An artist of prismatic creativity, Ariana Delawari has a résumé that reads like a provocateur’s vision quest. She is, at first, a musician whose ruminating, psych-folk creations earned her a fan in director David Lynch after he saw her perform. She is a USC-trained filmmaker whose soulful documentary won her film-festival awards. She is an activist whose life’s passion culminated in a TED talk.
Yet Delawari is humbled by how much she still has to do. That’s why she named her second full length Entelechy, or the Greek word for fulfilling one’s potential. That idea permeates her double album, from the ethereal slow-jam of debut single “Here Is My Love” to the self-actualized incantation of “The Warrior,” about fighting for resolution rather than power.
Born and raised in Southern California, Delawari was exposed to international politics from a young age by her Afghan father and American mother of Sicilian-Afghan heritage. They had day jobs (a banker and film distributor, respectively) but were, at heart, activists. (Her mother, friends with Malcolm X, had also crossed paths with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.) “Every single dinner conversation was about Afghanistan,” Delawari says. “We had political leaders come through our house. Journalists. So many refugees.”
An obsession with Jimi Hendrix’s unhinged, revolutionary sound inspired her to pick up a guitar and create her own music at age 12. That curiosity became a means to powerful expression in high school, after her mother’s breast-cancer diagnosis. “I played the guitar to escape,” she says. “I was in love with my guitar.” Thinking her passion for music was just a hobby, she went on to attend USC’s storied film school, where she studied directing and acting.
That changed after she visited a refugee camp in Afghanistan. “These little girls looked at me with such love. I was standing there, thinking, ‘Any actress can fill a role. A film will get made without me. But this story won’t get told without me,” she recalls. “So I started writing songs about it.”
Those tracks became her psych-folk debut, Lion of Panjshir (its name the moniker of Soviet resistance freedom-fighter and anti-Taliban activist Ahmad Shah Massoud). Lion came to life in 2007 when Delawari and two friends journeyed to Afghanistan to record elements for the album performed by, as she puts it, “the most well-respected musicians in Afghanistan—my elders, the masters of their instruments.” Music was banned during Taliban rule, and artists would protect their instruments by burying them into the earth. Because that regime had just fallen, they recorded furtively, protected by armed guards.
The project inspired her to entwine her two loves: experimental music and evocative filmmaking. The 2009 album was co-produced by talents such as Carlos Nino and mixed by Lynch (whose label released the album), with guest spots from string-arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Flying Lotus, Fitz & the Tantrums), singer-songwriter Robert Francis, and drummer Joachim Cooder (Ry Cooder, Buena Vista Social Club). Arbiters of culture took notice: The New York Times, for one, anointed Lion of Panjshir’s centerpiece track, “Be Gone Taliban,” “a ferocious and visceral piece of agit pop.” Three years later, Delawari directed and released a companion documentary, We Came Home, using footage shot during the making of Lions. The Times responded by branding it “an intimate film” with “achingly beautiful, soul-filled music.”
She screened it around the globe—America, Spain, Somalia, India, Turkey, Kenya, Qatar—and audiences were deeply affected. In politicized Brazil, where she won a film-festival award, strangers would embrace her. In ritzy Newport Beach, Calif., an elderly man tried to congratulate her, but was crying so hard the words wouldn’t come out.
She could relate. “After 9/11, Afghanistan became the wound of the planet. But it’s also my heritage,” she says. “Going into the depths of it, I emerged a person of hope. I could finally embody what I was actually writing about—the peace and the love that I was striving for.” That is what Entelechy is about: being universal by becoming whole.
The album opens with Delawari’s nightingale voice—a golden mean between Joan Baez’s warm soprano and Kate Bush’s intoxicating, otherworldly vocals—ushering us through four explorations of love: the lullaby-like “Heartbreak Love Waits,” the softly sweeping “This Love,” the levitating “Our Love Is Strong,” and “Here Is My Love.” The latter, a percolating mantra, is possibly her greatest artistic achievement on Entelechy.
“I used to write more complicated songs. A friend of mine was like, ‘You know Bob Marley? No woman no cry.’” And it really hit me: Say more with less words.” Simplifying her sentiments became a creative thread throughout Entelechy. “This Love” and “Here Is My Love” were originally one intricate song, until producer Butchy Fuego (a.k.a. electronic artist San Gabriel) convinced her to break them into two. The atmospheric “Your Dream Is My Dream,” chant-like “African Lightning Fire” (featuring Atwood-Ferguson), and the feather-light synthscape “Wonderment” follow in kind. Even the album’s most harmonic offering, “In the Snow” was stripped down to a buoyant, looping beat.
Though filtered, her roots are not forgotten. One half of this double album conjures electronic soundscapes. The other is an earthier version of the same 11 songs, driven by the beats of fellow Afghan-American Salar Nader—a famed virtuoso of the tabla, Asia’s version of bongo drums. Unproduced, it’s a raw, radical rethinking of Entelechy that pleasantly wafts between percussive waltz and levitating tribal beats.
She finished recording the album in late 2015. “But then I started seeing visuals and was like, ‘Oh wow, this is a film. I had been traveling to all these countries and wanted to communicate the message of what I had seen.” The fictional film short, written and directed by Ariana Delawari and produced by artist-curator Nicole Disson (Sleepover LA, THE SERIES), shadows Delawari through a guided, shamanic dream-state. It’s a mystical musical that introduces the album’s themes of spirituality, self-discovery, shifting dreams. It’s also as beguiling as everything we’ve come to expect from Delawari.
“I have friends who are pop stars. And that’s beautiful, because their job is to bring light and laughter and happiness,” Delawari says. “My work is more about opening up the heart and soul. That’s just my path. When I started to write about messages this large, it’s almost like the universe tested me: I have to learn about love on a deeper level than just romantic love. I had to learn about a type of unconditional love that’s taking way longer than we wanted."