As Anoushka Shankar prepares for an India tour with her new album, Land of Gold, she speaks of how global concerns are now shaping her music, while her father’s unfinished project, the opera Sukanya, is set to open in the UK next year.
The seeds of Land of Gold were sown in the context of the humanitarian plight of refugees. The album’s title song emerged from unfolding global events in the media. In particular, “The heart-wrenching images of the lifeless body of Syrian infant, Aylan Kurdi, washed-up on a Turkish beach” led to the making of the song Land of Gold”, says Shankar in a note on her website. “Everyone is, in some way or another, searching for their own ‘Land of Gold’—a journey to a place of security, connectedness and tranquillity, which they can call home,” says the artiste, and daughter of the late sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar. The initial recordings that went into the making of the album were conducted in a remote rural locale in Tuscany, allowing the artistes to experiment with musical styles. Shankar was intent on integrating “the authority of the female voice, and the drive for women to establish personal autonomy and dignity in situations where the female perspective is often, sometimes forcibly, subdued”. Land of Gold explores a gamut of emotional expressions, incorporating new-age minimalism, jazz, electronica and Indian classical styles. On her upcoming India tour, Shankar’s fans can look forward to an immersive, and intimate, musical experience. The underlying message remains about “the resilience of the human spirit”.
Land of Gold is your eighth studio album. Tell us about the events and life experiences that led to these songs, and their recording.
Writing this album coincided with the birth of my second son. I was so troubled with the contrast between my ability to care for my baby and watching millions of people who were less able to provide the same security for their children under nightmarish circumstances.
This album was a constructive way for me to channel my distress, to express and explore the emotional response to the trauma I was watching as it unfolded. I believe that art can make a difference, and music has the power to speak to the soul. It feels important for people who believe in the power of connection to speak out, when we are surrounded by leaders who encourage isolationism and mistrust.
How was it to work with artistes like M.I.A, Alev Lenz and Vanessa Redgrave, who collaborated with you on this new record?
I wanted to work with women who inspire me, and who represent that sense in their lives and careers of activism and female strength. These women are powerful artistes, but also strong and principled human beings, who speak out against injustice.
Land of Gold deftly fuses Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions with a vibe that is largely electronic in nature, including remixes by Shiva Sound System and Mogwai. Is this a natural evolution of your sonic palate?
If you look back at my discography, there’s a clear pattern of influences from the styles mentioned, plus various world cultures, and a desire to explore, and connect through music. On an album like this, with themes about connection across boundaries, it felt doubly important to represent that musically, and make the music feel truly integrated, even though it was an amalgamation of styles.
On the tour circuit
For fans who have attended each of your five previous solo India tours, what are the new things that they can expect to hear, experience and take away from the Land of Gold show?
After Rise and Breathing Under Water, I stopped using electronic elements, and only used live instruments, as I felt frustrated by the limitations that working with electronics imposed. However, 10 years on, the technology has improved, and there is so much that can be done.
In India, I kept seeing DJs play “live” with guest artistes, but in the last two years abroad, I’ve watched bands really start to take that technology and push it further, playing music that sounds completely electronic and actually “live”.
This is what I’ve done on Land of Gold, where everything is fully triggered live, so we can be fully electronic in sound and depth, without the limitations of playing to loops. The band is also incredible. I’ve scaled it down to a quartet, and that gives each musician so much more room.
Will you be touring with your quartet?
I’ve distilled my band to four people this time, as we are able to take listeners on a stronger journey with the space and intimacy that less musicians can provide. Manu Delago is a key collaborator, who co-wrote the music with me, and plays the hang (music instrument) and all percussion live. Sanjeev Shankar plays the shehnai, often sounding more like John Coltrane than any classical musician! Lastly, there is Tom Farmer, an incredible bassist and pianist from London.
How would you explain the global allure of a traditional instrument like the sitar?
As with any instrument, it’s not just about the instrument but the instrumentalist. I’m not a big saxophone fan, but I could listen to Charlie Parker or (John) Coltrane for hours. Similarly, my father popularised the sitar not because of his instrument’s beauty, but because of how he could make it sing, with his own creativity and artistic depth.
Fashion critics have called your style India-inspired. How would you describe your personal style, and how it has evolved over the years?
My taste on and off-stage is often very different, but I like to be comfortable, feel beautiful and authentic, and push myself to take a little risk now and then. I know myself, and it doesn’t suit me to follow trends blindly. However, I enjoy watching fashion and incorporating elements that feel right.
Which designers do you connect with the most, and why?
Erdem, Isabel Marant, Maje, Ritu Kumar, and Anita Dongre, are all labels I enjoy wearing. In Western clothes, I like a little bohemia, sexiness, femininity and edge, ideally all combined! In Indian clothes, I favour elegance and depth of colour.
How do you strike a balance between a globe-trotting career and being a mother?
It’s hard. There’s no way to beat around the bush on that one, and I think it does women a disservice to be too breezy when answering questions about that. All working mothers struggle, regardless of whether in entertainment or not, to manage keeping afloat at work, while also making sure their children’s needs are fulfilled. Women are heroic and incredible.
Any unfinished projects of your dad that you would like to start over?
He started an opera, Sukanya, which is being completed at present, and will be presented at first in the UK next year by the Royal Opera House. This is a new glass ceiling he has shattered even after passing away, as opera is a new frontier for Indian ragas. I’m involved in overseeing this project.
Your views on the recently released album, Day Breaks, by your sister, Norah Jones?
I just saw her in a concert a couple of days ago in London, and I love her new album. She keeps growing, and there are some gorgeous songs on offer, as always.
Beyond the stage
What do you like to do outside of music, which inherently contributes to your music?
For me, it’s about living life fully in order to have experiences to draw from in my music. My family and friends are most important, and I try to see my loved ones as much as possible. I love going out dancing and doing exercise and yoga when I can. I work on a sort of spiritual programme that I do with a group of people, which helps me to stay grounded and connected. When I travel, I try to stay open and keep connecting with new people and cultures.
You often speak out for a number of causes—be it by rising up against child sexual abuse or by creating music that addresses issues surrounding refugee crises. What are the messages that you want to share at present?
I simply try to be as honest and truthful to myself as possible. For me, it feels important to speak out when something outrages me, to make music from my heart, and to live as deeply and fully as possible.
On December 10. At Dr BR Ambedkar Bhavan, Vasanthnagar, 7.30 pm. Tickets
(`500 upwards) on bookmyshow.com.
By Anoop Menon