(left) Doug Carraway and Akhila Ramnarayan ;
(left) Doug Carraway and Akhila Ramnarayan ;

Starcracker’s Akhila Ramnarayan pays homage to Oliver Sacks in the upcoming release 'Bismuth'

Ahead of the single’s release, along with the release of a subsequent podcast episode exploring the song and its subject, we chat with Akhila about the song, what it means to her, the musical treatment that they’ve gone for, and more

As Chennai scholar and musician Akhila Ramnarayan finished reading Oliver Sack’s third essay, My Periodic Table, an idea to write a song around the same, sprung up in her mind. Intertwined in thoughts about the acclaimed late author and neurologist, the periodic element of bismuth (the subject of focus in the essay) and more, Akhila, part of the musical duo Starcracker, which also features musician Doug Carraway, has co-written a song titled Bismuth with Doug, as an ode to Oliver and his literary piece.

Ahead of the single’s release, along with the release of a subsequent podcast episode exploring the song and its subject, we chat with Akhila about the song, what it means to her, the musical treatment that they’ve gone for, and more. Excerpts:

Q

Tell us about the lyrics of the song. How do the extracts from Oliver Sacks’ essay tie into it?

A

I wrote the lyrics for Bismuth in May 2023, the day I read four essays by Oliver Sacks written after his cancer diagnosis. The lyrics of the song are inspired in particular by the third essay, My Periodic Table, in which Oliver writes about the element bismuth — which is often overlooked, he says, by metal lovers. To Oliver, the periodic table represented permanence in the face of life’s transience, as did the night sky “powdered with stars” (John Milton’s phrase, as he tells us). I was struck by the beauty of his mind and imagination, the deeply felt love that flowed from his pen (he wrote by hand) towards all animate and inanimate things at a time when he knew his days were numbered. It felt vital and urgent to commemorate 83, bismuth’s atomic number, and the year Oliver never lived to see. I felt like I was interleaving many voices in the writing — that of Oliver, his loved ones, bismuth, the universe — as much as I was singing in my own. It was transformative.

(left) Doug Carraway and Akhila Ramnarayan ;
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Q

How does Bismuth reflect the themes of the album Day is Night?

A

Bismuth explores the life of the mind and heart, the power of a roving imagination providing respite from life’s repeated blows, drudgery, and the things that divide us on a fractured, wounded planet. It grapples with the inevitability of old age, disease, and death, but reminds us everything is interconnected. I think you’ll find these sentiments expressed in different ways throughout the album, though it traverses a range of genres — altpop, indie rock, and folk.

Q

Can you describe the sonic treatment for this song?

A

Bismuth is a standout single, and Doug knew it the moment he heard the initial draft I sent him. As far as the melody goes, I’m never sure which part of my brain (Carnatic or rock) leads in the act of writing. I knew I wanted the singing to be pristine, as close as I could get to MS Subbulakshmi’s voice when she held a plain note. From a production standpoint, this song is eerily minimalist compared to the other tracks on the record, but still took a lot of work. Doug decided to eschew the usual bass-drums-guitar and go for a “vocal and ethereal elements” treatment.

(left) Doug Carraway and Akhila Ramnarayan ;
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Q

How easy or difficult is it produce an entire album while residing in two different continents?

A

Doug and I didn’t plan to write an album, just went where the music took us song by song. Making original music starts with songwriting but involves discrete additional stages: arranging, recording, editing, mixing, mastering. It's a messy process, obsessive, nonlinear - art and science and engineering all at once. Now throw in geographical distance, and you’ve quadrupled the challenge. 

Doug built a home studio to record instruments and mix.  I got some recording software and a decent/basic microphone so I could track scratch vocals in my bedroom. I did all my final recording at the wonderful Promusicals Experience studio in Chennai. The folks there are kind, patient, and make you feel at home. Doug mixed everything in Columbus. The album was mastered by the brilliant Brian Lucey, formerly from Columbus, at his LA studio Magic Garden Mastering. 

Q

How has your camaraderie evolved as band mates and friends over the years?

A

Doug and I have been friends since the late 1990s but only started writing songs  together in 2019.  In the intervening years, 15 of which I spent in Columbus, Ohio, we supported each other’s bands, checked out live art of all kinds by national and international acts, and immersed ourselves in the local indie music scene. We constantly listened to records, driving around in Doug’s car, lounging around in our respective homes, and discussed them threadbare. This collaboration feels like another layer, another phase in a friendship marked by trust, gentleness, brutal honesty, and a whole lot of laughter. It’s once in a lifetime.

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