Anoushka Shankar: My album is a response to the refugee crisis
Five-time Grammy-nominated sitar player Shankar talks about her new album, working with her husband, film-maker Joe Wright, and more.music Updated: Apr 16, 2016 14:03 IST
The title track of sitar player Anoushka Shankar’s ninth studio album, Land Of Gold, makes a strong and heartfelt statement. As the German-Turkish singer Alev Lens sings the lyrics, “May your kind heart find a land of gold”, the melancholic melody immediately expresses solidarity with the victims of the refugee crisis. Anoushka, who has been touring North America with her latest album, began working on the record last year, soon after she had her second child, Mohan. Here, the award-winning artiste talks about her new work, the “hackneyed formula” by which the music industry functions today, and why not winning a Grammy can be disappointing.
How did your new album come about?
It happened quite naturally, last summer. I was to start writing the record, and when I was working with my musicians, this is what was going on in the world. We were coming together to play music after having read the news. So, it was a natural extension that my emotions started flowing into the music that we were playing.
Is the album essentially inspired by the refugee crisis?
Once I started making music and found that that is what I was being influenced by, it became a response to the refugee crisis. The album follows a narrative journey throughout. Every track is part of that exploration. Having said that, it can be an abstract connection. A lot of the music is instrumental. So, while it was influenced by the refugee crisis, it can be listened to in any number of ways.
Watch: Land of Gold, the title track from Anoushka Shankar’s new album
How have you been affected by the refugee crisis?
As someone who has been sitting in a safe place, I can’t say that I have been affected by the crisis. But millions of people have been affected by it. And, I’m emotionally affected and horrified by that. As a mother, having to see the amount of unaccompanied children, or those who have to go through such a horrific journey, is wrong. That doesn’t mean I have the perfect solution. I am not a politician. But I do know that what’s happening is wrong, especially for children. They should be guaranteed safety, and that’s not happening. It’s horrific that the governments of European countries can’t guarantee the safety of children.
How did you go about adapting a crisis like this for your album?
Having a couple of vocal guests like M.I.A (rapper) and Vanessa Redgrave (British actor) on the album really made a difference, and lent some moments of clarity to the theme. For me, it’s about the story in my head, and the way we name the songs, which helps draw an image in the mind of the listener. I was imagining a journey through the course of the album — starting with the first track, Boat to Nowhere, and ending with a hopeful number called Reunion.
Your husband, film-maker Joe Wright, and you have produced an album together for the first time…
We have always shared things with each other. He has always influenced my music. But this is the first time that we have formalised that. It worked really well. He is a really good producer.
Tell us about the experience of working with him.
His inputs are very different from what I’m used to. He thinks of music in a different way because of films — for him, music is mood-oriented and a lot more about the narrative. People I’m used to working with are musicians. With them, it is about the structure, technique or composition. He (Wright) would come without all that [background]. He was able to hear the music from the point of view of what its emotional impact was. He was able to push me into looking at my own music in a different way. So, the technique became secondary, and in some ways, it didn’t matter. To not think in terms of a clever line or a nice melody, and to just think of the story — that’s what really changed in this album.
What is your opinion of commercial music today?
The industry is in a mess. The funnel through which successful music courses through is getting narrower. It (churning out hits) has become such a hackneyed formula. Every now and then, someone great blazes a trail, and it’s amazing; for example, someone like Amy Winehouse, who pops through and can transcend those formulas. But the industry is really set up in a way that only supports hitmakers. And that’s really unfortunate. Albums don’t really sell now, unless you’re one of the five big pop stars. It’s a tricky time. The whole music industry is going through a metamorphosis.
Watch a trailer for the album here
You have been nominated for the Grammys five times. You got the most recent nomination this year. But you haven’t won an award yet. Do you feel disappointed?
Of course, I do. It’s not that I spiritually believe that it’s a big deal. I don’t think having one particular award makes me a better musician. But, it’s still the most prominent music award, so it’s great for your career. Being nominated is great, but winning it is even more wonderful (laughs). But, not getting the award is also okay, because it’s a fun experience [attending the Grammys].