Screen + Sound + Stage
Text by Akhil Sood
Photographed by Ben Rosser
How did your journey in music begin?
Everybody from my family has studied Carnatic classical music. And they’re just deep lovers of every style of music. My grandmothers on both sides have been musicians. My sister and I were always immersed in music at home – my mum started teaching me singing when I was maybe three or four. Then my grandmother was my teacher. As I got a little older – I must have been eight or nine – I started studying with Bombay Lakshmi Rajagopalan.
I was always interested in music from around the world and wanted to hear what else was out there; listening to music was my way of travelling and understanding different cultures. Whenever anyone travelled anywhere outside of India, or even within India, I would ask them to bring me back cassettes.
I discovered jazz in my early teens. When I was in junior college, I was introduced to Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. My mind was blown. All music to me is the same, in a way. But it’s just a different language of understanding, so I knew I needed to strengthen my grammar.
I tried working with different gurus and eventually found mine. I’ve been studying with Sunil Borgaonkar [a Hindustani classical singer] for almost two decades. I needed to find the type of guru that I could deeply respect and who could also help me understand life through music.
You also had a brief stint in Bollywood. How did that turn out?
I was working with a production house in Mumbai in the early 2000s. Someone heard me humming at my desk, and they were like, “Hey, you sound really good”. They asked me to sing a jingle. That’s how I started singing for TV commercials and doing voice-overs. I was also singing with a bunch of bands in the city on a very small scale.
It was limiting, and it became clear that if I wanted to make a profession out of music, the only way was to do playback. I got a couple of offers, and I was very lucky that it happened the way it did. But – I’m going to choose my words carefully here – it wasn’t something that attracted me. This was a different time. Today, in Bollywood music, the quality has skyrocketed. It’s opened up to composers of different styles, and it’s more diverse. Back then, in 2004, it was very closed off and fad-oriented.
The whole experience was not enjoyable to me. It didn’t challenge me in the ways that I was hoping to be challenged; it didn’t require so much of my artistic ability. I was a bit disillusioned. Everybody would advise me to just keep going and say that once I become famous, then maybe I could do something on my own.
Photographed By Ben Rosser
How did you make the shift away from the Indian music industry?
I had an offer to sign a big contract with a label in early 2008. But around that time, my friend and future business partner, Ram Sethu, who used to build music composition software, was working with these incredible artistes like Roy “Futureman” Wooten and Victor Wooten. He sent my music to Roy. A couple of days before I was about to sign that contract, Roy Wooten called me out of the blue. My jaw hit the floor! We immediately hit it off. He was touring India, and he asked me if I’d tour with him. He said that there was going to be very little money, but I quickly agreed to go on this wild ride. A lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing at that point; I don’t think I did either. But my heart was intuitively telling me that this was the right thing for me. Soon after that, I collaborated with him again in Nashville.
How did you make it to New York?
That experience, in Nashville, definitely opened my mind up to the direction I would take in the future. I was going back and forth between Nashville and Mumbai, with a brief stint in London. I was studying acting, playing music, collaborating with different artistes; I was actively building my profile because I wanted to go to New York and work in the music industry there. Eventually, in 2013, I applied for my O-1 visa [for individuals with an extraordinary ability or achievement] and moved for good.
Photographed By Francoise Lebeau
How did Periphery come about? It has a stylistically fluid identity, encompassing a range of styles and sounds – it feels like an ambitious and thoughtfully crafted record.
In 2019, Max ZT [on hammered dulcimer], Dave Eggar [on cello] and I were performing at a benefit concert in Manhattan. David Chesky, the owner of Chesky Records, was also there. Chesky really liked what he heard, and he reached out to say that he’d like to sign me for a record, maybe with a quartet. He said it’d be a live recording with a minimal set-up and no EQ compression or effects in post-production. That it’ll be very raw, using their advanced recording technology. I was very curious; I love seeing how technology can meet music and art in different ways.
It was very daunting because the recording date was already set. And it was going to be in an abandoned church in Brooklyn. Just the set-up would take an entire day because it had to be very precise. We were all travelling as well, so we had minimal time to write the album. I didn’t know how we were going to pull this off. They suggested that we do rearrangements of folk songs from around the world. But I felt the need to write something new. We ended up writing the entire record in 12 days – and documenting it live without having the lived-in experience [of being played live to audiences regularly] felt like taking a big chance. But these are incredible musicians who I trusted deeply, so I knew it would work out.
What was the idea behind writing the songs?
I wanted to write music keeping in mind the technology as well as the architecture of the space. One of the main things that the technology does is bring the space alive. You can hear all the nuances; you can “hear” the three-dimensional space. I’m a big fan of Björk and the three-dimensional experience that she offers, and I’ve always wanted to explore sound in that way.
You have to study so you can collect a wider, broader set of tools – compositional skills, thought process, all of that. You have to go deep, learn the theory. But then when you perform, it’s intuitive. There are no rules that could guide you to connect with someone in that emotional space. When you perform, you have those tools so embedded in your system – like muscle memory – that you don’t have to think about it. And you perform from a place of raw, deep, honest and vulnerable emotion.
A couple of the songs, like Cocoon and Des, are 100-per-cent improvised. We didn’t even practise them. And Sanware Sanware wasn’t even supposed to be on the record. Chesky had heard me sing that song somewhere and wanted it on the record. Chuck Palmer [percussion], Will Calhoun [drums] and Eggar hadn’t heard the song. It was an on-the-spot thing. We left lots of space for improvisation, for the magic of now – of the moment. Those are the chances one takes. With improvisation, it could either be magic or very easily go the other way.
Photographed By Radhika Chalasani
What was it like recording in the church? Live recordings can be an especially challenging process, and you have spoken before about the innovative recording concept in place.
It’s all done on one microphone with no takes. The placement of the instruments, the mic placement in reference to the space, the dimensions of the location – all of that became very important. Every instrument responded to the space differently. If I moved around, the space would reflect my voice differently in different parts. It was all about being very present and allowing the architecture to collaborate with us. So you can hear all that. We had to keep most of the percussion very minimal because of the reverb. So it was mostly just a jhadu (grass broom)….
An actual jhadu?
From an Indian store. Just, like, three-dollar jhadus!
You seem comfortable across genres and able to effortlessly switch styles in your singing.
I wouldn’t say I was switching styles at all. I’m wary of terms like “fusion”. That type of approach still keeps things separate. That’s not the idea; it’s the opposite of what the intention is. If the styles are all coming from me, I’m the one connecting them all. It’s coming from my understanding of all the cultures that have lived within me. So when it comes from that place, everything makes sense. They seem organic. The music and the song dictate how I present it. These are all tools, like I said, and it hinges on how I express myself in that moment. Immersion is key.
What are some of the themes that you’re singing about?
It’s an introspective journey. Because of the way I grew up, I’ve been asking myself: who am I? I was born in Chennai and lived in Mumbai. Once I left India, I was an “Indian”. Now, I am living in a place like New York, surrounded by musicians from around the world who’ve each had this journey. Then, in that backdrop, there’s the anti-immigrant rhetoric here in the US. I thought that maybe if I stay completely 100-per-cent true to myself and try to be fearless about it, maybe anyone who listens to my music can hear that and feel empowered to also do so, in their own way. This was my healing process. The recording itself was such a cathartic experience for all of us. We recorded straight from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I was questioning myself. Why am I always feeling this sense of displacement? Where is “home”? And what does home even mean? Is it a construct? Is it a place? Is it people? Is it community? Is it me? Is it within me? Is it stillness? A lot of the lyrics came from there. I think I answered myself by the end of the recording – I figured that home is definitely within me. Home is stillness, being able to embrace myself.
There is one song, The Banyan Tree, which was a different exploration, addressing a different trauma. I would say it’s a love song for survivors, without getting into too much detail. I co-wrote the lyrics with the amazing Joan Morgan [author, journalist], a sister and godmother of the hip-hop feminist movement. It was a challenging place for me to dive into, but I committed to it. So to have her hold space for me during that time was very important. We wrote the song together, and it was a really powerful experience.
Photographed By Radhika Chalasani
What was it like being nominated for a Grammy? What impact do you think this will have on your career?
It’s definitely been an emotional rollercoaster. It was unexpected. I’m a highly self-critical person, so it’s very hard for me to even allow myself to accept a compliment. I think the nomination just shocked me for a while. I was excited, but mostly because of how excited everyone else was for me. I am just so moved by that.
I made a lot of very strange choices, which I intuitively knew were right. Clearly, it didn’t lead me to the wrong places. There’s so much self-doubt in all of us all the time. Just keep that a little bit to the side – allow it, observe it, but don’t let it consume you. The nomination just means I have to keep working harder. Now I don’t have as much of an excuse to doubt myself. I know that if I work hard, I can get there.
The Grammys are a peer-voted award. It’s like getting a PhD or a big degree at a reputed institution. Of course, you have to follow it up! This is what I’ve been told by my friends who’ve been nominated before. It definitely gets you more opportunities; you’re able to network more, get better gigs. It will open up new avenues, and I’m most excited about the artistes I can hopefully finagle into working with me!
What is your view on being nominated in the New Age category? There has been criticism of the Grammys and how it can, at times, feel like the institution hasn’t quite kept up with cultural shifts, diversity and representation.
I’ve been trying to understand what “New Age” means. The term seems to have evolved over time. The artists nominated so far have been as diverse as [renowned American jazz guitarist] Pat Metheny, Enya and my fellow nominees, Jon Batiste and avant-garde composer Laurie Anderson. I was surprised with the nomination in this category, but I also don’t think there’s a way to categorise my music simply. Which makes me think: how are genres being defined today? Can you put stuff in a box if the artiste doesn’t see a box? As artistes from different cultures are now being exposed to music from all around the world and are writing from that place of inspiration, these questions will be asked more and more. Mixed cultures are emerging, and the arts will obviously follow. How long are we going to classify music from different countries into “world music”? These restrictive and limiting genre titles seem less and less relevant. I’m happy to see that the Recording Academy has been trying to address this, and from what I gather, a lot of internal conversations are being had about how to improve these categories.
One thing for certain is that there is an element of healing involved in the New Age category. And to pick Periphery at a time when the world is in need of healing – it means so much to me. For my music to be recognised in this way and for people to hear it in this context is a deep honour.