Brampton singer/songwriter AHI talks influences and the winding path that led him to music

From a stranger outside Thunder Bay to Prospect Cemetery, to Bob Marley: Ahkinoah Habah Izarh — AHI for short — finds inspiration in all kinds of places and people.

The Brampton-born singer and songwriter’s third album “Prospect” displays 10 songs of extraordinary depth and acuity that mark the arrival of a visionary craftsman.

The opening chorus of the title track, which name-drops St. Clair Avenue West’s Prospect Cemetery, offers the first clue that “Prospect” is an extraordinary folk-rooted effort:

“Wandering through Prospect cemetery/Couldn’t be further from home/Reading the headstones like poetry/Nobody wants to die unknown/Never got to meet my grandfather/Nobody told me where he lays/It’s a trip how someone you never knew/Can be buried in your DNA.”

AHI remembers the inspiration behind the song.

“I was on the 161 Rogers bus one day, going past Prospect Cemetery and the first lyrics just came to me, so I recorded it on my phone,” he said. “I recalled when I strolled through Prospect and stumbled across my grandmother’s tombstone. I don’t even remember being at her funeral.

“And the song is kind of about the idea of being in the middle of existence and how you are the centre of — for lack of a better word — eternity. Prior to my existence are all my ancestors and this notion, being a Black singer-songwriter of Western Caribbean descent, that those people came through really extreme conditions.

“Yet, it led to me and this point of my life. I have this idea that maybe my ancestors are really rooting me on, saying, ‘You’re continuing this legacy, keeping our people alive.’

“Then, on the other side, my children, my grandchildren, my great-great grandchildren … are counting on me to give them that future, because a lot of my ancestors didn’t make it here.”

Similar insights reveal themselves on songs like “Danger,” “Coldest Fire” and “Echo,” as AHI’s slightly smoky timbre serenades his listener with incisive observations about the intangible, yet lingering influences and impacts of previous generations; of defining your place in this world; of finding peace and compassion in challenging, often hostile times; searching for non-violent solutions to racial discord and the realization that, to navigate this world, no man is an island.

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Official lyric video by AHI performing “Coldest Fire”

Pretty heady stuff, right? But AHI isn’t interested in writing about fluff.

“My songs are deep, but they’re not contrived,” AHI said recently in an interview that was originally intended to promote a February appearance at the Great Hall, which due to pandemic restrictions has been rescheduled to June 1 (he also plays a May 31 date at Hamilton’s Mills Hardware).

“I’m not trying to be heavy on purpose. It’s got to be deep but simple at the same time.”

With two albums under his belt before “Prospect” — 2016’s “We Made It Through the Wreckage,” and 2018’s Juno-nominated “In Our Time” (for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year) — AHI has been largely forging his own path.

Reggae pioneer Bob Marley was the influence that spoke to him most prominently.

“I felt like Bob Marley was the only person that got me through the awkward moments of feeling like an outsider, those heavy moments of life,” AHI said. “And I thought, ‘How come there’s no contemporary music like this?’ So I said, ‘If it doesn’t exist, I’m going to teach myself how to play guitar, I’m going to teach myself how to sing and I’m going to do it myself.’

“It kind of stems from me going through stuff in my life and just having a lot of questions — the time I moved out from my parents’ house, had some issues with my father, and I had a lot of really deep questions that just kind of poured out into music.”

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Although he played in a band in university (“We rehearsed every weekend but never played any shows,” he admitted), AHI didn’t find his true calling until he backpacked across the Caribbean and Canada.

“I got 20 kilometres outside of Thunder Bay and met a man who sent me back home to Brampton, initially, and put me on the path of my life,” he recalled. “They were heavy times for me, isolating times for me, and he kind of just gave me some guidance.

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“One thing he asked me was, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ At the time, I didn’t have answers. I told him I love and think about music, but I didn’t think of it as a career because my parents didn’t think of it as a career. I probably would have become a professor or a teacher, but this person helped me get back on course and he said, ‘You have to go back to Brampton. Go reconcile with your parents and make music.’

“And when I say ‘reconcile,’ it was nothing really. That man told me that I had to do what Elvis Presley did, slowly build a following, make sure that you’re honest and create pure music, and be super dedicated.”

Mentored by respected Toronto producer, bandleader and composer Orin Isaacs, AHI, married by this point to his manager Ahshatèn, followed Isaacs’ advice to leave the country.

“He said to me — and this is not a slight to the Canadian music industry — if you want to play in the major leagues you’ve got to go where the major leagues are,” AHI recalled. “’So, for the type of music you want to do, you should go to either the U.K. or Nashville.

“We went to the U.K. first, spent about half a year there, then we came back and I thought, ‘I want to be a good songwriter. I just don’t want to be recognized for my voice: I want my songs to stand the test of time. So Nashville became the obvious place to become a better songwriter. So I spent time and recorded all my records there. It’s much cheaper than flying to the U.K. all the time.”

Armed with the hardworking mindset that accompanies professional songwriters in Nashville, AHI participated in a number of collaborative writing room sessions “for a period of time, so I could really learn the craft and understand how to write.”

But he realized that writing by committee didn’t address his needs.

“I felt like I needed to go to a deeper place than what could be provided from co-writing,” he said. “I don’t know if you can write a song like Bill Withers’ ‘Grandma’s Hands’ in a writing room. That’s Bill Withers writing that himself, because it’s an experience that only he can distil.

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“For the last two records, that’s been my mindset — I want to get to those feelings — and I want to feel like every song I sing is deeply personal and I could be in the driver’s seat.”

And he no longer approaches songwriting as if it were a job.

“You kind of know when those moments of inspiration come and when you’re in that space.”

The father of four secured his U.S. recording deal with Nashville-based Thirty Tigers (home to Jason Isbell, Santana, Michael Franti and Alanis Morissette among others) when he spotted label owner Dave Macias at a Bettye LaVette concert, cultivated a relationship and was eventually offered a contract.

“That’s the one thing about Nashville, they do like genuine connections and when you build relationships there, it can unlock a lot of things for you.”

Ultimately, whether they’re socially or intimately driven — yes, there are plenty of love songs on “Prospect” like “Lift Me Again” and “Until You” — AHI is striving for connection through his fine folk balladry.

“One of my biggest goals is to write a song that’s universal and timeless,” he said. “I want a song that the whole world says, ‘This song speaks to all of humanity’ and everybody’s singing it.’”

Listening to “Prospect,” one is convinced that day will come — and, most importantly, on AHI’s terms, no matter how long it takes.

“It’s been a longer path, but there’s so much more I want to attain in this industry. I feel — with this record especially — confident about the choices I made in getting to this record and how it’s panned out. I haven’t lost any of myself.”


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