, in the press release that accompanies his self-titled solo debut. “I feel that I was born to siphon away [people's] poisons and negative energy so that they might be happier.…I have always found something beautiful in this mode of creation.”
Wasif uses the word “beautiful” a lot. He says “That’s beautiful” when something resonates with him or strikes his fancy, but he speaks of beauty in more considered ways as well — of how things are or can be viewed as beautiful. And not just in conversation. Go to his page on MySpace and the word beautiful turns up in his blog entries there, too.
All this talk of beauty might seem odd coming from a guy who ominously opines, “Every surface pretty is hiding something ugly,” in one song from his self-titled new album, a crepuscular wonder that came out in April on Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label. Yet such an admission is merely the flipside of the statement of spiritual and artistic purpose that appears above. It’s also very much in keeping with the Buddhist admonition simply to see things as they are and, through the act of doing so, to find beauty, if not a sort of perfection, therein.
A veteran of indie bands such as alaska! and the New Folk Implosion, Wasif is currently touring as the guitarist and opening act for Brooklyn’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He made his solo album, which sounds as if was recorded in the haunted stillness between midnight and dawn, after emerging from a harrowing year — after standing in what preachers sometimes call the midnight hour.
Wasif doesn’t go into specifics about his dark night of the soul. Instead, much as he does in his elliptically confessional lyrics, he speaks in abstract, imagistic terms of “seismic changes,” or of things “reaching atomic levels” in his life.
Uttered by a great many artists, such pronouncements might seem evasive or vague, even jive. But coming from Wasif, who tends to speak aphoristically — and, with breathlike intonation, in slow, measured cadences — they smack of insight in search of wisdom.
“The record was a process of getting through a period of my life where in the end I realized that getting through, actually putting the record down, that that was what it was all about,” he explains, speaking by phone from his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park.
“I realized that in letting go of things, you can be happy,” he goes on, sounding a Buddhist note on suffering, desire, and attachment. “Because if you’re totally immersed in things, you lose yourself, and when you lose your perspective it’s really scary and dangerous, for yourself and for the people you love.”
Allusions to the scary likes of demons and suicide abound in Wasif’s lyrics. Sinister intimations of being “cannibalized” and fading “Into The Static” can be heard as well. Cast in muted hues flecked with psychedelic buzzes and filigrees of guitar, Wasif conveys all of these things with a pacific delivery that might be mistaken for detachment, or even dissociation, if his enunciation wasn’t so intentional.
This attentiveness, particularly as it enabled Wasif to hang onto a sense of himself during his nightmarish year, is redolent of the idea of the blues as a philosophy of life as propounded by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & The Soul Of America, author Craig Werner sums up this blues impulse as a process “of (1) fingering the jagged grain of your brutal experience; (2) finding a…voice to express that experience; and (3) reaffirming your experience.”
When I mention this notion to Wasif, he asks for some bibliographical references so that he can read more about it. Not stopping there, though, he urges me to read a passage that encapsulates the blues impulse to him over the phone.
“Oh my God, I have to read that,” he blurts out as soon as I finish reading a few lines from Ellison’s landmark essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues.” “That reminds me of the first time I heard Hank Williams. There’s a kind of piercing truth that comes through the music. No matter how simplified it is, you know there are layers and layers that have been packed away trying to get to that essence.”
Though emotionally forbidding at times, Wasif’s album is all about trying to burrow into that essence, particularly where his recent painful experiences are concerned. “I realize that these emotions exist in everyone, and that these emotions are things they deal with on a daily basis, and that how they choose to do deal with them is different,” he acknowledges. “Some people get through it and some people don’t. It’s my wish to constantly get through it.”
Directly or indirectly, Wasif’s album is reminiscent of brooding brown studies such as Mark Lanegan’s Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, Neil Young’s On The Beach, and Skip Spence’s Oar. Wasif’s record might lack the whimsicality of Oar, but it shares with it a commitment to understatement, as well as a refreshingly un-fussed-over and unselfconscious quality.
Wasif’s album — its arrangements built around guitar, voice, keyboards, and intermittent drums — also exudes a sonic warmth and roominess akin to Spence’s record, even to the point of conveying a similar sense of stillness, the feeling of time being suspended or slowed to a crawl. It’s as if Wasif has created a portal to another emotional realm, a seam or “space in between,” as one of his songs puts it.