Boston Globe, May 6, 2008
Call her Persian. Call her a New Yorker. Call her a rocker. Call her a poet. Even call her a mystic, if you must. But please, don’t call Haale exotic.
The Bronx-born, Iranian-American singer and guitarist, whose debut full-length effort, “No Ceiling,” is set to go down as one of this year’s most memorable releases, may have her feet in two worlds – but so do any number of artists these days. We are living in a time of unprecedented cross-pollination.
And her sound, which first hit the scene last year with two EPs that promptly garnered backers like David Byrne, with whom she has played at Carnegie Hall, draws as much on the psychedelic rock tradition as it does on the devotional poetry of her Persian ancestry.
Tonight Haale (pronounced, her publicity materials helpfully indicate, as in “Hallelujah”) and her band play the Regattabar, an unusually intimate setting for her dense, layered rock ‘n’ roll and a refreshing change-up for that venue’s programming. (The show replaces a Paradise Lounge date that was canceled last month.)
Sung in both English and Farsi, “No Ceiling” is a woozy, swirly little gem of an album, 10 relatively compact tracks, each of which brims with focused energy and sounds much bigger than the often spare instrumentation.
It situates Haale in a particular tradition of female rockers who balance electric-guitar frenzy with the intimacy and alluring elusiveness of poetry. To these ears at least, “No Ceiling” brings to mind the Tori Amos of “From the Choirgirl Hotel.”
“I always get Tori Amos, Patti Smith, and Grace Slick,” Haale says on the phone, listing the connections people hear in her music. She’s happy to embrace the ties. “I like all of them. Patti Smith is one of the great poets and singers of our time.”
And the psychedelic groups of the ’60s and ’70s, like Slick’s Jefferson Airplane, are an avowed influence. “I love that music. I always listened to a lot of those bands.”
In fact, Haale says, growing up as a young American woman in and around New York, she began writing songs in English and very much in the folk-rock vein. It was only later, she says, that she realized the full breadth of her options.
“One day suddenly lightning struck and I realized I had this whole other tradition to dig into,” she says, referring to Persian culture. “It allowed me to work with another palette, another vocabulary.”
Until then, Haale’s Iranian side wasn’t so much submerged as it was contained to family life. She grew up speaking Farsi, but never traveled to Iran. Her parents, both doctors, settled in the United States in 1974 and didn’t visit their homeland until 2000. Haale herself made her first, and until now only, trip back in 2003.
But once she had her revelation, she says, she went straight for Persian poetry – studying not only the classic Rumi and Hafiz poems her mother used to read to her, but also modern poets. She took classical Persian singing lessons as well and began to understand the rhythms.
“No Ceiling” represents all these influences masterfully, thanks in part to a cast of backing musicians who embody the fluid, cross-cultural scene that thrives in New York City. Her principal collaborator, percussionist Matt Kilmer, plays a range of Middle Eastern, African, and Latin hand drums. Some tracks feature multiple electric guitars, and there’s also a cellist.
“It’s kind of a geographic journey, on a spectrum of West and East, or maybe I should say New York and Iran,” she says. “Each song lives at a different place on that spectrum, in terms of the degree to which it exhibits those different [musical] characteristics. Every song is its own little city.”
That’s an apt image. Like a city, each track on “No Ceiling” is indeed dense, with its distinct character and boundaries. Haale’s propensity, in lyrics and conversation, to think geographically makes abundant sense given her bicultural background.
“I enjoy the opportunity to shuttle between two worlds,” she says. “I feel like I have two treasure chests that I can pull things out of.”