Azita has more to say and more ways to say it 

Categories: Chicago Reader

For Glen Echo, her first album in more than eight years, she played and recorded every instrument herself.

By Mark Guarino

The first time you see “If U Die,” the new video from Chicago singer-songwriter Azita Youssefi, it might take you a minute to realize that the colorful rock band you’re watching is actually four matted-together versions of a single person. It’s Youssefi in every role: the shaggy, smiling bassist, the bespectacled guitarist wearing a red realtor blazer, the blonde lead vocalist in blue eye shadow with a scarf at her neck, and the cool, denim-clad drummer hiding behind shades.

None of the characters reveals anything about Youssefi personally, except perhaps her expert sense of show. But the video is more than a visual joke; it’s a reflection of the multifaceted musicianship she’s developed in real life. On the new Glen Echo, her first album in more than eight years (released this Friday by Chicago label Drag City), she plays every instrument herself—and she learned the drums only a year before she recorded those parts. A full-band album that consists exclusively of synced-up tracks of Youssefi herself demonstrates not just her dogged commitment to doing things her way but also her ability to pull it off.

“She decided she wanted to play everything, so therefore she just learned how to be a drummer, which is kind of amazing,” says Mark Greenberg, who mixed Glen Echo with Youssefi. She recorded the album at home, so no other engineer is credited. “That’s the same all the way through—her whole body of work is willed into being in a really strong way.”

It’s been 30 years since Youssefi formed her first band, the Scissor Girls, with drummer and childhood friend Heather Melowic and guitarist Sue Anne Zollinger. Their noisy art-punk trio immediately attracted a following in the underground scene that had emerged in Wicker Park, then just beginning to gentrify. In 2003, after a few years playing in marginally less abrasive rock group Bride of No No, she launched her solo career with the Drag City album Enantiodromia. Her impressive body of work since then—which includes five more full-lengths, counting Glen Echo—has established her as an artist comfortable moving among accessible pop tunes, introspective piano-driven singer-songwriter fare, and no-wave freak-outs without anything sounding like a genre exercise.

Thomas Comerford, the musician and filmmaker who produced the “If U Die” video, says he’s always been impressed by Youssefi’s “serious chops,” but to his ears, the “poetic sensibility” of her vocal phrasing and lyrics elevates her performances beyond virtuosity. “I’m compelled by how she combines these elements in the making of her music,” he says. “It’s a style that’s totally her own. She’s able to cast a spell when she performs.”

Youssefi doesn’t seem as impressed by the distinctiveness of her own style, though. She says that as she’s gotten older she’s become more invested in communicating through the songs themselves, rather than through what she in particular brings to them. That’s a dramatic departure from her earliest days onstage, when she maintained a disorienting, confrontational persona and often wore raccoon makeup or attention-grabbing costumes, such as a bubble-wrap two-piece or a stylized white burka.

“If you hear a Nina Simone song, you’re paying attention to the performance,” Youssefi says. “For me, I want a song to be a thing where a person can picture themselves singing it. It’s not about watching me singing it—it’s the idea of a song that’s powerful enough that another person feels like it’s about them.”

Youssefi was born in the U.S., but her family soon moved to the Iranian capital of Tehran, where they lived till she was eight. Her parents, both native Iranians, were medical students, and they’d begun their residencies in stateside hospitals before the move. Once the family settled in Iran, Youssefi attended the Tehran American School, which primarily served children of American diplomats and businesspeople. Because she looked Iranian and was more comfortable speaking Farsi than English, she was frequently targeted by her white peers—even though she was as American as they were. “Kids made fun of me because my English wasn’t great,” she says. It was her first encounter with stereotypical “ugly Americans.”

The Iranian revolution, which replaced the country’s monarchy with an Islamic theocracy led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had been bubbling up in pockets of unrest for more than a year by the time it forced her family to flee in early 1979. Months earlier, Youssefi’s school had been bombed during Christmas break, and she can still remember seeing a masked man from the window of her house who was standing across the street with a machine gun.

Today, the experience makes Youssefi sad for her parents’ home country as well as for her own. She knows firsthand how a cultural movement can descend into chaos and violence. Even before last year’s armed protests on the steps of the Michigan capitol building and January’s deadly riot on Capitol Hill, she was familiar with such images of insurrection.

“There was an economic revolution, and that was co-opted by hard-core, right-wing, theocratic revolutionaries. It’s like if Bernie Sanders took over and everyone making it happen was leftist, but then the next day the Tea Party takes over—that’s sort of what happened,” Youssefi explains. “That’s why I’m not a very revolutionary-minded person. Because what happens the next day? Who has the guns?”

The family quickly uprooted their lives and returned to the U.S., where Youssefi enrolled as a third-grader in an all-girls school near Washington, D.C. Her parents largely stayed silent about what was happening back home, and it never became a topic of conversation. Neither did conditions in Iran before the revolution. “When you look at pictures of Tehran at the time, it’s beautiful and progressive, but also unequal,” Youssefi says. “I never talked to them about it.”

The Iran hostage crisis began in November 1979 and dominated the news for months. Iranians were disparaged in the media as terrorists, and Youssefi once again found herself ostracized at school. Her disinterest in strict adherence to traditional Iranian norms also caused frequent strife at home. “I was the cause of a lot of the family drama,” she says. Her parents had split up by the time she started high school, and her mother, Nancy, largely raised Youssefi and her younger sister after that. Thankfully she had her mother’s support—Nancy was a cosmopolitan Iranian woman who followed fashion and pursued a full-time career as an obstetrician and gynecologist, and she served as an important role model. “She was never having the patriarchal shit,” Youssefi says.

By her freshman year, Youssefi had started going to punk shows around D.C., especially at the 9:30 Club. At around the same time, she quit the piano lessons she’d started taking in third grade. A life in music seemed like an improbability: her parents weren’t active listeners and didn’t own records, and as far as Youssefi knew, nobody else in her extended family was musical either. She learned about the Beatles from her Polish nanny, who showed up with two greatest-hits albums on eight-track. “That was something I absorbed every ounce of,” Youssefi remembers.

In 1989, Youssefi moved to Chicago to study painting at the School of the Art Institute. She found out quickly that she wasn’t motivated to pursue an art career. She switched her focus to sound and drawing, and when she started the Scissor Girls, that helped too. Youssefi says she has no memory of how she learned to play bass guitar: “What happened? It blows my mind,” she says. “Someone must have shown me something, because there’s no way I figured it out on my own.” She’s similarly hazy about the band’s origins, though she remembers they practiced in the basement of a bathhouse on Division Street.

This past December, California reissue label Jabs reissued the Scissor Girls’ 1992 demo on vinyl. Youssefi says she has trouble listening to the band today because it sounds so “crude and raw,” like someone just trying to figure things out. But she’s still able to enjoy a bit of nostalgia for Wicker Park in the 1990s, which was dominated by storefront theaters, cafes, and little bars—not chain boutiques, luxury SUVs, and tourists. “Everyone I knew lived several doors from each other, everyone’s flyers were up promoting shows . . . it was an amazing time,” she recalls.

The Scissor Girls split up in 1996, and in 1999 Youssefi became one-fourth of Bride of No No. She found that during her alone time, she was once again sitting at the piano. She entertained herself by relearning the Debussy and Bach compositions of her youth, and soon that evolved into figuring out a new process for writing songs on piano. Then came piano-and-vocal demos and solo performances of new songs around town. Enantiodromia was the first full-length from this project, which Youssefi called simply “Azita.”

The album’s lean and melodic piano arrangements place the focus squarely on her unforced, slightly theatrical vocals. The arrangements have a whiff of avant-jazz flavor, because her band includes cornetist Rob Mazurek and two members of Tortoise, guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer John McEntire. The obvious comparison is to golden-age 1970s singer-songwriters such as Laura Nyro or Harry Nilsson. Ryan Murphy, head of sales for Drag City and an early advocate for Youssefi, says he was struck by what a stark departure Enantiodromia was for her at the time. For the first time, she’d released something that had the potential to reach a wide audience—but he says that’s something Youssefi herself often resists.

“That’s been a constant concern of ours from the very beginning,” Murphy explains. “Enantiodromia had tunes on it that felt very poppy, that could appeal far outside the realm of the Scissor Girls and Bride of No No. I hear a real original voice using some of the vernacular of classic pop songwriters. But because it’s Azita, she doesn’t see things that way. She can’t perceive herself in those realms.”

Streaming and other digital music platforms have made the job of marketing Youssefi much easier. Sites that provide some form of curation or employ internal navigation tools, including Spotify and Bandcamp, are designed to draw in adventuresome listeners open to discovery. Connecting an artist with an audience in this context is much easier for a label than trying to convince media gatekeepers in a top-down system to endorse something they may never have heard.

“With someone as uncompromising as Azita, you have to put music in front of people and play it and have them decide for themselves, because this is the kind of music people who decide for themselves will respond to,” Murphy says.

Glen Echo is primarily a guitar-pop album, with echoes of the Police and Built to Spill. But it’s also a deeply personal collection of songs, drawing on images from Youssefi’s past and the anxiety she feels living in the present. One of the catalyzing events was her mother’s death in early 2016, when Youssefi was deep in the songwriting. She spent some of that year packing up her childhood home near D.C. and, she says, “dealing with things with my own history.”

You can hear echoes of that time in album closer “Don’t,” the only solo piano song on Glen Echo. She seems to be addressing herself, insisting that she feel her own emotions: “As you are slipping away / Don’t shut down,” she sings. “Don’t fight it / Don’t make it go all quiet.”

Youssefi developed some songs by playing around with guitar riffs; others originated on piano, but she later transferred them to guitar. She recorded herself on her four-track as she worked, and over time, she started liking the results—she realized that her method was capturing small nuances and idiosyncratic moments that would be lost if she handed off the songs to a band to rerecord. “I could tell someone to make it smoother and tighter, but what’s cool about it is an angularity and a quirkiness,” she says. The obvious challenge was adding drums. She wasn’t a drummer, and she didn’t want to bring in another musician. That meant she had to learn.

Greenberg mixed Youssefi’s home recordings with her at the Loft, the recording and practice space that Wilco maintains in Albany Park (he’s the band’s studio manager). He says she made the right choice, based on what he heard on those tapes: performances with personality in every note. “It didn’t seem right to quote-unquote ‘fix these parts.’ Because it’s so Azita,” he says. “I didn’t want to erase her from it. It could have been the same record in its presentation, but it would have been way less Azita and way more boring.”

Greenberg sees Glen Echo as a record that would lose its power if subjected to a perfectionist studio treatment. “The eccentricities are not extras that are sprinkled over everything; they are at the heart of everything,” he says. “I’m glad she knows that. But I’m also glad that she, in some ways, can’t hear it. She’s kind of like the spider making this beautiful web that we all can see, but to her, she’s the spider just making a web. I was constantly reminding myself to honor that.”

The music’s unexpected twists and odd gestures keep it thrilling, even after multiple listens. Youssefi often extends words or phrases to make them flicker longer for maximum impact. The chugging rocker “Online Life” isn’t just about how social media is rewiring our brains, but also about how our complacency is letting it happen: “Everyone’s outraged, but on the plus side,” she sings, “No one is keeping score.”

The album’s raw, basement feel parallels its midnight anxiety. “Bruxism” introduces heavy guitar riffs and hand claps that create the feel of racing down the street—or racing around inside your own brain. “I’m OK at slow, can’t think too fast,” Youssefi sings. “White light comes, obliterates / Everything in its path.”

The cover of Glen Echo uses a photo of a shooting gallery at a Maryland amusement park of the same name. The park was for whites only until the civil rights era, and though protests led management to integrate it in 1961, by the end of the decade it was shuttered. Youssefi sees the park’s downfall as a parable for modern times: something wonderful that’s ultimately destroyed because white people in power refuse to share it with everyone, particularly Black people.

Youssefi says that because she learned early in life what it was like to live simultaneously in two worlds—as an insider and an outsider—she had no trouble anticipating the dangers that the “America First” mindset would create for people who never were allowed through the gates in the first place. It’s a kind of toxic nostalgia for a country that never existed—an attempted erasure of entire demographics. “What it really is, is bullshit—the failure to have the energy to look at things clearly,” she says.

Thankfully Glen Echo delivers its own clarity: that pop music sounds more alive when it’s rougher around the edges, and that it’s far more compelling when it’s searching for truth rather than presuming to deliver it. As people grow older they tend to see answers to life’s questions as less definite and more ambiguous, and the music they make can mature in the same way.

“I’ve had a problem for a long time that rock ‘n’ roll is only supposed to express the feelings of teenagers. To me that never made any sense,” Youssefi says. “A friend of mine said it would be too hard to describe something more nuanced in a pop song. I don’t think that’s true. I have far more material now than I had when I was 17.”



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