When it comes to electronic music, one of the most consistently overlooked aspects to the formula is vocals. The individuals who lend their voice to a track are, more often than not, overshadowed by the dancey, glitchy and – in the case of modern branches of EDM, such as dubstep – monstrous, crashing, gear-and-machinery sounds.
Nadia Ali, the Pakistani-American singer-songwriter from New York (by way of Libya), has taken that typecast and flipped it squarely on its head. Her vocals, ethereal and perfectly suited for the electronic genre, are the only thing as angelic and threateningly beautiful as her looks. But as a woman – more importantly, a solo vocalist – in a genre dominated by machinery, how does she keep up? "It's honestly a double-edged sword," says Ali. "On one hand, I really stand out because I'm a female singer-songwriter. On the other hand, I am also treated as competition to the DJs. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the songs I write and those who listen to it. I've been blessed to have such amazing fans."
Growing up in a very traditional household, it might be an understatement to say that her parents didn't immediately picture her future to be in showbusiness. "It was definitely an obstacle I had to overcome," says Ali. "Like most traditional Eastern parents, mine wanted me to grow up to be a doctor or lawyer. When they saw that I could be successful at making music, I finally won them over. Thankfully, they're my biggest fans today."
An immediate hit in Europe as the songwriter and frontwoman for the band iiO – you'd likely recognize their 2001 song "Rapture" or 2006's "Is It Love?" if you heard them – Ali set off on a solo career adventure in 2005. "It was actually very scary," she says. "I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I wanted to express myself individually. I also received a lot of support from the EDM community."
In the seven years since she's jumped out on her own, she's become arguably the most in-demand vocalist in the EDM genre. In addition to having been nominated (and twice won) awards at the International Dance Music Awards, she had the track "Fantasy" – remixed by Morgan Page – nominated for a Grammy in 2011.
With a studio album, 2009's Embers, and a compilation album, the Queen of Clubs Trilogy (which is more than aptly named), under her wing, Ali is putting the finishing touches on her upcoming release, Phoenix, which is due out this year. "It's going to be a dance album, but definitely not in the traditional sense," Ali says. "I'm working with very talented producers, both in and out of the EDM world, and that mix is adding such a dynamic twist to the tracks. I can't wait for my fans to hear it."
And while many artists and musicians are judged based on their own recorded material, not mentioning the spectacular vocal jobs she's done for countless DJs and producers would be doing a complete disservice to Ali's unmatched skills. Armin van Buuren, BT, Avicii, Morgan Page, Starkillers (whom she will be performing with in Pontiac at Elektricity on 6/22), Gareth Emery, Sander van Doom and more have worked with Ali, which is no small feat. That list of names would send even the most wide-eyed EDM novice into anabolic shock. But Ali's wish list doesn't stop just at world-renowned DJs. "Believe it or not, although there are lots of amazing EDM producers/DJs that I would love to work with, my dream collaboration would have to be with Bono from U2," she says. "I have loved his voice ever since I was a child and he's been a huge influence in my musical career."
Being a clubgoer as a teenager in New York, she dreamed – as many disillusioned music fans do – of having her records played in the clubs. The right connections led her to meetings with the right people, who then set her up with the right artists, which then set her up to be supported by the right DJs and producers. A tightly-wound spiderweb of individuals backing Ali and her abilities has allowed her and her incredible abilities to shine.
Notorious for taking her time with new releases, it comes as no surprise that Ali has been working on Phoenix since late 2010. As with her prior releases, part of the delay was due to her frantic touring schedule. But how does she keep that voice in tip-top shape and keep herself healthy, despite touring like a madwoman? "I'm actually a bit of a health freak," says Ali. "I drink lots and lots of tea, always get plenty of sleep, I don't smoke or drink alcohol, and I try to fit in my girly spa treatments whenever I can."
Ali's vocal style is a combination of the many aspects that make up her life: Middle Eastern influences, a dynamic and charismatic range and pitch, and a very undercover and hidden level of soul. It seems perfectly suited for electronica, and is the absolute most complimentary voice for the often-futuristic and mechanical theme and tone of EDM. And in terms of her lyricism, her songwriting is so raw, beautiful, exposed and vulnerable that it's entirely refreshing and honest. But while her debut album does have its share of ballads, Phoenix will definitely bring the bangers. Conceptually a high-energy dance album, it will bring forth all the things that pulled Ali into the spotlight. And to take the experience one step further, seeing her perform live will be an insight and experience of her incredible musical talents and almost intimidating physical beauty. This is a legend in the making, and it's not something to be missed. | RDW
Nadia Ali and Starkillers with YOS and Veetz • 6/22, 9 p.m. • 15 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac • elektricitymusic.com • 18+ • $10-$15