State of Flow
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2020 Anil Prasad.
Sheila Chandra’s meditations on the muse have informed her creative journey on multiple fronts. Between 1982 and 2009, the British artist’s focus as a singer exploring the edges of solo voice possibilities, experimental music and Asian fusion brought her worldwide renown. She’s also the author of three acclaimed self-help books: Banish Clutter Forever, Organizing for Creative People and How to Live Like An Artist. In addition, Chandra serves as a life coach, using her decades of entertainment industry experience to help advise and steer clients towards positive career outcomes.
Chandra first came to public attention in a groundbreaking BBC television drama called Grange Hill between 1979 and 1981, during which she explored important cultural issues related to being an Asian girl integrating into larger British society. She quickly moved on from the acting realm, and while still a teen, launched the groundbreaking band Monsoon in July 1981, together with producer Steve Coe, who would go on to work with her across her subsequent music career.
Monsoon released a single album titled Third Eye in 1982 and had a major global hit single with “Ever So Lonely” which many point to as the most pivotal moment in the integration of South Asian musical influences into the mainstream since Ravi Shankar worked with The Beatles in the ‘60s. But the group’s label and management could barely get their heads around Monsoon’s intent. Its success surprised them all, resulting in many unwanted demands and tone-deaf suggestions, specifically when it came to the gratuitous exoticization of Chandra’s Indian cultural heritage.
Chandra and Coe chose to escape the unwanted pressure and disbanded Monsoon in November 1982. They rapidly moved to launching Chandra’s uncompromising solo career on Coe’s independent Indipop label. Releasing music via Indipop meant they had no-one to answer to but themselves and they pursued a model of licensing its output to other labels.
Chandra released five albums on Indipop between 1984 and 1991. The recordings saw her initially extending the Western pop-meets-Indian traditional music approach she took with Monsoon, but with less extravagant production. She also ventured into more experimental realms. For instance, 1984’s Quiet is a 10-part soundscape that combines wordless vocals and konnakol with sparse, atmospheric accompaniment. Her other work during this period is often recombinant, merging her many vocal approaches with contemporary ‘80s production, Indian classical constructs, and on several occasions, both.
After her first stint with Indipop, Chandra signed established her own company, Moonsung Productions, and licensed her subsequent three albums to Real World. Weaving My Ancestors’ Voice from 1992 and The Zen Kiss from 1994 found Chandra focusing on solo voice and drone work. In addition to her expansive take on Indian music, she also integrated British Isles folk influences, showcasing the two traditions’ rarely-acknowledged shared, historic paths, including the Celtic-Vedic connection, as well as the Celts’ journeys into the Indian subcontinent.
AboneCroneDrone from 1996 was her most exploratory album to date, putting the drone component prominently into the foreground, and sometimes uniquely combining bagpipes and digeridoo with tanpura. A quarter-century later, all three albums, recorded at Real World’s state-of-the-art studios, retain their status as some of the most ambitious audiophile vocal recordings ever made.
Chandra returned to Indipop for her next musical phase, pursuing collaborations with Coe under the project name The Ganges Orchestra. Two mini-albums, EEP1 and EEP2, and the full-length release This Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence Is False) emerged between 1999 and 2001. The work reflects Chandra at her most mercurial and unpredictable. Their pieces challenge traditional songcraft conventions, sometimes veering into glitch, distortion and atonal territories. Chandra’s vocals also often appear in heavily treated and processed forms on them.
In 2007, Chandra joined The Imagined Village, an eclectic British all-star group founded by Simon Emmerson that combined traditional musics from across the world. The band also featured Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Johnny Kalsi, Sheema Mukherjee, Chris Wood, and The Young Coppers. Chandra took part in their first, self-titled 2007 album and tour.
The Imagined Village turned out to be Chandra’s final project as a musician. In 2009, she was diagnosed with burning mouth syndrome, a condition that makes it extraordinarily painful to sing, speak, laugh, and cry. As a result, Chandra made the extremely difficult decision to retire from the world of music. While Chandra does make the occasional public appearance speaking, she does so with intense preparation and recovery.
Chandra turned to the literary world as a new outlet for her creative instincts. By 2010, she had successfully launched a career as a professional writer, with the bestselling Banish Clutter Forever published that same year. Innerviews began its comprehensive series of email-based interviews across 2020 with Chandra by exploring the beginnings of this fruitful transition.
Describe how your journey towards becoming an author began.
The loss of my voice was a huge issue for me, both physically and emotionally. Singers tend to define their identities around their voices. And as speaking was painful, I needed to find another way to communicate. But that wasn’t what was uppermost in my mind. I wanted to find a new profession and a new way to be useful.
I’d already been writing a journal with increasing frequency for the previous 15 years by that point, so I’d probably unconsciously put in some of the 10,000 hours it’s said you need to, to be good at anything. And I joined a creative writing class and did a “How to write a book in three months” workshop that was, by chance, being held locally. Sharukh Husain, the screenwriter of Beecham House, who took the workshop, also described what it was like to be an author. I immediately recognized publishing as being parallel to the music business in many ways. In short, I was pretty confident that I’d “got it” in terms of how to work professionally as a writer. Though there are a few conventions which differ, that has proved to be the case.
One month to the day after that workshop, I had a first draft of Banish Clutter Forever in my hands. To my surprise, writing straight into a laptop felt more and more natural, probably because I was having to communicate with friends increasingly by IM and email rather than speech. When I write books, I feel as though I’m having a conversation with a single reader, and that’s a huge advantage. And although I find formulating the correct concept and tone for a new project hard, the actual writing is generally pretty painless.
What made you want to focus on writing books that help people in their organizing and creative endeavors?
Well, I certainly don’t have the imagination to be a novelist. And as to drawing material from people and situations I know, that feels like a breach of confidentiality or loyalty. I’ve tried creative writing and it contains too many head-scratching, blank moments. Novelists talk of the book’s characters “taking over,” but that never happens to me.
And although I probably seem, from my musical work, the unlikeliest of people to be writing non-fiction, I do have this almost non-neurotypical way of seeing a problem in terms of its bones. And then pinpointing the point of leverage—the one action that’s going to shift the entire thing most easily. I was doing this with friends pretty naturally and thought it might be a transferable skill with writing non-fiction.
I started with home organizing because, as I describe in Banish Clutter Forever, I grew up in a hoarding, clutter-filled household and hated it. But I was doomed to recreate it because I hadn’t learned anything different. In time, I consciously worked out a system that enabled me to live clutter-free with very little effort. There certainly are no daily tidying up sessions. And friends that dropped round unannounced remarked on it and suggested I write it down and get it published. I also felt that my first book should probably be for a more mainstream audience as it would probably be easier to get a first publishing deal that way. From there, writing a book about organizing for creative people and artists was a short leap.
With my second book, I became all too aware that many potentially great artists never have the guidance, explanation of work culture, and networking opportunities that I had as a young singer and songwriter. Organizing Your Creative Career is an attempt to fill that gap. Launching yourself should not depend on how well connected or well-resourced you are, though sadly it often does.
As to satisfaction, I love to be useful. It’s always been my thing.
One of the fundamental principles in Banish Clutter Forever is making the intellectual leap towards “letting go” of things, routines and even beliefs. This is, in fact, one of our species’ biggest difficulties. How does one begin transcending these attachments and how does the book help them progress through it?
I really didn’t write it to be zen in any way. What frustrated me most about all the clutter books I read—while I was still having issues with clutter—was that they assumed you were able-bodied, full of energy, had the time to tidy up every day, and were committed to the house looking tidy for its own sake. In these books, women are encouraged to see their houses as extensions of their own bodies and to be ashamed if their houses are either untidy or dirty. Those were all erroneous assumptions as far as I was concerned, especially by the time I came to write Banish Clutter Forever, as pain severely limited my energy and most of it had to be spent on working, rather than living in some kind of show home.
Moreover, there is a supercilious tone to many of them—a patronizingly middle-class assumption which comes from New Age circles that not being able to let go of things is a result of some moral defect. In fact, many people who can’t let go of items they’ve acquired are being practical. I’m not including hoarders who have an actual clinical problem in this discussion. But if you don’t know when you’re going to be able to buy an item again, due to your financial situation, then it makes sense to hang onto things and repurpose them as much as possible.
In the 10 years since I wrote Banish Clutter Forever, I’ve found myself hanging onto things more. Not because I’ve become a hoarder, or because I live in a larger space, but because I’ve become more conscious of how many resources it takes to create a new object. I have developed a certain amount of intuition about whether I might need an object again in future years, which has both saved me money and meant I don’t contribute to the unnecessary use of materials and energy. Plus I like having to get creative.
One of the reasons modern people suffer with clutter is that the assumption that you will store a certain amount of items is no longer written into our UK housing laws on space and size of rooms—which are currently some of the smallest in Europe. Consumerism as a way to fill a spiritual hunger is also a problem, but not everyone who suffers with clutter is falling into the consumerist trap. A garden to grow food in is no longer seen as a basic need, the way it was 100 years ago. Nor is a sensible amount of storage for recycling. Clutter authors never seem to address this. They tend to follow the neoliberal model which blames individuals for failings, which are in fact, consequences of decisions and laws made far above the individual level. So, here I am in 2020, living in a set of rooms whose size is dictated by a law passed in 1980, when I was too young even to legally hold a mortgage. Mine are not, but if my rooms were a bit full, would that really be my fault?
Coming back to the zen thing, it does frustrate me, the whole “don’t own it, rent it” minimalist culture. It assumes you’ll always have the money to do so—which in a world with a burgeoning precariat class, is not a fair assumption at all. Clutter authors are expected to subscribe to either this minimalist philosophy, or the “here, buy some lovely-looking storage items” approach, because both are a money-making spin-off. The minimalist aesthetic is incredibly expensive to create, and the “rent it, don’t own it” ethos is expensive to maintain. They’re both marketing ploys.
Anyway, I found the apparently prosaic and domestic subject of clutter and home organizing surprisingly political—as the domestic often is. Now, let's come back to the assumptions in clutter books which I chafed against—“able-bodied, full of energy, had the time to tidy up every day, and are committed to the house looking tidy for its own sake.” Interestingly, they’re all concepts which reinforce sexism, even the able-bodied one, which is about valuing women for the state of their bodies and little else. For any Americans reading, this narrative is also contained in the “not necessarily pretty, but admirable, rugged, hard-working farm girl” heroine archetype, which many people hail as quite feminist.
When clutter is not seen as a “female issue,” it often flips to the archetype of Zen monk and suddenly becomes all philosophical, rather than trivial—as it’s supposed to be when it’s seen as a mere domestic one. As usual, neither side of the coin is healthy, and the sexism of regarding the same subject which is trivial when addressed by women, as lofty when addressed by men, is obvious.
Coming back to my own personal take on it at the time, I had this system which worked, and didn’t assume that you were “able-bodied, full of energy, had the time to tidy up every day, and were committed to the house looking tidy for its own sake”—which even Marie Kondo does. My system assumed you were busy, low energy, had some other more important work or purpose, and didn’t want clutter to stop you achieving it.
As to letting go of routines and beliefs, I think routines are helpful to orient you as an artist, as people in lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis are finding. Automatic processes are a great way of streamlining your use of mental energy and husbanding it for more important uses. Even Zen monks have a routine. Regarding letting go of beliefs, I am really not qualified to comment on the matter. Anyone who spends 20 years or more desperately trying to regain a healthy voice is certainly not good at letting go and acceptance.
Is there a larger-scale perspective on how one approaches interacting with society in this era of road rage, endless antagonism and political divides that Banish Clutter Forever quietly encourages, too?
Well, probably not in the way you think. As I’ve said, I didn’t write it to encourage people to be more zen—though I know that’s a tempting assumption to make, given the tone of my musical work.
The truth about “Sheila Chandra” is, and always has been, that she’s a brand. I don’t mean that I’ve been in any way insincere or inauthentic about what I’ve released as a musician. In many ways, I’ve been far more honest and personal about my musical interests than many. But at the end of the day, you cannot represent a whole human being in all their complexity and contradictions to the marketplace. A whole human being will just not fit.
If you know about the alchemy of performance, there’s always a huge amount of projection from the audience going on. One tiny person in a huge place, like Grace Cathedral in San Francisco where I performed solo in 2008 for instance, simply cannot have what people call “presence” enough to fill the space. All performers wear psychological masks when they perform. It’s back to that “not being able to be your whole self in any one given moment” phenomena. And in some ways, the more archetypal the mask you wear during a performance, the larger your presence becomes. Mine as a performer was pretty archetypal and so people projected onto it a hell of a lot. And what they projected was influenced by the nature of the music. Indian classical and drone-based musics have always had a spiritual connotation—and in part, that’s practical. Those forms of music really do help you become more contemplative. It’s built into their structure.
Throughout my career, I’ve always been amused by the slack-jawed and slightly appalled way some people have regarded me while I’m making a practical and probably quite ruthless decision, though I’ve never been ruthless when it comes to the way I treat other people. They’ve expected me to float in on a cloud, never be angry or stubborn—I’m both at times and especially stubborn when protecting my work—and be hopelessly vague in my notions. But being like that isn’t going to gain you success in a competitive field like music.
In real life, I’m incredibly matter-of-fact, and practical. I always have been. What listeners hear when they explore my work, is my secret world—the one where I don’t have to be practical in what I envision, though recording budgets were still a practical factor, obviously.
So, now we come back to your question—on a micro level, yes. The things you’re talking about are usually the result of a buildup of stress. Stress in itself is not bad. The stress of performance can be exhilaration or crippling nerves, so it’s all a question of degree. What I think many people feel—and let’s face it, here I particularly mean men—is the buildup of stress that happens at a subliminal level when your home or workplace feels physically like a hostile environment. Men are generally encouraged to think this is a trivial matter because it’s too “feminine” and “domestic.” And there are consequences for men in thinking like this, including ruining their health and not thriving when they don’t have a female influence in their lives.
When you disregard the body, and shut out its feedback, so that you can be tough, the pain—in the sense of stress—doesn’t go away. It keeps building up in the body. And in the short term that overflows as temper—road rage and political antagonism. In the longer term, it comes back as ill health. Continually being too cold because you’re too trendy to have curtains, or suffering bare lightbulbs at night or living in constant ambient noise and wearing out your knee joints because you’re too trendy to have carpeted instead of concrete industrial floors all takes its toll.
It’s been said that the opposite of “rape culture” is “nurturance culture.” Until we stop trivializing the domestic, and stop trying to pretend that it’s a "philosophy" rather than something practical our bodies need, we won’t “get” this as a culture. And ironically we won’t be very zen either, unless we spend as much time as monks do, perfecting their state of mind.
What about the element of breaking away from consumer culture when we are now being micro-targeted by social media and data modeling to persuade us to buy more and more? Is that a different kind of clutter we also need to banish?
Most definitely, yes—though it’s not something I addressed strongly in Banish Clutter Forever. It would have taken a whole other book to do so and I’m not sure I’d have been qualified to write it. The key is, what is it you’re trying to buy? What gap are you filling? Sometimes this takes years to work out. And even when you do, that doesn’t always stop you buying for that hunger. And the hunger can change as you age.
Since my voice has become painful, my sense of control over the ways I can make my life better has been eroded. And buying unnecessarily has become a way of circumventing my frustration—though I do curb the impulse most of the time. When I buy unnecessarily, it’s often for me about a concrete way of “upgrading” which isn’t constrained, the way I am with larger issues like health. There I cannot “upgrade.” I can’t buy a new and painless mouth and throat.
Tell me how your interactions with the renowned street artist Stik led to writing the Organizing Your Creative Career book.
Stik is such a star now that people find this hard to imagine, but when I met him in 2008, he was homeless and squatting and had been for 10 years. I was still a singer with an international career. But that difference in status didn’t matter because we didn’t meet in a professional context. We met at a club night and he asked me to dance. He’s a great dancer, and I love to dance. So, he asked me again.
I was saving my voice for a concert in Bristol the next day, so I was communicating by note. And though most people found that off-putting, he didn’t, because he drew me little stick figures in reply. So, we got talking in a sense, though not about the arts particularly, and swapped numbers. And every so often I’d visit him while I was in London on business and I would occasionally invite him to stay with me in Somerset.
It sounds like an unlikely friendship but visiting him in squats didn’t faze me. I’d grown up in inner-city London in the ‘70s and known plenty of squatters. I’d lived in pretty terrible housing myself, though mercifully, not for all of my childhood, so I knew the drill. If there was no running water or the kitchen was flooded, I didn’t think twice about it. I also knew that getting out of the squat environment was going to be helpful for Stik. He told me when we met that he hadn’t walked in the countryside for four years. And I knew that being somewhere physically comfortable, even for a few days, and having a mental break, would give him perspective on his situation.
At that point, he had been painting on the streets in the East End of London for 10 years. So, I used to give him the odd piece of artist advice. And then he found out about my career and started to take that advice very, very seriously. But, of course, every piece of advice cost me pain, because any speech caused me pain. So, I decided to write a brief handbook for him. Now, Stik is dyslexic, so that probably wasn’t the most brilliant idea, but anyway, I wrote it all down.
I mentored Stik for a number of years. And he’s gone on to became one of the most famous and collectible street artists in the world. By the time he’d become established, the state of my throat and mouth made it impossible for me to sing, but I was writing books. So, he nagged me over a period of years to expand the book I’d written for him and get it published so that it’d help other artists. I think he also did it for me, because he could see that I’m happier when I’m creating something.
I’ve been around many brilliant artists whose entire lives are a shifting state of chaos, organizationally and creatively. One of the things Organizing Your Creative Career seeks to do is debunk that this is a naturally beneficial or necessary state. What’s your take on people who insist on holding on to this idea and what do you think they’d experience if they took your advice?
Unfortunately, for filmmakers and authors, physical chaos is a neat little metaphor for the swirl of creativity. So, genius creators tend to get consistently portrayed in that way, whether they were chaotic or not. After all, what is visually exciting about Jane Austen writing on small A6 letter-size pieces of paper, one at a time, at a small wooden wedge-style writing desk on a tiny table, as we know she did? Doesn’t look nearly interesting enough for the most accomplished novelist of the age.
And we take this imagery in—all of us. Some people feel as though they don’t have a right to claim the term artist and unconsciously surround themselves with chaos to prove their credentials even to themselves. Others have been fed the myth that artists have to suffer in order to create great art. Well, I think they do, but not in the way you’d think. Artists don’t have to be junkies, sex addicts or tormented with emotional pain to create great art. All that tends to get in the way. But they do have to commit the cardinal neoliberal sin of going against market forces to deliver more than was required of them or than they’re being paid for. And over a lifetime, following that path means many sacrifices of many different kinds, like people thinking you’re bonkers for a start.
Some people think that the only way to be edgy is to not take care of themselves, or be lackadaisical about their careers. I call this Lord Byron syndrome. He feigned carelessness to others, but worked hard at his image in private. Really edgy work takes a lot of boring hours when you don’t appear to be achieving much, half the time, but people still believe this myth. Or that they’re more of a man if they’re “chaotic.”
Others just fall for the emotional blackmail from people around them about how an artist is supposed to be. I remember a record label phoning me in the ‘90s asking if I’d grant permission for two of my tracks to be on their compilation at half the usual royalty rate. I said no. This lady then spent 10 minutes ranting and telling me she’d never had an artist say no because of money! She spat the word out as though I should be ashamed for asking for the going rate, when in fact, making a financial killing was exactly what she was attempting to do by stiffing an artist purely for money. So, ever obliging, as I was obviously destroying her world view, I said “Well, I’m also a music publisher if that helps?”
There are also people happier with a busy visual style. They don’t like pristine minimalism because it feels cold and uninspiring. Others like the comforting illusion that comes with not counting how many projects you have on and not remembering them all at once, and therefore believing that that means that you’ll never run out of ideas.
If you like chaos, I have no problem with that. I’m not trying to convert the world. I’m trying to give artists tools that work for them. And the problem is, most books on creativity and organizing are written for the business world. They’re not about the challenges artists face at all. Artists of all kinds have been rightly afraid that those sorts of organizing tips would lead them down an uncreative road, and they were right. However, I’ve written a book that does contain useful artist tips that won’t suppress that whirl of creativity because I hate chaos and I guessed there were a fair few other artists who do too.
My suggestion to any artist is pick a problem area and have a go at implementing some of my suggestions for it. Does it work for you or not? Are you in better health, better rested, more productive, or coming up with better ideas? Do your commissioning clients or organizations trust you more? That’s the litmus test.
A complex topic you explore in Organizing Your Creative Career is pricing and funding. Provide a snapshot of the behaviors and shifts the chapter encourages, and why they’re essential as considerations in the modern era.
Basically, my thoughts are:
First, attitude. If you make good work and people want to buy it, you’re a professional artist. No denials, now! Total up how much it actually costs you including labor and overheads to make the work—don’t skimp—and aim to charge at least that. This is not vanity. This is the cost of your work. Our post-Reagan/Thatcher world has divorced labor from the cost of living and produced an underclass of workers who are constantly one financial problem away from destitution. Don’t think like that yourself, even if it takes you a while before your market can stand paying you a decent wage.
Who are people turning to while healthy, in the lockdown? Artists. Writers. Sculptors. Painters. Playwrights. Screenwriters. Actors. Musicians. All the people they said were “not useful” to society. Don’t forget that. But knowing this alone "butters no parsnips” as they say. And if it takes learning how to make your work worth investing in for collectors, then learn the system in your field.
With funding, think like a psychologist and an advertiser. Getting funding either from arts bodies or the public is a distinct and often all-engrossing skill. It has little to do with actually making the art, which is the sad thing. Learn the tricks and apply them.
Why is it essential? A professional artist sells work—and that gives them the luxury of concentrating on it for long periods, which in turn makes them a better artist. Making a decent living is not an afterthought or an irrelevancy. It’s an essential means by which you give your art to the world and sustain yourself to make more.
How do artists fight the myth of “exposure” from “free work” in this age of entitlement and manipulation as it relates to their second-class societal status?
First, weigh up if what you get is actually valuable to you or your career right now. Occasionally it will be. Most times, not. I outline how to weigh this up in the book. And how to take an opportunity that’s not worth much in terms of exposure and turn it into one that is.
But it has to be said—there are some situations where a large corporation that has the money and should know better, and who is paying its cleaners and caterers around an event the going rate, will ask you to work for free. It’s all very well for me to get on my high horse, as I’m no longer a working musician, but what I would say is “think solidarity.” You may not be in a union, but if you undercut another artist, or allow yourself to be undercut, you lower the rates for everyone. Permanently. How are you going to make a living then?
As to combatting second-class societal status, as the COVID-19 inequalities have proved, that ship sailed long ago. Those who really keep society functioning, such as cleaners, farmers, fruit and vegetable pickers, healthcare workers, refuse collectors, supermarket workers, postal workers, delivery drivers—and yes, artists of all kinds—have always been undervalued and, with a few megastar exceptions, underpaid. Just look at who, as a society, we pay fabulous amounts to, and who we lionize. We’ve got it all backwards. And I don’t believe the lockdown will change that. People in power will conveniently forget this as soon as possible afterwards.
I found the “Long-Term Maintenance and Challenges” chapter very useful. I know many artists who seem to think they need permission to take care of themselves. Why do you think this situation continues existing and how can artists get past it?
It is, as you guessed, the old “suffer for your art” cliché, which along with the old “the show must go on” cliché have been put about by promoters and others who benefit from the work of artists and don’t want them to take a sick day. The arts are full of emotional blackmail and mind games, not least because there are few unions and everybody is a freelancer or private company with their own interests and no legal obligation to take care of “outworkers” like artists. It takes a while to work out what people’s agendas are.
But in short, my advice to artists is, never ever work if doing so will do you permanent damage, even if it loses you an important client. Yes, they’ll probably try to emotionally blackmail you, but you cannot replace your body and without your body, you won’t be working for anyone.
Artists have particular physical and emotional ongoing needs which I wanted to write about. These are rarely covered elsewhere, so it was important to include them. They need to be encouraged to take the long-term view, because if they’re successful, they’re not going to want to stop, just because they’re 70 and a bit stiff. What they do in the early years really affects them later on, so they need to plan.
Of course, when we’re 20, we all think we’re immortal. I wanted to remind my reader that your fifties come surprisingly fast. And I think there’s a macho thing going on here, too. It is not “girly” to feel pain, take notice and deal with it—whether emotional or physical. It’s simply practical. That’s why I refer in the book to the artist’s body and mind being “plant”—the machinery they will use to produce work. You’ve got to take care of your production line machinery or your career will be over.
I’ve heard Stik chatting to some street artist on the bus and the bloke—it’s almost always a bloke—saying his girlfriend “takes too much care” of him. And Stik, being relatively older, had to put a brotherly arm around the chap, metaphorically, and tell him that rather than being irked and embarrassed by that, her caring is going to help him to stay healthy long-term and that it proves she’s a keeper. It’s as though these young men need permission from an older man to understand this. The young guy certainly wouldn’t have listened to me. And I hesitate to think how truly rubbish his “nurturing his girlfriend in return” skills are.
Many people from across all walks of life typically condemn an artist’s life as societally inessential. Describe your intent in helping people understand the myriad benefits of applying the artistic mindset to other realms of existence in your latest book How to Live Like An Artist.
It’s a very simple everyday practice used by many artists, but you don’t have to be a professional artist, or even have an artistic calling, to reap the benefits of it. And it brings you to an immediately more peaceful and less fearful state of being. In fact, it brings you back to your authentic self and instincts, and that state of flow we all crave. All this is free and instantly accessible. Many of us have just forgotten how to do it.
In part, I wrote it because it seems to me, the answer to most social ills—addiction, and all the public disorder that ripples out as a result, as well as abuse, violence, toxic masculinity, racism, ableism, classism, and mental health issues—is connection to the self and others. Between those two, you have to start with a connection to yourself. Where this connection is missing or damaged, you find people who are vulnerable to being taken in by conspiracy theories, joining cults and falling prey to supporting colonization, and fascist or authoritarian ideologies. Where you have people who don’t know themselves, they carry an inbuilt fear which is projected outwards onto others as various forms of violence—in the wider sense of the word, such as a punitive benefits or justice system—which they feel their fear justifies, in other words, the popular rise of the right. On a more minor level, you find people who feel life is meaningless, feel alienated and lonely, are unable to spend time alone or enjoy anything without consuming, for whom no amount of money is enough, who don’t trust themselves, who alienate others, who can end up blaming others or a particular group for their ills, and are running from an internal emptiness.
Though it’s not the subject of the book, I want to emphasize first that connection to others is supremely important—and only empathy for others will enable us to reform systems that currently penalize the poor, disabled people, women, children, the elderly, Black and Brown people, LGBT people, and so on. But you cannot have empathy for others without first understanding and being kind to yourself.
Over the past 400 years, we’ve built a ruthless and violent system based on capitalism involving trafficking, rape of resources and violence against indigenous and colonized people. Though we may not be the victims of the system, it has consequences for us, too. Among other things, it means we internally measure a person’s worth by their productivity and endow them with status, honor and power accordingly. We devalue, malign and mistreat those that don’t have these things. And this eventually leads to violence against the self.
Life means loss. It’s inevitable. What happens if you “lose face” or status? What if people no longer respect you? What if others defy your authority? What if you become disabled? What if you lose your business, job or profession? What if you lose your strength and energy? Or your looks? What about when you’re old? What kind of violence against yourself, your body or against others, will your desperation to gain your “place” back, lead you to do? What does your internal voice say about yourself all day long? What are the very real social, societal and support consequences of your “fall from grace?” And perhaps most importantly, what unwitting violence will your lack of empathy and feeling for your own humanness lead you to commit against others in your power, on a domestic and on a national level?
These are issues ideally worked through by and with activists and therapists. But people aren’t always ready to engage on those levels—sometimes because, to their disadvantage, they are associated with being emotional and with the “left.” On a personal level, it’s no use asking myself why I’m not politically or emotionally literate enough to address these issues like activists and therapists, though I frequently do. Better to contribute from what I know. For me, there is a humble and simple way of working on your connection to the self, especially if you’re a person that lives in your head, as I do—and that’s to start by listening to yourself in very practical ways—the ways that artists have always used.
As an artist who’s lived this for 40 years, I can give the reader tools which point the way back to that connection with the self, connection to inner-directed time and to a blissful sense of “flow,” connection to the body and your energy, gentle connection back to your emotions, and to the “wondering” mentality that you had as a child. It doesn’t involve emotions and it doesn’t involve ideology, which is a huge advantage. The only person you’re allowing to guide you is yourself and that helps build trust in the process. It’s the space where new thoughts are possible and empathy and common sense are most likely to prevail. In living like an artist, a new trust in one’s instincts can be born, and in being creative, a new sense of self-respect, unconnected and independent of consumerism and financial status—and therefore one not in others’ control—can emerge.
Peacefulness, being in tune with oneself, a lessening of the “busy, anxious” mind, natural self-care, respect for the body and energy, and finding your own voice, start to manifest. Of course, if you want to take it further and go to therapy or educate yourself on social issues, all well and good, but this is a great starting point.
Living in a more instinctive and connected way is our birthright. Capitalism has tried to destroy it, because people won’t work to the clock, in jobs they suspect are worse than useless, if they have a practical, including the financial, means to live in a more self-connected way. A society based on capitalist principles is always going to ridicule and suppress artistic endeavor which reacquaints you with that connectedness. It has to do so perpetually. Because the flame inside you is both unique and yet common to every human being ever born or yet to be born, so the “danger of revolt” is always present as long as human beings survive.
Our current systems have to work very hard in fact to suppress those creative, connected instincts. They would have you believe that the arts are “inessential.” But when COVID-19 hit, where did most of us turn? To plays, movies, TV, novels, blogs, storytelling, and design in the form of home improvement, crafting, non-fiction, comedy, satire, good journalism, online club nights, biography, documentaries, music, and visual art in order to either find comfort, escape or make sense of what we were going through. Could we have managed this time, or even everyday life, when you think of the ubiquity of art and music in restaurants, and TV in our homes, without them?
The arts and the imagination are the essence of what it means to be human. Whether to celebrate or to mourn, or to somehow live with the senseless and unfathomable, we turn to the arts to help ourselves to do it. But more than that, artist practice is an ancient way of accessing an instinctive form of emotional healing for both ourselves and those we affect. This is what I wanted in an almost deceptively simple way, to make accessible to everyone. It’s by no means a whole cure or an end. In fact, it’s almost ridiculously gentle and personal, but a sea change within is where things actually shift. In that way, it’s a valid piece of the puzzle of bringing us back to our empathy and “ourselves.”
For some reason, lots of people believe artists lack discipline, when in fact it takes extreme discipline to really get this work done and have it manifest itself in public view. Why do you believe that is?
Well, the short answer is because they don’t understand the process. This is likely as a result of three factors.
As we discussed, there has been an unfortunate tendency to use “chaos” as a lazy shorthand visual metaphor for the creative process, especially in novels and film. Secondly, as you mentioned earlier, it’s been represented as an intrinsically “unhealthy” practice—one that involves addiction, obsession, a need for attention, and pain as an intrinsic part of the process. I don’t mean to assert that there weren’t as many artists with mental health problems as you’d expect to find in any representative slice of the general population, but the real problem with many of the artists that suffered these ills, was most commonly that they were working within a hostile capitalist system which not only made things harder for them, but also constantly sought to misrepresent artistry for the reasons I outlined above. Thirdly, a lot of the work artists do happens beneath the surface. It involves a lot of learning, showing up when you’re not producing anything good, and then often, though not always, having a breakthrough. But the breakthrough is just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t happen without the showing up even when the work is rubbish.
Finally, I think there is a general distrust of anyone who doesn’t have to work at something they at least mildly dislike. Unfortunately, this is the state most employees find themselves in, and it can lead to the general public believing that anything that’s less than unpleasant “isn’t work” and that given the chance to direct themselves that they’d skive, so that must be what artists do all day. It’s pure projection.
Ironically, they’re doing themselves a great disservice when they believe this. The truth is, most people like to be engaged in meaningful activity, whether it’s improving themselves, caring for others, making the world a better place or producing something of beauty. Most universal basic income trials confirm this. In fact, life can be flavorless when we lack these things. Loss of life purpose is a major factor in depression, even surprisingly when it’s the result of a huge lottery win. A better analogy to help people understand would be that arts projects are like children. When you’ve created them yourself, you’ll go through a surprising amount of discomfort and sacrifice, and display a great deal of bravery to “protect” them. And they can be incredibly hard work, hugely rewarding, and when raised well, of great benefit to society at the same time, even though the work is unpaid.
The British government recently went on a full-on assault against the lifestyle of artists with its “Their next job could be in cyber, but they just don’t know it yet” campaign. What’s your reaction to this?
In 2020 in Britain, we have a conservative government that has been hijacked by its right wing elements. Even older conservatives are saying they don’t recognize the party. This government is blatantly corrupt, self-serving, incompetent, and institutes policy not based on science or evidence, but purely based on right-wing ideology and where that policy makes it possible to siphon off public money for its donors and cronies.
Regarding the former, it has, based on right-wing ideology alone, decided to “starve” artists much as it did with coal miners in the early ‘80s. Our arts industry is world beating. We’re the land of Shakespeare and The Stones, and Stormzy and Sheeran. We earn £10.8 billion for the UK every year—ten times what the fishing industry does and we’re an island. It makes no sense to hand out money to other industries and not support this one from its grassroots up. There have been grants to some larger institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate, and The National Theatre, but from what I’m hearing, many artists and arts freelancers have not been able to access the SEISS (Self-employment Income Support Scheme) grant. Arts events companies who have invested in tens of thousands of pounds worth of equipment to fulfil a fully-booked summer season at the start of 2020 have majorly lost out, and it’s artists and arts technicians on the ground who are suffering. As many as two thirds of them are considering permanently leaving the arts. Without them, much as when you’re farming, if you destroy worms and the good microbes in the soil, you don’t get a crop of much actual art being produced.
The conservatives did this with the miners in the ‘80s because they had strong unions and Thatcher wanted to destroy them. Generally, the arts are made up of freelancers and are not unionized. But right-wing movements, and actually any strongly authoritarian governments, even if supposedly left-wing, fear the arts and artists because we question and get people to think. Their rhetoric, dogmatism and scapegoating of minorities and fear-mongering doesn’t work so well when there’s a strong critical voice from artists opposing them. They’ve already hijacked the media, which has allowed and facilitated the rise of the right in many countries. Our Brexit decision followed a 30-year campaign of lies and scapegoating of the EU in our press, for instance. Artists are next, probably because we’re the only threat left.
The hypocrisy of attacking the arts as unviable and advising those associated with the industry, from producers down to event managers, best boys and runners, as well as all the creatives involved, to “retrain” at a time when the only thing that’s got us through lockdown is arts content, is breathtaking. It’s so obviously a lie—but it’s one that builds on a society-wide foundation of a feeling that has always simultaneously worshipped, fetishized, impoverished, and denigrated artists.
The emotional undercurrent of our connection to artists as a society has always been dodgy. We distrust people who create something out of nothing as if it’s a trick or not real. As if it’s not some of the hardest work human beings ever do—perhaps not physically hard, but when done well, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Collectively, we very happily dispute the idea that artists are entitled to a reasonable living wage, holidays and time off for illness. Sometimes we deny they’ve a right to be paid at all. Yet we criticize when artists aren’t superhuman, suffer from stress or have an off night. We both disdain and envy—two sides of the same coin. We don’t actually regard artists as human—they are both a high and low ace, all at the same time. This is an unfortunate side effect of the “magical” and transporting effect our work can have.
Unfortunately, a lifelong basic distrust of “Johnny Foreigner” born of our British Empire mentality and a woeful lack of real education about what the empire actually did was a strong emotional base on which to scapegoat the EU and immigrants, and to build the movement for Brexit. This is a formula that the right already knows will work. I fear our age-old collective and blithe dismissal of artists will form a foundation for the basis on which this government will persuade Britain to happily stand by and watch, or even cheer on the destruction of the arts industry over the next couple of years.
That said, the infamous “Fatima” poster advising artists to retrain which you refer to, was endlessly, mercilessly and hilariously lampooned, satirized and repurposed almost instantly and shared all over social media. Well played artists, well played.
Contrast the experience of your music being reviewed by music critics and your books being assessed by literary critics.
Literary reviewers of non-fiction can be very plain and fairly objective with what they liked and what benefited them. On the other hand, unless they’re reviewing a book as a fan, they’re unlikely to read the whole thing in full. So, the good stuff at the back gets missed out, which is a shame as sometimes the most useful stuff is in the back.
Record reviewers have usually listened to the whole album. But then it’s a question of taste, and whether they get it. What they describe for the reader is ephemeral. It’s hard to paint sound in print. So, then we come down to references and connotations. Music critics usually know all the references that are likely, and name them even when I’ve never heard of said influence. That was very common with me. I wasn’t then, and am even less so now, a big consumer of music. And connotations are a bit of a minefield. For instance, take the word “exotic.” Aren’t they just using that because it’s an easy word to reach for while not being too alarmingly specific? The question becomes “Exotic for whom?” For the second-generation Asians who have grown up listening to Hindi film and Indian classical? Nope. “Exotic” as a connotation presumes Western culture and Western audiences as a “norm” and fetishizes and devalues the artist concerned. I was once referred to as the “fair trade” option—in other words, “higher quality” within World Music. And the journalist meant it as a compliment.
As to the current state of apartheid around World Music—don’t get me started. At least as an author, my books are not in a separate section because I’m Asian.
Tell me how you came to terms with your burning mouth syndrome (BMS) diagnosis and it leading you to conclude your career as a musician.
At first I didn’t have a diagnosis. I thought it was a side effect of some specialist vocal physio work I was having done. I went to see several ENTs and a nerve specialist over a period of two years, but none of them could name what was happening accurately. I gave up singing because I just couldn’t continue. Then I happened to read an article about BMS and realized I needed to contact my dentist.
At the point in time that I developed BMS, I’d already been struggling with throat pain for around 18 years. My vocal chords were scarred during a clumsy intubation while I was being operated on to save my sight in 1992. I was able to sing for gigs, but not really enough to continue writing and exploring music the way I wanted to. I’d have to go whole summers without speaking to anyone if I was gigging, so that I had enough pain-free time to rehearse and give concerts. When the BMS was added to that, it was just all too much.
Instead of being able to talk for roughly three hours before the throat pain kicked in, the BMS started after five minutes and got steadily worse. It is so painful with the two pains together that I can’t rehearse anymore, which I do feel guilty about. It’s sort of like I’ve left a Stradivarius in an under-stairs cupboard, to rot.
As for transcending it—I’m not sure you ever do. That’s an ableist assumption. It’s a very neat and comforting thought for other people—the idea that you move past it, but you don’t. My social life has been severely curtailed. I will never be able to live with a partner, ever. And that’s a depressing thought. Every social occasion has to be planned for carefully with days of absolute silence in advance, and days of pain afterward, which feel like a punishment for daring to have fun at all.
People talk as if a voice is something I can leave behind. With a singing voice, that might be true. With my speaking voice as well, it’s a constant loss—an ongoing set of experiences, and pleasures I cannot have. “What’s the secret of your strong relationship…?” “Oh, we talk a lot!” “How to maintain your physical health and stave off Alzheimer’s? Develop strong and close relationships.” These bits of advice frustrate me all the time.
Finding speech painful is a disability that most people just do not consider and are not sensitive to, even when they try hard. They’ve absolutely no idea what it does to your mental health not to be able to communicate normally. I had a folk singer friend who overused her voice and was told not to speak for two weeks. By day eight, she was saying “This has eaten my soul.” And when you’ve been a relatively high-profile singer, it’s all anyone ever brings up. It’s finally tailing off a bit now, but imagine after you’ve lost your hair permanently due to a terrible illness and for years afterwards the first thing everyone brings up when they see you is the loss of your hair, and how wonderful your hair was, and how much they loved it.
Have you considered making music in ways that don’t involve your voice?
I briefly considered what my options were. But I used to write with my voice. That’s why those vocal parts were so special. They’re not transposed from something else or even from another voice. I don’t play another instrument. And a cruel feature of the larynx is that it silently mimics sound—it actually moves—when the brain “thinks” a sound. So, if I wrote music I’d still be hurting my throat.
What are some of the highlights of your Monsoon period for you?
Well having a hit is fun—no question. And for me, as a 16-year-old kid who’d been bullied as the outsider for various reasons, suddenly getting attention, being respected and being in demand was a huge high. I was an outsider because I was Asian and one of the few, if not the only introvert at a theatre arts school. It only lasted six months, but perhaps that was for the best. I had the joy of recognition without the lasting intrusion of fame, though throughout my life, I haven’t been afforded the privacy most people take for granted.
People tend to assume that you want your name broadcast to the group in any small gathering such as a folk club, where you’re just there to listen, because if they were in your place, they’d want theirs broadcast. That’s not how it works. It makes speed dating both hilarious and horrifying by turns though. And I’m not even really famous! At least I didn’t get chased by reporters, have my bins gone through, have people camped outside my house, have family members and friends pumped for information, have my phone tapped, or get trolled on Twitter.
Just as an aside on the privacy issue, I developed Lupus and lost all my hair last year. I didn’t realize how much of a touchstone that huge mane of dark wavy hair was, in terms of how even friends picked me out of a crowd. When I first went out after having had to shave it all off, part of me was delighted. I thought “Oh my god, nobody knows who I am!”
But the more serious answer to your question is about what having a hit bought me. Freedom. Not financial freedom. The Monsoon deal was awful and I’ve never received a penny for any of the Monsoon catalog except for tiny personal advances at the time. But being one of the few World Music artists to have a hit in her own right and not as a result of collaborating with an established mainstream music star, was a formidable accolade to have. I should mention that the term World Music term was not even invented in 1982 when “Ever So Lonely’ was a hit around the world, pretty much everywhere except America.
Having a hit meant people in the business took me seriously. It meant I could, at least for the early ‘80s, get a meeting with pretty much anyone I wanted to. More importantly, it enabled me to do something not many artists even then, had the luxury of doing. It enabled me to “cash in my fame chips” and use that fan base that remained loyal, to fund the experimental Asian Fusion work I was doing. I was the only full-time Asian Fusion artist in the UK throughout the ‘80s and that was how I was able to make it work without playing live.
I didn’t want to play live at that stage because it wasn’t my forte and because I knew I wouldn’t learn as much about my genre if I was playing the same songs night after night for weeks or months on end. I made four solo albums in two years instead.
There was no audience in India in those days. But my reputation translated into just enough selling power that I could make those first four solo albums which established my credentials as an experimental artist. It took personal sacrifice, at a time when everyone just assumed I was sitting on a pot of money from having just had a hit, but it was what I was determined to do.
Early in your career, it was suggested you choose the name “Boo” instead of using your real name. Tell me the tale.
It was just one of those silly record label person suggestions. When you’re 16 and it’s your first band, and no-one knows who you really are, they try to construct an image for you. It was common for young female singers to go by a quirky forename, and so the head of the label suggested it. My mum said no. And few people argue with your mum.
Looking back, I do think it was a strange suggestion. Monsoon came with a whole trunkful of culture, history and connotation, not as a band, but in terms of what they were and what I was drawing on. I was by no means a vacuous blank page of a teenage singer in that sense. But Phonogram didn’t seem to be able to cope with the huge background of cultural riches we had to draw on. They treated Indian culture as if it was a two-dimensional fashion choice, which is what culturally-appropriating Westerners reduce it to. They also could not regard me as neutral. I think the suggestion to call me “Boo” was an attempt to make up a simple—for them—understandable background of some sort for me. Very strange.
However, that tendency to see an Indian influence as a fashion choice, suitable only for a single season, was what ultimately contributed to Monsoon’s break up at the end of 1982. Phonogram wanted us to “drop the Indian influence.” They could not see that it was our raison d’etre because they regarded it like a curry paste in a jar—and wanted us to get back to “normal” cooking.
How did you personally cope with being the object of unwanted exoticism obsession at the height of your music career?
Very badly. The first thing I experienced at 16 was erotic exoticizing. Miss India meets the Kama Sutra meets the harems of the Arabian Nights—that was the picture most men had in their heads. I’d grown up in a very religious Christian household and had not been encouraged to think about sex at all. As a teenager and young woman, I had no idea what was passing in the minds of the men who erotically exoticized me, and that’s probably a good thing. But I did know when they were doing it. Creepy and disgusting. I didn’t feel safe being alone in professional settings.
As to being exoticized per se, in a way, at the beginning, I benefited from a very rare point in musical history. That point where there was an audience open minded enough to listen to Monsoon, but before the music business and journalists rushed to categorize and compartmentalize what came to be known as “World Music” to the point of commercial apartheid.
After that moment passed, I just had this constant Groundhog Day feeling of “Why don’t you treat me the way you’d treat any other artist? Why do you assume I’m a 'natural' rather than that this technique has taken me a decade or more to learn?" I grew up listening to Bing Crosby, Des O’Connor, Max Bygraves, Gracie Fields, Queen, ELO, The Jacksons, and Aretha Franklin just like everybody else for goodness sake! Why is every question asked through the lens of gender, race and otherness? Why is my later work not considered “New Music” and not taken seriously in that world? Is it just because I’m not White, male and in my fifties? It was just very frustrating. I’m not a very patient person. It was constantly wearing.
What goes through your mind when you look at photos of yourself from the Monsoon days?
To be honest, it’s so long ago that it feels like it’s another person. As women, we’re all encouraged to look the way that we did as teenagers forever, and when a certain period of your life when you were as good-looking as you’re ever going to be is highly documented, then there’s a temptation to harken back to it. But I can’t be the same and it’d be a bit weird if I could. And anyway, who’d be 17 again?
Often I’m tempted to disavow that part—the musical part—of my life. Not in the sense of being ashamed of it, but simply that I don’t feel entitled to own it as an accomplishment, or certainly not one that I continue to trade on personally for self-esteem purposes. I have a horror of being that person who constantly “dines out” on something they did 30 years ago.
What you don’t realize when you’re 20 is how much you’ll have changed by the time you’re older. Change and fast growth are seen as things that largely happen to the young. But the fact is, you feel like an entirely different person, especially if you’ve kept up with your personal growth.
So, in a sense it’s not “me”—certainly not the current “me”—who created all that stuff. Nor do I have the sense that it’s the current “me” who was ever a musician. That seems so far away now. I think it’s in part because I can no longer make the noise. My mouth and throat are so painful that I haven’t been able to warm up properly and consistently for about 10 years. If I try to carry a tune, I’m rusty. It’s an odd and distressing sensation. And doing an interview like this—the music-focused part of it anyway—is like opening up an old, usually locked, cupboard at someone else’s request. Full of evocative smells, decaying silks and ghosts.
What’s your view on where the objectification and sexualization of women artists stands today?
I think you’re expecting a highly-informed answer from me, and I can’t give you one, mainly because listening to music is emotionally and often physically painful for me, so I don’t keep up with it. But I will say I’m in the radical feminist camp that believes that even the exploitation of sexuality as a choice made by the individual artist, cannot be divorced from the cultural context in which she finds herself. Not in the way she’s being influenced and not in the way her decision influences her audiences’ view of women in general, either. I realize that race plays into the question to skew it, at which point I’m willing to bow to those who know better than me about restrictions and expectations placed on Black women. But the “pornification” of female artists in general is sickening. It’s one more way of denying our talents and reducing us to our bodies alone. One more way of making us objects and denying that we have minds and souls in a field where both might otherwise have shone. And I think that’s precisely the reason it’s happened.
We’re at an interesting point in history for women’s rights. We’re experiencing a huge backlash on several fronts, from abortion rights to social media and revenge porn, probably not surprisingly around 50 years after the pill and abortion rights became freely available even to single women. In other words, the social ramifications of women controlling their own fertility are finally unmistakably visible. It is no longer inevitable that sexually-active women will have children, nor that the married ones will have a child almost every year, as it was 100 years ago. Women are defining themselves in other ways.
Some pre-historians think that ancient women had the means to control their fertility, but this means that was either forgotten or banned and suppressed or both around the time we began to engage in agriculture. The reasons for this probably included the fact that with agriculture, you can reliably sustain larger populations, but also that there was a fundamental psychological shift in relationship to fecundity and femininity around this time.
The attitude of humans being “guests of” Mother Earth, became “having dominion over” her, echoed in the Eve story and others in the Bible. Generally, we don’t think about it, but most farm animals are female. Chickens, cows and even sheep. So, in order to engage in agriculture you’ve got to be comfortable with controlling female fecundity and feeling entitled to do it. From there, treating your women like breeding animals and controlling the circumstances in which they either breed or not, is a small step. This isn’t a new theory. All the radical feminists will be nodding here, and it’s why many radical feminists are vegan.
Fast forward to now, and we have two generations or more of women who’ve grown up being able to control their fertility and have the power to define themselves in ways other than that of biological destiny. These women are now almost past menopause and are approaching “cronehood”—the most maligned, invisible and potentially powerful part of their lives. That is a profound cultural shift and I’m not surprised our culture is running scared from the power and vision of women who are not chained to inevitable and multiple pregnancies.
Tell me about the musical shift you were able to embrace once you broke free from Monsoon and began recording under your own name.
Monsoon was signed to a major label and was expected to release singles and sell as many records as possible. I knew that’s what majors were concerned with, so when I went solo, I deliberately used Steve Coe’s label Indipop as a place that I could retain control and where I wouldn’t have to release singles. It was partly because Phonogram’s heavy-handed manner had disgusted me, but also because I genuinely wanted to explore Asian Fusion and I knew it wouldn’t really be possible to the same extent anywhere else.
But I also had a huge amount to learn. Making a shift from band singer to solo artist at 18 means you’re running to catch up. With my first solo album Out on My Own, the sound was a lot like Monsoon, though less expensive, obviously. But behind the scenes I was learning really fast about how the studio process worked, as we were early adopters of the 8-track home studio to make my first four albums. And I made the leap into songwriting at 19 with my second solo album Quiet. That was really where my solo career, and the consequent vocal exploration really began. That was when I started to think of my voice as an instrument and started to break out of the songwriting boxes singers are usually put in.
And it wasn’t easy, emotionally. At 19, you still have that instinct to conform. You want to be like your peers. Your worst fear is that you’ll reveal what’s really within you and that people will hate it or think you’re weird. No Asian teenagers I knew had an artist vision like mine. But as an artist, that’s exactly the fear you need to conquer. In fact, it’s the conquering of that fear that non-artists secretly admire you for.
In short, I think of those first four solo albums like artist sketch pads. A bit hurried, with the odd horrible mistake. But absolutely necessary for my development.
What did your Real World period enable you to explore that you weren’t able to previously?
I knew someone who’d already approached Real World, so I knew what kinds of advances and terms they were offering in the early ‘90s. I made it a condition of licencing Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices that we had one of their studios for five days as part of the advance to my production company Moonsung, in order to mix the album. So, I knew we could work to a high technical standard, which I hadn’t had the money to do with my previous five solo albums. Steve Coe and I also knew much more from making those early Indipop albums about how my voice should be treated. I don’t think spending 16 hours treating a single vocal line and setting the new industry-wide technical standard those albums set at the time, would have been possible otherwise. I also wanted to make the standard of writing match the high technical standard. So, with the exception of AboneCroneDrone, which couldn’t have been written any other way, we spent about 10 months crafting each of those Real World albums before we went into the studio to record. That’s why they’re the best songs and the best performances of my career.
Was it a relief to be entirely decoupled from the world of pop at that point?
It was and it wasn’t. After Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, I still had record executives and marketing teams everywhere I did press with Virgin beg me not to do another solo voice and drone album. They still wanted Monsoon mark two. I didn’t want to play the pop singles game as it cost so much, that no company was going to let me do that and make the music I wanted to. I like pop as much as anyone. I really wanted to be a soul singer as a teenager, but at that point, pop wasn’t really a viable choice for me.
I also knew my value as an artist. I’ve never been the artist a label signs because they want to sell squillions of records. I’m the one they sign because they want to increase their kudos. I think Real World signed me on that basis. They certainly didn’t expect a solo voice and drone album to sell. And also because at that time they had lots of African artists and lots of male artists. I took one look at their catalog and thought “What you need is an Asian woman.” And you need an artist that is perceived to make not “Saturday night” songs or traditional classical or folk, but something original, that in musical terms is more like high art. And having one that lives down the road—at that time Real World tended to record artists from other countries that were touring with WOMAD—so that she’s around to do some promotion when the time comes, would be no bad thing either.
I only recently became aware of the 1992 car accident that resulted in the operation that damaged your voice. Tell me about that and how you persevered to continue your music career with Real World after that point.
Well, it was a scary time because I nearly lost my sight. I had detached retinas, and needed emergency surgery, and the recovery was no picnic either. I wasn’t in pain, but I could hardly see, had to lie down on one side for two weeks so that my eyes could heal, and had to adjust to distorted and double vision resulting from the change in the shape of my eyeball due to the plastic buckle they put around my right eye to keep it together, which is still in place. At first, I needed double prisms in heavy glasses, because of what the buckle was doing to my vision. But I knew I couldn’t sing in glasses like that, with so much weight on the bridge of my nose, and had to train my eyes to refocus over a period of months.
With all that going on, I didn’t notice what was happening to my voice at first. It slowly lost agility and power and became strained in the sense of a literal strain to the muscles in my larynx. What I only found out years later, was that during the operation while being intubated, the anesthetist had nicked one of my vocal chords, which then healed with inflexible scar tissue. The damage is small, but enough to ensure that my vocal chords don’t meet in the middle as they should, which means that on one side the muscles have to work harder and get sprained with each use.
After a while, I could no longer pitch properly. It was very scary. My sinuses were also playing up, but an operation to clear them and remove excess bone in 1998 helped. After that, I went to remedial singing teachers, but none of them was ever able to restore my voice fully, due to my physical limitations.
I did manage to give concerts, but I could never again write effectively on my voice, which is why ABoneCroneDrone has minimal voice parts and This Sentence Is True is more of a studio collage creation and a Ganges Orchestra project. And singing constantly on a painful voice may have primed my whole system for pain. It wasn’t good for my mental health to spend whole summers without social contact so that I could rehearse and sing either. Anyway, one of the nerve specialists I saw post-2010 thinks that the chronic throat pain caused my BMS, because too much throat pain set the nerves in my mouth off and made them oversensitive.
Tell me about the musical shift that occurred for you in 2000 when you created This Sentence Is True and the two EEPs.
I really didn’t have that much to do with the making of the two EEPs. Steve Coe said he wanted to go into the studio with a Ganges Orchestra project and would I do a vocal session. We knew my voice was bad and that I couldn’t manage any more than three hours. So, we got together a list full of strange and unusual vocal sounds, not that much in the way of melodies, and I recorded them all in one go. Steve would go off and play around with them and he slowly built up the tracks for the EEPs.
At the same time, I had rashly promised my next album to Real World and I think they were rather counting on me delivering one. They never found out because I didn’t want to make excuses for myself, but I spent months in pain trying incredibly hard to write on a voice that wouldn’t cooperate—so much so that I made myself ill. That’s when I had to stop and admit defeat.
Steve had been crafting first the two EEPs and then This Sentence Is True, but I really hadn’t had much input. I wasn’t at the mix sessions and wasn’t taking it terribly seriously, partly because I was busy with the album which never came off for Real World. When Steve decided to license This Sentence Is True directly to Narada, who at that point were Real World’s US licensees, Real World was very unimpressed and I can’t say I blame them. Steve had a direct relationship with Narada, because he’d signed my Indipop back catalogue directly to them, so it was logical, and he also thought my negotiations with Real World quite tortuous and was loath to engage because of that, but it must have looked as though I’d deliberately “thrown up” doing an album for Real World to aid Steve, which was never the case. I’m still not sure they’ve forgiven me.
Reflect on the passing of Steve Coe in 2013 and your working relationship as you created music together.
Steve was an experienced writer and producer of 14 years standing when I met him at 16. He helped me learn about my role, as he learned from others when he started out. We worked very closely together over a long period and he had a great influence on my work. But still, I’m going to ask you to work a little bit harder as you read the following. I’m going to ask that you continually consider the power relationship you assume when thinking of two long-time collaborators who are not of opposite genders and different races, like say, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Just because their careers are closely intertwined, do you assume the same things about worth, power and possibly dependence about each of them as you do about Steve and I?
Would I have entered the field of Asian Fusion without Steve? No way! Would I have gone solo at 18? Well, Phonogram pushed me into that, because the only way to get out of the Monsoon contract with them was to go solo. The idea for my first big change of direction as a solo artist with Quiet, a lyric-less series of 10 tracks featuring over-layered voice as an instrument, was mine. On the other hand, I wasn’t a writer beforehand and Steve gave me the confidence to co-write it, which as the vocalist, was crucial. He also helped me develop many of the self-management techniques you need to stay sane as an artist who works alone for months on end.
The idea of doing a solo voice and drone album as an accompaniment to my first concerts, Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, was Steve’s idea. They idea of crossing continents vocally within a single melodic line, and indeed the technique breakthroughs, so that I could, were mine. Weaving would have been a totally different album otherwise. The idea to write a vocal percussion piece called “Speaking In Tongues,” which eventually grew into four pieces, was Steve’s. However, spending eight months rehearsing vocal percussion patterns like some mad muttering old lady before I could come up with close to the final form of, for instance, “Speaking in Tongues III and IV,” was all on me.
Did he influence me? Yes. He was fabulous with running orders—just incredible—which is an essential skill when presenting challenging work to your listener. And he was a highly-detailed and accomplished producer. I know the buzz ‘round the industry was that the Real World trilogy set a new standard in vocal production in the industry in the ‘90s. Producers had simply never heard a naked voice that had had 16 hours of production time lavished on it. AboneCroneDrone was my idea, but I’d never have been able to execute it in a month of Sundays. In fact, when it was reissued recently in Spain, they wanted to remaster and I wouldn’t let them touch it, because Steve wasn’t there to oversee the aural tricks he built into it as a producer, and I didn’t know how he’d done it. Remastering it would have ruined it. He was also great at thinking of musical premises that were totally out of the box and was completely unfazed by the notion of what was cool and what wasn’t.
And now the question that nobody ever asks: Did I influence him? And how did he benefit from working with me? Well, apart from a small handful of projects, once he started working with me, over the next 20 years and while I was still recording, he didn’t want to work with anyone else. Was it because I had such a good memory that when we’d come up with six ways to sing a verse, I could sing any combination of each of the 24 distinctive lines from memory alone? Each version was designated a letter and each line was designated a number. And bearing in mind we had no computer, he’d ask to hear me sing it with lines B1 D2 F3 A4 and I’d be able to sing him exactly that, from memory and by sight so that we could finalize the best version of the verse. Was it because he’d developed a shorthand with me that made working with anyone else cumbersome? Was it because I knew his foibles and how to compensate for them? Was it because he loved my voice? Or some other reason? I have absolutely no idea and he’s not around to ask.
When we started, he knew so little about voice that “Ever So Lonely” was an absolute nightmare. Voice specialists will tell you that its range—two-and-a-half octaves—and the key make it almost impossible to sing. For reference, “Danny Boy” only has an octave leap in it as part of the build-up of the final part of the song, and is considered challenging, and in range covers about an octave-and-a-half in total. “Waiting” from The Zen Kiss has one note shy of an octave leap in the first line of the melody alone, but only because I challenged Steve to write an opening line with a huge leap in it, because you almost never hear that done. “Ever So Lonely” is written in C major. That means that the high “Ever So Lonely”-ies occur just at the point of an anatomical break in the female voice. No-one with any sense would write such a phrase, let alone repeat it for eight choruses at the end!
But spend years on end around a vocalist who sings for work and sings what’s on the radio for pleasure and mimics everyone—I used to do a mean Elkie Brooks impression—and you develop a vocal education. You start to understand what’s possible as a writer and how to treat those sounds in the studio. You start to understand voice as an instrument and how to work with it as an abstract in collage. Especially if she teaches you how those vocals are constructed and produced, and gives you a hard time about writing “Ever So Lonely” because she’s forced to sing the damn thing wherever she goes.
Steve spent much of the ‘70s trying to come up with a three-chord wonder hit in the classic pop style. He told me he was sick of hammering out the same set of limited chords for hours on end and would never, never do it again. Sometimes, I felt his writing lacked that extra layer of work and finesse as a result, but that’s where my affinity for detail came in.
Consider again the power relationship and the context of sexism, racism and ageism from a larger perspective. If Steve had wanted to represent his songs himself, how far do you think a middle-aged White man with an unremarkable and rather nasal singing voice would have got? Was his professional interest in Asian music “cultural appropriation,” and did his working with me legitimize it? Yes, though when we were working together, “cultural appropriation” was not a concept that was bandied about and understood, the way it is today. Did he therefore, as a writer and producer, financially benefit from the racist exoticism, sexism and ageism being thrown my way? Absolutely. That’s exactly how structural racism works. Did he do this consciously? Did he intend to profit at my expense? Certainly not. But would he have willingly swapped places with me? Well, ask most white people if they’re willing to be treated the way that Black and Brown people routinely are, and however liberal they think they are, the truth comes out. None of us wants to lose whatever privileges or financial advantages we have.
On the other hand, would largely white male middle-aged London music business executives in the early ‘80s have been willing to take a chance on a 16-year-old Asian if she wanted to launch Monsoon? And would I have had the knowledge and experience to be able to do so? Definitely not. Does the fact that Steve’s interest in Indian music helped launch a major World Music singer, and indeed pave the way for the World Music genre five years later, and a significant role model for second generation Asians in the UK, when there were virtually no others, nullify these rather murky cultural appropriation issues? Well, the jury’s out on that one. I come down on the side of “no.” These phenomena would probably have arisen anyway, because the time was ripe. But in that case, that seminal World Music singer almost certainly wouldn’t have been me. I’d have missed that moment in my life and not become a musician at all.
It seems rather ungenerous to speak of a dead person who cannot defend himself, like this, and I hesitate to do it. I worry that it’s going to seem as though I’m ungrateful and point scoring at his expense. And yet, as I write, I picture you the reader, and the unconscious prejudices that lurk in your mind like pike in a still deep pool, and that cause you to weigh my words differently to the way I intend them. And that makes me change what I say, and what I emphasize. There are plenty of "Sheila deniers" who’ve sometimes had the nerve to tell me to my face that they think Steve was actually the one responsible for everything I did as a songwriter and musician, regardless of the credits on my albums. That’s what I mean about the audience, journalists, industry people and their, sometimes subconscious, attitudes influencing us both. Knowing what I know, the power to be innocently generous about Steve’s work, has been taken from me.
If you want to understand what an unfettered Steve album was like, listen to any of the Ganges Orchestra stuff, particularly the EEPs. That was where he had right of veto and I acted more like a session singer. With mine, I had the final say, and The Ganges Orchestra became his outlet for when he was frustrated that I wouldn’t make a particular album concept which he wanted to make.
Should I have worked with other writers and producers, and he with other singers and writers? Probably. But the habit of a close working relationship where you feel understood is hard to kick.
So, there you are—a collection of snapshots and thoughts about what it was like to work together. And for journalists reading this—If you cherry-pick quotes out of this answer after everything I’ve said about racism, sexism and context, I’ll fetch you a right slap about the head!
How do you look back on your experience as part of The Imagined Village?
It was an experience that was full of firsts for me. I’d never toured with a band—ever! Giving solo voice and drone concerts is empowering, but standing onstage with a huge wave of sound behind you and being able to enjoy the other musicians’ prowess every night is a joy.
Of course, people in the band assumed I knew the routine, but I didn’t. It took me a few gigs to catch up on the fact that there was an unspoken agreement that everyone would meet to eat or have a drink in the bar afterwards. I didn’t know! I really enjoyed the music and being onstage in that line-up. And not having total responsibility for the show was also very liberating.
If there was time, I used to close the show with a second encore. The first one was upbeat, loud, and really whipped the audience up to a climax. After that we needed to calm them down. So, I used to go onstage while the band retired to break out the beer backstage, and sing a solo voice version of “The Blacksmith.” It got people to slow down and listen intently. The lighting engineer really helped by putting me in a spotlight that got narrower and narrower until just after the last line, when it would suddenly just go out, leaving the stage in darkness—just like the life of the woman in the song. You could usually hear the audience pause and draw breath before the applause, which is always a good sign.
I did the encore at the final gig of the first tour at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. It was such a treat because it’s a major London venue and had recently been redesigned to have the perfect acoustics for an unaccompanied voice. Simon Emmerson and Billy Bragg had heard that I’d been getting standing ovations for the second encore, so that night, they sidled back onstage as I began my introduction to the song, and sat on the side on one of the risers to watch. A little unnerving, but a huge compliment.
Over the course of the first album and the gigs surrounding it, the band was still finding its way. And I think overall after that first phase, they felt that the high-energy folk stuff—the foot-tapping songs—were getting the best reaction and wanted to go more in that direction. I was experiencing voice problems even then, so it was a good time to leave them, so they could get on with a second album.
You personally experienced the ups and downs of the music industry across three decades. What’s your perspective on the transformation that’s occurred when it comes to how artists are both exploited and empowered?
When I first started in the music business, managers actually managed, record companies actually sought out artists, and promo departments and music publishers actually promoted artists. We weren’t expected to do it all ourselves, which is what has happened over the last 20 or so years. And there was financial tour support. Oh, what faraway days they seem now.
Music journalists were knowledgeable and skeptical. Reviewers knew what they were talking about—by and large. People mostly bought product in actual shops with very well-informed sales people. There were problems of course. But there was an expectation that if you were an artist, then making the music was what you were actually interested in. If you were female, you did have to “look good” in some sense, but it could also include being “striking.” You didn’t have to sell sex as part of your image to get anywhere.
By the end of the ‘90s, I could sense things had really changed. Then came the Internet as a serious force and the downloading crisis. We were told the Internet plus the ability to record digitally at home was a form of democratization because it would allow the artist to reach their audience directly—and in terms of interacting with them, it has. And there was an explosion of music being made. But I knew then that it was bunkum, because people have always needed curation from John Peel late night at the BBC, to your favorite breakfast show DJ and club DJs. More music just meant it was harder for an audience to find you. At the same time, more and more responsibility was being put on artists—and authors for that matter—to be their own private PR machines. That is rather unfair because the introverts among us, who often make some great music, are really not suited to that. If you try to work on your craft and be a social media darling, you get fatally overloaded. You can’t do both.
As for the downloading and streaming models, the streaming companies especially view artists as some kind of “natural resource” that can be plundered without proper recompense as if it will always be there. I think people will always make music, but if they don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to it, they’ll either be part time or funded by family support. Neither is a good way of encouraging the best music to be made. Not every artist can go on the road in a way that makes economic sense. Not every artist is fit enough to do so either. It shouldn’t be the only way in which we can make serious money. There is music licensing of course, but even there, prices are being driven down because of the expectations which other parts of the industry have fostered about the worth of music.
I wrote a long blog post some years ago, saying that we need the kind of conscious music revolution as we had in the UK in the ‘90s and noughties around food. People were willing to pay more for artisanal breads and cheeses because they recognized the quality with which they were made, and that it was important for our traditional foods to continue to be made in the traditional, often labor-and-time-intensive way. My post also pointed out that if you only allow those who have some kind of trust fund to launch themselves in the arts, that working class stories will not get told enough. And taken en masse, that’s a serious issue.
Privileged people will tend to tell only their story—and include a false narrative of “those who worked hard enough” getting success, because they’re unaware of their own privilege. In fact, there are so many other environmental factors, not including plain old luck, which determine who gets encouraged, who gets shut out, who gets supported, who gets bullied, who has to work, and who can make art.
The serious issue is that it affects our group cultural narrative. It affects who we see as possible artists—and what the “everyman,” for want of a better word, story that circulates consists of. The arts have a history of influencing the way society thinks. One reason the ‘60s were so revolutionary was that a majority of working class voices and stories were heard and celebrated for the first time, and were cool. It drove our picture of ourselves and it drove social change. We’ve definitely lost a large part of that.
Describe how you’ve distilled decades of experience as a musician and author into your life coaching pursuits.
I started informally mentoring a few local musicians about 20 years ago. It just felt natural to help and to give back. Then I mentored Stik more intensively as I mentioned earlier. After the first version of Organizing Your Creative Career came out in 2017, I gave the odd talk to promote it. During those, I became aware of how much of a need there was for experienced artist coaches working one-to-one.
Artists need an objective and disinterested—not uninterested—person, to give them good feedback. It needs to be someone who doesn’t stand to gain from whatever direction they take and can afford to be blunt when needed. It’s ideally a person who has actually worked professionally as an artist over a number of years or decades at several different levels in the entertainment industry. In most cases, such a person would be too busy getting on with their own career to coach others, though a few probably do mentor a little. But since I lost my career as a singer, I’m able to offer all that. The knowledge I have doesn’t need to go to waste.
I offer artist coaching and mentoring to clients all over the world via Skype. They talk and I type into Instant Messenger, which means I listen more intently. As to success stories, I find many clients are able to undo internal blocks which they didn’t realize were seriously affecting their career trajectory and they find things take off. I’m also able to give practical advice or point to other resources, too.
With 40 years of experience, chances are, when someone comes to me with a block or obstacle of some kind, I’ve been there myself, made all the mistakes possible in that situation and can pinpoint what they need to work on.
Across three decades of doing this, I’ve met many musicians who figuratively beat themselves up constantly. Many of them move from one confidence crisis to another. A lot of them are afraid to reveal their insecurities and vulnerabilities externally. They feel the need to continually project invincible success, no matter how badly things are going. What could they do better to help themselves cope?
I think social media has in some ways made it easier and in some ways made it harder. Fans can contact you directly to show their appreciation in ways they never could before. But you’re also more open to criticism and abuse. Believe your fans.
And it’s not musicians’ fault. This kind of crisis of confidence is and always was, built into the system. Ultimately, the power of creation rests with the artist. Everybody else in the chain knows that and is more than a little scared by it, because it’s not generally one of their skills. And also because they stand to lose power and money if they let the artist know how amazing what they do is. This happens even between musicians and lead singers very commonly and is a real problem for young singers.
Another problem is “being a bit magic” syndrome. So, look, let’s say you’re a high-powered record executive backstage and you’ve got a fairly high opinion of yourself. And the artist you’re responsible for and talking to, goes out on stage in front of thousands and is electrifying, while you can’t even give a presentation to the board. Somewhere in your subconscious mind, you, just like that artist’s audience, make the assumption that they’re a “little bit magic” and that the normal rules of limitation don’t apply to them.
So, you get ridiculous phenomena like fans expecting singers to dance at full tilt while also singing perfectly. Can’t be done. Try it. Jump up and down and try to hold a steady note. If you can do it, tell me your secret, because you’re breaking the laws of physics. All these ridiculous expectations lead artists to feel that they’re “not doing it right” when they can’t meet them. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Another aspect of it is “moving the goalposts” syndrome. You achieve an artistic goal, but all that does is show you more of what’s possible. So you chase that, never acknowledging what you’ve already achieved because it already feels like it’s not enough. The more you learn, the more there is to know and the more aware you are of your limitations—far more than when you started out. Moreover, you’re working to a world standard. How many employees do you know who are expected to do that?
The first thing to do is understand what’s going on and take an emotional step back. The trouble is, your fellow singers and musicians may not understand or be willing to give you genuine support because of power issues or jealousy. And non-musicians probably don’t understand. A therapist or coach is a useful ally in that situation and you definitely have to choose your confidants carefully because you don’t want your private feelings discussed in public. And these days, every indiscreet idiot is a broadcaster via social media.
The second thing I’d suggest is an exercise in The Kindness Method by Sharoo Izadi. You make a mind map titled “What I’m proud of” and list everything you’ve done in your life from childhood onwards that you’re proud of yourself for getting through or achieving. If you’re older, this can take some time. Then you imagine a seven-year-old you, reading this list, and their reaction. Because that’s the insecure you. They’re still seven-years old. They just haven’t got the message yet. This can be incredibly powerful and make a permanent shift in you.
What do you see as the relationship between the artist and art aficionado in this uncertain era?
Well, it’s an odd one in the post-Reagan/Thatcher era isn’t it? As I said earlier, we’ve had the relationship between the true value of labor and actual salary eroded in our minds. And that’s coming home to roost as we go through the COVID-19 crisis and realize that it’s the poorest paid workers—the cleaners, the porters, the supermarket workers, the delivery drivers, the refuse collectors, the care workers, and the nurses who are holding us back from the brink at the moment and who are most needed after all.
Neoliberalism has taught us, for the last 40 years, to value labor at the price we can get away with slashing it to, whether ethical or not. So, should we be surprised when, in the noughties, people jumped at the chance of downloading their favorite artist’s work for free and justifying it to themselves? At the time, artists warned that we were canaries in the coalmine and that what was being done to us today, would likely be done to the rest of the workforce tomorrow. But no-one would listen. They were too busy enjoying free stuff. People were fundamentally re-engineering the narrative around value and wages, all for the sake of a few paltry downloads which they could easily have paid for properly.
Anyway, crucially, the relationship between sentimentally valuing something and actually paying for it has been broken. And it’s coming out in weird ways. It’s been said that our NHS—the National Health Service—is something of a “religion” in the UK. But we, at this moment, have the weird spectacle of people who voted Tory for the last 10 years—and the Tories are the ones who have systematically underfunded the NHS and are parceling it up and selling it off piece by piece—standing and clapping for our “NHS heroes” every Thursday night. Many, if not almost a majority of those NHS workers, even in a rural place like Somerset where I live, are people of color. They’re the very immigrants that the Brexit enthusiasts tacitly wanted to get rid of. And due to inadequate PPE—again, something the Tories are wholly responsible for—plus years of being told to “keep quiet” about racism on the job, even if it means being targeted to be sent to the COVID-19 wards, it’s those very people who are dying at a higher rate unnecessarily, all while being hailed as “heroes.” Well, that’s not how you treat people you truly regard as heroes. You equip and fund them properly.
And though I wouldn’t dare compare myself with a keyworker, it’s the same principle with fans. If I had a pound for every time a “die hard” fan has said they’ve copied my work illegally, well, I wouldn’t have to be making this point. The barefaced innocent way in which they say it shows me that they haven’t a clue how insulting what they’re saying is. “I love your work sooo much, I stole it! You’re fantastic. Will you sign this for me?” It’s so “Sheldon Cooper.”
Black anti-racism activists have a saying—"Pay me!” And I think the same things applies to music or any other art form. They’ll draw a line between the so-called ally who praises a Black activist’s work and then brings a white person onto the conference panel in her place, and a true ally. If you mean it, hire the Black activist and pay them. Use your privilege to showcase them. Show some respect for the hard work they’ve done, give them proper credit and fair and equal remuneration. Same with music. If you truly value my work, pay me. And pay me properly. Streaming and even download rates are a joke. Don’t pay the white person in this analogy—the multinational corporation like Spotify or Deezer. Pay the people who did the work and make sure the money gets to them. Don’t be a fake ally, because I hate to break it to you, but we musicians have been able to see exactly what you are, for about 20 years now.
There is an important role right now for the true and financially fit aficionado to keep accomplished but non-mainstream artists going, by buying product and merchandise directly, using Patreon, Buy Me a Coffee and similar platforms, and supporting shows. But there are too few of them in this precariat class world, and therefore they have too much responsibility. En masse, I don’t think this attitude of “Great, it’s dirt cheap!” is going to change until we re-order our values. The COVID-19 crisis might be part of that wake up call, or we might never awake. Even if we do, it might be too late for some. Artists are part of the vulnerable self-employed class who are suffering terribly under COVID-19 while gigs are banned. Certainly in the UK, they do not have adequate and appropriate financial support and I’m hearing tales of homelessness among them. I worry about what’s going to happen in the very near future, even while, ironically, people turn to the arts for all-day solace while isolating at home.
You’ve given in-depth interviews before, and almost never mentioned racism or sexism. What makes you want to explore that topic matter in this conversation?
A minor reason is social media. Varied reading has enabled me to articulate the uneasiness I felt around many of my experiences in the music business, which I didn’t have the words or structural understanding to articulate before. To live in a Brown body is, to some degree, to live in fear of being accused of “playing the race” card, which is a silencing tactic. That means if you do raise an incident, it has to be pretty clear cut and well-articulated in your own mind, because you’re going to have to defend it against the inevitable shaming of deniers. Social media has also disinhibited fans, so that I encounter more examples of racism and sexism more often. If you’re well-intentioned, you tend to ascribe good intentions to others, where none may actually apply. Social media puts paid to that.
The main reason however, is that I have finished my music career. So, I feel I can afford to be more honest about things that were going on, and to take a broader perspective, because I don’t have to re-enter the music business, and work with people in the same way. Also, when I was making music, I was very aware of certain dangers in the way people would try to orientate my direction—dangers which I cannot fall foul of now.
To explain, I grew up in a Daily Mail-reading household. For those in the US, it’s not quite Fox News, but close. I knew my political opinions were ill-informed and intolerant, so as a young artist, I didn’t comment on political matters as I knew I had work to do on that score, and it wasn’t a priority. Being a good artist was.
However, about 10 years into my career, I started to notice a trend among the way the market and funding shapes Asian artists, and I didn’t like it. What I saw was both big labels and funding bodies such as the UK Arts Council, as well as the media, giving more respect, money and column inches to Asian artists whose subject matter was racism, identity confusion, and oppression. That always made me feel uneasy for two reasons.
Firstly, work of that kind is “enjoyable” to non-Asian consumers because they can vicariously “taste” oppression without ever having to actually experience it, let alone be subject to it without escape. It is the misery memoir of the music world. There is a place for it, and those stories certainly need to be told, but I worry about where and how they are being consumed. The words “trigger warning” were not in use then, but that doesn’t mean that artists weren’t being asked to relive their trauma and codify it in their music, for the entertainment of others.
Secondly, the almost blanket emphasis and reward for this kind of work disincentivized the work of Asian artists whose music was about their personal vision with no reference to their oppression. In other words, the mainstream did not want to know what they were capable of, or who they were musically, or what their vision was, outside of the racism they were experiencing. I found that disturbing. It was as though white people did not want to know who we really are—who we were before racism, and who we will be after it, as if our imaginings could not possibly be on a par with Western artistic visionaries, or of as much value to them. It was the ultimate “othering.”
In the ‘90s, and I know it’s a long time ago now, but that’s when much of my musical work was done, to not be a “Saturday night band from somewhere off the beaten track,” to not be a traditional folk musician whose work was deemed all the more valuable for having been recorded somewhere geographically inaccessible, and to not be perceived of broadly representative of a whole bunch of musicians making music in the same way, like craftsmen, was as radical. To hold out to be seen as geographically accessible, not needing help to negotiate the mainstream music business, to have a singular and individual vision executed in high quality to Western technical standards, and not to be bemoaning all the terrible things that had happened to you, and having your music defined by them, was radical.
So, I didn’t mention racism and sexism much. My work was not about that. My work, as I have said earlier, was about my secret musical world. And though racism and sexism did factor in it, inevitably, it was a place far more removed from them, than my daily life was, or is. I thought the universality of my vision as a musician was more important to preserve, and to represent at the time it was released, consumed and culturally digested. And that, ironically, turned out to be a more progressive political statement than I initially realized.
Your music has often been referred to as “spiritual” and people from many different religious backgrounds consider it of value. What is your perspective on spirituality?
If I’m honest, I don’t really know what the word “spiritual” means. I’m agnostic, so I’m definitely not connecting to any kind of religious tradition. I’m a very practical person, and quite mundane really. Artists have to be practical or they’re not going to get anywhere. I do strongly believe in the practical art of embodying honesty, integrity, empathy, and compassion as much as possible in everyday life, but if there are any water sprites, crystal spirits, house elves, gods, or goddesses floating around me they’re going to find me about as sensible of their presence as a brick.
The problem of perception of who I am as a person and as an artist arises because, as I’ve already hinted, the audience doesn't realize how much work they put in when listening to my work or at a performance. They think I’m creating it. In fact, it’s co-created. The audience adds meaning and soul. Basically, they lend me their hearts. They allow me to trigger feelings in them. But all I am is a trigger.
For instance, the level of virtuosity I used to perform at meant developing a very high level of relaxed concentration akin to a meditative state. This was just a practical fact of life or I couldn’t have performed at all. It wasn’t meditation because I’ve no interest in meditating, but it did seem to trigger the same kind of state in audiences and I think my recordings do too.
An analogy would be when you fall in love. All those wonderful swoony feelings are triggered by your crush or your beloved, but really they were inside you all along. In fact they’re based in all the chemicals your body releases such as oxytocin, cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine when you catch sight of your desired one—and that’s completely provable and measurable. You can’t make someone be in love with you, though most of us have wished sometime or other that we could, any more than I can make you feel transported by my music or feel a spiritual connection as a result of it.
As I mentioned before, what can’t be denied though, and what I find fascinating, is that quite separate and apart from any kind of ideology, philosophy or religion, the rituals and structures of music work to produce a form of transcendence—if you’re lucky. This holds for even secular and quite profane music. They allow the performer to be a powerful trigger. And particular types of music work particularly well in that regard. Hinduism harnessed the power of a single melodic line played or sung over a drone within cavernous temple spaces, and I’m using the same structures. Sean-nós music in Ireland does exactly the same though in secular buildings and often without the drone. It seems to be a basic human need to be transported via art. Though it may have got codified into religion and religious ritual, the magic seems to be within the art itself. But I didn’t choose these forms because they were spiritual. I chose them because they were beautiful and offered the maximum potential for me to explore my voice.
What are you accessing when you sit in my audience or listen to one of my recordings? Is it your higher self? Is it the divine? Is it the experience of all the subtler parts of you that have got put aside during your day? How can I possibly know? If my music is doing its job it will take you somewhere else. But what that somewhere else is, I cannot define.
Also I’m Asian. I used to wear white because it was hard to see me when I was alone and seated on a large stage otherwise, and I drew on Vedic chant and Gregorian plainsong as part of my work because to ignore them, given my other musical influences, would have been ridiculous. These were practical choices as I’ve already said. But they allowed for a hell of a lot of projection about me and my musical intentions from my audience. There wasn’t really a lot I could do about that. Personally, I’d rather you said you liked my music because it was good music, than because it was spiritual. If it doesn’t pass that test, then it’s not good enough.