Jessie Ainslie. Credit: Brett Villena

Warka, The Auxiliary, and Uno Dose | Thursday, February 23, 8 pm | Cat’s Cradle Back Room | $10

Ancient Mesopotamian poetry, apocalyptic R&B, and academic second chances make strange bedfellows. For Chapel Hill native Jesse Ainslie, these threads intertwine in Warka, a new project that’s equal parts creative rejuvenation and spiritual reawakening.

It’s a far cry from the old-time country and blues of Ainslie’s childhood and the Americana he cut his teeth on as a guitarist for Castanets and Phosphorescent. Instead, Warka mashes up Tina Turner and the Blade Runner soundtrack, Nick Cave and The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Kendrick Lamar—truly a “new beginning for an old mystery,” as the press release for the forthcoming debut album, Master Chaynjis, eloquently puts it.

“This is not lighthearted, whimsical music,” Ainslie tells INDY Week over coffee at Carrboro’s Open Eye Cafe on a recent warm Friday afternoon. Warka’s roots stretch back through 2020’s early-pandemic haze. Still, the project is suffused with the sincere hope that we can overcome our worst impulses and rediscover our authentic selves.

Living in a wildfire-blanketed Los Angeles in the winter of 2019, Ainslie began experimenting with synthesizers—always, he laughs, considered “a bad thing” in his past rock-oriented circles. He paired that musical exploration with long hours studying the ancient Near East: 100-year droughts in Mesopotamia, palace intrigue among Egyptian pharaohs, and Sumerian iconography.

That December, Ainslie left Southern California for a job in upstate New York. His father, Scott, lived just across the state line in rural Vermont, so Jesse moved in (from “70 degrees to 11 degrees,” he remembers). But Dad’s three-bedroom house was empty; an ace old-time fiddler and blues guitarist, Scott was still touring in those blissful pre-pandemic times.

Once COVID hit, the job evaporated, and Ainslie found himself with endless hours to fill. He sketched Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform scripts, fell down the fertile internet rabbit hole of free ancient-history classes, and holed up in an attic to learn new media and decipher MIDI grids.

“It was an attempt to get better at using this tool I was unfamiliar with but found beautiful—and a quest to unite something essential across time periods,” Ainslie says. He connected the societal upheavals of 2700 BCE that kneecapped major political organizations with the stranded freight ships of 2020 that snarled global commerce and threatened once-stable democracies.

But “people still baked bread, made music, told stories around the fire, and loved one another,” Ainslie says. “Things were OK. They weren’t great! But we survived. We’ve been through worse. We might die, but we can still live.”

He channeled that existential angst into Warka’s first finished songs, writing and commiserating with longtime friend and fellow antiquity enthusiast Brendon Massei. 

“Philosophical thinking can reduce one’s anxiety about global affairs,” Ainslie says. “I paired that with a realist’s caution: What lessons can be learned from the ancient past? What lasts? And what adds to those things that last?”

Such deep thoughts were accompanied by an immersion in 1980s Black pop: Prince, Sade, and Tina Turner. Ainslie realized he was no longer comfortable with the sound—or even the linguistic description—of Americana.

“As a genre, it has a race problem,” he says. “It presupposes white heritage. I wanted to expand my personal understanding of it—and reorient how I produce work in response to that.”

Notating synthesizer scores and mastering sequencer software stumped the longtime guitarist, though, and he decided the time was right to return to college. He’d taken a few classes at UNC-Chapel Hill in the past; moving home to North Carolina in August 2020, he reached out to the Friday Center for Continuing Education, which welcomed him back as a part-time undergraduate in September.

He started as a religious studies minor before declaring as a music composition major, figuring his rock ’n’ roll experience paired with formal training could lead to a teaching career.

“I want to nurture other artists and musicians,” he says. “Maybe give away the things that I’ve acquired.” On “We Got Lucky,” an upcoming single off Master Chaynjis, he sums it up even more beautifully: “We don’t want no afterlife / We don’t want no great beyond / Maybe go to school / Do something cool / Make a living for fucking once.”

Ainslie’s academic journey composing tangos and studying charangas mirrors his work with Warka. A course on Black Atlantic religion helped him recognize the link between sacred Yoruba traditions and diasporic art forms like clave, the rhythmic Afro-Cuban foundation of bossa nova and Latin jazz.

“That fundamental rhythm comes to the New World through the slave trade,” Ainslie says, before becoming Dominican merengue, Brazilian candomblé, and “eventually ‘Hey Bo Diddley’ and ‘I Want Candy.’”

Even more seminal was Tina Turner’s 1984 album Private Dancer, which features instrumental backing from polymathic British rockers Dire Straits. “Tina talks about that period as revitalizing her spiritually,” Ainslie says. “One of the songs is written from the perspective of Nefertiti if she was reincarnated. I’m like, ‘That’s what I’ve been talking about!’”

Jessie Ainslie. Photo by Brett Villena

Those permutations pop on Master Chaynjis, due out in April. Vast reverberations of industrial pop ricochet across “I’m in Love Again,” the first single (appropriately released on Valentine’s Day). Intricate chromatic melodies connect the two-part movement “Things Are Looking Up,” while blown-out beats undergird the dub-style “We Got Lucky.” Meanwhile, scorching guitars on “The Big One” recalls Bruce Springsteen’s supercharged 1980s rock.

It all adds up to a dizzyingly delicious first dish from Warka—digestible, yes, but profound enough to satisfy deep cravings. Master Chaynjis contains theme and variation, articulation, and syncopation. It also slaps, with soaring, sing-along choruses that might surprise anyone familiar with Ainslie’s older work.

“I grew up on Americana,” he says. “But I was a wolf in country clothing, and those clothes just didn’t quite fit.” That complicated past includes eight years of heavy drinking, which culminated in two DUIs and a six-month stint in Durham County Detention Facility in 2015. Ainslie got clean in a jail rehab program, however, and he’s remained sober for the last seven-plus years.

“My internal world changed when I was inside,” he says. “I found myself getting softer and trying to be gentle in this horrible place. The longer I was sober, the nicer I got. I could see how much pain everyone was in—the inmates, but also the people who worked there and spent 50–60 hours a week in jail.”

He recalls a story from his first days free: “I told my friend Dan, ‘I feel like I’ve really changed.’ And he said, ‘No man, you’re just back to the person you were when we first met. You’ve just cut away a thing—you haven’t added something new.’”

Today, Ainslie clearly relishes this fresh path. He’s altered the way he writes, the way he sings in his deep, resonant voice—even the way he plays guitar. “I’m trying to align with the robotic rhythm of the synthesizer without being too perfect,” he says. “I started off going back to R&B. Now I’m going forward into the future.”

Before Master Chaynjis even drops, Ainslie is already looking ahead to a new phase informed as much by a collective spirit as his own self-discovery. Bandmates Brad Porter (drums) and Spencer Lee (bass) have infused Warka’s synth-based sound with their own influences (1960s Stax soul and doom/drone metal, respectively).

“I got into music because I like volume and movement,” Ainslie says, “so it’s refreshing to be in an ensemble and have somebody push you around again.”

He likens it to capillary action—the gravity-defying, photosynthetic push-pull of liquid up through a plant’s roots and into its stems.

“You’re never done growing,” Ainslie says. “With Warka, I’m drawing power and giving it away. I’m opening myself up and refreshing my tank with the feedback Spencer and Brad give me.”

It’s this mutual motion that animates Ainslie the most. “Ever since the passing of Tom Verlaine of Television, I’ve rediscovered my punk ethos,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘What if I’m only talking to one person with my music?’ Tom was the first person who made me feel like I was capable of being in a music scene. And that has changed the way I behave, on stage and on record. What I’m trying to share is my vulnerability so that you can feel comfortable with yours.”

Grinning, he adds, “I’m earnestly falling in love with human beings again.”

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