Nine Songs: Anoushka Shankar
“Am I still lovable, if you stop loving me?” Anoushka Shankar casts the question into the void on the song “Lovable” in the middle of her EP, Love Letters. It’s a breakup record that deals with far, far more. It also cracks you open like a tree split by lightning.
The artist has accomplished much since her 1998 debut album Anoushka was released when she was seventeen. As with her father Ravi, she values peace and peaceful music above the thrum of career accolades. Her search for quietude reaches its latest destination via the clarity of female camaraderie on the no frills production of her recent Love Letters EP, that she describes as an “ode to female friendships."
“I was going for simplicity, I wanted to not overproduce the songs, leave them in their original states and have that intimacy. I wanted people to feel like they're listening to us just playing for them. That's something that I’ve been influenced by and I've been gravitating towards songs which have a lot of space to breathe.”
The last two years necessitated that urge to gasp for breath, where as well as parting with her husband, the director Joe Wright, Shankar battled serious health issues, something she courageously shared on a social media post last August titled “Lady-Bits”, because she it was important and “nothing to be discreet about.” The music Shankar is listening to now seeks the inward life and the flow state of relaxing music.
“These nine songs are obviously very varied in genre, geography and time period,” she explains, “I went for music that I consistently go to, and have gone to, for some sense of peace. The mood isn't consistent throughout them, some are more what I go to late at night before sleep, if I want that very slow, nurturing feeling and some are more ‘What do I feel like listening to in the morning?’ where I want feel gentle, but a little bit more upbeat. They're not all the same tempo or flow, but they're all pieces of music that I find very peaceful and heart expanding.”
It was a pleasure to take a journey with her to step away from the pandemic raging through the world, but like the shanti mantra her father once played, Shankar hopes that her song choices here bring peace to the body, mind, and spirit.
“The “Shanti Mantra” is on an album called Inside the Kremlin, which came out in the late ‘80s. I was a young child when it came out and my Mum was playing it a lot. It's kind of a formative memory for me here, hearing that song in the background or playing it.
“As an adult, it's one of the pieces where I think I have one of his most gorgeous contributions. It's an incredibly beautiful, peaceful, uplifting and exalting piece of music. Obviously, it translates to being like a prayer for peace.
“In context, it was done live at the Kremlin, before the fall of communism. It was part of an official delegation sent from India to Russia, and my Dad took a handpicked Indian orchestra with him and he also had an entire Russian choir. You hear this beautiful choir mixed with Indian instruments and I think that's so beautiful. It’s been one of my favourite pieces my whole life.”
“I don't remember the first time I heard this piece, but I do remember being really struck by it. I'm a string player, an instrumentalist and it was the first time that I really heard the kora. It’s the way that the notes cascade - it’s like rain falling. There’s something incredibly liquid and sweet and beautiful about the sound of that instrument.
“The album In the Heart of the Moon introduced me to both of these incredible, legendary artists and I went back and listened to both of them individually from there. I'm struck by albums that are made in a way that you can literally hit play and hear the whole thing through and “Debe” starts it off so well.
“What I mean by that is that all listeners are different, but I tend to put on a piece of music because I'm in a particular mood. That's why we all create playlists; we look for music that fits that particular mood. Some albums are amazing, but their moods are so variable that I often find it difficult to listen to it in one go, because I was looking for something energetic or mellow or whatever it might be.
“I think this song and that album are one of the first ones I found in my twenties that could really flow and “Debe” starts the album off in such a beautiful way. I find it works for writing too, it works for doing yoga or driving. It’s a really, really great piece of music.”
“As an Indian musician I can sometimes get a little bit frustrated by the new age genre, because we get lumped together a lot. In some ways, what we do is quite different and in some ways it's very similar.
“As an instrumentalist, I've avoided shouting about the new age songs and albums that I like, because I'm almost afraid of falling into a slightly ‘sitar-playing, magic carpet’ stereotype. I do actually love a lot of new age albums and “Khumjung” is probably my go-to song and album. I'm saying that with no derogatory context, it’s just that it's different.
“I think the whole album The Spirit of Yoga is worth a look at, because it's 60 minutes long and it's perfect if you want to do an hour session of yoga, if you're getting massage or giving a massage. It’s a lovely album and each track is around 15 minutes. I find it soothing, because I put it on and I get a sense of peace just by the four pieces starting and ending.
“This has been one of my late-night songs. It’s also been a good standard song for when I'm getting a massage or doing yoga for a long time now.”
“Oh, wow, I love this song and this album. They’re two artists that I love dearly, I love their music and they've done a lot of work together.
“This album was the first one that I came across before we became friends and I loved the concept. I loved the fact that all of the tracks were titled by the time they were played or recorded. It's interesting to think of ‘What is 1am music? What is 3am as a mood, what is 4am?’
“I first listened to this song in Tuscany. It was summer and I was working on my album from 2016, Land of Gold. I took a few musician friends with me and we were spending time recording and hanging out together. I'm a bit funny when I’m listening to music when I'm working on music. My ears get really full and my brain gets really full. Sometimes the right music can really help transition out of work into life but also it's too much to take in - I can't handle more music.
“This was like drinking a perfect glass of water when you're thirsty. It was like, ‘Oh, thank you!’ Someone played this and it was a perfect transition out of my own music and everything else. I loved the concept of this song and the simplicity of recording through a night.
“I come from Indian music, where the ragas are associated with times of the day. That’s so much a part of our music but it's not something that's often talked about in other music. So I really was drawn by the titles and that “3:06” is so introverted and spacious. If there was anything that I would want to listen to late at night when I'm alone, it would be this song.”
“I grew up with my Father and I learned from my Father. There are some pieces of his that I grew up listening to, and I listen to him all the time, but ironically I didn't really know many of his albums growing up, because we weren't sitting at home and listening to them one after another.
“It was more as an adult that I went back and really wanted to know his catalogue more. Improvisations was one of his earliest recordings that was made in the United States. It introduced him to listeners and it was made in this interesting taster way; where the way he's played on that album gave a little bit of an indication of Indian music.
“It also really shows him as a player. Parts one, two, and three are the ones that I would say are the most traditional in a way, even though the whole thing is classical. If you were to hear him play a ‘normal’ classical concert, he would open with a raga and play it in this very introverted, introductory way to start with, with no rhythmic accompaniment at the beginning, played in a very free way. Then he would bring in some energy slowly through the second and third parts.
“He only did that on these three parts of Rageshri. The rest of the album is with percussion and there’s some shorter pieces later on. I was really struck by the way my Father plays raga history on this, it’s very, very lovely. I really feel that kind of warmth and love on this improvisation and I’ve always really loved it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to listen to.”
“Alev Lenz is a really close friend and collaborator of mine. She sang the title song on Land of Gold and that's where we originally knew each other from. I’ve just worked with her again on Love Letters; she produced the EP, co-wrote most of the material and features on a bunch of the songs. She's an amazing musician, singer and woman.
“She released her third album 3 during the process of us working on Love Letters and I went to her showcase and heard her play. It was one of those funny experiences where you can know people in all of these different contexts and still be surprised.
“I knew she was a great artist, who was showing up on all these different days in my home, in my studio and working on my music, but then suddenly on a random Thursday there was all this other music she'd been working on that I hadn't even heard. And it was amazing. It was like, ‘Oh my God’. My jaw was on the floor.
“I love the intimacy of her performance on the whole album, but on “Cigarettes and Blow” in particular it’s so good. The whole album has just her voice, a choir and piano and on this song you feel like she's singing in your ear. She's right there singing and then at the end it opens up into this slightly broader vocal and choir in a way that's just so, so moving. I think it's incredibly beautiful.”
“I love these guys, it's such beautiful instrumental music. Penguin Cafe were brought to my attention by a friend of mine called Naren, who's a DJ in London. He introduced me to their frontman Arthur Jeffes and I went to see them live.
“They make music that I would term as really broad. A lot of what I do can be very linear, it's quite led by one instrument and goes forward in a forward-moving story with the melody and that’s not what they do.
“I find it really fascinating, because it's not how I think. When I saw them live there were nine musicians on stage, which is a lot of people, and there were all of these counterpoint melodies working together in a really beautiful way. So maybe the violin is playing one really simple riff for five minutes, but then the piano comes in and plays something different.
“My older son will always put “Ricercar” on and it's a sweet, lovely morning time for us. We all love it.”
“I've loved her since I was a teenager and I think that “Jóga” is one of the best songs of all time. The melodies really mesh with her voice and it’s probably one of my favourite performances of hers.
“It’s a little more energetic than a lot of the other songs here, but I think when the human voice reaches those kinds of depths and heights, there's something really transcendent about it, and for the listener as well.
“Hearing Björk sing this song really moves my spirit. I want to say I was about 16 when I first heard it, but I don't remember when it came out. I remember being in my room at my parents' house and that my friend had burned a mix CD. I know, another universe, right? I kept hearing it on repeat, and then repeat, and then repeat and then repeat it. I didn't make it to the rest of the songs on the CD for so long, because I couldn't get past this one.”
"With the Dark Hug of Time", I mean that's a title, isn't it? [laughs] I heard this track the first time when we were touring Land of Gold around the world in 2018. We were touring it for years and when we were finishing one leg of the tour in Seoul, South Korea, we all stayed up really late because we were all flying home at different times the next morning.
“This was one of the late-night tracks that was put on when we were all fading a little bit. It really pulled me, it's really deep music and the bass saxophone and the violin sound so different. Everything growls and rumbles and slowly unfolds into these streaks.
“It's hard for me to describe, but I make a link to peacefulness on this one. Although it’s violent, it does bring peace in my opinion. It’s something that really draws me into myself and it’s a very deep, deep piece of music.
“The sonic value of Colin's deep breath sounds along with Sarah on the violin is beautiful. It's a collaboration that I wouldn't have thought to put together in my head, but it works so well.”