The pandemic has contributed to a rise in calming lo-fi and ambient releases in Indian music... We explore the trend
We speak to experts and artistes to find out why and how these genres help
THE HEALING POWERS of music cannot be overstated. It soothes, calms and can serve as an escape during difficult times. The past six months have definitely been difficult for all of us. With a pandemic, the lockdown, economic struggles and mental health issues, music is what people haved turned to for solace. “I think everyone knows that our brains produce chemicals that make us feel better when we listen to music,” singer and clinical music therapist Kamal Singh says, adding, “Music helps us access a part of our emotional and subconscious brain that cannot be accessed through logic and language.”
There has been a shift in the tides in the independent music space in India. What was popular as a thriving hub of electronic music, hip-hop and more performative genres, now sees a rise in mellow and peaceful ones such as ambient, vaporwave, chillwave, lo-fi and bedroom pop. The change is driven both by the mood of the musicians, as well as it being the need of the hour. Musician and curator Tejas Nair agrees that genres like lo-fi hip-hop and binaural beats have gained popularity. “I think lo-fi and ambient music have always been a great companion to anyone working or studying. So it definitely has caught on quite a bit during the lockdown,” he says, adding, “I think music in general has always been a very powerful tool to get into a certain state of mind. So yes, it helps with soothing anxiety.”
Uddipan Sarmah from the band AsWeKeepSearching says that he initially, like all of us, panicked when the lockdown was announced. “But I later found peace. This pandemic has given us the moment to pause and look inward, reevaluate things and focus on everything that we have forever ignored,” he says. His band released its album Sleep earlier this year. It mimics therapy and comes with a promise to help with anxiety. “Our sound has a lot of soundscape and ambient layers which take it to a more calmer space,” Uddipan tells us, adding, “Ambient leaves a lot of space to think, meditate and get better with mindfulness.”
The conversation about music as therapy for mental health is not new, but it may be vital during the pandemic. After the success of Sleep, AsWeKeepSearching, started an online campaign #foryourmind and dropped a new EP. “After we released our last album, we received a lot of personal messages from listeners on how the album has been helping them in tough times. We were so overwhelmed and decided to extend our contribution towards mental wellbeing further. Then the idea of making another EP, (titled l l l l), came to us and we also donated all sales from the EP towards organisations working in this space,” shares Uddipan.
Sound of the season
With live gigs on pause, a few genres have taken a backseat. Lo-fi music, and its sub-genres such as chillwave, bedroom pop and lo-fi hip-hop are characterised by slower tempos and loops that create an aural cocoon, and studies have proven its relaxing properties. So it’s no surprise that at a time like this, the popularity of these genres has skyrocketed.
For musician Sanjeev Thomas, this lockdown stirred up a lot of emotions, which translated into his new lo-fi album, Future. “This lockdown was something new for all of us. We experienced lay-offs, isolation and losing our sense of self. The pace and vibe of lo-fi music has definitely helped me express this new rollercoaster of emotions. And I’ve got great feedback from people on how they related to the tracks,” he tells us. Lo-fi often includes elements of jazz, blues and R&B. “It is truly chill music. It’s great to unwind to or used simply as a background for your other activities. It surely is the sound of the season. I’m glad there is a lot of lo-fi music coming from our country, and I feel the vibe is here to stay for a bit,” Sanjeev adds.
Bengaluru-based Sanoli Chowdhury agrees with Sanjeev about the genre’s relaxing and healing properties. “This is such an interesting and versatile genre to me. It’s something one can listen to while being completely immersed in it or even without paying much attention to it,” she tells us. Her latest
album, Mellow Appetite On A Sweltering Indian Summer, is an ode to her love for lo-fi. “The particular sonic elements in it make for a rather calming listen. It can also make one feel the utmost sadness and really allow them to grieve. I think lo-fi really expresses honesty in the purest form,” she adds poetically.
Calm in the storm
The same goes for a genre like ambient, which, as Bengaluru-based musician Eashwar Subramanian explains, is built upon creating an environment that puts the listener at ease and gets them in a relaxed state. “The genre has become particularly relevant today, as it helps people retreat into a ‘sonic haven’ if you will, in the midst of chaos,” he tells us. The reason behind ambient music being peaceful, is the emphasis on tones rather than melodies. Most meditative ambient music relies heavily on the tone and texture of the sound that has a positive impact on our minds and more often than not, it’s deceptively simple. “My foray into composing and producing ambient music came more as an outcome of a personal crisis a few years ago, but the pandemic in itself has perhaps led me deeper into this genre and towards exploring the nuances of it. I also felt that this music could help control the anxiety and claustrophobia we are collectively experiencing as people,” says the artiste, whose album Random Hues is designed to help one meditate and relax.
Autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR is a sensation produced by certain sounds that give the listener a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin. ASMR videos are widely popular on the Internet, and certain genres of music use these features in its songs as well. Eashwar’s track Shillong Pass, for instance, features the sounds of Tibetan bells that create an almost ASMR feeling that helps listeners relax. Mumbai-based Three Oscillators’ album The Sound Of Solace was textural in its approach. And its use of percussive elements and silence give it a particularly ASMR quality.
Similarly, Sugam Khetan aka 4lienetic’s album Waking Life uses foley sounds (reproduction of everyday sound effects within the songs, that adds texture and a more raw aesthetic). “It was not a conscious effort,” he tells us, adding, “My goal with this album was just to be more minimalistic. I have always liked using foley sounds in my music. Except this time I just tried to give it a bit more movement and prominence throughout the tracks to keep things interesting. I liked the way it sounded and I thought it gave the album some distinct character.” Shatrunjai Dewan who makes music under the name Monophonik, likes to explore analogue sounds with texture. His new EP Resume Form is an extension of that. Tracks Breathe in Silence and Subdue create glitchy soundscapes that are atmospheric and abstract.
But as turbulent as this year has been so far, independent musicians in India have offered us moments
of unhurried calm, and in their own way helped us make sense of all that’s happening around us. “Ultimately, as cliche as it sounds, music is indeed the universal language,” Kamal sums up.
Here are some of our picks of soothing and laid-back new releases:
This nine-track album by Kumail draws from soul, ambient, and textural lo-fi electronica
Sounds Of Himeya, Volume II
An unhurried and heart-warming EP by Jeevan Antony
Ambient duo, Beluga’s tonal album with an oceanic ambience
Pune-based artiste Mineral’s experimental and meditative track about solitude