Is there anything more punk-rock, truly, than baring your soul in the form of a song? That’s what came to mind the first time I heard Shareef Ali, an Oakland-based singer-songwriter whose debut album, A Place To Remember the Dead, will most likely land in the “folk” section of the record store (er, the iTunes store?) after it drops tomorrow, Feb. 19.
Yes, there’s acoustic guitar; there are poetic and earnest turns of phrase about melancholy, joyful, and romantic feelings. But the underlying current is pure punk defiance — a melodic middle finger of sorts to anyone who might suggest that confessional songwriting means you have to be soft, to anyone made uncomfortable by rough-hewn, sacrificial-sounding love ballads, to an indie music landscape that offers little room for artists who don’t buy into ironic or detached as the road to cool.
Ahead of Ali’s record release show at Bottom of the Hill tomorrow night, I asked him how that sound came about.
SF Bay Guardian: Where are you from originally, and what brought you to SF?
Shareef Ali: I spent my formative years in the Midwest; born and bred in St. Louis, Missouri, schooled in Oberlin, Ohio. In 2006 I moved to LA to start a band that existed long enough to play exactly one show. Then I did a few years toiling away in the non-profit world, which brought me up to the Bay. Eventually, I realized that not only would I not be happy unless I was making music, but that I also believed it was the most valuable contribution I could make. I’ve been focused on music for the past five years, and have never been happier or more sure of my path.
SFBG: How and when did you first start playing music? Who are some of your biggest influences?
SA: I got my first guitar in the 7th grade when my mom accidentally ran over my foot with the car and felt hell of bad about it. I played in a kinda all-over-the-map rock band through high school, messed around with jazz and experimental composition in college, but it wasn’t until I got to the Bay that I really discovered my best assets as a songwriter. As far as influences go, there are the obvious ones that you can detect — Oberst, Cohen, Waits, to name a few — but really, my biggest inspiration these days comes from the musicians in the rich local folk scene here, some of whom can write a fucking song as well as anyone. There are a lot of talents, Brian Belknap and Mr. Andrew being two of my favorites (who both also played as sidemen on my record).
SFBG: How do you describe your sound or genre, when forced to do such a thing?
SA: There’s only one thing more obnoxious than trying to describe one’s music in brief, and that’s listening to a fucking musician hem and haw about how they “don’t want to be pigeonholed.” My roots are in folk, but I feel like a punk aesthetic informs my delivery a lot, even if it’s not a punk-style song. And then stylistically I also draw on country, jazz, pop music, old-time blues, whatever. What ties it all together is that it’s all lyrical music. The song, the story, the poetry of it, is the centerpiece; other musical elements are all supportive of that.
SFBG: Some of your songs are obviously very autobiographical/confessional. How do you decide how much of yourself to put into a song, and what to leave kind of vague?
SA: Some of my songs are definitely deeply personal, especially in a tune like “For the Rest of my Life,” wherein I address, by their real names, both my partner and my ex-lover-still-close-friend. I like to put in little Easter eggs of meaning, inside jokes that only the subjects of the songs will get. There’s one song on the record written about another local songwriter, and I quote half a dozen of her songs back to her. Who knows what other listeners take away from these lines, but there are plenty of lyrics in songs I love that I can only guess at their meaning; that’s part of the fun. On the other hand: My buddy S.A. Bach put it well when he sang, “Writing songs ain’t for telling the truth.” Or as someone else somewhere said, “A story doesn’t have to be real to be true.”
SFBG: How do you survive financially in the Bay Area as a musician? If you have a day job, I’m always curious to hear about ’em…
SA: I’m fortunate to have a partner with a stable teaching gig who’s very supportive of my music; we’re currently expecting our first kiddo, and I’m probably gonna get to be the stay-at-home papa, which I’m pretty stoked for. I have a few other odd gigs that I do, and I have also spent some time on the dole, for which I make no apologies.
SFBG: What neighborhood do you live in? And what’s the one Bay Area food you couldn’t live without? I love the It’s-It reference in “Tucson.”
SA: I live in the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland. Bay Area cuisine I couldn’t do without? I’m gonna have to go with the handmade noodles at Shan Dong in downtown Oakland. [Ed. note: Fuck yeah.]
With Sparkbox (Kelly McFarling + Megan Keely) and Whiskerman
2/19, 8:30pm, $8
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
Locals Only is our shout-out to the musicians who call the Bay Area home — a chance to spotlight an artist/band/music-maker with an upcoming show, album release, or general good news to share. To be considered, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.