The Canadian folkie's "In Our Time" tries to speak to and for everybody.
Finger-style folk guitar rolls a warm, pop-friendly melody when a reassuring voice jumps in as if calling from the heavens to remind us that life is fundamentally okay. This is the quintessential song format by singer-songwriter AHI (pronounced “eye”), and “Made It Home” from his newest album, In Our Time, is the quintessential AHI track. Made soothing by an insistent refrain--”We made it home / We made it home / We made it home”--the catchiness and hypnotically memorable quality lend the song enough pop appeal to place it in the “pop-folk” school. Still, AHI remains bound to folk’s earthiness, arranging songs around bare acoustics and lyrical storytelling. To call his voice angelic wouldn’t do it justice. His blues-tinged sound is soulfully nostalgic.
AHI recently played the Saenger while on tour with Lauren Daigle, and his stage moniker comes from the initials of his real name, Ahkinoah Habah Izarh. The Toronto native, who played an NPR Tiny Desk Concert earlier this year, turned heads in the indie world with his instantly likeable folk melodies and storytelling charm. Everything, he muses, comes back to folk. He says Bob Marley--his lifelong favorite artist--can be read as folk music, and “Redemption Song” is a folk anthem at its core. Although there’s no obvious reggae influence on his own album, AHI says it all comes together in a deeper sense.
He thinks of himself as an “untraditional folkie” and he might be, depending on what’s considered “traditional.” It’s hard to think of any Decemberists, Bon Iver, or even Fleet Foxes song that expands its lyrical reach beyond the personal to the universal. His songs lean much more on the “we” than the “I,” but despite that, “I think all my albums will be inwardly reflective”. His goal is to look within and connect with listeners over our shared human condition, and it’s no surprise that he’s touring with Christian artist Lauren Daigle. There’s a undercurrent of spirituality that moves through In Our Time without being forced.
The album plays easy on the ears, brimming with thoughtful meditations on relationships, life, love, joy, and pain, floating breezily by from start to finish. He joked about how the media’s been quick to label his music as “optimistic.” There’s no denying the enthusiastic hopefulness that pulls the album full circle into life-affirming resolution, or the seeming effortlessness of his upbeat folk-pop. But AHI doesn’t see himself as a proselytizer of optimism. Although he’s not pining for the cliche title of “happy guy,” he wants to make listeners feel good. The obvious forward-moving trajectory that undercuts the album, he says, is directed not so much at the world at large, but at the individual experience. “At the core, he says, “we’re all kind of the same. There’s this deep feeling that we all feel, that whether we’ve neglected, or whether we acknowledge it, or whether we wallow in it too much, it’s always there, and I believe that’s in all people.”
In a time where it feels like every artist is scrambling to prove his or her political credentials and speak out against Trumpism and fascism, In Our Time is content to lay low. “I’m not a political musician,” AHI says. “I try to touch on those things without being political.” In Our Time is “an apolitical reflection of our society--in our time, in terms of my relationship between me and my wife, in our time as people in this society, what’s gonna happen in our time, what are we capable of doing in our time.”
He mixes jingly pop hooks with a folk roots sensibility to make songs that wouldn’t feel out of place sung around a campfire. The mood travels between the optimistic, encouraging pep-talks of tracks like “Straight Ahead” (“Keep straight ahead / With no regrets / Even though you’re off the beaten path / Trust your heart and don’t look back”) and “Breakin’ Ground” (“I know I’m gonna make it out / ’cause I’m already breakin’ ground”) to the ambiguously pensive “In Our Time” (“If this is the dawning of a new world I don't know / Just don't you dare ask what I think the future holds / All the elders said there was nothing left to write / But it never crossed my mind they could be right”).
All of that is crystal clear; AHI is never unreachably esoteric. The darkest track on the album, “Just Pray,” which he describes as “autobio-fictional,” details the religiosity of an alcoholic father. It’s the only track on the album you couldn’t call upbeat. Aside from this brief diversion into spiritual existentialism, AHI keeps his feet firmly on the ground. “I try to go straight to the heart,” he says. “If I feel connected to what I’m saying, then there’s going to be someone else out there who feels it too.” His music doesn’t aspire to take listeners away into fantastical worlds or great new heights of sonic complexities. AHI leaves the abstract to those who want to pursue it. He just wants to be authentic and tell stories that are tangible, concrete, and human.