Interview: Anoushka Shankar gets candid about her new EP, Love Letters, and how it got her through difficult moments
The haunting and poignant opening melody of Anoushka Shankar’s song Bright Eyes really encapsulates the pain that the sitar player and composer has experienced recently. Shot in black-and-white, the video sees Anoushka, with a short-clipped hairdo, rendering the evocative notes on her sitar, as singer Alev Lenz croons the lyrics. A part of her new EP, Love Letters, Bright Eyes and the other songs were all written as a response to events in her personal life. And, they reveal a new, more unfiltered side of the musician. Not letting her past hold her back, the artiste, armed with her new EP, has now embarked on a worldwide tour, and will stop by to perform in two cities in India. We got
to speak with her about the worth of female friendships, family and music...
'Rising through the pain'
Love Letters is a compilation of songs written across 2018-’19. These years brought Anoushka health issues, heartbreak and domestic upheaval. In August, in a detailed social media post titled ‘Lady-Bits’, which opened with the words, “As of last month, I no longer have a uterus,” she opened up about her hysterectomy. “The news triggered fears about my womanliness, my possible desire to have more children in the future, the fear of dying in surgery and leaving my kids without a mother, the effect the changes may have on my sex life, and more,” she divulged.
The year 2018 saw the artiste separate from her husband of seven years, and father of her two sons, Joe Wright (director of movies such as Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina). “It’s against my faith in life itself to let pain close me up, and just for today, as I learn to be single and to be a single parent, I will manifest this feeling of being ‘in love’ when I kiss my children, when I watch the waves roll in, when I play my sitar, when I sit in moonlight, and when I pray,” she shared on Instagram.
As a result, the album is much more personal than her earlier works. “On Love Letters, I focused exclusively on songs with lyrics, creating a collection that directly addresses heartbreak and its ensuing emotions in a way that instrumental music can only hint at,” she offers. “I’ve written from a personal place before, of course, but there was something particularly tender and raw about the process this time. The songs are really about rising through the pain, rather than shutting down,” she says candidly.
An ode to female friendships
With an almost exclusively female crew that worked on the EP, Anoushka says the album is her ode to female friendships. Alev Lenz, who is a principal collaborator on the album, was a trusted source of emotional support for the sitar player and it’s their conversations that evolved into the songs on the album.
“I really got to experience the way women show up for each other when crisis strikes. And, that’s really where this music came from — the shared experience of women, holding my hand and helping me find a safe place to put some of my feelings,” Anoushka says. She adds, “My mother has been a key influence on me as a musician and person from birth onward. She continues to be one of the people I’m closest to, and I do often go to her for support and advice.”
The first single from the EP titled Lovable is a collaboration with the French-Cuban sisters Ibeyi. The healing anthem is gentle yet powerful. The lyrics, coupled with the soothing voices of the trio, will make this one linger on your mind for hours. Those Words features British composer, singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Indian singer Shilpa Rao, and is based on a poem penned by Anoushka. “I feel, Love Letters has been a part of a longer journey towards a very simple, international sound, in which the sitar is no longer exotic or classical, but simply a tool of expression when juxtaposed with the voice and cross-genre elements,” Anoushka says, about the sound of the album. Her deft work on the sitar does adds a profound sense of depth to every track.
While the artiste says that she doesn’t believe in the demarcation of genres that differentiate ‘world music’ from ‘fusion music’, she does agree that as the world gets more and more closer due to the internet, making global connections has been easier. The EP tour, which begins in India, marks the artiste’s return to the country after a long gap. “I’m deeply looking forward to returning and sharing my music again,” she tells us. She has also been quite vocal in the realms of activism, feminism and humanitarian causes. For instance, after the Nirbhaya gang rape case, Anoushka teamed up with the One Billion Rising campaign, and shared her own story of sexual abuse.
Currently, with India embroiled in protests about the CAA bill, we wondered if the artiste would lend her voice to the cause in any way. “Let’s see!” she answers, being a little cryptic.
All in the family
The year 2020 marks the centenary of Anoushka’s father, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Looking back at her relationship with him, she reveals, “I can never express my gratitude for what I was given by my father, as it shapes everything I do, and is within all the music I make. His legacy as a musician continues to blow me away. I don’t know if we all truly understand exactly how much he did for music, and for India, and Indian music in particular.”
As a part of the celebrations to mark the occasion, Anoushka will be seen sharing the stage for the very first time with her half-sister, the Grammy-award winning singer Norah Jones. Why did it take them so long to perform together, we ask. “We’ve been asked hundreds of times over the years, of course, but it never felt like a natural fit, and more of a gimmick. This, however, feels entirely appropriate. It feels just right, and I’m so looking forward to it,” says Anoushka, confiding that the two sisters are actually “very close”. Being a mother herself now, she says that parenting has taught her more about being a good human than anything else. She has two sons: nine-year-old Zubin Shankar Wright, and five-year-old Mohan Shankar Wright. “I love my sons more than anything on Earth. I’ll be a tiger for them if need be,” says the 38-year-old musician.
In 2020, Anoushka will focus on her father’s centenary celebrations, and the series of global concerts, in turn. While 2019 may have been challenging for her, this year has her moving onward and upward, as she will also start work on a new album. “One foot in front of the other, one step at a time, at times carried by others, we get through difficult moments. I’m blessed to have a strong support network, and I know things would have been much harder without them,” she signs off.
In her two-decade-long career, Anoushka has collaborated with many renowned international artistes. But when asked who’s on her bucket list for a collaboration, she chimes in, “For 20 years, I’ve given the same answer: Bjork!” Here’s looking back at her most memorable collaborations:
• Sting, Sacred Love: The seventh studio album by the English musician Sting saw Anoushka on
the sitar for the song, The Book of My Life. Also featuring hip-hop artiste Mary J Blige, the album was experimental in nature.
• Herbie Hancock, The Imagine Project: Legendary American jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s 2010 album featured global music with instruments such as the African kora, Celtic flute and Uilleann pipes. The track, The Song Goes On, has Anoushka on the sitar.
• Norah Jones, Traces of You: The two sisters came together for this 2013 album. Norah provided vocals for the songs, The Sun Won’t Set, Unsaid and the titular, Traces of You. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category.
• Karsh Kale, Breathing Under Water: This album saw Anoushka collaborate not only with American multi-instrumentalist Karsh, but also featured guests Ravi Shankar, Sting, Norah Jones, MIDIval Punditz, Salim Merchant and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. The album is a mix of electronica, classical music and folk music.
• Rodrigo y Gabriela, Area 52: This Grammy-award winning Mexican acoustic guitar duo collaborated with Anoushka for the song Ixtapa. The fusion number is a part of their fifth studio album.
As 2020 is the 100th birth anniversary of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, there are a host of concerts taking place globally. On his birthday, his two daughters, Anoushka and her half-sister, the Grammy-award winning Norah Jones, will perform live together for the very first time. Although the two have collaborated before on various albums, songs and music videos, this will be their first time on a stage together. The gig will take place in London on April 7, and Anoushka has dubbed it, “really exciting and special.”
Catch the Love Letters Tour on February 14 in New Delhi.