Arooj Aftab, Shahzad Ismaily, and Vijay Iyer on Love in Exile

By Arooj Aftab, Shahzad Ismaily, Vijay Iyer, and Shannon Lee
July 13, 2023

When musicians as singularly virtuosic and acclaimed as Arooj Aftab, Shahzad Ismaily, and Vijay Iyer are come together to merge their talents, it can often be a challenge to produce something whose sum is greater than its already enormous parts. Yet the group’s transcendent, self-titled debut, Love in Exile, accomplishes exactly that.

Recorded live, the album is a practiced study in deep, patient listening and its profound effects. Aftab’s characteristically hypnotic vocals thoughtfully apply a series of Urdu couplets throughout Ismaily and Iyer’s carefully paced piano, synthesizer, and bass instrumentations. Preferring the phrase “live composition” to “improvisation,” Aftab, Ismaily, and Iyer masterfully craft an ever-evolving sonic world of tension and space; in many ways, Love in Exile is a maximal group of minimalists.

Steeped in the musical traditions of South Asia, West Africa, and Black American jazz, as a pianist and composer, Iyer has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Grammy nomination, and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award to name just a small few of his many accolades. He has been called “one of the best in the world at what he does,” by Pitchfork. Meanwhile, the New York Times recently deemed multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, “one of music’s most coveted collaborators,” having played on or produced almost 400 records in the last 20 years. Among his long list of collaborators are Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Beth Orton, Colin Stetson, Ben Frost, Bonnie Prince Billy, Damien Rice, and Jolie Holland (again, to name a very small few).

Finally, completing the cypher is Arooj Aftab whose most recent solo record, Vulture Prince made her the first-ever Pakistani artist to win a Grammy (she was nominated for Best New Artist and won for Best Global Music Performance). The youngest among the trio, Aftab’s distinctly powerful, clear voice and musical vision has made her one of the most exciting and groundbreaking artists in the past decade.

This past June, the three took time out of their busy touring schedule to speak with The Amp’s editor, Shannon Lee to share their thoughts on collaboration, working with fellow South Asian artists, and what has made this particular project so special. Love in Exile will be performing at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, NY on July 29th and at the Town Hall on September 14th.

Shannon Lee: To start us off, I wanted to ask a baseline question—how did the three of you meet? What inspired a musical collaboration?
Arooj Aftab: Vijay and Shahzad met each other in a music ensemble called Burnt Sugar.
Vijay Iyer: That was in the early ‘00s.
Shahzad Ismaily: Yep! That’s right.
AA: So they knew each other already. I had met Vijay when we were both part of a show in New York. I played a set, he played a set, and we also played an improvised set together in between. We really enjoyed the direction of that music. Then, Vijay invited me and Shahzad to play at The Kitchen. The three of us playing together really blew our minds; we felt a really great connection and we decided to do a few more shows and continue to grow the bond musically. After about five or six performances, we went into the studio and recorded Love in Exile.
SL: When you were embarking on this collaboration, were there any expectations for what it would sound like? Or was it more of a “let it happen” ethos?

VI: It was mainly that I knew that I could entrust that moment to each of them. I knew that they both had great listening sensibility, a real refined musicality, and a sense of foresight so that when they make contributions to whatever is happening, they’re thinking ahead. They’re thinking about the overview of everything; not just about whether they sound good by themselves.

We all have an intuitive sense of who we can trust in those specific ways as musicians. I just had a sense that this could work but I didn’t really know… In New York, you get thrown together in a lot of different contexts as musicians. Sometimes things stick, and sometimes they’re one-offs. But almost from the first sound we made together, it felt significant. That was a discovery for us; it wasn’t just compatible but it kept giving back to us something substantial. We really wanted to hold onto and cherish that.

“The courage to step out on stage and create without a clear map or plan has come to me from elders. I’ve sort of apprenticed in that way of being and doing from great Black experimental musicians: Butch Morris, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Craig Taborn.” —Vijay Iyer
SL: Can you tell me about the process of recording Love in Exile? Were the tracks written compositions in any way or were they fully improvised?
VI: We shy away from using the word “improvising.” In the west, that word gets used in a way that devalues what’s happening. The phrase that Arooj used in an interview a couple of weeks ago was “live composing.” That gets at something and clarifies what’s happening, which is that we’re building this as we go. It’s creating this entire object from start to finish as it happens, which is not not improvisation, but the word doesn’t quite capture what’s going on.
SL: All three of you have tremendous careers both as solo artists and collaborators outside of this project. You’ve touched a bit on this already but I’d love to know more about if and how Love in Exile has been experientially different.
AA: I personally have not felt this amount of trust and deep listening ever before in my career in this very direct way. Of course, you know of someone’s work, their history, experience, and greatness in music. You go into a room and write something together or invite them into a project that you’re leading… those are some of the arranged ways that great musicians collaborate but this came about so organically that it kind of landed without any design. It felt so powerful. In that way, it’s really different and really special.
SI: I would say that for a very long time, since I was young, there’s been a profound thread of melancholy and maybe also what people would typically label “existential” or a sense of nihilism; you know, typical Sartre kind of broodiness. When I was younger, I listened to bands and music that really allowed me to feel into that space. For my generation, that was U2’s Joshua Tree, the Low records, Red House Painters… it means a lot to me that this band allows for feeling into that same space. I’m speaking for myself—I don’t know if this is the case for Vijay and Arooj, necessarily—but I can push into the poignancy of what it means to choose to be here every day, even when you’re faced with the alarming intensity of it at times. That’s different for me relative to other projects I play in. It’s a kind of desired emotional space that I haven’t been able to perform with or create on stage as strongly as with this band.
VI: The courage to step out on stage and create without a clear map or plan has come to me from elders. I’ve sort of apprenticed in that way of being and doing from great Black experimental musicians—Butch Morris, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Craig Taborn. Where Shahzad and I first link for Burnt Sugar 20-odd years ago was a group led by the great writer and instigator Greg Tate. The ethos was the same there; there wasn’t much by way of repertoire, at least at first. It was more the impulse within a multitude of musicians to create something quasi-ordered and still also have a lot of unknown and unforeseen elements in it. That sensibility of building and transforming simultaneously is, to me, part of the ethos of great Black music. I think that’s where a lot of that sensibility is coming from and what gave me the strength to even attempt this. I think we all have something like that in common; some relationship to that.
SL: I love that the three of you have all articulated this kind of profound and deeply spiritual type of collaborative process. I think when artistic collaborations work this well, it does come from a spiritual bond. Shahzad, you had articulated this sense of existential dread which I think is encapsulated in a way by the project and album’s title,Love in Exile. It’s such an evocative, captivating name. Can you tell me more about it?
VI: It kind of came about from something Arooj blurted out that first time we all played together, which was on stage, in public. I think she felt a sense that she should address the audience to pinpoint something about what we were doing.
AA: * Laughs *
VI: She said a few words about exile and longing, finding hope through love and music… something very succinct; barely a sentence, in fact. But it had all those elements in it. We could probably find it on the Kitchen’s recording! I find that when you’re tossed in front of people and forced to say something, some essence comes out that says more than you expect and has more power and resonance than what you might’ve anticipated. That was my sense, at least! I don’t know what you would make of it.
AA: “Love in Exile” is a title that fits the music very well because it has this aspect of wandering and belonging. It’s also deeply deliberate. It has a lot of intentionality. There’s this growing desire amongst the people of the world, as we continue to diversify all parts of the world, to give space and grace to individuals to define who they are on their own terms. It encompasses all those layers of conversation into just three words. Who doesn’t feel exiled? Who doesn’t feel like they don’t belong or that they have to journey somewhere else to find a better environment for themselves to grow and find love again?

SI: To Arooj’s last point—Who isn’t exiled?—there’s this one book that I read at an important point in my life called Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. She’s one of the most exquisite writers when it comes to describing that moment when you’re in the world and perhaps you’re surrounded by sensible things—like a partner that cares for you and a child, and feeling so much beauty—yet for some reason, deep within yourself, you feel ill at ease. In that way, everyone has the potential to feel exiled; not just the literal, political dissident or migrant which is a heavier form of exiling.

It also reminds me of José Denoso’s Obscene Bird of Night which is another interesting book. In it, there’s a young boy that’s born mute and also deformed. His parents decide that they would buy an old convent and fill it with other people like him and allow him to grow up within those walls. Otherwise, his life will be filled with the feeling of outsiderness and otherness.

When we landed on this title for the record and band, especially with each interview we’ve done, it just hit me further and further to the core and I’m so grateful. A lot of times, with bands, it goes something like: “We’re playing a show on Friday so let’s call ourselves Strawberry Focus!” and suddenly that’s the band name forever. But this is one of those moments where the band name is so profound.

SL: I mean, Strawberry Focus has growing potential.
SI: Thank you! And that’s a good pun. * Laughs *
VI: This might be the start of a new side project.
“Who doesn’t feel exiled? Who doesn’t feel like they don’t belong or that they have to journey somewhere else to find a better environment for themselves to grow and find love again?” —Arooj Aftab

SL: To your points, I think “Love in Exile” works so well because it’s profound both politically and personally. It resonates on so many levels even though, when you first encounter it, it seems like a very simple phrase but it’s one of those things that gets stuck in your head and keeps iterating and offers so much.

I also wanted to ask about what it’s like collaborating with fellow South Asian American artists. Something that’s come up in a lot of my conversations within the AAPI artist community is this feeling of mutual trust and a foundation of understanding; that there are certain nuances of experience that you don’t have to over-explain. I wonder if that’s also something that’s been part of Love in Exile.

VI: The short answer is yes! * Laughs * For me, certainly when I first convened us in that particular ensemble five years ago—I think it was almost exactly five years ago—that was definitely an element. The overall context for it was that Claudia Rankine was holding this series at The Kitchen. Its theme was “On Whiteness.” I was asked to do a week as part of that. My way of inhabiting that space under that umbrella was to explicitly not engage with whiteness whatsoever and to have it be this unnamed haze that surrounded us. I made it about collaborations with other artists of color.

With that in mind, intuitively, I felt like we could roll together. I didn’t know what would come of it, but at the very least, I would feel okay on stage with them. That was the initial impulse. Now having toured quite a bit with these guys, I can say that our ways of being in the world with one another… it’s kind of like hanging out with cousins or something. We can laugh at stupid racist shit at some airport in Switzerland or can detect when a whole bunch of white people are mad at us for existing. We have common ways of neutralizing and processing tension together; working through our experiences in the van or train or plane. We can pinpoint things really openly and that analysis is very healing. Arooj has said this before but being able to be very vulnerable about life story kind of stuff is really special. I remember when we were in Zurich, Arooj was like, “You guys have to protect me! My high school bully is coming to the show!”

AA: Like Vijay said, there’s not a lot of explaining or teaching you have to do. You’re with people who are also aware and are seeing what you see. The hard moments are made easier because we support each other in that way and we all get it. It’s like a family, like you said. Our journeys are common. And the music is also just so great and fun. The impact that we get to make each night with each audience is so palpable and rewarding. It’s a real joy to get to experience that together.

SI: I want to say a couple things. First, I’m beginning to feel with the interviews, performances, and hearing people’s responses to the record, increasingly lucky to have been there on that first night we played together. It was such a roll-of-the-dice. By chance, a musician that Vijay was going to work with that day happened to not be available. He happened to call me and I happened to be free and zipped over.

The second thing I wanted to say is that I think it’s no small thing to remark on mutual understanding and chemistry and it’s not always clear what the source is. But one source may be the recognition of the self in the other—when the sun speaks to the sun, when the moon speaks to the moon. One thing that I’ve appreciated is that we did a few shows and then a bunch of interviews, then a bunch more shows. In that moment during the interviews, there was quite a lot of speaking about chemistry and connection and how the record unfolded so beautifully. So much so that I started to get nervous about the second run of shows because what happens when the unspoken is spoken about? And we have so many exquisite words, particularly in Daoism, about the inability to describe the indescribable and if you attempt to, you might squish it or it may disappear into the darkness as you shine the light towards it. It was so wonderful that for that second, longer run of shows after all of those interviews, it was still there every night. I think that speaks to the similar origin points the three of us share.

“It’s no small thing to remark on mutual understanding and chemistry and it’s not always clear what the source is. But one source may be the recognition of the self in the other; when the sun speaks to the sun, when the moon speaks to the moon.” —Shahzad Ismaily
SL: That sounds so nerve-wracking, especially given the process for this group. That is something that’s really striking about the sound you’ve all crafted. With these kinds of live compositions, for musicians, it feels like there can be an impulse to be everywhere. But what’s beautiful about Love in Exile is that there’s so much deep, thoughtful space. All three of you are very minimal and you can sense the generosity you have with one another.
VI: We talk a lot about the result and the motivation but to me, it’s the way the elements fall together which, as Shahzad was saying, is so elusive to describe. As soon as you try to put words to it, you chase it away. Part of what helps it along sonically is that all three of us have an awareness of not just the compositional quality of what we’re doing but the texture; the sensation, balance, and color of things. It’s kind of what they call the producer’s ear. I think each of us has that in our own way and I cherish it more and more as we play.
SI: That’s true! Arooj as a vocalist deals so subtly with texture just as much as a synthesizer player might. A synth player might be thinking about how dark they want to make the filter, adding white noise, etc. Arooj does that with her vocals. And really all three of us are very texturally subtle players and that’s been really special.
AA: The sonic capacity between the three of us is very harmonious. For me, the voice isn’t really acting like a voice in this context which is very fun for me to explore.

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