From the Outside Looking In
By Anoushka Shankar
Ok. Anoushka, you’ve already done hundreds of interviews about your new album "Breathing Under Water," collaboration with musician Karsh Kale. Since I’m you, and I know what they all are, let me ask you (let me ask me? Let you ask you?) a few questions that people haven’t gotten to yet. Except one obvious one, of course.
1. How did you come up with the title?
Near the end of the record-making process Karsh and I already knew we were working with the theme of water, and wanted that to be reflected in the album’s title. All of this had started with the first song we wrote, "Sea Dreamer," which ended up being sung by Sting. It references a sailor lost at sea who is saved by a maiden but eventually abandoned, and the song ended up setting the tone for the rest of our work together. As traveling musicians we found many parallels to the idea of a lost sailor in our own lives. "Breathing Under Water" as a title seemed to encompass a feeling of being out of one’s element and in a chaotic state, yet finding a way to survive and indeed, breathe through it all.
2. Your last record was called "Rise" and now you offer "Breathing Under Water." What’s with this theme of rising through challenges?
I suppose the concept of growth and learning is a theme I keep coming back to. When I take on more than I can chew at any given time, is when I have to grow in order to be able to meet the challenge. And these last two records were formative and cathartic processes, at two such points in my life. I really grew into them and through them; I suppose hence the rather lofty titles!
3. Undoubtedly Karsh is a prolific and talented musician; yet, among the plethora of legends and talents you’ve known in your life, why was it him that you chose to share billing on a record with, for the first time?
In some senses, we fell into this record (Yes, the water-references can just keep on going!). We were hanging out in New York with common musician-friends, including Gaurav Raina, our third co-producer, when the three of us ended up making some music together for fun. I have to say, it was really a weird and unique moment. We discovered that we had a very easy and flowing musical chemistry - he would play a chord and that very second a melodic line would come to my head, then he’d play another chord and the second line just came from nowhere! We continued in that vein and ended up writing the instrumental version of "Sea Dreamer" that night. After that we got to talking about making more music together and it seemed we had similar things we wanted to explore and express in music at that point in our lives, and more importantly, the chemistry we had was going to enable us to do that together.
4. You have said you and Karsh were able to bring strengths to the table that the other didn’t have, and hence were able to create a stronger record than either of you could have alone. Have you come away from this record-making process gaining any of those said strengths?
In some senses, yes, because Karsh, Gaurav and I came into this record as close friends. There was a comfort and camaraderie there. We didn’t have to be too respectful of each other and instead kept pushing each other out of our comfort zones. We would often fight and argue till the sun came up, though I believe the record is stronger because of it. We’ve come out of this with a lot of learning as musicians too, because we kept making each other create and play in areas or ways that were new to us.
5. Beyond the obvious: the first time you’ve shared billing, the collaborations with family members and other music stars, what else was a first for you on Breathing Under Water?
There were a lot of "firsts" for me on this album just within the music itself. Coming from the Indian music tradition, I’d never before done what is so absolutely basic in Western forms of music, which is to form songs around chord progressions. Karsh and I wrote all these songs initially on guitar and sitar, with the sitar highlighting the main melody and the guitar providing structure. We then let the ideas evolve into myriad different forms within orchestral, rock, electronic, Hindi-film-inspired and Indian-classical music. I’d never used guitar on anything before! This record was the first time I’d worked with a string orchestra, and I was overwhelmed by the magic of hearing sixty people play something that started in my brain. Another "first" was that I’d never written songs in English before, which is funny since it’s my first language, but I don’t think there was a natural opportunity for me to explore that in my previous musical experiences.
6. Now, an often-asked question: What was it like working with your sister Norah Jones for the first time? To create with her?
Norah is a wonderful musician, and while her style of music is not one I may have listened to quite as much without the familial connection being there, I have always adored her magnetically beautiful voice. We’ve of course spoken in the past of possibly making music together at some point, but the discussion always ended there as we didn’t know what to do together! Her name came up early on as Karsh and I were "casting" this album, but I only approached her after we’d written a few songs in English and I realized there was actually a natural space for this collaboration. The writing and recording process was easy-going, natural and fun, and I’m really happy to have shared the experience with my sister.
7. You’ve cited pretty diverse musical tastes- what is it that you take from the different forms of music that mean something to you, and do you draw inspiration from it all even when it’s different from what you do?
Absolutely, diverse forms of music influence my own. Powerful or sensuous rhythms pull me in and make me want to create. Emotionally naked playing or singing inspires me as an instrumentalist. And I’m very influenced by mood in music- when a song can really take you somewhere, I feel very inspired as a composer by what music is able to do.
8. What drives you, on an inner level, as a person?
Curiosity, passion, formative images from my childhood of strong, magical women, some insecurities, and a bit of a competitive spirit.
9. And as a musician?
Again, curiosity, this time more about myself in relation to the world than about the world itself, love, a deep joy of performing, and the teachings of my father.
10. Is it easy to separate yourself into musician and person- isn’t "musician" part of "person?"
Absolutely! It’s funny when these interview questions imply that you can slice yourself up in this way: woman/musician/daughter etc. I couldn’t remove "musician" from my overall "person" and remain whole.
11. What gives you a feeling of having roots, since it probably isn’t a specific place or home?
People make me feel at home. When I reunite with family, or with my partner, for example, I feel a sense of homecoming in my heart. Music is also at the core of me, as it ties up so closely to my family, to my culture, to my upbringing and to my lifestyle.
How I really want to answer these questions!
1. What’s it like being Ravi Shankar’s daughter?
I don’t know, what’s it like being your father’s daughter?
2. Were you forced into playing the sitar, it must be a great burden having to live up to your father’s legacy?
God! What have I been doing all these years? Thank you for making me realize I didn’t have to play the sitar!
3. Do you and Norah Jones get along?
No. We have matching tattoos because we hate each other so much.
4. Tell us something nobody knows about you
Uh….Trust me, after doing interviews for half my life, if there’s anything people don’t know about me, it’s because I wanted it that way.
5. What do you see yourself doing five or ten years from now?
I foresee that I will have left my career as a sitarist and will be traveling with a circus as a mysterious, shrouded fortune teller.
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