Catching Up With Anoushka Shankar

Music Features Anoushka Shankar

They say that music is in the blood. When I’ve interviewed Stephen and Damien Marley, Lukas Nelson and many other children of famous musicians, they’ve each told me that following their parent’s example was never a conscious decision, that music was something that beckoned to them and that they simply answered the call. The choice may not have been so easy for Anoushka Shankar. Given that her father was Ravi Shankar, the person George Harrison credited with inventing world music and who introduced the sitar to the Western world, the decision to follow in his footsteps must have required more than a passing level of commitment. The rigorous training necessary to master the sitar and the Indian raga form is daunting, to say the least, and often seems to belong to a world that has long passed away.

But Shankar doesn’t seem like the kind of person who has ever shied away from a challenge. At 34, she has been a professional musician for more than two decades, having given her first concert at the age of 14 in India. Blessed with an unerring sense of melody and an intuitive understanding of her instrument, she could quite easily have enjoyed a fine career as a classical musician, but like her father who recorded in many genres including rock and Western classical music, Shankar has never been much of a purist. After releasing two studio albums of classical Indian music while barely out of her teens, she veered into new directions to experiment with other forms of music with the release of her crossover album, Rise, in 2005. She followed it with Breathing Under Water, a collaboration with techno artist Karsh Kale in 2007; Traveller, a contemporary flamenco fusion record in 2011; and Traces of You, a subtle pop album featuring her sister Norah Jones on vocals in 2013. The recently released Home is Shankar’s first record of classical recordings to be released in more than a decade. Based on traditional ragas or melodic structures, the four selections featured on Home confirm how much Shankar’s abilities on the sitar have grown since she last turned her attention in the studio to traditional music.

Paste recently caught up with Shankar at her home in London as she was enjoying the last few days of her maternity leave before leaving for a tour of India in support of Home.

Paste: Home seems like quite a departure for you because most of the albums you’ve released in the last decade haven’t featured classical Indian music. What made the time right for recording a traditional album of classical sitar music?
Anoushka Shankar: It’s so funny because people usually ask me the opposite question. They always ask me when I’m going to make a classical recording again, and why I’ve been spending so much time making so many other kinds of music! It’s a hard question to answer, and I guess there are two parts to my reply. First, I grew up with the example of my father who had very much a dual career. He was a classicist when it came to his sitar music, but as a composer he allowed himself to be very experimental, so, in many ways, I’ve never seen a contradiction between upholding a classical tradition on one side and on the other side, being creatively free.

Paste: I know that some fans of Indian classical music are very conservative and can be purists by nature. Did you ever feel any tension personally or feel as if you were being judged when you opted to branch out into other forms of music?
Shankar: I felt it when I was starting out as a musician because I had to find my way through to allowing myself that freedom, letting go of fear of judgment, and learning to be true to myself. Once I was immersed myself in what I was doing, I didn’t feel the clash so much because I felt fulfilled. I knew that it was the right path for me. The only thing I didn’t intend was that it would take this many years before I made another classical album. On a touring level, I’ve divided my time between playing classical music and my original contemporary music. I’ve grown used to a cycle where one tour is in support of an album of contemporary music and the next tour is a classical tour. And of course, I toured a lot with my father for many years, and that kept the classical side of my music going. In the past couple of years, since my father passed, it really awakened the realization in me that it had been over a decade since I had released a solo classical album. But interestingly, my record label was enjoying this more creative direction my career had taken because they felt that my non-classical records were somehow more marketable than the traditional ones.

Paste: That’s interesting. Is it because you have featured higher profile artists like Sting or your sister, Norah Jones, on your contemporary albums? In some ways, I would have thought that a classical sitar album would be more of a known quantity and that is the direction your label would have nudged you towards.
Shankar: To tell you the truth, I don’t know why they think as they do. There’s this annoying tendency in the modern world that requires attaching a specific tag to everything. So, it’s like Traveller was tagged as my “Indian flamenco album.” People don’t have the patience for long explanations anymore. Everything has to be reduceable to a tag line that can put the music in its place. There is a core of Indian classical fans around the world that are very pleased I’ve released an album like Home because it’s a musical avenue they’re familiar with. So, for them, I’ve released something very accessible. But, for other audiences, my more non-traditional albums are much more accessible.

Paste: You have a very divided audience, or two distinct audiences, then. It must be challenging.
Shankar: It can be. It’s funny, but one of the only ways I could convince my label to even let me make a classical record was as a licensing extension. And, from what I understand it’s doing very well, but because I released Home towards the end of my maternity leave, there hasn’t been a tour or much of a marketing push.

Paste: You’re in such an interesting position. You are a completely modern person, creating contemporary music, but you have this connection to this very ancient art form. It intrigues me how you learned to play the sitar growing up mostly in America, surrounded by distractions.
Shankar: Obviously, the training I received was vastly different than my father’s was. As a young man, he was required to stay up all night and play until he dropped. That was how a musician proved himself. That kind of very rigorous approach has changed somewhat, but in essence, the training I received was the same. There are some purists who think that the essence of our music has been diluted, but I disagree. I don’t think the quality of musical training has been sacrificed. We simply have different resources than existed in the past.

Paste: Can you remember when you first really felt like music was something you wanted to pursue?
Shankar: It was a staggered process. On the one side, I have no first musical memory because it was always there and music was a very immersive experience. I was definitely soaking up a lot of music before I experienced any formalized learning. I definitely remember my first sitar lesson at around the age of seven. It was a key point, but I wasn’t very keen at that point.

Paste: Learning to play the sitar wasn’t something you were pestering your father about?
Shankar: (big laugh) No, not at all! I was sweetly manipulated. As a kid, I liked listening to my father’s music, but I wasn’t driven to learning myself. But, there came a point where suddenly I was able to play and the more I played, the more I started to love it. Another key moment was when I was around 12 and decided that I was up for performing in public. It wasn’t that I yet had a deep passionate conviction that it was what I was going to do with my life, but I did allow myself a process of discovery. I’m grateful that as a teenager I didn’t rebel against it by stopping. So, even when faced with the indecision, fears and pressure that I went through, I still loved it and kept going. Progressively, it became not just what I loved, but also what I was doing with my life and time.

Paste: At what point did you feel you’d created your own voice on the sitar?
Shankar: That came much later. I think all of the experimentation of the last decade has brought me much closer to my instrument. In the last two years, more than any other time, I feel like I’ve really grown in being able to express myself, whereas before my playing was much more technical in nature.

Paste: What do you mean by technical? I know that improvisation is central to Indian classical music. So when you’re playing, how much is improvised and how much relies on technical or learned approaches to playing a melody?
Shankar: I think the best analogy for that is to think about how we use language in writing. If you’re a writer, how much of what you do relies on creativity and how much is the result of having rich language as your palette? So it’s all in the mix, and one doesn’t work without the other. The rigorous playing, practicing and learning all of the techniques and formulas allow all of those ideas to become part of your language. The more of that type of background one has, the more creative one can be. At this point, if I’m being very creative in the moment, it might sometimes involve something I’ve learned by following a very trodden path. There are some things that I have worked out and can play very well as they relate to certain ragas or pieces of music, but overall, progressively, I have learned to let go of the formulas.

Paste: So, if I saw you perform two nights in a row, would it be like seeing Miles Davis or The Grateful Dead where I’d experience two different shows even if the pieces you played were the same?
Shankar: It depends on what kind of tour it is. Ironically, the more creative or non-classical tours that people take as more experimental are actually more predictable because I’m playing with a band and that inevitably means that we are playing a repertoire. Even though I give my band and myself room to improvise either in solos or within a piece to keep it fun for us, the result is that there isn’t much variation between performances. But in a classical show, by nature the music is improvised, so at that point if I played the same raga two nights in a row, there would likely be differences in the performances. That of course is a result of the improvisation that is at the heart of our music.

Paste: Can you say a little about the role of improvisation in your music and how it came into play when recording the four compositions or ragas featured on Home?
Shankar: Indian classical ragas have an emotional structure, and playing within a certain context brings the music alive. Not all improvisation is equal, and I’ve certainly heard musicians play in a fast and showy way that causes them to leave the confines of the raga. It’s something that the average listener may not spot, but one of the skills my father possessed was that no matter how quickly or experimentally he played, he never left the form unless he meant to. He could stray very far out into improvisations, but he never left the logic of the raga. While recording Home, we made a lot of discoveries in the studio. For example, we played “Alaap” a few times and I made notes about the tones and emotions that I liked and tried again. We recorded some extra takes of the “Ghat in Rupaktaii” to find the right balance between the tabla and the sitar. The finished recording was based on these notes, and it is a completely live record. It was very nice to make a record in that way by simply playing and listening until we had versions we were very happy with.

Paste: It’s a great album, and I’m sure everyone who hears it will be happy with it, too.
Shankar: Yes, it was a lot of fun to make. I had been so busy, and maybe I hadn’t taken the time to notice, but while recording Home, I realized how much I had grown as a musician in the past few years. Home was the first record where I just allowed myself the freedom to play, and play without worrying about all of the things that we as musicians worry about. It was wonderful!

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