Amina Shareef Ali releases 'In the Dark (Awake of Course),' her first record in seven years, on March 29. (Eva Wo)
Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden is beautiful, a floral oasis in the middle of the city, and it’s also a short walk from Amina Shareef Ali’s place, so it makes sense that it’s been a backdrop for some of the singer-songwriter’s most memorable moments over the past few years.
Sometimes those experiences only became poignant in retrospect—like the time she did a tarot reading with a soon-to-be-ex over there on the concrete steps, she tells me on a recent drizzly Wednesday, as she points across the garden. “And as far as I knew, everything was peachy.”
Within weeks, the relationship would fall apart, leaving Ali grappling with heartbreak of a magnitude she’d never known—and providing, as breakups are wont to do, the inspiration for a slew of new music. In the Dark (Awake of Course), out Monday, March 29, is a collection of earnest folk-punk songs about grief, acceptance, and the decision that life is worth living, even when all available evidence points to the contrary.
It’s also Ali’s first new record in seven years—a “gap in the resume,” she says, that she comes by honestly. Originally from St. Louis, Ali landed in the Bay Area in 2007 after studying music composition at Oberlin College, and has been a fixture in the local singer-songwriter circuit ever since. Her 2014 record A Place to Remember the Dead, in particular, with its Occupy-era protest songs and playful odes to crushes, handily cemented her place in the scene.
But In the Dark is deeper, more nuanced, more vulnerable, with good reason. These songs span a period of time in which Ali experienced seismic shift after shift. She became a parent. She went back to school to become a therapist. And then she came out as a transgender woman.
“So when people are like, ‘What have you been up to?’” she says with a hint of a smile, “the answer is all of that.”
The first time Brian Belknap saw Amina Shareef Ali play, it was at the Hotel Utah in 2010, and she introduced a song called “Tucson” by talking about Arizona SB 1070, the controversial immigration legislation that critics saw as institutionalized racial profiling. Belknap, a longtime Bay Area musician and activist—who at the time was involved in the fight to make San Francisco a sanctuary city—was struck by her words.
“And then the next time I saw her was at a warehouse show where she was just running around making everyone spaghetti,” he recalls. “There’s a sense of community that I think is really foundational for everything she does.”
The two became fast friends after that; a decade later, Belknap is one of a handful of longtime collaborators who contributed vocals to what is mostly a solo album; Ali plays guitars, percussion, harmonica and more on In the Dark. That wasn’t always the plan: In early 2020, Ali had designs on a full-band record; she even rehearsed the band once before shelter in place rules hit. But scrapping that idea turned out to be liberating in another way.
“I learned more about recording myself, and it allowed me to experiment and be an amateur and not be apologetic about that,” says the songwriter, who has previously earned comparisons to Conor Oberst; here, she seems to channel early bedroom recordings by John Darnielle and Kimya Dawson, with vocals occasionally veering into something Nico-esque. “Which is something I think I lost during my early years of doing music, when I always felt like I had to demonstrate that I’m a serious musician. I always had something to prove.”
Indeed, there’s an audible sense of freedom and abandon on songs like “Ready 2 Love U,” a lo-fi appreciation for the potential-filled moment before the start of a new affair: “The water's warm, but I'm only ankle deep / I don't know what you look like when you cry, I wanna know what you look like when you sleep,” asserts Ali, before reminding herself: “My body wasn’t made not to be touched / I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’m ready to love you.”
Elsewhere, she tells off a misogynist would-be paramour; paints pastoral scenes out of take-out smells and Sharpie tags at Oakland playgrounds; and borrows from her 6-year-old, Hazel — who has a co-writing credit on two different songs — with lyrics like “Some hearts are red like a dragonfruit / some hearts are purple like a grape.”
Unsurprisingly, given Ali’s day job, certain lyrics also dip into therapist-speak. There is sometimes a level of earnestness which is hard to imagine other people getting away with. Ali pulls it off because she’s also hilarious, and raunchy, and self-deprecating, and equally prone to tangents about radical politics and the latest parkour video she got obsessed with on YouTube.
“I’m really about honoring even the most minute details of experience,” says Ali. “Especially right now, when experience is so constrained: you can’t see friends; you can’t hug anyone outside your pod; oh, now the air’s full of smoke so you can’t go outside. You can’t do jack shit, so what can we do with what is here? What meaning can we derive from this? Because this meaning ain’t gonna make itself.”
When Brett and Elizabeth Cline first founded the Lost Church in 2011, they expected the homey room, tucked inside a Mission District building designed by renowned architect David Ireland, to be a place for theater—small-scale, experimental musicals put on by their friends. But word got out fast about the charming, funky space. It wasn’t long before the singer-songwriter community, ever hungry for quiet rooms, claimed it as their own.
“It was sort of a ‘If you build it, they will come,’ situation, and Amina was one of the very first people who came,” remembers Brett a decade later. He’s still not even sure how she heard about the place, but he knows her shows “opened the floodgates” for other singer-songwriters to want to play there.
“I remember her showing up as this skinny, righteous, idealistic kid in a cowboy hat, and I learned that she had done a tour where she just went on trains for a month with her guitar. And thinking, ‘OK, that’s awesome. That’s legit.’ And her music was raw, very honest, vulnerable, authentic. There was never a made-up persona or a shield. She laid it all out on the line. And on the stage.”
The stage has also been the very literal place where Ali has, over the past four years, come out—often writing and singing her way through formative moments in her transition, as with the cheeky country song “Farewell to My Man.”
For the most part, she has been pleasantly surprised by people in the music community whose reactions she was nervous about. And she’s enjoyed ongoing support from a tight-knit chosen family of queer artists in Oakland—chief among them, her longtime partner and co-parent, Sil.
Which is not to say it’s all been easy. On the contrary, one doesn’t need to read between the lines on In the Dark to hear signs that its narrator may have very well been to hell and back.
And that’s likely one reason the record feels so perfectly timed, as we round the bend on a year of isolation, anxiety, and grief: it’s the “and back” part that counts. Indeed, Ali names “I Came Back to Life” as perhaps the most important track on the record:
I never been the one that quits, no I’m the one that does CPR for 45 minutes
But once you’ve broken all the ribs, girl, you gotta admit that this love is finished
there’s some things that you can’t bring back
there’s some things that you can’t revive
after all, life didn’t come back to me, no
I came back to life
“There was a time when all I could think about was trying to regain something that I lost. But now I’m not sad about any of that anymore,” she says, pausing to toss an instinctive “Go Cards” at a passing dad in a St. Louis Cardinals cap. (A few minutes later, she clarifies that she has no idea if baseball is even happening right now.)
“I’m glad to know who I am, and I’m grateful for the experiences that helped me grow,” she says, gathering her things to walk back across the garden before it starts raining again, to get home in time for her virtual parent-teacher conference. “Like, okay, so I’ve had a broken heart. Cry about it all you want, but then what?”
“Either you’re gonna love as much as you can before you die, or you’re not. So what’s it gonna be?”
Amina Shareef Ali releases 'In the Dark (Awake of Course)' on Monday, March 29, with a live interview and listening party at 6pm. Details here.
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