Boasting an eclectic soundscape, Akhila and the Alchemists drop their debut single
Armed with vocals that defy stereotype, Akhila and the Alchemists drop their single from their debut album, that boasts eclectic sounds
Akhila Ramnarayan is inexplicably connected to music. As the great niece of MS Subbulakshmi, it’s no surprise that Akhila’s debut album,has a noticeable Carnatic music influence, though the music could be categorised as alternative rock. Chair, Division of Literature & Arts, and Associate Professor of Practice, Krea University, Akhila is steeped in the arts. However, once you tune into the single Think Miyazaki, that dropped earlier this month, what stays with you are her strong vocals that are warm with a ’90s vibe. An album and band born out of the lockdown blues, Woe Begone by Akhila and the Alchemists includes five other musicians; Vedanth Bharadwaj (guitars), Doug Carraway (drums, guitars, keys), Praveen Sparsh (multi-percussion), Shreya Devnath (violin), and Paul Jacob (bass). Here, Akhila shares her journey as a musician, the making of the debut album and the collaborations that went into it. Excerpts:
So when did you start working on this Album?
On December 21st, 2018, I woke up feeling horribly blue. It had been a really tough few years on the personal front, a lot of soul searching, worry, and heartache. While brushing my teeth, the word "woebegone," which means sad, popped into my head. Being a language nerd, I started thinking about how, if you split the word into woe + be + gone, or woe + begone, you're actually telling sadness to take a hike! I then sat on my bed and wrote a song titled Woe Begone, words, melody, and all, and sent a phone recording to my friend, singer-guitarist-composer Vedanth Bharadwaj. By this point, I wasn't the least bit sad anymore - my blues had vanished. Vedanth listened to the song and said come on over to the studio. Let's jam. And so we did.
As we began the process of recording, one song led to another, then another, then another. Along the way, I invited four other musician friends -- Doug Carraway (drums, guitars, keys), Praveen Sparsh (multi-percussion), Shreya Devnath (violin), and Paul Jacob (bass) -- to join. They each jumped in without hesitation. So here we are, two and a half years later, with a full-length indie rock album to our name, which, by the way, is called Akhila & the Alchemists. Naturally, the album had to be titled Woe Begone, after the song that started it all.
Tell us about the collaborations that went into making it.
My collaborators are friends first and foremost, each of whom I met at a different stage of my life and musical journey. Paul, Vedanth, Shreya, and Praveen are primarily based in Chennai, while Doug Carraway is my friend from Columbus Ohio, where I lived for 15 years, 1996-2011.
The atmosphere of warmth and trust in which the entire album has come into being is its own miracle, a testament to these friendships. Owing to busy performance/touring schedules at first, and the pandemic next, we have never met as a collective. The process has been almost entirely remote! Vedanth and I worked the most in person, as I recorded most of the vocals at his studio. After he laid down the guitar track, Vedanth would share the project files for the song with the rest, who would send in what they tracked one by one, forming a kind of whimsical assembly line.
Then, it was Doug Carraway's job as our "accidental mixing engineer" who hasn't ever met the rest of the band other than me, to make sense of it all and put each song together. Once Doug began mixing the songs in earnest, it became my morning routine to wake up to the latest mix he dropped in my WhatsApp, so I could listen over morning coffee. The entire process was all about slow cooking, the long ride, a leisurely magical mystery tour.
Another close friend, Bangalore-based visual artist and designer Saloni Sinha, swooped in to create all the illustrations and artwork for the single, video, and album.
I should mention that the album was mastered by a Columbus connection, Brian Lucey, now based in LA with his own studio - Magic Garden Mastering.
What is the story behind the lyrics?
My entire life to date has been a dance of worlds, as a scholar and teacher of literature, as an avid reader, compulsive writer, and late-blooming theatre actor. It's also been a dance of selves - the traditionalist and the rebel, the scholar and the artist, the homebody and the wanderer. This dance, which often feels like a battle on the edge of the abyss, has led up to this moment.
Sure, I've written songs off and on since I was 18, when impelled to do so in the grip of intense emotion. But the songs in Woe Begone reflect the questions that grip all my selves and the worlds they inhabit - climate change, social injustice, oppression, surveillance capitalism, poverty, reckless consumerism, mortality, loneliness. The lyrics take on all the horrible things we do to ourselves, one another, and the planet. In writing them, I've called on the wisdom of poets and artists I revere, from Subramania Bharati to Matsuo Basho, John Keats to Muthuswami Dikshitar. And yet, as much as they are sometimes dark and troubled, the songs embrace joy, love, laughter, solace, and healing through art. Writing them has helped me reconcile my "home" self with my "away" self. The two are now at least willing to be in the same room without trying to annihilate each other!
Your vocals are powerful - and you have always dabbled with music. Tell us a little about your journey so far.
Apparently my mother sang and read to me when I was still in her womb, so it's no wonder I grew up with a natural inclination for literature and music. I trained in Carnatic classical vocal quite early on and drove many different gurus crazy. Simultaneously, I was also listening to my parents' eclectic record collection, everything from Mohammed Rafi to the Beatles. In high school and college, I was your typical rebel, obsessed with 80s pop, progressive/art rock, and alternative music. I tried in vain to drive MS Subbulakshmi out of my head with the likes of Tori Amos and Nirvana!
After I moved to Columbus, Ohio, for grad school and beyond, life in a college town fuelled my indie obsession. I sang in five different bands over the years, went to live gigs at local bars, cafes, and other musical hotspots. I haunted the indie record stores on campus, always on the lookout for new bands and sounds. Once I returned to Chennai in 2011, I threw myself into a life of theatre and performing arts, tradition and culture. In wanting to belong, I locked up the indie rocker and threw away the key. Then, out of the blue, I started writing songs again.
When people hear the album Woe Begone, they sometimes ask me who is singing lead vocals (it's all me, except one duet with Vedanth). One person appreciated my "gender neutral" voice, I think because I don't shrink from low notes… Ever listen to DK Pattamal, MS in her later years, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Fiona Apple? One singer I've always admired for his range and depth is the late Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. His voice was feral and ethereal, potent yet capable of infinite tenderness.
I had a lot of fun writing and overdubbing harmonies -- high, mid-range, and low -- for most of the songs on the album. All in all, I'm quite pleased my voice falls outside the gender binary. It's time we broke free.
How did you decide on the soundscape ; under what genre would you put your music?
This record feels like a miracle. The songs found me. I didn't go looking for them. Each musician I asked to play spontaneously agreed. During the lockdown, working with these friends and kindred spirits on a project this personal kept me sane. Each song was a lifeline with which I held on amid paranoia, helplessness, and fear.
In terms of production, the album is a homage to the 90s, to the bands and albums Doug and I love from that time, everything from Sting to the Smashing Pumpkins. But there are some unexpected elements, the use of the Carnatic violin for instrumental solos; in one instance, konnakol as a means to heighten tension; in another, rapid fire percussion to underscore rap verse. The overall genre, if I had to pick one, would be indie or alternative rock. That's it, fundamentally.
Who knows? Who ever thought I would make my debut album at the age of 47? As an educator, I want to work towards a world in which different forms of artistic expression are accessible to all. I want every learner to have what I've had for the past two and a half years in terms of creative and collaborative growth, the experience of writing through and with your pain. As an artist, though, I'm savouring this moment. I don't need to look
Streaming on all major audio platforms.