Ammar Farooki is a singer-songwriter based out of Brooklyn, NY. But his story is much bigger than that. Born and raised in Pakistan, he released his first EP of original songs entitled Songs from the Cave in 2019. It was around that time Farooki with then girlfriend and now wife, Diane Desobeau, made the move to the States to pursue his dream, continuing his writing, recording and of course, playing live. Our photographer Kevin McGann covered his most recent show at NYC’s famed Rockwood Music Hall (coverage can be found here). We sat down with Farooki recently to discuss his background, his influences, and what he has in the works.
So, tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up.
I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan and I spent all my life in Pakistan. My dad was in the army, so we moved around everywhere.
Yes, within. I think I started traveling late in my teens or in my 20’s actually when I started working but before that I grew up in Pakistan and that was my universe. The nature of the military was that we were living in random towns.
Every week we would get in the car and ride and….so it was moving every weekend, and getting in the car and going on road trips was in my blood before I even knew what was what.
I remember it was a blue Datsun my dad had, and it didn’t have a cassette player. Later on, we had a cassette player and there was always music, and my mom jokes how my brother and I became singers at the expense of her ears.
What were your earliest musical influences? Was it more local/traditional music, music from the States, or a mix?
I’ve always been listening to a lot of music that was both local and rock. Rock has been somehow my main draw since I was a kid. So even growing up in Pakistan, listening to local Eastern music because it was always there but somehow, I think because of the writing and I used to write in English, I was pulled towards English songs and rock in the English language, be it British or American. And I was five when I heard my first Springsteen song and so there was always Springsteen, and my dad loved Elvis and the Beatles and the Carpenters so he had those cassettes. And those cassettes we used to listen to over and over.
When I picked up the guitar I think it started with a Springsteen cover. And I was like, if I can play “Thunder Road,” if that’s the only song I can play (laughs).
Ammar Farooki (photo by Kevin McGann)
When did you decide to move to the States? What was the main motivation?
There was always a fascination with New York. We were like a very academic family. My dad was in the army, my grandfather was in the army. My other grandfather was a judge in the high court, so it was a very career oriented setup. Mom was a school teacher who set up her own school, like a hardcore educationalist and educator. And everything was like, it has to be about the career. You have to get things right before you start fucking around with other hobbies.
In 2012 I wrote my first song while I was in business school. So, I did my Masters, went back and started working in marketing. I was working with a development firm, and I was working on like World Bank and all these agencies and I was doing development work in Pakistan. But by this time, from like 2012-2015 I had written like 15-20 songs and only played them to a handful of friends. And one of my friends, my bestie Farhad Humayan, who I really respected, was a rockstar back home. Like a huge star who gave me the time of day, heard my songs and was like “What are you doing with your life? These songs are important. You need to stop being a banker or whatever you’re doing and be a musician.” So, I was thinking about it, how I could do that, and that leap of faith almost took a few years. The funny thing is, that same friend pushed and pulled me onto this path of music, he made me my first music video. I think these people show up in your life for a reason. And so, he recorded my first song which was “Caveman.”
And then it was like, he kind of infected me like, dream bigger. Like nothing’s impossible. “Let’s go to New York” he’d say, “set up shit. I’ll be there, let’s play Madison Square Garden.” And I got here, and right before I came, he got diagnosed with cancer. And when I got here, within a year or so he was gone. So that’s one of my best friends who kind of almost pulled me from another life. He reconfigured my trajectory, set me on a different course and was like the single most motivating factor.
For somebody to see you and somebody that you respect and tell you this is more important than any of the other shit that you can do? So, that is the long and short answer.
What was the first show you played in NYC?
It was at the West End Lounge
Where is that?
It was Upper West Side and it also happened to be the first place where Patti Smith played her first show. But the pandemic killed it.
You’re working on a new album, yes? Tell us a little about it.
In terms of songs coming out because there’s a catalog. So, what I’m doing is, my first EP was five songs. Then I put out a single called “Inside” during the pandemic, so that’s six songs. And then there are about 31 other songs. So what I’ve done is, the earlier songs which are like love songs I’ve kind of clustered together as my third album. So, it’s not chronologically based. The sweeter songs will come later. Somehow there was a body of work in songs I was doing like “Blind Man” and “Faithful” and “Fools” so it’s like….
It’s more thematic.
Yeah, yeah it’s more thematic and it’s perhaps my most political writing in terms of “Faithful.”
What about sonically? Will there be a difference between the sound on the second and third albums?
The second album is heavier, and because it’s thematically heavier it also begs for a particular sound. I wouldn’t say it’s like all out rock. I still swivel between rock and folk, I love my rock and folk because I’m lyrical, like lyrics are very important—the bedrock.
This (second) album is going to be heavier and denser and more electric.
Ammar Farooki (photo by Kevin McGann)
In terms of working with your wife Diane, how is it working together both personally and professionally? Is it ever hard to separate the two?
It’s funny how, like I feel very fortunate with the relationship that we’ve built and that we are constantly building. Like we’re very close and we share a lot of interests and passions. And musically when I started playing music, Diane and I had just met a few months before and she was like “I used to play the piano a little growing up” and then she was playing a rock show for like 300 people and she rocked it.
She also didn’t imagine we would move so quickly and play so regularly. But over the years, I feel like I really like her decision making as well. There is a finesse to her classical music education. I never had a musical education so I can write a song and take basic song structures. But now in Diane I have this mirror where I can like, okay this is a song, let’s play it on the piano and she can add a little sophistication to it based on the way she’s playing it.
It there a tentative release date yet for the next album?
Because there’s so many songs, all my fellow musicians are saying, from a musician’s perspective they’re like forget albums—throw singles. Keep throwing singles every month for a year. That’s one approach. But I feel there’s something about a body of work and something that is thematically cohesive, that is conceived and written together. And I do love listening to records, like especially if you listen to records (vinyl), that’s a very beautiful, like throwback, unique—you make time to listen to something.
So, the album is intended for later or post, I would say later in the year. What I want to do is release singles right up until the album.
Any parting thoughts?
My parting thought is….it’s quite devastating to lose someone you were extremely close to in their prime. Anyway, he [Humayun] gave me a life lesson in his parting that maybe my grandfather or older people passing away didn’t affect me. And there’s been so many people. I’ve lost teenage friends in like bike accidents and things like that. But, in a way my friend leaving on that note, with two albums in the works, immediately put an urgency to my body. Like I also realize I don’t want these songs to just be here (inside me), or on my phone. So, there’s like an urgency now to the mission of getting these songs out.
Ammar Farooki (photos by Kevin McGann)