Who Is this Sheila?

Seth Jordan talks to Indian singer Sheila Chandra about Voice, Zen, Rhinitis & the English Countryside

That voice is back again. After a five year absence, the result of vocal health problems, Indian fusion pioneer Sheila Chandra has returned with an uncharacteristically edgy new album, This Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence is False).

Born in South London to immigrant Indian parents, Chandra’s initial success came early, scoring a mainstream Top 10 hit, ‘Ever So Lonely’, in ’82, fronting the group Monsoon. Along with her husband/producer Steve Coe, she immediately embarked on a series of adventurous solo albums, charting new directions in vocal experimentation. Her trio of ground-breaking albums for Peter Gabriels’ Real World label in the early ‘90s, Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices, Zen Kiss, and AboneCroneDrone, solidified her growing legion of fans worldwide.

An integral forerunner for both the Anglo-Indian Bhangra dance scene and the current success of England’s ‘Asian Underground’ movement, Chandra absence from the World music stage for the last few years has been noticeable.

From her secluded rural home in Somerset, she spoke to SETH JORDAN for “RHYTHMS”.

Sheila, having gained popularity with a Top 10 single at the age of 16, your career has already spanned two decades, yet you’re still only in your mid-thirties.

Yes I started very young. I think people assume I’m much older than I am. That first single was fairly radical at the time, part of a genre that hadn’t even been invented yet, Asian fusion, and even the term World music wasn’t around then. I don’t think anyone used that term until 1987, and we recorded Monsoon
back in ’82.

Your early solo recordings were also heard as part of that early wave of ‘80s Ambient music. Was that the mood you were trying to invoke, the ethereal soundscape?

What fascinated me was what could be done combining Asian structures and the Western pop culture that I’d grown up with. How the voice could be used in that arena, how they could be married. The thing that was so apparent to me early on was that there were no teachers, no rulebook, no one to guide me through that
process. That’s why my first four solo albums between ’83 and ’85 were done so quickly. Four albums in two years is a very short succession, but I needed all that time in the studio, mapping out what could be done in this genre. That’s why they’re so experimental and why none of my solo work was ever singles-oriented.

Those four albums have all recently just been re-released. How does it feel to have people listening to your early experiments in retrospect?

It’s very nice. It’s lovely that people have now have the full story, the full chronology of what I’ve explored as an artist, because many have only heard my later work.
I started off with as little knowledge about Indian music as anyone else. Steve Coe wrote for Monsoon and introduced me to a lot of those structures; the way a drone supports the solo instrument, and the way fixed note structures can be used over the drone. From there on in we were learning together and it was a
very steep learning curve. So when people hear my current work, it might sound very complex, but if they’ve followed my earlier work, then I don’t think it’s so daunting.

With “This Sentence Is True” and going back to “Zen Kiss”, there seems to be an undercurrent of Zen references in your titles. Are you a closet Zen practitioner or do you just enjoy the mental wordplay?

I’m not a practitioner, but I probably should be! I don’t have any formal spiritual practice, but yes I do like the playfulness. It’s a religion with a sense of humour, which most others haven’t. It very well expresses that playful state that you get into as a creator. Creating can be god-like, especially in
the studio, mucking about, making your musical world as you would have it, and even the definition we use of God as the Creator. But I don’t think we should take things too seriously, and Zen doesn’t take words too seriously.

On your new website (www.sheilachandra.com), you have a list of “Sentences Which Are False”, including “That you are a deeply spiritual person” – false; “That you meditate for an hour before breakfast” – false; “That you were classically trained in Indian music” – false. Have you continually had to battle
that view from others, with people wanting you to be some exotic, deeply spiritual, Indian woman?

Twenty years ago it certainly was. All of those false sentences on the website are ones that I’ve actually been asked over and over. There were a lot of stereotypical expectations. Then the early 90s people were accusing me of being cold and calculating, because I was very articulate about how I’d constructed my
vision for solo voice. So people do suspect you when you’re not what they expect you to be. But it’s less now, as the second generation of Indians here in England grows up, people are more PC, much more aware, with less stereotyping.

In that trilogy of Real World albums, you explored a full range of vocal possibilities and techniques that really pushed your voice. Did the intensity of those vocal practices lead to the voice problems that you started to experience a few years ago?

I had a medical problem, but it wasn’t as a result from singing in that way. The problem was I developed chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the nasal membrane). It can happen to anyone. There was no official cause in my case, although perhaps all the flying I did for my first season of live concerts, including
coming down to Australia, didn’t have a very good effect on my sinuses. But I had food allergies before that and that’s another thing that probably set it off. So it wasn’t the singing, it was other things happening in my body. My body obviously wasn’t very happy. My voice eventually needed remedial exercises to build back up the muscle tone that I had lost. Apart from the sinuses though, I was in very good shape. By the time I got to Australia the problems had really started to show. I did a couple of shows afterwards, but that was my last tour, because I was having to fight too hard to keep the sound quality up.

In the work that you were performing then, you concentrated on vocal sound rather than lyrics, and the drone came to the fore. Cities certainly have a drone; even the countryside where you’re living has a background ambient drone. Is the drone central to your understanding of sound?

Yeah, we surround ourselves with drones, probably because we drone. The stapes bone in the middle ear emits a drone all the time, which apparently is an average of all the frequencies that you are. Also the blood sings in our ears, so even if we put ourselves in an isolation booth, we can’t be away from drones.
They’re the background to our life, and maybe even one could say, to life itself.
I do think that silence is an important backdrop to what I do, but with that trilogy of albums, making them so overtly about drone, it was going back to a commonality of musical heritage. Even Western music until 500 years ago was all based around drone. Anything else, all this modern upstart pop music, modern
classical stuff, it’s really an aberration. It’s not what the musical cultures of the world in the last 2,000 years, for the majority of time, have been doing. So yes, drone is a concept that’s very important to me.

Those Real World albums were very emotional pieces. What I was trying to do was to bring a number of techniques from vocal cultures around the world together, so that people could hear the commonality of the emotion, and how human beings in different places use the voice to express emotion.

Have you finished that vocal concept now? The new album sounds like it’s going in a quite different direction.

Yeah absolutely. I felt like I’d taken it to its ‘nth’ degree. The only exception is ‘AboneCroneDrone 7’ on the new album, because I felt that I could take it just one stage further and make the voice really almost invisible. I thought the listeners were ready for that. It’s a gorgeous, sonorous drone.

Your partner Steve comes to the fore more obviously than he has in the past, colouring your voice with a variety of sounds, even a bit of noise.

I wanted to get out of my voice-and-drone box. Steve’s been my producer and writer for the last 20 years. The perfect way to break out of my familiar territory was to let him also be an artist, and not to take everything so seriously. It’s a collaborative album with the Ganges Orchestra, which is the name for his projects.

So we were conscious that we were tapping into new sources, different working methods. We wanted to be a lot more playful. I exercised my right of veto much less, and at a later stage. I think that’s why this album is different. Steve has a mistrust of words, which gets fully explored on this album.

Why doesn’t he trust words?

Because he over-uses them! He’s aware of how easy they are to manipulate. As a producer he’s aware of how you can put a simple sound into various contexts to completely change your perception of it.

An example is the Gregorian chant on the track ‘True’. You’d normally hear that in a cathedral-like ambience, pretty much isolated, and with all the associated religious ideas that come as part of it. Juxtaposing it next to white noise, it takes on something completely different. So he knows very well how to manipulate sound, but he’s wary of words, it’s a dilemma for him, and he doesn’t know whether to trust them or not.

Even with Steve’s noises, your music doesn’t sound much like the other Indian-based stuff that’s coming out of urban London these days. How much does your rural lifestyle, the English countryside, affect your music?

It’s very divorced from the Asian Underground in that sense. It comes from a different essence, a different focus. It has silence as the backdrop, and you can’t do that in an urban environment, where you’re always dealing with other people’s noise.

Here silence makes any choice possible and my thought process isn’t interrupted.

And do you feel fully English yourself?

It’s so difficult to answer. As I don’t speak any Indian languages, how I express myself is very English indeed. The English like the underdog, they like eccentrics. They foster and encourage eccentric forms of creativity. And I have been influenced by the English landscape. It’s home.

I don’t go back to India. Certainly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and until quite recently really, India regarded what was happening in the Asian Diaspora here in a very patronizing light. They felt that we were a cultural outpost, when in fact I think that what we’ve done here is much more musically adventurous, and
it’s now going back and influencing them. But it meant that in physical terms I cut off from India, and certainly didn’t feel that I needed to get any authority or validation from there.

Are you paying attention to the Asian Underground scene these days? Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney?

Not very much. They are mostly collaborators. They’re more DJs, writer/arrangers. Arranging other people. It’s an event and it requires a lot more people. They bounce off other musicians. I don’t think we really work in the same manner.

Are you planning on touring with the new music? Is it performable?

No, I’ve written it free from the constraints of wondering how it could be replicated onstage. It’s far too layered and complicated and not very practical in that way. I think of the studio as the leading edge of what I do. It has effects, like in the theatre, which you can’t get anywhere else. It’s the
dimensions and form of that place.

Also there’s my voice problem. It’s back to about 90% now, but what’s missing is stamina, and until that’s back and I feel confident that I’m not over-pushing it, I’ll restrict myself to the studio. So no live work for the moment, but I’m happy that I finally have my voice back again.

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