Imaad Wasif draws in a breath and in a hushed falsetto exhales the lyrics, "Karma is the cause of the deed, looking into the cards that you keep," as he eases into the song "Fangs" from his third solo album, The Voidist.
Wilted melodies fall like jeweled raindrops as rhythmic guitars mimic the drone of a sitar, giving the music's slow burn the essence of Indian mysticism. "Of all the songs on the record, 'Fangs' captures the entire spectrum, or the idea of The Voidist, and where I am in my life right now," says the kinky-haired singer and guitarist.
Getting a grasp on the deep spiritual underpinnings that drive Wasif's songwriting can be a convoluted affair. He tends to lace his conversations with the kind of high-minded, mystical talk that belies just how cathartic such songs as "Widow Wing," "Priestess" and "Another" come across on his latest release. Each one strikes a karmic balance between Wasif's East-meets-West philosophies and musical atmospheres, but there's always something deeper and intangible waiting to be explored.
Since 1994, Wasif has amassed an impressive resume, garnering critical praise while remaining coolly under the radar. He's played guitar with Lou Barlow (Emoh and Goodnight Unknown) and the New Folk Implosion, and released dozens of singles and albums with his own bands, lowercase and Alaska! In 2006, he released a self-titled acoustic album for Kill Rock Stars, followed by a much heavier, self-released electric album in '08, Strange Hexes. In the midst of that, he played guitar for a stint with Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones Tour. Most recently, Wasif co-wrote a handful of the songs for the soundtrack to Spike Jonze's film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, before releasing The Voidist last October.
On The Voidist he explores faith, not as a dogmatic concept but on a deeply personal, spiritual and emotional level. "In the simplest of terms, The Voidist is about maintaining faith in your convictions and your love, and being able to void out anything that's destructive to the survival of the organism," he says with a soft, nervous stutter.
Though he was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wasif grew up in the Coachella desert of southern California. He was isolated from the Indian culture of his heritage, but music was always around him. His father played a harmonium and sang ancient Ghazal poetry – a form of expression characterized by one's choice to focus on beauty in spite of pain – and the sounds of Indian classical masters such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were ever-present in his home. Outside, however, a burgeoning desert rock scene was building steam around the band Kyuss (the members later formed Queens of the Stone Age), that played at generator parties where hundreds of kids would congregate amid the sand and dunes.
It offered Wasif his first exposure to the raw power of punk rock, giving him the courage to pick up a guitar. "Those were the first shows that I ever played, but I was always on the periphery of that scene," Wasif says. "It was wonderful, but it was terrifying. A lot of those guys were football players, which I wasn't into, but they listened to [Black] Sabbath records and also made music."
Indeed, the stoner-rock grind and distortion he heard in the desert resonated with similar metaphysical inflections, but it was much more heavy-handed than the ethereal moods Wasif would eventually evoke with his music. These days, he thinks of his songs as living creatures that don't have an end. "When the song is released into the world, I have no control over how it will resonate with people, but ultimately, that's what I love about music," he says. "Someone I've never met can come up to me at a show and tell me about how it affected them or what it meant to them, and it can be completely different from what I was thinking about or the idea that was behind it, yet it doesn't affect the validity or anything else about it."
When Wasif talks about writing music, from his earliest attempts on up to The Voidist, his mission has always been to understand the concept of the living soul through music, he says. The songs are merely vehicles by which he transmits core emotions to listeners.
It's a difficult concept for most Westerners to wrap their head around, and even Wasif has a hard time putting it into words. "Even the masters of Indian classical music that have dedicated their lives to understanding this sort of thing have a difficult time articulating it," Wasif adds. "For me, that's the beauty and the mystery of music. It allows everybody to experience it, and even if they don't necessarily understand everything, they're still able to feel it."
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