exclusive interview with Anoushka Shankar

interview by dimmSummer
date: 10.07.05
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is ethnotechno's interview with Anoushka Shankar. Why is it the right time for your album "Rise"? What in the world, in yourself, makes it the right time right now for the album?

Anoushka: On some level I feel like you can only do it personally and hope that the rest will work out. I didn't necessarily think that it was the right time in the world, but definitely felt like it was the right time for me, and kind of had to trust that the rest would follow. I've at this point done three classical albums, which were purely sitar playing. I had about a four-year break from my last album to this one, and definitely have grown to the point in myself where I wanted to do something different. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was just more that I was progressing in that way. there are so many other things that I love and listen to and that I am outside of the classical space. After a certain point you want your music that you're making to reflect more of who you are, and so I wanted to do this.

ET: What's the current tune stuck in your head right now? Is there a certain melody, or certain song you heard on the radio stuck in your head right now?

Anoushka: Ummmm...

ET: When you woke up this morning, humming something in your head, you know?

Anoushka: What's that song called, from Bjork's "Homogenic"? Is it called Joga? "State of emergency"? You know, that line of her singing up high?

ET: That is so weird, because it's on my station - it was on last night - I threw a whole bunch of it up on my station last year because I figured, why not just put 'em on there? And when it came on, it was so refreshing just to hear that difference...it's still electronic, but there's a lot of organic soul in it.

Anoushka: She's organic and she's raw, there's something very rough and uncut about her. Yeah, it's one of those albums I keep going back to. So we were driving back yesterday and I was listening to "Homogenic" again.

ET: Very cool. What's more powerful for you, melody or lyrics? Or do you think they're both hand-in-hand?

Anoushka: Lyrics are very secondary to me. I definitely hear melody first, and often find that I've listened to a song a thousand times and don't have a clue what the words are. If the words are too clear, I almost get distracted, because I listen to music for melody. The lyrics are a beautiful expression, but I feel so much of that it personal -- you take away from what you listen with your own experience, and if I'm told too specifically what to think by the words, I'm a little bit less moved, for the most part.

ET: But then sometimes a lot of people don't know what the writer's writing about exactly, if they're vague enough, and it becomes the listener's own song, they kind of make it their own. Does that ever happen with you?

Anoushka: Absolutely. Then it's more like poetry, it's abstract still, even though it's a voice being used and it's an expression of that person's self. It doesn't even have to be big and profound, it can also be a very small moment being described -- someone sitting on a bus and thinking of someone. That's not big enough that I feel tied down to it, but it's a very sweet moment that you can relate to. Then it's beautiful as well. But for the most part I find myself having to look for the lyrics later, I don't notice them at first.

ET: Well, you talk about poetry. You also write poetry, I don't know if many people know that. Apparently your poetry has to do with a certain emotion, do you want to talk a little bit about that? Is this poetry something that you want other people to see and hear and read, or is it very personal and just another expression for you?

Anoushka: For the most part it's another expression and I would probably feel a little too naked if other people saw it when I wasn't expecting it, because there's a certain performer hat that you put on when you're doing an art form for people. I'm in that mode when I'm onstage and I'm sharing with people. But then a lot of the writing that I do, even if it's prose or poetry, is very much for me. And I've done some things on my very first album where I sort of wrote a corresponding poem for every piece of music. Which you can take as you may, at that point I was 16 years old, so it was my expression and what I wanted to get out to people. And that was different, because I knew it was going out there. But If you were to just suddenly read my book, I'd feel very freaked out. (laughs)

ET: Well, you talk about being naked, and I think performing onstage is probably like that, there's a certain amount of nakedness because you're in a moment. A lot of musicians, you can see on their face when they hit this... "pocket," where you have no idea where they are, where this stuff is coming from, and it's divine in a sense. How do you explain that? Where are you in that moment, and do you see parallels of that kind of naked energy in acting, which we'll get to next, where you're kind of exposed in a moment, and not thinking of anything else but what is right there?

Anoushka: Could you make that question any bigger? I think one thing I do believe as far as whether it comes to you or not is...because I play a certain type of music that requires as much training as it does, I wouldn't say it just comes on its own. There's a certain level of study and dedication I did have to give to that first to feel comfortable enough with the music, with my level of musicianship with the instrument, with my father's training, and feeling confident that I'd received that well enough before I could even begin to try letting go, in order for that to come to me. At the beginning there was a great process of playing what I knew, of memorizing and exploring in a very technical way how to play the instrument. And then as I grew with that, I started to be able to let go a little bit more. And I think that "letting go" is the key phrase for being able to trust that something's going to come to you, and that's the only way you're open to that level of momentary playing. It really is in the moment. You just close your eyes and trust that when you put your hands on the instrument, something's going to happen. It could work for a second, and you'll hit a wrong note the 2nd second, but you just have to trust that you know it and that it's going to be there without you thinking about it. And for each moment that you trust that it's happening, it continues to happen. That's one way to describe it. And the second I start to think about it and plan it, maybe I'm back on the earth again. But as long as you're letting go, you can trust that it's going to be there.

ET: So there's no real thought going on - it's an intangible kind of thing, no planning involved.

Anoushka: Yes and no. I'm a fan of half-planning. You can definitely have an idea in your mind before you jump into something, but you don't have to feel worried that you're going to screw it up. You have to reach that point where you trust yourself and your instrument enough that you have an idea and your hands are going to do it for you, as opposed to getting worried before. For example, when I'm playing along with my father, I never know which second I'm going to have to play because he'll suddenly look at me, and I'm supposed to play. So I might have a little idea in my head, but it might not match, it might change, it might develop, maybe he's switched the tempo on me in that time period, so you can't plan exactly. You almost end up messing more up if you plan it exactly, because it might not fit with that moment, and you just have to trust that it'll be OK.

ET: Do you enjoy that aspect of it? Is that basically why you're in it, because of that raw energy?

Anoushka: Yeah, I mean it's the scariest and the most amazing part of it. It's obviously safer to know you're going to do something great when you're up there, but to not know, and then to see within yourself that validation that it worked, that you are good, that you can do something beautiful that feels beautiful to you and to others is validating. It's beautiful. It's inspiring.

ET: That's great. Are you a thrill-seeker, by any chance?

Anoushka: (laughs) Yeah, absolutely.

ET: Is that because the thrill that you find onstage is that kind of intense moment, where you don't know what's going to happen, where you're going to go with this, but you know it's going to be great, and it's the same kind of thing that you seek in life? Or is it something there to balance the tradition, the schooling and the very strict nature of being in that kind of world - just having your own life outside of that?

Anoushka: Growing up, I think I was very consciously seeking things that were opposite from what I did, meaning very much in the now, very modern, very hard, very crazy, because I saw my music as very spiritual and very serious and very old, and to balance that out for myself I needed the opposite. But as I've been growing, I've been seeing this great level of coming together of all of those things. They're not necessarily so different, and even when they're opposite, they'll often end up being the same. That has been a really beautiful thing to me, and this entire shift has been that I feel in general, I seek intensity on all different levels. It's just a level of being able to dive into different things and experience them and explore them -- even if I leave them the next day, just to feel that I could know that and that I could be there, that's exciting for me.

ET: Is acting one of those things? Is acting something you feel you may go back to again? I know we talked about the nakedness in performing and acting, do you see the parallels? Is it the same kind of energy that you experience, or is it different?

Anoushka: I find them very different, I can't compare them evenly because I've had one experience in acting, so I'm in no way an expert as far as film goes. But I found the energy maintenance very difficult, because onstage you're there, and you have to give your all, and then it's done in a few hours and you're spent. But with acting, it's like you can be sitting there waiting for six hours and never know exactly when you're supposed to be ready to go, so you're not relaxed and you're not working, you're kind of coiled and tense and ready to spring whenever they need you to.

ET: So it's like an expanded version of being onstage, if you're coiled and tense and ready...

Anoushka: It's almost more like being in the studio, because it's not immediate. I think in general I prefer stage. I would love to do theater more than I would want to do film, and you have that instant feedback from people, which is ultimately part of why you're an artist, because you're giving it to others as well. And if you don't get to sense it when you're doing it, half of the magic is gone, I think. But with acting, I found it interesting and I definitely would want to do more because of my first experience. I felt like I specifically chose one that would be fun, as opposed to one that would really challenge me. It challenged me because I had to play a dancer as well, and so I chose the double challenge. But within the acting itself, it was relatively straightforward, and I'd love to do something more intense.

ET: Do you choose projects like the acting where you have to learn Bharatnatyam or something like that because you want to test yourself more, and once you accomplish it you get that high of looking at what you accomplished? It's not gloating - but it's like "I did this, and I did it to the best of my abilities." Is that something you look for? I guess it's the whole thrill-seeking thing again, seeing if you can do it.

Anoushka: Yes and no. It's two levels. One is learning, because I get a real thrill from learning, because you grow as a person, the more you know, the more you experience, and I feel better each time I do something as a person. But there's a real level of... oh it's hard to explain, I feel like there's no point in giving a surface answer with you! I feel like on some level, when you believe you have talent, you need to keep pushing yourself to find out if you really do. In my case, I was brought up with a great level around me of "Oh, she has the potential," "Oh, she's a prodigy," "Oh, she can do this." I keep wanting to see for myself if I can, because I'm never 100% convinced. Know what I mean? (laughs)

ET: Totally- in high school everybody was always like, "Sank, you're so talented. You're gonna be famous someday. Are you gonna remember me when you're famous?" And I'm like, "What are you talking about," you know? Actually, I remember everybody I went to high school with - they don't know who I am, they forgot me. I remember all their names and their faces and everything. I'd go home to upstate New York, go to some seedy bar, it's like Christmas Eve: nothing to do, just going home to see family, and I go to the bar and I see all the jocks and they're all fat now and everything, and I know everybody there. They're not talking to me because they forgot who I was. They're still in their same kind of high school thing 15 years later, you know?

Anoushka: It's kind of scary.

ET: What was high school like for you? I heard you were homecoming queen, which is really interesting, it's very American.

Anoushka: Oh, God! (laughs)

ET: Obviously you found a balance between being American and then being Indian, or Indian-American. Did you have any of those kind of identity struggles that a lot of people have?

Anoushka: Everybody does, when you have any kind of... [duality] - well no, teenage in general, you have that kind of struggle. Then you throw in any kind of duality and you have a fear of not fitting in and it just quadruples, a challenge right there for any kid. I definitely would go through it at times, but for the most part I was just such an individualist because of everything being so strange in my life. Before I moved to the states, I went to two schools at the same time. I went to school in London and in New Delhi. I'd start the school year in London, go do it in the winter in Delhi, and finish up in London again. And so I had two homes, two lives, and then we switched from London to the states, but that continued. So it wasn't just growing up in one place with two cultures, I literally belonged to both and was always halfway in both, because you can't be completely in two places. As a result, I immediately gave up trying to understand myself in relation to boxes, because I didn't fit in any of them, and had to only figure myself out in relation to me. And I understood that at a very young age, I was just going to be different. Not that I'm special, but everybody's different anyway, and just understood there was no point trying to figure that out and I would just be me. And that made it so much easier. It also helped that the part of the states that I moved to, in my high school we didn't have a huge Indian population. In London I'd grown up with a huge Indian population around me, so I was placed into a box of the Indian British kids, and in India I was one of the Indian kids. And here, people didn't have a clue. The kids would look at me and be like, "What's India? Where is India? Who are you?" (laughs) So I just had to be me from the very beginning.

ET: So is that why you won homecoming queen? Because everybody was just...?

Anoushka: Ahh, oh yeah - let's put it on context. I figure if there were like five girls to be voted for, then even if people didn't know who I was, they knew my name anyway, so I may have been their third option. So then there were the people who knew me and there were people who knew that I was famous, so let's just say maybe it was...

ET: Oh, not at all - I wasn't even talking about the famous part, I was talking about - was there any kind of overcompensation because you wanted to really fit in?

Anoushka: No, I went to this fabulous kind of artsy-fartsy high school. It was cool to be goth in my school.

ET: Was this in Cali?

Anoushka: This was in California, in San Diego. So I had my whole little black lipstick phase, and...(shrieks with laughter)

ET: I've not seen any pictures of those.

Anoushka: I'm actually in a book, sadly. There was a book called "Beyond Beauty" that was about teenage girls who were gonna end up becoming something. And it was an interesting book because they had the Williams sisters, Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, everyone kind of before they were super-famous. And I decided to pose for the whole thing with blue lipstick and a spider drawn down my face.

ET: Nice- with a little thread...

Anoushka: Yeah, with a little thread hanging from my eye, and a spider on my cheek, yeah. (laughs) But I was expressive as a teenager. I think I enjoyed experimentation right at the beginning. You just try all kinds of things. I went to the kind of school where that was appreciated as creative, as opposed to just seen as freakish. So you could really push the envelope and all the kids really pushed the envelope in my school. People used to come to school with a stocking on their head, and it was all OK. We were the only school in the country that had skateboarding PE, so we had all the surfers.

ET: Are you serious?

Anoushka: Yeah, it was great!

ET: Wow man, San Diego.

Anoushka: (laughs) It was a great place to grow up, because you just got to test yourself.

ET: Is your tattoo part of the whole... two tattoos? Where's your other one?

Anoushka: On my neck.

ET: Oh, OK, because your hair is covering it up. Why don't you tell us the impetus for getting tattoos and what they mean to you?

Anoushka: I guess they're expression again. With the first one it was impulsive, I definitely had always thought about getting one, but...

ET: Was the back or the neck the first one?

Anoushka: The neck was the first one. This is so funny. (laughs) I just thought it would be something interesting to do, and my sister was out in San Diego with me and we both realized that we wanted one, and we just kind of looked at each other and went "Well, why not?" and literally just went that day. I drew both of ours on a piece of paper, very messy. They looked at my drawings and were like, you really want this on your back? And I was like no, I'm hoping you can clean it up a little for us. (laughs)

ET: What's the design?

Anoushka: It's a doodle, actually, but I just sort of made a spiral that turns into a lotus, and then I reversed it for hers, it's rotated. Where mine are curvy petals, hers are straight, mine are straight where hers are curvy. So they're almost exactly the same but not quite. You have to be careful with tattoos, and I think I hit the right balance where it's still something feminine enough, but I don't like the girly swirly tattoos either. This one looks unique, it's my drawing, but it's still not so rough that I'll regret it in 30 years. And both of them are in places where I can hide them if I need to. But the second one I actually got done with my best friend - she got an OM and I got a lotus. And...yeah, I think I would continue to get more in my life as people come through. So far now, two have been done with people that I'm eternally close to, so...

ET: So it's an experience to get it with someone and then have that whole memory of it.

Anoushka: You have a story. It's not even that I'm saying "Oh, this person's gonna be in my life forever," but when you share something that intense it's nice to have something to walk away with.

ET: How do you feel about the interview so far?

Anoushka: I'm impressed. (laughs)

ET: Yeah? OK, cuz you were talking about glazing over answers and somtimes I think you've got this look in your eyes where I'm like, "Oh, she's got this answer, she's said it 50 times this week..."

Anoushka: What's really funny is when you get to level 3... I mean, I've been doing interviews since I was 13. So it's like, you can't feel bad for a reporter if they don't ask me a new question, really. Especially when there's a few which are just so predictable and obvious, you can't blame them. But you reach level 2 where you start to sound very rehearsed because you know what you're saying already. Then you reach level 3, where you're acting! And I'll pause in all the right places and then I look like I'm thinking! (laughs)

ET: Ohhh...yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Anoushka: Where I'll just be like "Well...I think that..." (laughs) Actually, I know exactly what I'm going to say. And that's not fake either, you are who you are. And it's a lot of free psychiatric work, doing press. I'm on the couch whenever I need analysis and I can figure myself out, which is great, but you can also get very self-centered, which is not so great, because you can often be led to believe that everyone cares about all these little nitty-gritty things in your life, which is really not true. But for the most part, everyone's life...your life has just as much worth as somebody else's. I sit here telling people about my first this and the first time that I cried about something, and you gotta keep that in context, in can be a little scary if you get wrapped up in this.

ET: We were talking about personal growth and change you've had from your first album to your fourth album now, you've gotten to finally express yourself the way you want to. Talk about how much involvement you had with the music, talk about Guarav Raina [from the Punditz] who helped produce some tracks, and also finally if we can expect any electronic remixes, because they are an electronic act... or is that something the label is frowning upon because that would put the music in a light maybe they don't want it to be seen?

Anoushka: Let me start at the beginning. First, three solo albums. Actually, you know what? I don't know. Because I feel like each time you do something, you're very proud of it right then, and when you look back at it a few years later, at least in my case, because you keep growing, the stuff from earlier always seems a little bit more invalid in relation to where I am today. So I feel like the fact that I say to you that this fourth album is the most personal and the one I'm proudest of, doesn't take away from the earlier three being something amazing to me at that time. But I will say to you today looking back at them, there's a huge leap for me that I've taken. And that's because I was focusing on performing on those albums. I was playing the sitar, I was doing the best that I could, I was playing good music, I was playing what I'd learned.

ET: Good music? What does that mean?

Anoushka: It means when you're trying to be good. You're playing something right, or you're thinking about what would be right.

ET: For yourself or for the listener or for who?

Anoushka: It hardly matters, almost, but both. I think because it's classical, for me it was more about playing the ragas correctly, that's really where the bulk of my brain would be. Expanding on them in the appropriate way, and trying to express them. As a result, if I look back on them, they're played well, but I don't think anyone would get a sense of who I am from hearing it. You know, the way you can hear someone and just sort of judge what kind of a person they would be. (trails off, sound in background)

ET: Is that your phone?

Anoushka: (laughs) Yeah, my little Pink Panther ring in the background.

ET: I like that- actually, Tapan was telling me there's a "Bhangra Fever" ringtone...I want to download it- I think it's only on Cingular...I'm going to download it.

Anoushka: I'm on Cingular, but this model is not out in the states yet so I can't register it to get ringtones. So this one, I feel like it's more me, and it's more personal. Not just me sort of trying to play well for people, but it's things that I love, things that have influenced me being who I am (cuckoo-clock ringstones in background), so it's very different from anything I've done before. And... (laughing) what was the rest of your question again?

ET: I don't remember right now- but do you have particular rings for particular people?

Anoushka: Sometimes. (laughs)

ET: So is he the Pink Panther one?

Anoushka: Pink Panther is my general ring. My mom has the private eye ring - Inspector Gadget thing. Checking up on me, is how I always see it.

ET: Let's talk about your mom. I know she's a major influence in your life. Everybody talks about your dad, obviously, but let's talk about your mom. What does she do to make you who you are today?

Anoushka: She is so fiercely individualistic and independent in her own life, that she is entirely responsible for me being in any way sane in my own life, in the position that I'm in. She is amazing, and the fact that on any given day she'd look at me and mean it with her heart, she'd be like "Stop playing! Don't ever play if you're not happy, go be a marine biologist if that's what you want to be." She couldn't care less, because it's just so much about me doing what I need to do. And she's always been fiercely supportive of that. As a woman as well, she's just got so many close female friends. Almost more than my father and all of his students, I felt like I grew up in a circle of women. My grandmother, my godmothers, my mom, her friends, my aunts -- they're all fierce women. Fiercely beautiful, they're lyrical and poetic, but they're also just rock-solid. They're everything to me.

ET: When you were growing up, did you feel forced to have to go into music, or was it something that you just gravitated towards naturally?

Anoushka: I've gotta say, both my parents were very clear about the fact that I wasn't being forced, but I still felt forced slightly anyway. Kind of knowing the situation, seeing that everyone was hoping that I would, there was a lot of pressure involved in taking on this challenge. It wasn't as simple as just picking up something that I liked doing, there was a whole world associated with it. The good thing my parents did was made it more about being an option. They just said "Check it out, and if you don't like it you can always stop." So every step of the way I didn't feel like I was making a life-changing decision, I was just experimenting with it. That enabled me to play long enough to end up falling in love with it myself. And at that point it was kind of like beyond the challenge, I want to do it anyway so I'll take it on.

ET: So if you weren't playing sitar, what would you be doing?

Anoushka: I did always gravitate towards the piano. That was my first love, and for many years I preferred playing it to the sitar. So I'm guessing, it's hard to say, but I'm guessing that I probably would have gone in that direction. And if not that, I love dance, I love the stage. I really love the stage, I'm a performer.

ET: When you have kids of your own, are you going to introduce them to this in the same way that you were?

Anoushka: That's a hard question...

ET: Is there a pressure that there's just an obvious divine talent in this DNA that you just have to continue it, in a sense?

Anoushka: It wouldn't seem that strange to me. In the same way that you can inherit things in your temperament from a parent, I don't see why you wouldn't inherit affinities and talents as well. I don't find that so strange. But I do find it tricky, I don't know if there's a correct way to go about raising a child. I think people tend to go generationally in cycles -- there's always one parent who forced a kid to do something and the next kid grows up and says they'll never do that and doesn't make the kid do anything, and that kid grows up without the discipline and says "Why didn't you teach me that?" It always goes back and forth, and I think I would try as much as possible to just cushion the child into knowing that it's OK, whatever it is that ends up happening. And exposing them, I think that's important. I feel really grateful that I grew up comfortable with my culture, more than just the music. For me, the music was my biggest tie into India and my culture, but even before that, I was going to concerts, I was learning shlokas from my mother, I was reading the Amar Chitra Katha comic books which tell you all the mythological stories in cartoon form. So I grew up comfortable with that ancient feeling of where I came from, and that would be almost more important to me than passing the music on.

ET: What's your perception of the perception of you in India versus America? Or just the entire Western world, basically we're talking about everything outside of India.

Anoushka: I think I'm less famous outside of India, but when people know me, they know me for reasons that I'm happier about. In the sense that if people know me, it's because they know that I'm a sitar player or because they happen to like the music.

ET: Outside of India?

Anoushka: Outside of India. So they know me with a certain level of substance and respect for who I am and what I do. Which is a very substantiating feeling, it's nice to get out there and have people go "Wow, you do this really beautiful thing." Not necessarily look up to you for that, but just appreciate what you do. Whereas in India, I'm famous, so there can be a lot of people who come and ask for autographs, and then ask me what I do. They see me in the papers...I'm more of a personality there, and that is not so exciting, not so important, it seems fluffy. And if people do know what I do, there's a lot more controversy there, it's about "Does she deserve it? Is she really that good? Can she really live up to this? Nyeah nyeah nyeah, she's a woman, is that really why?" Just so much crap associated with me trying to do what I do, and it's never taken just in that light. So it goes both ways. I definitely get a lot for being that famous in India, it's a good life that I live, so that's great.

ET: But is there a lot of judgment like "Oh, she's got tattoos... and this new album, it's not..."

Anoushka: For the most part, and this can only go so far, but within the classical music world, I live slightly separate from it, I'm not immersed in it in the way that other classical musicians are. And that is exactly what enables me to do something like this and talk to you and your type of a website and people who relate to that as well, because I do cross over into both. But that means I'm not wholly immersed in that one either, so they don't see me like I belong in the same way. Right from when I start speaking, I have an American accent, forget the tattoos and the lifestyle, right there I'm not entirely Indian. There will always be a part of them that won't accept that entirely. But I don't even mind that so much, I don't mind being considered different, I just get frustrated at times when it gets so caught up in the politicking of it, you know? And like many other worlds, the classical music world has a lot of politics, a lot of backbiting. I only get frustrated by that because at the end of the day, regardless of whether someone is or isn't, or does or doesn't "deserve," which are really unanswerable questions at the end of the day, because there's always one person who gets things and one person who doesn't, and one person who works hard and one person who doesn't. I just wish that they would be more supportive of the fact that there's a lot of young people out there trying to play this amazing classical music, and getting it forward, and at the end of the day, isn't that better than nothing?

Fade into "Beloved" - original composition by Anoushka Shankar