“Sometimes our most destructive moments and greatest tragedies end up becoming our triumphs,” says Seattle, Washington-based pop-rocker Yusif!, leader of the outfit bearing his name as their moniker. Yusif is discussing his debut, self-titled full-length, which will be nationally released October 9, 2012, a ten-track collection of songs that gravitate to lyrics about love, lost love, internal conflicts and struggles, and emotionally-charged anti-war anthems.
War is something Yusif has seen first hand, as are heartache and love, all leading to an album that is real and from-the-heart, an album Yusif had to live in and live with to create. The journey was long and the tales were often painful. But, the end result is a collection of songs that catapult from melodically-rich indie-folk storytelling to hook-laden pop-rock energy, all with a distinctive, yet memorable base (think Cat Stevens fronting Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, mixed in with a Seattle flare).
Born in Seattle and raised between Seattle and Kuwait, the Kuwaiti-American singer-songwriter lived in Kuwait during The Gulf War. At the age of four, he and his mother soon found themselves separated from his father.
“I was a little kid living in Kuwait during the Gulf War and had to be evacuated with my mom. Then twelve years later I was living in America during the War on Terror. It has been pretty intense to be part of both cultures, especially at a time when 9/11 and the Iraq War were happening and there was such a divide between the cultures,” states Yusif.
The story begins with Yusif returning to Seattle after living abroad for ten years in an attempt to rediscover his musical roots and begin his career as a recording artist.
Yusif just didn’t adhere to the Kuwaiti ideals. More than once his dad caught him in his room, fornicating with girls, which lead to huge fights.
“It’s very, very taboo in Kuwaiti society to have premarital sex,” he informs. “It would be my dad’s behind on the line if the girl’s father found out. He would then want to attack my father – or something like that. It’s a big deal. It’s a very different culture. It’s the girl’s reputation and the girl’s dad’s reputation that gets tarnished, their family name is damaged. It’s a very loving and family-oriented society, that actually values women in ways we don’t in America. Culturally, your extended family is everything in Arabic culture. We value that a lot more there than we do here in the West. People here stress individualism and life is more communal over there.”
The fights with his father furthered his unhappiness in Kuwait. The isolation he was feeling was growing deeper and stronger; he was outcast and bullied in high school because he was very different, with one foot in both cultures. At this point he convinced his parents to let him move back to Seattle and live with his grandparents.
Once back in Seattle, it didn’t go well, as Yusif found himself more isolated, more depressed, and resorting to more drugs and alcohol for comfort. Unable to get into high school due to red tape, he soon found himself attending community college, with hardly a friend in the world. It was there he discovered grunge, Nirvana and Soundgarden. Songs like “Fell On Black Days” really spoke to him.
He would eventually earn his high school diploma from the American School of Kuwait and was accepted into John Hopkins University. Graduating from John Hopkins in 2008, he once again headed back to Seattle.
Packing everything he could fit into his hand-me-down ’87 Honda Accord, he embarked on a solo cross-country trek from Baltimore, Maryland to Seattle. Once there, he quickly began playing the local open mic circuit, becoming a regular on the burgeoning folk-pop scene that spawned the likes of The Head and The Heart and Hey Marseilles.
“I played every open mic in the city, from Trabant to Conor Byrne, to Murphy’s Pub, Blue Moon, Hopvine, you name it,” remembers Yusif. “Sometimes I did two or three in a night, very often I did five or six a week. It was like my job, except I wasn’t getting paid. I remember strumming my acoustic guitar so hard a couple times that I would lose half a fingernail and there would be bloodstains on the inside of my Martin after performances.”
He still has this Martin, and used it on acoustic parts in the recording of the self-titled full-length.
Opening with “Third World Soldier,” a harrowing tale of a mother losing her child in war, with images of battleships and a mother’s love, desperation, and despair at the loss, what was originally written as a piano ballad became a gritty, rough-around-the-edges, and completely raw pop-rock song routed in folk fundamentals. Cutting through pretension, it delivers a bleak, yet anthemic anti-war message with nary a wasted guitar or melody.
“I wrote this song based on the experiences I went through living through the Gulf War. My mom and I were separated from my father for over a year after Saddam invaded Kuwait and my dad got stuck there. I was only four. We get to the states and the first thing my Grandma tells me is that I have a thick Arabic accent!”
While the album has plenty of anti-war and “all you need is love” solutions, the album isn’t without it’s heartbreak. Such is the case with “Underdog,” a light pop-rock number about finding comfort and love with someone only to find out you’re nothing more than a mere convenience to them.
“The song is about somebody that thinks that they have finally found a person to love who is a true friend, but finds out that that’s not what’s happening, that reality is very different from your perception of it sometimes.”
The lost and lonely love song “My Heart Is Yours Forever” finds Yusif treading Tom Petty water with a rich, B3-laced Southern-influenced pop-rock song, while “Reach Out” is the album’s heaviest, hardest hitting track, as Yusif struggles to find himself and his voice in the post-drug-induced world he’s just created.
“I was looking for the answer to getting out of my drug habits and I found them by doing the album,” he says of the full-length, and the lyrical content of “Reach Out.”
“Take Your Love (And Go)” is a hooky, mid-tempo rock song loaded with hooks and melody, telling the tale of a man and woman in lust, constantly breaking up, and finally moving away from each other for the better.
Ending with “Only Fools Know Better,” Yusif delves deep with a soul-searching love song detailing heartbreak, loss, moving on, and trying to find yourself, all delivered in a quirky ballad form – funked out, with it’s heart on its sleeve.
Dubbed “masterfully underproduced” by co-producer Joe Reineke (of Orbit Audio), the result of this ten-track debut is something that is raw, pretty, hopeful, anthemic, and “has a little magic it in.” A lot of that magic comes from Yusif’s unique storytelling and stance on life via his lyrics, especially “Cosmic Symphony,” a song that sums up the album’s underlying theme about spiritual growth and personal development.