I’m someone who cherishes most of the younger versions of myself, and a corollary of that is that I also cherish a good deal of the art that I’ve created over my lifetime. There is a fair amount of cringe in there, of course, but often my prevailing feeling is “damn youngblood, you had heart even back then”. The ratio on the work that follows here is something like: 30% mildly embarrassing to somewhat mortifying; 30% kind of precious and endearing; and 40% “damn youngblood, you had heart even back then”. Apparently, that’s balanced enough that I’d like to put it out in the world and let it complete its life cycle.
The basic premise: this was the story and script for what I intended to eventually be a graphic novel; I didn’t know or worry while I was writing it about who would illustrate it. It follows two sets of characters, who are alternate timeline versions of each other: Charlie Johnston (whose respective versions go by the names Chas and Lee), Andrea Apostoloff (And/Rea), Jeanette (John/Annette), and so on. The timelines split sometime around when they all graduated high school, and they’re all around 22, 23 now. It’s fiction, but the life stage challenges and worldly concerns of the characters do absolutely reflect my own at the time: mainly, how to be a male (sic) feminist, how to do polyamory, how to make meaningful art and generally how to be a decent person who cares about justice.
Normally I agree that disclaimers are to be avoided, but there’s simply no way that I could let this see the light of day without naming some of the things I didn’t know a fucking thing about when I wrote this, which include zines, the art world, tarot, being an independent musician, audio recording and engineering, journalism, queerness, transness, abortion clinics, feminism, radical politics in general. I don’t think I had even really considered the concept of doing research for creative writing? But there’s no cleaning this up, folks; either it goes out into the world as is, or it just disappears. So, if you either like me as a person or my work enough to leaf through it, I thank you for both your audience and your grace.
This blog post and music video were originally conceived of as part of my process of coming out as a transgender woman. As life would have it, I felt the imperative to come out in a much more pragmatic manner before all these pieces were in place–and then two years passed. But I never let go of either the intention or desire to tell my story, so here it is.
Every history is related through the particular distortion of the present moment of authorship, including this one. Had I written this in the immediate wake of my coming out, I think I would have spent a lot of energy stressing that the dominant trans narratives–of being “born this way”, or having a lifelong experience of dysphoria–didn’t fit me at all. I would have really railed against the notion of gender identity as an Essential quality of the self, when my own experience of all aspects of my self is much better described as Emergent. I still basically hold with this, even though two years of reflection have also given me the opportunity to pick out instances over my life that I could weave into other patterns and narratives. I’m really not trying to retcon my life and say that I was always trans or always a girl; but I do think the potentialities for it abounded over the years.
I mean, I recall as early second or third grade wondering if it was possible for someone to be a boy and a girl at the same time, and what that person might look like. I remember a period of upwards of a month in middle school where I had a running serial fantasy of–hoo buddy, this one’s kind of vulnerable to write out–being in a lesbian sorority. Mind you, not some heel who stumbles into this forbidden heaven; no, I was definitely one of the girls.
But like I said, I’ve no interest in revisionism. Sure, I was a weird freaking goofball kid with big feelings who talked and sang too loud, but I didn’t really object to being a boy. Around the same time I was trying to dream the Girl-Boy, I also recall my first sense of, “Whew, I sure lucked out by being a boy. Being a girl, that would be…worse.” Packed into that worse was both a sense of inferiority and a poorer lot in life. Through grade school and adolescence, I found the male friends and social circles who would take someone like me, and you know I bought into heteronormative notions of romantic love. I could go off on a long tangent here about my patriarchal conditioning but Christ can a trans girl get a damn break from having to show her work around unlearning sexism? I’m trying to tell a story here.
My first clear foray into feminine expression came in tenth grade after poring over pictures of Syd Barrett. I remember feeling such a perplexity of disgust and allure with his style; in particular that he always wore colorful scarves. Flash forward six months or so, here’s me in my tenth grade yearbook photo:
And then wearing silky women’s shirts from Goodwill, or makeup and a dress onstage for my high school band’s last show. Relax, it’s just rock and roll, all right?
I passed through much of my twenties being impossibly emo and developing an unnerving pattern of being romantically involved–somehow?–with girls who were ostensibly lesbians. I have never been read more savagely than in the following tweet:
At the same time as I was proximal to so many queer women, I also felt uncomfortable describing myself as even “bi-curious”, because let’s face it, I’d only ever kissed two boys and given one-third of a handjob (the middle third, too: objectively the least exciting part). It took almost that entire decade to give myself permission to claim queerness (more about that here); to realize that if I stayed away out of some convoluted notion of not wanting to be appropriative or some shit, I would never give myself the chance to explore that part of myself. And for me, this shift was also about giving myself permission to explore femme gender expressions as well.
(In case it needs to be said: I am only trying to describe my own process of gender exploration, not anyone else’s. In particular, for me there is some blurring between the notions of femininity and womanhood, which I know doesn’t resonate for many butch trans women.)
Meanwhile, let’s look at the songs I was writing. From “Come Closer” a song I penned in 2007 for my ex from two years prior: “If we’re lovers that don’t make love, then that doesn’t seem unfair.” In “The State Of The Garden“, written 2009, I pretty much outline the platonic ideal of the Ambiguous Tenderqueer Hangout:
I arrived to pick you up at eight; per your request, we don’t call it a date. Matter fact, we’ve been not dating for six months, just screenings for our private art film club. With dinner first, and drinking after it, and during, sharing the same small blanket.
You broke my heart, dear. You made the right choice.
But even twelve years and all those nice boys
can’t change what we had. “All’s well that ends well.”
I don’t believe that, but I’m glad we’re friends still.
Yes, I’m being a little bit off the cuff by pulling all these receipts and daring you to tell me a dyke didn’t write these songs. But I’m also not? The past two years have taught me that even though I wasn’t living as a queer woman through my twenties, she was always a possibility, one that both frightened and enchanted me. I mostly only convened with her in song, but the more I let her speak, the louder and more possible she became.
But also, I was trying to make it work as a boy, and you know what? It’s not like it never did. Here are some of the boys I’ve been:
Scruffy Artsy Emo Kid
Young Professional ManTM
Which is basically what the song “Farewell To My Man” is about. It isn’t that there was no room at all for me in masculinity. It was like my hometown: I grew up here, there are things I love and things I hate about it, it’ll always have a place in my heart. But also, maybe I’ve kept living here all this time because it was hard to imagine living anywhere else–until I did?
It began with pink bandanas, short shorts and leggings, as seen in the video for “Tucson”. There were also virtual rehearsals: a two-month period during which a handful of my friends were on Miitomo proved a fruitful ground for experimenting with femme looks.
I got encouragement from partners too, ranging from giving me my first skirt to just straight up saying shit like “If you sprouted a pair of tits tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind” (gulp). I am deeply grateful for the ways in which the safety to explore femininity was signaled by those close to me long before I was conscious of my own curiosity about it. But even as I began wearing said skirt around the house, there was still an unreality to what I was doing. Surely I was just playing and trying to fit in with my queer friends, right?
The first time I went shopping in the women’s section at Crossroads, my heart was positively racing. I think there was terror at being scrutinized by other women shoppers, but also at the enormity of all that it would mean for me to buy a dress for myself to wear. And folks, on September 30, 2016, when I stepped foot out my front door in West Oakland and walked to the bus stop wearing this dress, it was all over. I knew I was absolutely, positively not playing.
There’s a lot I could say about what the next stretch of time looked like: furiously shopping to create a femme wardrobe from scratch; selling off or packing up my boy clothes in successive waves; freaking out when my friend gave me a week’s worth of hormones (not enough to cause any bodily changes, but definitely enough to set off a bomb in my psyche about what options were on the table for both my gender and my body); and talking about almost nothing else in therapy. The short version is, seven months later I was a girl.
I wrote “Farewell To My Man” during this period, about two months after my first day out in a dress. I had just gotten back from a Thanksgiving visit with family, for which I had accidentally-on-purpose packed a mix of boy and girl clothes, but not enough of the former to make it through the week. Folks, there are times when writing a song can really scare the shit out of you, and this was one of those times. There’s less latency and noise on the channel from the subconscious directly to the page, especially in the cipher of verse.
I knew something momentous was happening; but I also felt all this incongruity between the sanctioned trans narrative and my experience. I emphatically felt that I hadn’t not been a boy or a man, and I didn’t relate to any description of gender dysphoria that I had encountered. (Side note: I have since had a lot a lot of both experiences of and thoughts about dysphoria, but that’s for another piece.) There are a lot of reasons that I chose to keep my given first name as another middle name (largely having to do with racial identity, which is also another piece altogether), but one of them was still feeling a strong connection to and affinity for all the people I’ve been. Put simply, I believe that I was a man, until I wasn’t. I wasn’t a woman, until I was.
I know this view runs counter to the some of the most prevalent trans narratives, and the experiences of many other trans folks; so it feels a little scary or even politically dangerous to pronounce it in mixed company. But aside from my dislike of ceding any rhetorical or material ground to hostile actors, I don’t actually know why it should be controversial. There are so many core aspects of my identity that weren’t inherent to my being from the jump. I was not born but became a songwriter, a radical, a parent or a therapist, yet no one casts aspersions on my fitness for those roles (usually). Why should my current gender being newly formed rather than latent have any bearing on its validity?
I still feel intent on creating more room for these sorts of narratives, that don’t treat transness as a tragic burden only to be accommodated when the danger of not doing so is grave. As Carta Monir reminds us, being trans is a gift. Whatever internal turmoil or oppression comes with the territory, I can’t help but brim with gratitude at the richness of my experience over the past two years. I feel like I’m able to see a whole array of colors that were simply beyond the range of my visible spectrum before I transitioned. In no way would I say that my life prior to transition was insincere or incomplete; but if I tried to go back to it, it would be. Amina was by no means inevitable; but she is irrevocable.
Anyway–holy shit did we spent a long time making this music video! It was shot exactly a year ago in August 2018, which in transition time feels like ages and ages. So much gratitude to my band, the Radical Folksonomy (which, by the way, holy shit y’all, we been making music together for ten years now?); to our recording engineer Nelly; to Paige and Jamie for filming and editing with such skill and care; and to so, so many people–partners, exes, homies, comrades, queers, community–who made it possible for me to know myself.
Without further ado, I give you: “Farewell To My Man”.
Today’s the day that I said farewell to my man: packed up, left half my stuff–I didn’t have a plan. But last night I drew The Moon, and this morning I drew Death. I left my lipstick on the shot glass. I didn’t waste another breath
I can’t say I was never yours: in the pool hall, in the punk bar; in the backseat, yeah of course. You wonder why it’s ending, but you don’t know why it began. It’s eighteen to the state line, and farewell to my man.
I loved you in linen, or grimy with bike grease; in tank tops, in blue jeans cut off above the knees. But that hat you wore, oh, it’s such a bore; and this is just to say I’m keeping your leather jacket. It looks better on me anyway.
I can’t say you were never mine. You were darling when you faltered; but when you swaggered, you were swine. If there’s a pay phone at the rest stop, I’ll call you when I can; but it’s two bucks to the counter girl, and farewell to my man.
I can’t say I’ll never be back. And I might quit smoking, right after opening a new pack! You gave it everything you had; I took all that I could stand. All my love to you, babe; but farewell to my man.
Call up my tattoo guy, I’ve got some chapters to end! It’s sixty minimum to Matty, and farewell to my man. And ain’t no one is innocent, I know it like the back of my hand! All my love to you, babe, but farewell to my man.
Big life announcement: after ten years out of school, I am going back. This fall I will be starting at the Wright Institute, working towards a Master’s in Counseling Psychology.
In this blog post from about a week before Hazel was born, I surveyed my mounting disillusionment with the indie musician hustle. In short, any degree of success that could reasonably be called ‘making it’–or even just having some net income from music that doesn’t get immediately reinvested in the enterprise–is almost entirely out of your hands. Your chances may improve if you’re talented or industrious or savvy about promotion, but at the end of the day it’s not up to you. After six years of going as hard as I know how–and I daresay I can go as hard as most–I’m just kind of done.
I don’t mean I’m done making music, making records or even touring. But I’m through treating my musical life as an asset I need to grow into something that can support me beyond its emotional rewards; and I reject the idea that I’m any less serious of an artist for that. Like most creative folks, I rue the fact that our society doesn’t nurture and support the arts*. But surprisingly enough, regarding myself and my creative output as a Brand™ and relating to close friends and new acquaintances alike as potential fans to be remotely broadcast to across multiple social media platforms actually makes me feel more, not less, alienated from my work.
It’s also trite but true that having a kid changes one’s priorities. There’s a degree of precarity that I’ve been willing to navigate for the past several years in order to freely pursue my passion that I simply don’t want to subject my kid to. That’s not a moral judgment on any parent who chooses differently (or, you know, doesn’t have a choice), but it’s where I’m at. When I began to fantasize about paths that could lead to greater stability, but that I would also find rewarding and be good at, training to become a therapist kept creeping into my thoughts.
I really fought it at first. In 2009, I left the most secure job I’ve ever had (nothing extravagant, but salaried and with decent benefits) so that I could focus more fully on music. Despite the apparent illogic, it was easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, for nearly immediately the pieces started coming together: the Radical Folksonomy formed and in six months we’d recorded an EP and were gearing up for our first tour. And for most of the time since then, I’ve felt both fulfilled and sure that I was on the right path, so much so that I’d come to really identify with scraping by. Considering this major change really shook my foundation; I began to doubt my commitment to Sparklemotion. But when I’ve talked to the other musicians in my life who’ve been at it as long or longer than I have, I’ve been met with nothing but sympathetic sighs. It’s easier to give yourself a break when you know that all the peers you respect the most have similar struggles.
As I wrote in the post linked above, I’ve known that I need to recalibrate to put music first, but was stuck on the problem of promotion. If it’s worthwhile to create art, I want it to be great; if it’s great, then surely it’s worthwhile to share far and wide? But I’m starting to suspect that there’s a mental trap here of thinking that there needs to be some critical mass of people who have been touched by my art to justify what I put into it. Which is bullshit. I know that people have been moved by my songs, even if it is mostly my friends and a smattering of people one or two degrees removed. But if I can’t find satisfaction in having touched a small but significant number of people, chances are any ‘next level’ of success I might aspire to would feel just as inadequate once attained. I don’t judge any of my friends’ art in that way, and I want to stop doing so for my own.
Music isn’t leaving my life by any stretch, but I want to stop defining success by factors that are quite out of my control. And while it has made sense for several years to sacrifice some comfort and security to pursue music, it doesn’t anymore, and I’m glad I’m able to recognize that and make the right decision: for my family, but in the long term for my art as well. As my therapist pointed out (and you better believe this has been the main therapy topic for several months), everything I’m going to learn in school, about people’s brains and hearts, about what shapes us and what heals us, can only enrich my creative vision and voice.
And honestly, from where y’all are standing, you might not even be able to tell the difference. For instance, I’m playing this show in a week and a half in Oakland, with some old friends and some new; hope some of you can make it. But if not, there’ll always be another.
<3 <3 <3
*one day I really will write that anti-capitalist critique of petty bourgeois indie artist ideology I’ve been simmering on
Time to do a quick-and-dirty year in review, while my mom’s still in good spirits about holding the kiddo.
As I knew it would be, this has been the year of releasing an album and having a kid. I said most of my piece about the former in my previous entry, but the tl;dr is that I think I’m gonna refocus for awhile on the music-making (writing all the songs, playing good shows) and less on trying to drop the most fire album of 2014.
Re: the parenthood thing, which I’m about four and a half months into now: there are so many cliches about this time and I’m sure I won’t dodge all (or maybe any) of them, but here’s a handful of reflections that characterize my experience.
It’s kind of amazing how mundane it all is? Like most of my days consist of the same chores and errands that they always have, except with a fifteen-pound weight hanging from my shoulder.
It’s true that it’s a pretty magical time, but not all of the time. Rather, it’s super ordinary so much of the day, but the kidlet always manages to do something adorable or incredible or at least random and weird before things seem dull or desperate.
I still feel like the same person? I can’t say exactly how I pictured myself differently from outside the experience of parenthood, but it is some comfort to know that it’s still me here, just doing some different stuff.
At the same time, sometimes I can feel it growing me up. It’s really not so much that I love Hazel so much more than I’ve ever loved anyone anything, but that I take responsibility for him more than I ever have for anyone or anything. On both the day-to-day and in the long term, there’s no question as to my priorities.
But even at the same time as that, I had and still have a faith that the other important things in my life–music, relationships, politics–are not utterly displaced by having a kid now, only rearranged for a time. For music at least, I’ve managed to keep writing, and I’m immensely grateful that it’s something I’ve already been able to share with Hazel, in the form of lullabies and other soothing songs, as well as just propping the kid up and practicing my songs, which he seems to like pretty well as long as all his other creature needs are met.
All in all, I think we’re doing really well with it, which is in no small part due to the amazing support we’ve received from friends and community.
I put out that goddamn album. Hey, can I just say, I’m still really proud of this, give it a listen wouldja?
I went on a gaddamn tour. Still my favorite thing.
I wrote eight songs! Honestly more than I was expecting to, but we had a nice little burst here at the end of the year. Someday I’ll start going to the Utah regularly again, and you’ll get to hear them. For my records, here’s what they’re called:
So I’m due to become a father sometime in the next two weeks probably? Already it’s been quite the emotional ride, and I haven’t even really gotten started yet.
I don’t think there was really any way for me to anticipate the feelings becoming a parent would bring up until it was actually becoming a reality. There was this realization that this is one of the handful of times over the course of my life that I would get advance notice of everything irrevocably changing. Knowing that, I figured probably the most important thing I could to do prepare–besides the non-negotiable items like getting a carseat and installing it correctly–was to attend to my mental health as much as possible leading up to kiddo’s birth. Set aside time to reflect, journal, take therapy really seriously, and basically try to unpack as much of my own baggage as possible, so as to minimize the amount of harm I might do to my child by projecting my own shit onto them. Sounds altruistic enough, but what this has meant in practical terms is that my usual existential crises have all been amplified. I’ll spare you all the angsty ruminations that basically begin and end with “THE PASSAGE OF TIME, MY GOD”, but I wanted to write a little about what this has got me thinking about music and my relationship to it.
When you become an indie musician, you quickly learn the script of “yeah, I’ll have a day job or three and work like hell on my music late at night and on my days off and toil away for years in obscurity”. Maybe it gets romanticized a little bit, but I don’t think most really completely believe or process it, for the plain reason that it’s freaking disheartening. I think many of us do fantasize that, after some reasonable period of dues-paying, maybe we will actually get some measure of recognition, if not quite fame and fortune. I mean nobody thinks they’re going to get rich doing this, right, but maybe I can manage to build a modest following, be able to eke out a living and keep making records and tour to decent-sized audiences and not wonder all the time “Exactly what the fuck am I trying to do here?”
After the dust settled from the album release, I had a little more space to ponder the question of how I would define my own artistic success. It seems like any metric like selling records, draw, getting positive media attention, etc. depends on so much besides one’s own talent or drive. I’m also keenly aware of just how finite one’s time and energy for creative pursuits is, even when one manages to finagle a situation of avoiding honest waged labor for a decent chunk of time. That time and energy will only diminish more once the little one gets here, and as I’ve said before, it’s incredibly easy to spend all one’s efforts on promotion and have very little left at the end for the music. I swear, I never want to quit more than when I’m in the midst of some promotional blitz. Obviously I’m not going to do that, but it seems clear that if I want to keep music as a central part of my life–and I do want to–I need to rebalance this equation somehow and prioritize music-making.
With all that in mind, I’ve been trying out adjusting my thinking from “know that any wider success is a total longshot, hustle like hell anyway” to “accept that that kind of success is more or less arbitrarily bestowed, so hustle if you feel like it but put making music first, and find fulfillment where you’re at now even if there is no ‘leveling up’ further down the road”. Unfortunately it’s not quite so simple as that. Not to sound self-important, but I would never have felt justified dedicating the time to my art that I do if I didn’t see it as more than simply something that’s personally rewarding to me, but a social contribution with real value. If that’s true, then part of my role is to make some concerted effort to actually put my art out into the world, which, whether out of narcissism or benevolence, basically amounts to promotion. Sort of back where I started, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten.
For the immediate future, I don’t have any shows on the books right now, but I expect I’ll get back in the ring come winter or spring at the latest. I’m still scribbling in my notebook too, and if anything I’m hopeful that the little woodle will provide a bit of inspiration. You haven’t seen the last of ol’ Weefy…
When my brother and I were kids in the early nineties, one of my favorite family rituals was watching the new Star Trek episode each week. It would air at 6 PM and again at 10 the same night. The earlier broadcast was usually before my parents got home from work, so often we would follow this arrangement: my brother and I would retire at an earlier hour without fuss, and our reward was to be awakened to watch the later airing long after we were usually allowed to stay up. It was incredibly magical.
In recent years I have rediscovered my Star Trek fandom, and last week I was watching an episode of Deep Space Nine where Captain Benjamin Sisko is apparently killed in an accident. Only he isn’t killed, he’s somehow trapped in subspace, and every dozen or so years he appears corporeally for a few minutes in the vicinity of his son Jake, who was with him at the time of the accident. Each time Jake has to update him on all his life changes–publishing a book, getting married–in digest form, which Benjamin has to try to savor as much as he can before being pulled away again, leaving Jake utterly distraught, as if experiencing his father’s death again and again. In the end, an elderly Jake takes his own life to break the bond that was keeping Benjamin trapped in subspace limbo, which mercifully retcons away the entire timeline of Jake’s life without his father. But in his last moments in that timeline with his son, Ben tells him, “You didn’t have to do this.” To which Jake replies that he did, both “for you, and for the boy that I was. He needs you more than you know.”
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the passing of my father, Taimoor Ali Elfiki.
I don’t know quite how to frame this reflection. I don’t want to do a ‘Greatest Hits’ of cherished memories, and despite my usual comfort in sharing vulnerable parts of my past, some of what I’ve been mulling over recently is in fact a bit tender for airing in this way just yet. Strange that I should feel like I have to disclaim that I’m holding some things back, but one aspect of grieving in this society seems to be a dance between maintaining enough privacy to feel safe, but not succumbing to an odd sort of shame. I’ll also say that although this doesn’t hang too heavy or ache all the time, I’ve known for some years that it’s a process I may never complete. This is just another step.
When my dad passed in 1994, I was eleven years old and in the 5th grade. The memories from that time are well-worn by now, protected from further disintegration under heavy glass. The tears had mostly stopped within a week or so, but I remember over the next few weeks leaving school and going home sick–not pretending but actually sick, fever and all–several times, the trauma evidently taking its real material toll on my body.
But there’s a short and a long term to grief, and I guess you could say I got used to not having a father over the course of some months. The next year adolescence was upon me, characterized primarily by my first really close friendships and–I’m serious you guys–some really strong crushes. These pangs were also reflected in the scripts I saw in movies and elsewhere about Best Friends and First Love. Consciously or not, I had begun to distance myself from my 11-year-old self, to disidentify with the ‘child’ I had been but felt I was no longer. In some poems and songs I wrote in middle and high school I characterized May 3, 1995 as the pivotal date of demarcation, a sort of B.C./A.D. of my life–a date that was decidedly not the anniversary of a parent’s death, but in fact the date a certain Really Strong Crush declined my invitation to the dance.
I guess this is actually all pretty healthy, that I wasn’t hopelessly derailed from the task of growing up. I had an okay time of being a teenager, with the understanding that it’s a pretty cruel stage of life for most folks. I never knew how to deal with people’s responses to learning that my father was not alive anymore, but I got used to sort of shrugging to diffuse unsolicited sympathy. Because how could they really have anything to offer me, besides the most abstracted sort of pity? (The notable exception being my friend Adam, mentioned in the linked post above.)
Things started to swing back in college, as I started to seriously consider questions of heritage for the first time. The challenging reality then and still today is that I have no living relatives on that side of the family, no direct links to understanding what it means to be of Arab or Turkish descent. It also dawned in my last year at Oberlin that, at age 22, I would shortly traverse the point at which I’d lived more of my life without my dad than with him. The times when I would miss–or, more accurately I think, long for, because as many have noted, it doesn’t make sense to say you miss something you’ve never had–my father’s presence began to creep back in more and more. Which was a headfuck, because it also seemed clear by that point that I was a different person than I would have been if he had lived, so did longing for him also in a way mean negating myself?
One thing I haven’t really touched on is how profoundly and irrevocably the relationships with the other members of my family were changed by Daddy’s death. Out of respect for their privacy I won’t go too in depth, but I would like to express how grateful I am that we are not estranged from each other, that love and support is plainly evident in our relationships, because there’s so much more to understand with each other than by ourselves. Talking with my brother this weekend, for instance, helped me become aware of how I had been partitioning off ‘child Shareef’ from ‘adolescent Shareef’ in a fairly artificial and arbitrary way.
My father, Taimoor Ali Elfiki, died on March 11, 1994. Here I am two decades later, 31 years old, on the eve of fatherhood myself. It occurs to me that the things that I value most about myself–being a caring partner and friend, a dedicated artist and activist–not only will they never be known by my father, but likely they were only remotely imagined if at all. I don’t presume he’d disapprove, but I also don’t assume he’d simply “be so proud of me”. I think it’d be much more dynamic, just like it is with my family that’s still around: there’d be exchange, confusion, questioning, encouragement, tension, reconciliation, all of the living, breathing influence and cross-influence that one thrives off of from the people one keeps close to them. No, I suppose I don’t need that, any more than I needed a father to guide me through how to be in a relationship or write a song. But I do long for it, I did, I always will. I suppose that’s just a feature of my human experience, and I think I’m okay with it. There are worse things to long for.
Hey there, folks. The album release for A Place to Remember the Dead is finally upon me/us, and I’m feeling really good about all of it. Rehearsals have been terrific, and promotion has gone well, which means I won’t be sweating turnout and can really just focus on my performance.
I’m actually writing this entry mostly for archival purposes. My good pal Brendan Getzell, host of the Hotel Utah open mic, gave me a really sweet, thoughtful write-up in the newsletter last week. Unfortunately, the newsletter section of theutah.org isn’t really set up as a blog with permalinks, so I’m reproducing the whole review here for linking purposes. If you really want to see it on the original site, go to the newsletter page and scroll down to the 2/17/14 edition.
Here’s Brendan. Hope to see you tonight!!! xo
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There’s a certain truth to the cinematography in the music video for the lead single of Shareef Ali’s A Place To Remember The Dead, “Tuscon” (YouTube). In it, Shareef (backed by bassist Maia Papaya and lap-steel plucker Brian Belknap) is disarmingly close to the lens, pouring personality into his performance as if his life depended on it, but with a measure of charm that prevents him from overwhelming the viewer. Whether a conscious choice or not, this immediacy is entirely fitting, for it mirrors the intimacy of Shareef’s nimble baritone on APTRTD, both in performance and production. His records have always been to some extent showcases for his lyrics, which are multitudinous while leaving space for intrigue and mystery beneath metaphor, but here a convergence of factors contribute to this release’s success.
On APTRTD, Shareef’s really comes into his own as a vocalist; the emotion has always been there, but it comes packaged with a strong sense of control. He’s always done defiance well, a fact readily apparent on shitkicker tunes like “Stone’s Throw” and “There’s a Reason to my Rage, There’s a Folly to my Fear,” but it’s that sense of control that really propels the beauty of the more delicate melodies found in songs like “For the Rest of my Life,” “I Want to Kiss Death,” and standout track “The Tenderness In Me.” Aaand is that an Elvis-style quiver I hear in the 2nd chorus of “Tuscon”? Dude is full of surprises.
That our first stop is at Shareef’s vocal performance isn’t to devalue the other aspects of the album in the slightest. His guitar work is excellent and varied; even his take on an ol’-time 12-bar blues, “Marigny Love Song,” has copious pieces of flair attached to its familiar structure. The arrangements always serve the song and not the other way around, and the vocal harmonies can take you by surprise with their precision strikes, sometimes bringing chills (I’m thinking especially of “The Tenderness In Me” here). Hotel Utah veterans Mr. Andrew, Erma, Brian Belknap and others add a great many tasteful frills to the listening experience and are integral to both the vibe and the soundscape of the album.
Lastly, a quick shout-out to my favorite song on the album after the first several listens, “Ain’t Nothing Sweeter (Train Song).” Having heard Shareef perform this song a number of times dating back to mid-2012 at a house concert I hosted (#humblebrag), I always got the feeling that Shareef was searching for the performance and the melody he really wanted. He definitely found it on the album version; it’s a jazzy shuffle with as sophisticated a chord progression as he’s ever concocted, with a complex-yet-natural melody. He also uses the song to pay tribute to both names of the past (lyrical hat-tips to Johnny Mercer, Conor Oberst & others) and sounds of the present (the instrumental section recalls the relaxed jamming on “Nothing, I Love You Is All” from 2011’sHoly Rock & Roll). That, and a reference to sex on a train without taking the easy tunnel-based way out. Bravo.
And I have to say folks, I’m feeling really good about it. Like surprisingly good.
You’ll recall that in my year-end retrospective, I tried to speak frankly about the cost and benefit of the Serious Business of releasing an album. It probably won’t surprise you that at the time I was still sifting through a dizzying amount of blogs, trying to figure out where would be appropriate to send my record, and then firing (literal) scores of emails off into the ether, not knowing what if anything might return. I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but it really is quite tedious, more so because there’s almost no way to evaluate one’s success or lack thereof. I was still feeling this way as recently as two weeks ago, but in the last few days something’s changed. I’ve crested some sort of hump I was struggling to get over, and now I am legit really excited about putting this record out again.
What changed? Well, for one thing, my partner and I announced that we’re expecting a wee one in August! We knew that people loved and supported us, but the outpouring of warm wishes was really overwhelming in the best possible way. (There’s much more I could say about the prospects of being a parent seven short months from now, but not within this blog post.) I got a bunch of my ducks in rows for the non-show aspects of the release: finished emailing all the blogs and publications requesting coverage, placed orders for LPs and t-shirts, picked up the CDs, worked on getting the tracks ready on iTunes, Spotify, etc.
And lo! Some of the fruits of my earlier toil have begun to appear. My first music video for my song “Tucson” dropped earlier this week, and was quite well received, despite an initial snafu regarding the spelling of the (ahem) title*. And Christopher Millard over at Examiner.com wrote a really nice, thoughtful review of the record. And then everyone has been so goddamn sweet about all of it, sharing the review and the video and the picture I took of the CDs when I picked them up. Jesus, it’s like you guys really support me! *wipes tear*
So basically I’ve reached a point where 1) my to-do list for the release appears to have a finite number of items, few enough that I can keep them all in my field of vision if I step back, and it doesn’t seem insurmountable that I could actually complete them in the next couple weeks; and 2) I really just have the feeling that, barring some unforseeable catastrophe, there’s no way this couldn’t be a great fucking show. I know what I need to do is remember to savor times like these, and remind myself of them when it’s feeling like a complete slog.
So regarding what I wondered in my last post: yes, I think it has been worth it.
This is going to be a good year.
See you at the show,
*This is super silly I know, but there are like 250 views on the initial video we put out. Add that to the 300 on the corrected one, and that’s already a couple hundred views more than any other video I have out. In like four days! Feels good :)
Another year to review, for no one’s benefit except my own really. I’ll try to keep this brief.
This has been the year of Making A Record The Serious Way. At the end of last year, I knew I had an album’s worth of material, my strongest yet, and I wanted to take a stab at Doing It Right. Well, you know. It’s all I’ve been talking about all year: mastering, crowdfunding, vinyl, videos, promotion, the whole nein. There’s still a couple months left of all this business leading up to the RECORD RELEASE SHOW ON FEBRUARY 19!!!!!! …But since we’re reflecting now, I’m gonna just go ahead and say, I don’t know if it’s worth it.
What I mean by ‘it’ is going super hard on the ‘business’ end of music and not hard enough on the music end. Folks, I have been mostly unemployed for most of the past year, and let me tell you, it is trivially easy to make music your full-time job and forget to make music. Of course there’s always more you can do on either end, but what I missed the most over this past year was touring–lord but I love traveling and seeing friends and playing music every goddamn night, what could be better really–and writing songs.
I will say that I was pleased and gratified that I was able to perform pretty regularly throughout the year as a result of being asked to join many bills. It’s easy to lose sight of what I’ve ‘built’ over the past five years in this local scene, because it’s not something I can point to or touch, but I guess it really is the relationships, huh? Aw, come here, alla youse, group hug group hug.
But I did write half a dozen songs, which I guess after the past five years or so of keeping track appears to be my low-water mark. I can live with that. Here they are, in order of appearance:
Lullaby (for Fynn) – I wrote this for my dear old friend Robyn on the occasion of her son’s birth. Hadn’t really thought of it as a public offering, but I performed it at my last show to fairly good response, so maybe that’ll be a thing..?
Servant Wedding – In which I paraphrase (plagiarize) a lovely speech my friend gave at his wedding about spoon rings and love as resistance. Haven’t gone public with this one yet, but sometime soon perhaps.
I got a couple irons in the fire, also, but maybe those’ll make a nice head start in the new year.
Anyway, when I say “I don’t know if it’s worth it”, don’t think I mean I regret it or anything. Just figuring it all out, y’know? And *certainly* don’t think I’m not totally stoked for my ALBUM RELEASE FEBRUARY 19!!!!!!!111!!! Because I am.
So yeah, goals for 2014, pretty simple really:
Put out this goddamn album.
Go on a gaddamn tour.
Write at least six (maybe twelve?) gaddumn songs.
Fucking A, put out another thing, why not? There has, in fact, been talk of a split cassette with some of my fav indie artists.
After being hell of broke for hell of long, I finally scraped together enough coins last week to download Rin Tin Tiger’s new full-length disc Splinter Remedies, which came out at the end of August. I think I’ve put it on at least once every day since then.
When I first saw the emo-folk duo Westwood & Willow that would grow into Rin Tin Tiger a few years back, I was struck right away by their acerbic attitude, obvious musicianship and sharp songcraft. But things really started to get interesting when Mr. Andrew added his give-no-fucks garage rock drumming into the mix; suddenly there was this powerhouse of a band, all shouting and playing the shit out of their instruments and generally making way more of a racket than an acoustic guitar-fronted three-piece has any business doing.
Rin Tin Tiger grew up a lot on this record. Though always clever and self-aware, there was a note of angst in some of the band’s early material like “Red Pony” and “Ghost Door” that’s now been tempered with some good old-fashioned cynicism. “Go on now, leave me with bad feelings, and we’ll both get some good writing done,” shrugs frontman Kevin in the rollicking Piedmont-picking folk singalong “Aluminum”.
Splinter Remedies accomplishes that enviable, paradoxical feat of asserting a band’s voice more confidently by actually tackling more styles, not less. The band gets positively raucous on numbers like “Michelangelo” and “Precaution”, with Sean’s throbbing, asymmetric bass lines and Andrew’s rabid-hound thrashing underscoring stark, deranged lyrics reminiscent of At The Drive In. And while RTT has always traded in the blues, most notably on the song “Toxic Pocketbook”, they sink even deeper into that cool mud with “Waterfront Blues”, which contains some of Kevin’s most biting lyrics to date: “I’ll pay a handsome ransom to retrieve that hostage sense of myself…I’m tired of making you come.” Yet their familiar ground of countrified crooning is firmer than ever beneath their feet on such tearjerkers as “Haunted Now” and “Suffer No More”.
It’s my feeling that even some of the most beloved albums are weighed down a little by at least a song or two that just isn’t up to snuff (see: Radiohead, “Bones”). But while I’ve got my favorite moments, I wouldn’t call any of the twelve songs on Splinter Remedies duds. Besides having eclectic, interesting tunes, with all three members exploring the full melodic, rhythmic and textural palettes of their respective instruments (and all being fine singers to boot), Rin Tin Tiger seems to have achieved the power trio equivalent of using every part of the slaughtered beast. I’ll leave it to them to divulge who’s the skull, the horns or the bladder.
You can stream and download Splinter Remedieshere.