Ali Awan has been playing music and writing songs for half his life, as a teenage bassist at West Philly house shows in the punk band Ballistik and later as lead guitar player for touring outfits like Needle Points and Jane Church.
But the 26-year-old rising star on the Philly indie music scene who grew up in Abington, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia has been putting out music under his own name for only a year.
In a short time, Awan has moved quickly. After putting out a string of stellar songs throughout 2018, starting with “Citadel Blues,” he was named artist to watch by adult alternative radio station WXPN-FM (88.5) in January, when he played to a packed crowd at World Cafe Live for a free noon show.
Now, Awan has self-released Butterfly, a seven-song set that showcases his songwriting chops, from bruising garage rock to more delicate folk-tinged soul searchers.
After a warm-up gig at the Ardmore Music Hall last week, Awan and his seven-piece band are headed to Austin, Texas, for the Amplify Philly showcase on March 11 during the South by Southwest festival, along with 215 acts like Strand of Oaks and Killiam Shakespeare. They’ll be back in town on March 29 at Underground Arts.
Awan’s career got boosted quite by accident. One day in February 2018, after he finished working on the clattering “Citadel Blues,” he went for coffee at his usual spot, Penny’s Flowers in Glenside, near where he lives with his father in Abington. Two years ago, he gave up his place in Philly and moved back in with his dad to save money while concentrating on his music career.
“[Penny’s] has a sign on a blackboard that says, ‘Come in for a free rose if your name is _____,' ” he says. “I used to always look, but it was never my name.”
On that day, however, the name was Hayden, so Awan took a picture and sent it to his friend Hayden Sammak, the formidably talented Philadelphia songwriter and balladeer who records as Deadfellow.
The two got to chatting. “Ali sent me ‘Citadel Blues’ when I was on my way out of the studio," Sammak says. "I actually had it on when I was pulling out of my parking space and slammed on the brakes when I heard that car horn in the intro, thinking I was about to get T-boned. After a few listens, I thought Mike V at XPN would really like it, so I sent it over to him.”
On hearing it, Mike Vasilikos, host of XPN’s New Music Show, acted accordingly. “I loved it, loved the vibe of it,” he says. “Ever since, he’s been sending us songs. His progression has been impressive. I know he’s a huge music fan, and it’s cool to see him pull from all different avenues.”
Awan brings a wealth of worldly experience, musical and otherwise, to his art. His mother grew up in Abington after her parents emigrated from Turkey. As an adult, she lived in Ankara, where she met Awan’s father.
The couple moved to America before his birth “so I could get citizenship,” Awan says, and then back to Turkey and subsequently Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as a hotel accountant and his mother as a secretary and artist.
He has happy early-childhood memories from the Middle East of inline-skating in supermarkets and clowning with his younger brother. But by the time he was 7, the family had moved back to Abington, where Awan was raised in a “devout but not strict” Islamic household.
Awan was in third grade when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. “My dad worked in Manhattan at the time,” he says. “I thought I was in trouble when they called me into the TV room.
“I had been the new kid the year before, and after that happened, I was the new kid all over again who would get the side eye. The other kids would get the bacon in the cafeteria, I’d get the mashed potatoes. And then as the years went by, there was this growing feeling that none of these kids really liked me. That feeling was the impetus that got me into punk rock. Looking for another community to get into.”
When he was 13, his parents split up. His mother now lives around the corner in Abington.
“That was court-ordered family therapy, and just being angry for a year. And then I was at a show, and the bass player left, and they needed somebody to play, and it was that classic moment: I’ll do it! Before that, I used to just skateboard after school. And I was a terrible skateboarder. So it was like, finally, I have something else to do. ‘I’ve got band practice, I can’t come out anymore.’ ”
He graduated from Abington High School and did a semester in a music program at Montgomery County Community College, then quit because he felt he had sufficient technical knowledge and was wasting his time and his parents’ money.
The strictly regimented punk scene started to feel limiting to him, so he hung up his studded leather jacket and started listening to the Grateful Dead and Neil Young records that his cool Uncle Mahmut had been pushing on him.
His affection for Chuck Berry, who he admits he had never heard of before seeing the name on Keith Richards’ Wikipedia page, is expressed in his Philly-centic handle on Instagram: jawny_b_goode.
Awan played guitar and wrote songs in the band Wild Joy and eventually started to work on his own material. He names John Prine, Nina Simone, Lou Reed, George Harrison, and David Bowie as favorite songwriters, then, realizing that they’re all either old or dead, comes up with five more that are in their prime: Margo Price, Caroline Rose, Rayland Baxter, Phoebe Bridgers, and the Chicago psychedelic rock band Post-Animal.
For flexibility, he does what many a musician does: hustles in the gig economy. He used to drive for Lyft and now does food delivery for Caviar, which keeps him busy: “It’s college kids from Drexel or Penn who are hungover and want that burger from Rittenhouse.”
He plays guitar in Britt Thomas & the Breaker Boys for Jersey songwriter Brittany Thomas. “If you have the time and energy to be a productive member of more than one group, it’s really helpful,” he says. “I tend to get stir crazy if I’m not in something else.”
Live on stage, Awan and his band are a seven-man gang who can be nimble and sweet on songs like the Butterfly title track but who can also raise a psych ruckus on British Invasion-style rocker “Be A Light,” the inspiration for the $3 branded lighters sold at the merch table.
“It’s like a tribe,” he says. He’s psyched to bring the whole crew to SXSW, including tambourine player Mark Pikulski, who plays percussion but does not sing, in the tradition of Joel Gion, the tambo player featured in the 2004 documentary Dig! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre, one of Awan’s favorite bands.
The songs on Butterfly are full of “a lot of self-reflection,” Awan says. "Every time I sit down to write a song, the challenge I set for myself is: How can I talk about myself without being self-important?”
They’ve been connecting, he thinks, “because when you’re recording songs, writing songs, even playing songs that you didn’t write, and you’re doing it because it’s fun and it brings you out of that day-to-day grind of just existing, there are going to be people that respond. The real job is reaching and finding those people.”
Awan has made serious headway on that front in the last year and is positioned to keep it rolling with the gig at SXSW and then at the NonComm radio convention in Philly in May.
“It’s a great feeling,” he says. “But it also puts it in the perspective of what it really takes. To be stressed out about one or two shows a month here … It makes you realize how much work goes into this thing. Besides it being your vision, you have to be confident and comfortable and trusting. You really got to know yourself better than anybody.”