Weaving My Ancestors' Voices
an interview with Sheila Chandra
by Mairéid Sullivan
This interview is from the book, 'Celtic Women in Music: A Celebration of Beauty and Sovereignty'
by Mairéid Sullivan, published by Quarry Press.
Sheila Chandra was born in 1965, in London, England, of Indian parentage. She was enrolled at the Italia Conti stage school at the age of 11, where she was taught song and dance as well as acting skills. However, the school's preoccupation with show tunes argued against her personal instincts for jazz, soul, and gospel. This inclination saw her instigate her own rehearsal and practice schedules in opposition to the prescribed timetable. The school did allow her to record an audition tape for Hansa Records however, and this was eventually passed to songwriter and producer Steve Coe. He was in the process of developing a new group, Monsoon, to fuse pop music with Indian classical structures, such as fixed note scales. Sheila Chandra's heritage made her the perfect choice as singer, and three months before she left the Conti school she had become Monsoon's full-time vocalist. After releasing an independent EP, the group was signed to Phonogram Records, for whom their debut single, 'Ever So Lonely', provided a UK Top 10 success in 1982. Chandra had suddenly become Britain's first mainstream Asian pop star at the age of 17. However, following disagreements between artist and record company, Monsoon disbanded at the end of the year.
Sheila spent the next two years furthering her studies into Indian and Asian music, which eventually resulted in her debut solo album in 1984. Both this and a follow-up collection, also released in that year, demonstrated her growing technique and fascination with vocal experimentation. Quiet was the first record to include her own compositions, and her blossoming talent was given further vent in 1985 with two more studio collections. The Struggle was firmly song based, leaning towards the pop dance culture she had known as a child, while Nada Brahma offered a more experimental song cycle, absorbing influences from not only the East but also Afro-Caribbean music (notably the raga-tinged title-track). However, after four albums in two years some rest and recuperation were required.
A gap of five years preceded the release of her
fifth album, Roots & Wings. This accentuated the Indian tradition
of 'drone' music at one level, while continuing her fascination with
cross-matching cultures. As she stated: 'I am often unaware of the
precise joining point between two styles of vocal from different
traditions, it seems so natural to slip from one to the other.' In
1991 she signed to Real World Records, through her own production
company Moonsong, and provided them with Weaving My Ancestors'
Voices. A year later she made her live performance debut at the
Spanish WOMAD Festival. 1994's The Zen Kiss was inspired jointly by
the spirituality implicit in its title and her newfound passion for
INTERVIEW with Sheila Chandra
M.S. I thought your story would be perfectly set, Sheila, in this collection of profiles on Celtic women in music because you sing the Irish traditional songs so truly. Since both ancient Vedic Indian and ancient Celtic European cultures came from Indo-European roots, its great to hear the joining of old traditions that you have created. You have bridged the deep emotional currents of very ancient singing traditions.
S.C. Yes. It really all started to come forth for me in 1989, when I was singing "Lament of the McCrimmon, Song of the Banshee". I came across this fantastic lament, written in 1745 by McCrimmon, as he was about to go out to battle on the front lines. He knew he would be slaughtered, and had to write his own lament because, being the best piper in Scotland and Ireland at the time, there was no one else to write it for him. I thought the idea of having to write your own lament was incredible! You know you're going to die! It was written in a very stoic pentatonic scale, and I wanted to put the feminine depth in. So I was emulating an instrument that is played at funerals and weddings, the shehnai, which has a very reedy, slurring sound. I think it's the closest approximation to human wailing, to keening. So I started to compose melodies based around that emotion for "Lament of the McCrimmon", and it became "Lament of the McCrimmon, Song of the Banshee" which appeared on the 1990 album, Roots and Wings.
That became a seminal track for the trilogy that I've done on Real World, which is all voice and drone. That was the beginning of my folk -Celtic adventure. I had studied a lot of vocal techniques, but up till that point with Monsoon, etc., everything I had done was based around pop vocals and instruments, and Asian vocal and percussion obviously were starting to be absorbed. "Lament of the McCrimmon", was really the leaving off point for me, It was great to be able to contrast a very Eastern sound, being a melancholic scale, with this very stoic pentatonic scale the lament was holding up. You try to be stoic and you break down again. That became the dynamic of the song.
It was really a seminal point also, in that I decided that for the first time in ten years, instead of being a studio based musician, I would start playing live. I thought this was a perfect opportunity. If I could just go out on stage with a drone and make it as long as I wanted to, and weave vocal techniques from around the world together just using my voice, one voice, one mind, that would be the ultimate for me. That's why I wrote Weaving My Ancestors' Voices, The Zen Kiss, and Abonecronedrone.
People called me an Indo-Celtic artist. I'm sure you know it's so difficult to draw a technical boundary when you're between Islamic, Indian, Turkish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Gregorian chant, Celtic music, and then on into Soul music. All those ornaments have commonalties. Vocal styles also lead into one another, via trills and arpeggios and things that are common to all of them. Throughout time, all over the world, the voice is the only instrument that remains the same. It's obviously going to have a common ground. Monks kept it as a primary instrument and the Asian tradition regards voice as the ultimate instrument. Celtic tradition does that too because it's kept the concept of unaccompanied voice, within a strong melodic tradition. I feel that's why whenever I have played in Ireland, the understanding coming from the audience has been so great. There are fundamentals that make the Celtic tradition very similar to the Asian tradition.
M.S. It must be really interesting for the Irish to hear you coming in with that, because they had never had a real influx of Indian culture, in any of the Islands, before the expansion of the British Empire. It's refreshing. It's stimulating!
S.C. I think that, in a way, they've got they're own version. They've kept voice as a central part of their tradition, and so many traditions have forgotten that. They've gone off into chords and orchestras.
For the last four to five hundred years there has been a general cultural deviation, but the Irish tradition seems to have stayed true to the voice, as it's primary instrument. It seems to have maintained similar structures and a similar reverence for melody and for the vocal line, and for the eminence of the singer, and the superiority of the expressive powers of the voice. That is something that is very obvious to see when comparing the Celtic tradition and the Asian tradition.
M.S. Do you like to study history, in terms of social and cultural connections?
S.C. I haven't got time. (laughter) I've been so busy being a singer. I don't go out reading about the social contexts and history, and structures of music. The songs come to me purely because their beauty attracts me. That's really what happened. I became very attracted by Irish music, just because it has such a fantastic sense of melody. I just completely fell in love with some of those melodies and what I could do with them. The first really strong Irish song I came across was "Donalogue", and there is a version of on Weaving My Ancestors' Voices. It's a gorgeous song, and it's supposed to be a thousand years old, and somebody just sang it to me. I just thought it was one of the most fantastic melodies I had ever heard. I had heard several translations of it, when I decided to put in this Islamic section, to describe this woman's feeling. Also, because I found my voice very naturally taking off from the third line in the verse up till the Islamic style vocals, and then coming back down again without a break, I was able to go between Irish and the Islamic tradition pretty seamlessly. I found out later from one of the translations that there is a suggestion that Donalogue rejects the young woman that is singing this song, because she is a gypsy. It's almost like these connections are just completely written in on a kind of cellular level, and anybody who sings those songs gets the feel for the original intention that they were written with.
It was another instance where I could contrast, because the melody is written on a specific scale. Then the melody that I added, which I call Dhyana, meaning compassion, was much more melancholic, much more wild, saying, "I'm just crazy about this person and he won't even look at me". The new scale expressed that kind of wildness.
M.S. Do you find the scale in retrospect?
S.C. It just came out of my mouth. Often that's what happens with me. I don't sit around saying "Moorish people, and Celtic music and Indian music all have something in common". There's a Spanish lullaby on Weaving My Ancestors' Voices, which is probably an original Moorish traditional lullaby. It was sung to Manuel De Falla by his nurse, when he was a young boy, and he later arranged it for piano and voice. Plummy operatic voices usually sing it. It certainly doesn't get sung to a drone and I happened to know it. One day I had my drone tapes on, which are set to around sixty-nine minutes long and I was letting my voice go. It came out, and worked perfectly over the drone. My voice discovers for me, my body discovers for me, rather than anything I think up as any kind of clever intellectual style.
M.S. You must feel fortunate for having this opportunity to explore with your voice. You obviously had a room that had a good echo earlier on in life.
S.C. (laughs) I had the family stairwell which was uncarpeted, and fortunately the house next door was being done up when I was fourteen, so there was nobody there to mind me singing in the evenings.
M.S. How did your family feel about you're singing? They must have loved it.
S.C. I didn't think they took it very seriously. They thought of it as this weird thing Sheila does. She goes off into the night for hours and sings in the stairwell.
M.S. Could they hear you singing?
S.C. They probably could. I had a measure of privacy, but I don't think they seriously considered that it was a direction that I would pursue. My musical freedom is something that I've had to fight for. I've had to make certain specific decisions, and sometimes sacrifices, to make sure that my musical integrity is preserved. I had a hit with Monsoon in the early eighties. My family understood me being a artist, as long as I was that kind of glamorized pop star and accessible on the box every night. When I said I wanted to make solo albums and not release singles, and that I wanted to explore various musical terrains, they were not happy. In fact, they were extremely unhappy with that.
The decision to split up Monsoon was necessary. We were being pushed into toning down our music. I fought for my freedom, because that kind of wide, deep, lateral musical apprenticeship and exploration was very important to me. I haven't released a single since. Real World has understood that and has been very good to work with.
M.S. It must have been nice to have found kindred spirits there?
S.C. Yes, absolutely. I don't think they've always understood exactly what it was I was aiming for, but they've supported it, and they've understood how important it has been for me in not having any interference. I own the copyrights and recordings. They license them on a one-off basis. They've been willing for me to do that. It puts a record company in a slightly insecure position when they don't have an option on the next piece of product. But they've been willing to do that, because they see that it's important to me.
M.S. You're a very strong woman to have been able to manage the business like this.
S.C. I was fortunate, because the person I write with, Steve Coe, who has produced for me ever since Monsoon, when I was making my first five solo albums, handled the business side then. He did all the business so I could concentrate on learning my craft, and learning all the technical stuff in the studio that I needed to know, to get the sound I wanted. I absolutely trusted him. But he hates doing business. So, of 1990, he said, "how about if you do this now"? He only did it because he was part of the writing team, and he wanted to protect the music as much as I did. I have found that I actually like to do it. I don't hate business the way he does. I formed my own production company and publishing company, and I've gone on from there. There are times when I really have to shut Real World out, and not talk to them because I'm crafting something very vulnerable and unfinished and delicate. I really can't have any kind of business energy around at that time. They understand that. They know I'll go to them when I'm ready, and they know that I keep my word. I promise that I'll chat to them later on about the project, and I will. It all works because there is a trust.
M.S. I wanted to draw out more on your emotional sense in singing and exploring your voice. You've developed a range of explorations, and have been innovative with your own voice. What do you feel when you are exploring a new sound combination?
S.C. It's a personal and intimate experience for me. Sometimes it gets to the point where I feel like I'm being sung, where something is coming through me, that it's not really to do with my own intelligence. It's not something that the clever part of me could cobble together. I find myself singing things that I later edit down and put into a piece, and then four or five months later I discover the other levels and meanings that are already woven into them which I didn't see at the time. It really feels as though something more is moving through me. There are also times when I hear things in a drone. I hear almost full-blown performances of things that are far beyond my skills, that I wish I could sing, so other people could hear what I'm hearing in the drone. I really feel guided, as if the songs exist as entities and are just waiting for me to make contact. It's a great feeling, because otherwise, a song could just be like a crossword puzzle that doesn't have a set of answers. A song can be an emotional technical problem that you can't necessarily solve. If you feel it has a personality and it's already talking to you, then eventually you're going to unravel it. It will give you enough information to blurt it through into some kind of concrete reality. So, I became obsessed with finding out about exploring various ways of expressing emotion in the voice.
Singing can get very stylized, and I wanted to know how other people, through various vocal traditions, had expressed the same emotions, despair and joy and all that. Because when you are in joy or when you are in despair, your feeling affects your vocal chords, it literally biologically affects the way your vocal chords work and the way that you sound. That 's the only instrument on which that is possible. I just spend my time building the number of techniques I have at my disposal. Whether it's just for use as a solo voice over a drone or whether it's as lots and lots of layered voices, for example on Roots and Wings, where there's sometimes twenty three voices doing different things, all my voice, layered up to produce a certain emotional effect. Quiet, my second solo album where I started to write, which had no lyrics, and was all about vocal cyclic riffs and things, where I could explore some of these ways of transmitting emotion through the voice.
M.S. Externally, people look and say, "hey, that's kind of like a yoga practice in a way", or it's one of the ancient ways of going into yourself. You've leaned to loosen up your limitations and peel back the layers.
S.C. I find that psychologically there is a glass ceiling on what I think I can do. I hear people who have been studying ornaments in a vocal tradition for twenty years, and think. Oh God! I could never do that! In fact when I just let go, and let the sound come through me, I would often find myself singing those things perfectly. Then I would seize up again and get all nervous, as to whether I could ever repeat that. Part of it was learning to physically free up. I did the Alexander technique and I found that it helped a lot, and I concentrated on that, so that it became much easier for me to let the ornamentation come through. In a way, it keeps that inner critic quiet, because it gives the inner critic something to do. When I do get sung, or played like a flute, as I mentioned before, I get carried away. When I'm on stage and that happens, the audience gets that twinkle in their eye. What do you go and see a live performance for? It's not to see a technically brilliant performance, or a technically perfect performance. It's that spark of connection I think a performer is able to channel and the gift that the performer gives is that once the performer is in contact with that higher intelligence, the audience starts to contact it as well. I found much later, after I started to naturally do this, that, in fact, that was the reason why music and dance were first performed in temples. In a way, the dancer or the singer was praying, was contacting that higher intelligence for the congregation.
M.S. Like a shaman?
S.C. Exactly, a shaman. That's what we still want to see performers and entertainers do for us.
M.S. What about that concept of entertainer?
S.C. When powerful self-knowledge is suppressed, what better thing to do than to hide it under trivia. Entertainment is never going to die. People are always going to want to be entertained. It's one of the safest hiding places. Entertainers by virtue of what they have to do, by virtue of the discipline of singing or dancing, take people more deeply into themselves. If they go far enough into their craft, they will, because they are involving their bodies, stumble onto this knowledge. It is knowledge that cannot be lost. It is cellular. I believe it really is. It will arise. It's the perfect hiding place. It doesn't matter that it's covered in trivia.
M.S. How do you prepare for the stage?
S.C. I try to get calm and get quiet. I do my warm up singing exercises and breathing exercises. I'm lucky. I find that when I start singing I don't have any other chatter in my head. I can simply sing a scale and just be so in love with the way the notes sound against the drone. It's because that's where the interest is when you're dealing with drone music. They counterpoint the form of harmony between the melody notes and the drone notes. I am very fortunate that it is an automatic reaction with me. That's where my ear goes and that's where my interest goes.
I have been aware recently that I didn't learn stagecraft very well. I went to a theater art school when I was growing up and I learned a very disempowered form of stagecraft which I think unfortunately a lot of people get. It's that "the show must go on", it doesn't matter how you feel instead of using your gut emotions and reactions as the fuel for what you should be doing on stage. Sometimes it is right to walk off, or it is right to get the security guards and say, take that guy in the front row out. It is honoring your feelings as a performer. I was taught in the old way, to stuff your feelings down and the show must go on. That's something I'm starting to get around by exploring sacred clowning, and feeling empowered on stage. It is a very powerful thing to go out on stage completely alone for forty-five minutes and not bring on a band half way through. The audience is with you, because they know how vulnerable it is. At the same time, it takes massive amounts of concentration and energy, because you're painting this huge bubble, you have to paint the entire atmosphere of the song with a single voice. Sometimes there's not enough energy for you to be able to fight off all those conflicting emotions about where you are and how safe you are, and how good the sound is, and all that. I think there are definitely other ways of approaching it.
M.S. You work at home in your own studio and create these great concepts. Do you record them at home, or do you go into the studio?
S.C. I go to the studio.
M.S. How do you feel when you walk into the studio? Do you have a problem recreating your sacred space?
S.C. No, absolutely not. Partly because I started with the studio, Monsoon was a studio-based band. We didn't play live. I learned a lot about my craft in the studio. To me the studio is a kind of sacred box where you can create your own world. You can be completely in control. It's a wonderful peaceful space where no one may intrude unless you give them permission. You can go over things as many times as you like. You can go for exactly the sound you want, unlike when you play live, and repeat yourself night after night. You go in to do something new and something delicate and something vulnerable and fresh every single time. I learned, from some very good old-school engineers, how to clear the space so they could work, when to be quiet, when to interject when to make sure the session keeps going on track.
I'm also very fortunate, because Steve Coe, whom I mentioned before, who produced all my music and co-wrote with me, started out as a piano player, but got increasingly interested in voice because of what I was doing. It got to the point where he no longer writes music on the piano. He's very much my cohort in creating that space where the finest nuances of the performance come through. When he mixes all the tracks on recordings, such as Weaving My Ancestors' Voices, he'll spend sixteen hours on the voice alone. That's completely unheard of in the average pop production where you spend sixteen hours on the drum sound and you have a half hour left for the voice because you are running out of time and money. Steve has a huge silence in which to paint the subtlest nuances. It becomes a challenge for the mixing engineer, and it becomes a challenge for the producer. You know it's not going to be covered up by guitars and bass and piano. The spectrum is not going to be eaten up by other sounds.
M.S. Do you plan to have children?
S.C. No, my albums are my children. They take a hell of a lot of energy. I think I'm far too selfish about music to have children.
Zen Kiss 1994
Weaving My Ancestors' Voices 1992
Roots & Wings 1990
Nada Brahma 1985
Out On My Own 1984
Vol. 2-Trance Planet 1995
Vol. 1-Brief History Of Ambient 1994