London-via-New Jersey artist Baba Ali arrives today (Friday, 27th August) with debut album ‘Memory Device’; a love letter to a sprawling expanse of three-decades-worth of influences, including his formative years spent immersed in vintage hip-hop and, more recently, UK grime. Wilfully rallying against any form of expectation, it’s a first step in setting out his – along with collaborator Nik Balchin’s – stall as forward-thinking ones to watch. Give the album a listen below, and get to know Baba Ali a little better too.
Hello! How’s it going? What have you been up to today?
Hello. I am doing very well. I’ve spent the day putting together some mixes for music to go alongside the release of our new album. It is kind of humorous to me that the big idea to promote a body of work containing songs you’ve made is to give people another body of work containing songs you didn’t make.
Anyway, now I am talking to a Dork.
What first sparked your interest in music, and how did you make the transition from listener to creator?
For some reason, my dad really encouraged me to take piano lessons when I was seven. When I turned 15, I got my hands on some cheap DJ decks and a loop sampler. My piano teacher found out about this and decided that we’d shift our lessons to listening exclusively to The Beatles, who used a lot of tape loops and studio effects in their most memorable work. That was a real turning point because hearing The Beatles and also having someone with the knowledge to explain how the sounds were created, sparked a curiosity in me that led to me seeking out all I could about recording techniques while trying to emulate the music I liked with whatever tools I could get my hands on. Essentially, that’s what I’m still doing to this day.
Can you remember the first song you wrote? How has your music evolved since then?
I can’t say I remember the first song I wrote, but I definitely can remember the first time I ever recorded a song, which was on a dictaphone tape recorder that I bought for $20 at Radio Shack. I’m pretty sure it was a rap track where I made the beat on FruityLoops and played it back off the computer and held it close to the dictaphone while I did a little rap at the same time.
Very crude, but very enlightening. Probably not to my roommate at the time, though.
Do songs find you, or do you have to find them?
Working on music is a daily habit, so it definitely feels a lot like I’m searching for the songs. But I think songs are also just out there looking for the right person to present themselves. When the good stuff comes, it always feels like a surprise. When the process isn’t surprising, that’s usually a sign to me to keep searching until it gets surprising again. A song on our ‘This House’ record was literally in my mind in different forms since I was a teenager. Whereas the chorus for ‘Nuclear Family’ off this record first entered my mind, ready to record straight away.
What’s been the highlight of your time as a musician so far?
That’s hard to answer because there have been a lot of great memories so far… think headlining Mercury Lounge last year in New York was a pretty big moment, mainly because it was the first show back in NYC since I’d moved to London in 2016.
Working with Jamie Hince was also pretty wild since I’d pretty much made that suggestion to my manager as a “when pigs fly” option. And then a few months later me and my guitarist Nik were in LA working with him. So the lesson is: aim high, kids.
How did you approach creating your debut album? What was your starting point, and what’s it about?
The starting point for this album was probably late 2019. But then the pandemic forced us to re-jig things… perhaps for the best. We are constantly working on new songs, and so our circumstances can really influence what we are creating. The bulk of the album was written in Autumn 2020, although a couple of songs date back to 2019. Because of this, we were keen to record the album in the same place, with the same people, in the same timeframe. Originally the plan was for Al Doyle to produce a few songs, but he was quickly on board to work with us for the whole journey, and so that was perfect for us. His assistant engineer also makes a great whiskey sour.
Did you come up against any unexpected challenges during the record’s creation?
You bet. Al wanted to put French horn on just about every song… it was infuriating. Just trying to get a French horn off someone is pretty dangerous stuff since it doubles up as a very effective murder weapon. Apart from that, recording and mixing an album in the midst of a winter lockdown in London can throw up some bleak challenges. It did mean we really had to hunker down in the studio, and I reckon for album two, we will probably have to record in Portugal, or on a Greek Island.
Where do you hope the album will take you?
To Japan, to Mexico, to Glasgow. The places we haven’t been to play yet. I think one of the best parts of doing this is touring, which gives us the privilege to travel and see new things and meet new people. Getting out of London can be just as exciting as being here.
What do you do for fun?
Nik and I are avid people watchers. So we enjoy public places with a good spot to perch, and people watch. Usually a decent seat in a bar, coffee place or a park bench. En route to Leeds recently we found a brilliant spot in a motorway service to observe the travelling masses. People are often at their funniest and most interesting when they don’t realise anyone is watching them.
Is there anything else we should know?
There is probably an infinite amount of things we should know. For now, I’ll reveal a little secret. If you go listen to our song ‘Black Wagon’ backwards whilst in a public sauna, you will actually find out what my pin number is. Don’t spend it all in one place!
Baba Ali’s debut album ‘Memory Device’ is out now.