Sushma Soma explores a range of Carnatic-infused sounds in her debut album Sa
Considering that Sushma Soma’s music journey started at the age of four, kicking off a career that saw her graduate in Carnatic vocals from Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society followed by wins at the All India Radio Carnatic Vocal competition in 2006 and Outstanding Vocalist Award for her concert at the Madras Music Academy, it is fair to say that an album was a given from her end. And, deliver she did, as she readies to present her debut album this week, via a performance organised by Hisham Osman’s Silkworm Boutique.
Featuring a host of collaborating musicians, the album, titled Sa, is a conflux of Sushma’s Carnatic roots and various other musical influences, highlighted by the singer’s sharp classical voice blending impeccably with the sounds of a vast range of instruments, such as kanjira (Sumesh Narayanan), sarod (Soumik Dutta), cello (Danny Keane), and many others. Ahead of her performance, she tells us more about what inspired this project, her all-time influences, and her future project dedicated to nature. Excerpts:
Given your deep background in music, do you think this album has been a long time coming?
The thought for this album started three years ago, when I wanted to put out a demo tape to explore the sound of my voice in different Indian classical/folk/devotional genres that I’d become more exposed to. I also wanted the music that I put out to be able to bridge the gap that my music had with my close family and friends (from Singapore) who were not able to connect with the pure Carnatic repertoire.
There were several challenges — as this was the first time I was foraying into genres outside of Carnatic music. I took longer than I normally would with Carnatic projects, and I was also spending a considerable amount of time in Singapore, with my collaborators on this project based in India, UK and USA. Hence, coordinating their schedules and finding a mutually agreeable time to record was not entirely easy.
What did you learn from your experience of working with so many musicians?
The most important collaborator on this project is my best friend Aditya Prakash. When I wanted to explore my intention to compose and create, he was the first person I spoke to about this as he has experience composing for several dance productions and for his own independent music. We are both driven in our music journey by the process of questioning, learning, the discipline of practice, growing from and experiencing the music. And it was important for me to have someone who shared these values and remind me of these along every step of creating Sa.
The other person I knew I wanted on this journey was Praveen Sparsh, another dear friend of mine who is a much sought after mridangam artist, multi-percussionist, composer and producer himself. He has known me since the time I moved to Chennai a decade ago and has been witness to my music journey since. I knew it would be special for me to have him arrange and produce one of the tracks (Vitthoba) on this EP.
I am also lucky to have Hisham Osman of Silkworm Boutique support and promote my EP. Again one of the first people I met in the city when I moved when he knew about my EP endeavour, he immediately offered to be a part of it which I’m so grateful for. And, I wanted this project to feature my other close musician friends, Soumik Datta (sarod player from the UK) and Sumesh Narayanan (percussionist from Chennai).
This project has seen me at my most vulnerable — there have been times when I have not been sure if something would work, or whether something sounded good. And I wanted to share all these moments with my close friends. I am also lucky that there were other talented musicians like Shreya Devnath, Sooraj, MT Aditya Srinivasan, Danny Keane, Clarice Rarity, Ishit Kuberkar and MT Aditya Srinivasan — all of whom helped us achieve our musical vision with their artistry.
How easy or difficult was it to balance Carnatic sounds with different genres?
The varied soundscape of this EP stems from the basic exercises of Carnatic music and I would say that the piece takes the listener on a Carnatic swaram roller coaster. And the EP ends with Parame, a song tuned to a Carnatic aesthetic in Yaman Kalyani and Sindhu Bhairavi by RK Shriramkumar, but arranged to Western strings to give an introspective experience. The challenge for me lied in ensuring that the instrumentation and arrangement did not compromise on the melodic and lyrical intention of the piece. For example, Mollika is a poignant song wherein Tagore speaks to the jasmine flower asking it to convey its love before its petals fall and it wilts away.
Are there other projects in the pipeline?
I am excited to start work on my next project that will focus on nature, animals and the environment. I obsess over nature documentaries and I have always wanted to show the narratives of plants, animals, mankind and Earth through an Indian classical-inspired soundscape. I will also be touring the USA in the fall.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on the challenges faced by independent female musicians today?
The challenges that we face in the industry are well known to everyone. From the #MeToo movement to performance opportunities with co-artistes, there are issues that everyone is privy to. I just hope that established female and male musicians stand united to make the industry a safe space for everyone.
On March 8, 5 pm onwards. At Offbeat. Entry free. Details: 98410-18191. Listen to the album on YouTube and iTunes.