Toronto musician AHI, Ahkinoah Habah Izarh, is a singer-songwriter on the rise whose last album In Our Time was nominated for a Juno Award in the Contemporary Roots Album of the Year category. Prior to his recording career, AHI spent years backpacking across the globe infusing his music with joy and a sense of togetherness.
AHI’s latest is Prospect, a 10-song recording produced and recorded in Nashville by Grammy Award-winner Paul Mabury. Let’s meet AHI.
How has it been for you as a musician trying to find a way through this pandemic?
I guess this goes without saying, but this is a moment in history that is truly unprecedented, and while we’re all experiencing it together, for musicians like me who rely on the ability to engage and interact with an audience, it’s been especially challenging. When it all first unfolded, I didn’t realize how much of a toll it would take on our industry, but I’m blessed to have a strong support system around me personally and I’m grateful for the support systems that Canada has in place to support its artists and the industry as a whole, because I’ve also watched as a lot of my peers in the States have found themselves having to navigate a situation that is far more challenging than ours.
Tell us about your new project.
Before the world came to a halt, I spent nearly two years touring across the US and Canada, playing sold-out shows on such iconic stages as Radio City Music Hall, Red Rocks, the Greek Theatre and Massey Hall. In the majestic nature of these spaces and the overwhelming response to my performances, this life-changing opportunity helped me to see the true magnitude of my voice for the first time, and that realization definitely influenced my songwriting on Prospect. Anyone familiar with my music will hear a distinct departure from the less refined indie-folk/Americana feel of my previous efforts, but Prospect has brought my voice and storytelling to the forefront of every song, with a bigger sound and pop sensibility, and yet without sacrificing the warmth and raw grittiness that my audience has come to appreciate from my live performances.
How would you describe the music of AHI?
I’m a singer-songwriter. Some have said my voice is like “gravel on silk.” I write songs that are honest, heartwarming, and uplifting.
How has the pandemic influenced your music?
I had originally planned to record this album in early 2020 in the hopes of having something ready to release by festival season, and I was really looking forward to Summer 2020 being my most impactful tour schedule yet. Of course, the pandemic hit and completely derailed my plans, but when it all stopped it actually forced me to go deeper into myself and reflect on the work I had created. And that’s when I realized there were some important things that I still hadn’t yet said on this record, so used the unexpected time off to keep writing new songs. It just so happens that some of the very last songs I wrote have now become my favourite ones on the entire record.
If anything good came from the pandemic it’s that I had the time to really reflect on what I wanted this album to convey. I was able to go back and rework some ideas and even write new songs which otherwise would never have been on this record.
What are you hoping people take from the new AHI album?
I would hope that this music can bring people comfort and reassurance. They need to know that none of us are in this life alone, their life has purpose, and they can overcome whatever challenges it might throw their way.
Prospect is the title track of this album and it’s also the opener. As the hook says, “I just want to live like someone before my time is counting on me…and walk beneath the wings like someone from another life is looking out for me.” For me, this song, like the album itself, is a reflection on our shared humanity and what it means to be a link in a chain that stretches both forwards and backward through time for generations upon generations. It may be a heavy concept to wrap your mind around, but the way I see it, we are positioned at the centre of eternity: whether we realize it or not, all of our ancestors are rooting for us, and all of our future descendants are counting on us. This universe can often leave us feeling small and insignificant, but I truly believe that our lives are part of something bigger and more meaningful than we understand. You and I are the prospect, and our impact on each other is far more immense than we can ever imagine.
What is your background in music and when did you decide to pursue it as AHI?
Before I left home to backpack across Ethiopia, I gave away, sold or just plain threw away hundreds of CDs — the only thing I kept was my Bob Marley stuff. I felt like nothing contemporary was speaking to me the way Bob Marley & The Wailers did, even though this was music from before I was born. So I said to myself, if there’s no contemporary music that gets me through life the way Bob Marley does, then I’ll teach myself how to play guitar and sing, and I’ll make the music that I need to hear. Because if I need it, I know someone else out there does too.
So I’m pretty much self-taught. I was a bit of a reluctant learner when it came to the guitar, but I figured it out and over the years I learned how to find my own voice and become a stronger singer, too. When it comes to the industry, I started the way a lot of us start: pay-to-play shows, open mics, then I “graduated” to real showcases, did some busking and eventually started organizing my own shows.
What keeps you motivated to create?
My faith, my wife, my family, and my strong belief that there are people in this world who need to hear a voice like mine. The genuine response I get from people all over the world who are dealing with real-life issues and finding answers and comfort in my music is so rewarding.
Where is your favourite place to play live?
Radio City Music Hall in NYC, hands down.
What message do you have to those eager to check out the album and see AHI live when possible?
Prospect is the perfect introduction to who I am as an artist. I pride myself in being honest above all else, and this is definitely my most honest and vulnerable offering to date. For the first time, I just let the music flow, without worrying about what label, genre, or category it might end up in, and the resulting fusion is unapologetically me, but it’s also my best work to-date, so I am honoured anytime someone is willing to taking the time to discover what I’ve poured so much of myself into, whether that’s by streaming the music, buying a physical copy, or coming out to a live show. And I can’t believe I finally get to say this, but my North American tour is officially on the horizon! It’ll be my first time really getting back on the road since everything shut down, and I can’t wait!
Please check out www.AHImusic.com for tour dates and tickets!
New Music Wednesdays is a new Streets of Toronto series dedicated to shining a light on local artists creating music in our city despite a pandemic. Our artists need our support.