Canada has proven to be fertile ground when it comes to pop stars — from Drake to the Weeknd to Justin Bieber. The latest to emerge from the suburbs of Toronto is Ali Gatie, an artist of Iraqi descent who recently surpassed 3 billion cumulative streams on DSPs for his 2019 single “It’s You.” Managed by Wassim “Sal” Slaiby and XO, whose roster includes The Weeknd, French Montana and Doja Cat, Gatie’s music is unapologetically romantic and honest, injecting smooth vocals with vulnerability into his songs. It’s an artform rooted in his mother’s love of poetry, passed on to a young Gatie when the two had to share a bedroom.
“From the first time we connected, I knew we had something special on our hands,” says Slaiby of the now 23-year-old Gatie. “It’s very rare to find an artist who understands his global fans at the level Ali does while being true to himself and his craft. Ali is a genuine hardworking immigrant who breaks boundaries with his music and connects everyone with the message of love. I’m so proud to see a young Middle Eastern act like Ali Gatie taking over the world with positivity.”
Warner Records co-chairman and CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck recalls hearing “Moonlight” by Gatie and seeking out the artist behind the song. “After meeting with Ali, getting to know him, hearing more music, it was immediately apparent Ali’s a cut above the rest,” says Bay-Schuck. “He has a natural ability for melody and storytelling in songwriting that you cannot teach. He has the determination, will, drive, and patience to succeed at the highest level. It was abundantly clear he had a masterful understanding of how to market and promote himself, using all of the social and digital tools at his fingertips. We clicked instantly on a creative level, I knew he had to be my first signing after arriving to Warner.”
That was nearly two years ago, so Gatie’s new single “Welcome Back” featuring Alessia Cara, which dropped today, comes with plenty of anticipation. And while Pre-COVID, Ali was slated to perform at Coachella and tour the world, today he’s just arrived in Los Angeles, where he spoke to Variety about music, family and TikTok.
A big part of your story is being Muslim growing up in Canada. What was that like?
Being an immigrant in general in any country is always a challenge. It’s an interesting thing because you have your own culture that your family’s bringing you up with, then you simulate with whatever country you’re in. Where I grew up was multicultural –many Muslims and Asian people — and now that have fans all over the world, I have an appreciation for all their cultures. It’s been a positive thing for sure.
Bring us back to when you were sharing a bedroom with your mom…
Because my parents immigrated and sacrificed so much for me and my siblings, I always want to give back to them. My parents never owned a house in Canada. I’d always tell my mom, “I know we’re sharing a room right now, but I’ll get you your own house one day.” That was always my goal and my dream.
At what point did you realize you could make music for a living?
I started making music in 2016. The first time I went to a studio, I thought, “I could do this; I’m going to be a superstar.” I thought that after my first song. Me and friends said, “We’re going to release this and everyone’s going to hear it.” Obviously that didn’t happen for a couple years, but I always had this insane amount of self-belief. I knew it was my calling [in that] it’s the only thing that came natural to me. I didn’t have to force it or try too hard. I knew if I put in the work, I’d get there.
Who were your influences growing up?
My mom: she’s so hardworking and selfless and puts everyone above her. She’s truly taught me the meaning of love, sacrifice, loyalty, honesty and made me the person I am. Musically, I’ve always been a big J. Cole fan because, branding-wise, what he stands for is similar to me in that it’s very organic. Ed Sheeran’s like that too. They don’t have a front or a character. They are who they are. They let the music speak for their brand, that’s the type of artist I’m striving to be.
Did you think “It’s You” would take off the way it did?
Initially, I didn’t write it as a song. I was making a voice memo to send to this girl to let her know how I feel. About 40% of that song was in there, and I played it back and thought, “This is really nice.” I believed in it. I didn’t know it was going to be the biggest song until I posted it on my Instagram. I had a bit of a fanbase — not huge but I had a following — and it was starting to go viral on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It picked up on TikTok. By the time it came out, it was so viral on the internet — people were leaking the audio and it was getting millions of views. I knew it was a magical song. I’ve had those feelings a few times with songs and usually I’ve been right.
Has she heard the song?
Yeah she heard it. I shot her the voice note as soon as I made it. She’s probably the second person to hear the original song, other than the producer who played the guitar. Once I recorded it, which was a day after, she’s the first person I sent it to. She cried when she heard it. It was a pretty vulnerable thing to say to someone, “Please don’t break my heart.” The song “Running Out Your Mind” is actually about the same girl. She didn’t live where I lived so I wrote it on a plane back home after traveling to see her. I got this melody in my head and had to record it as a voice memo so I wouldn’t forget it. It’s a continuation of after, but same girl.
You were supposed to play Coachella and tour until COVID sidelined plans. How are you adapting to the times?
In the beginning of COVID, I thought I was going to become a Twitch gamer if I started traveling and bought all the equipment. That only lasted a week. It made me realize how much I love music. As much as it’s my job, it’s what I’d be doing regardless of anything. If I was a dentist, I’d go home and make songs after. Hobby-wise, I’m trying to learn to swim right now. I can swim, but I’m scared so I’m trying to work on overcoming the fear, which I’m sure it’ll help me in general.
You have 1.8 million followers on TikTok, what do you like about the app?
I have a special place in my heart for TikTok [because it] broke my song “It’s You.” That was my first commercial worldwide success. I wasn’t on TikTok and didn’t know about it. I’m usually good with that stuff. I’m on every social platform and engaged. But TikTok was my fastest growth. I had to work so hard to get to 1,000 Twitter followers; 10,000; 100,000. Even Instagram was such a grind. But TikTok, I upload a video and it gets 10 million views. It’s awesome, it’s a different community of kids than other platforms. It’s very supportive and they love rooting for the underdog. When I came as this kid who had a song going viral that not many people knew about, they championed me and made sure to give the credit that I deserve, so I love TikTok. You’ll definitely see more TikToks from me. Maybe in the pool, who knows?
How much of a role does social media play in your career?
Social media is everything for me. That’s my distribution, that was my label before I had a label. That’s how I communicate with the people who support me. Without social media, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to be an artist. I didn’t have any connections, I didn’t have anyone in the industry or a manager to help me. All I had was social media. That’s why I’m always replying to people’s DMs, Snapchat, Twitter, liking people’s comments. … It makes me happy to get DMs like, “You saved my life” or “Hey, can I have advice?” Damn, I remember being that person, DMing Post Malone hoping he’d sign me.
How did the collaboration with Alessia Cara come about?
I wrote “Welcome Back” with the great Amy Allen. It was about me but it’s written in a way where you’d think it’s about a relationship, but it’s really me singing to myself. When Alessia came to do a verse and I told her that, she felt inspired. She also wrote it partially about herself. It’s cool because it’s my first feature and she’s such a dope Canadian artist, too. She did an amazing job and really made the song better.
Do you feel like a minority in the industry?
I don’t feel like a minority in the industry, but I definitely am. I don’t know if there’s any other Middle Eastern pop singer. I know Bazzi is Arab, so he and I are in this together. If you look bigger scale, Middle Eastern Muslim kids are definitely not [what] you see when it comes to pop and R&B artists. The industry has welcomed me, the fans have welcomed me. The Middle Eastern Muslim kids have championed me also.
What do you want fans to take away from your story?
To apply it to themselves. When I write my music, it comes from a place of self-therapy and self-healing. I don’t want people to think, “What did he write it about?” I want them to be affected by it and relate it to their life. I want them to use it to heal, to feel better, to laugh, to cry — to hopefully, in the long-term, make people feel better. Make people who don’t believe in love, believe in love. We all need that sometimes, right?