Priya Darshini’s music is a mix of genetics, sheer talent, love for the artform and curiosity (Nitesh Square)
Priya Darshini’s music is a mix of genetics, sheer talent, love for the artform and curiosity (Nitesh Square)

The Grammy girl next door

Meet Chennai-born and New York-based Priya Darshini, whose debut album has been nominated for the 63rd Grammy Awards
By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON JAN 30, 2021 07:52 PM IST

Born to Tamilian parents in Chennai, Priya Darshini grew up in Mumbai, where her family moved when she was around three years old. When we get on a Zoom call with her, the now Grammy nominee, whose debut album Periphery has been nominated in the Best New Age Album category, confesses she’s still a Mumbai girl even though she moved to New York seven years ago. “It’s amchi Mumbai! My family is there so Max (her husband and musician) and I go live there for months every year. Mumbai prepared me for New York. If you survive in Mumbai and do it well, you can survive anywhere,” she smiles.

A move that changed her life, because it inspired her debut Grammy-nominated album. For she found that when she was in the US, she would miss home and vice-versa during her India trips. This yearning of that something that’s missing, along with an introspection about being an immigrant in the US, made the foundation stone for her album. She confesses she started noticing certain subtleties and the ‘other-ing’ of people. “I wondered, what does home mean to people like me who feel like we’re on the periphery all the time? People isolated and othered due to colour, immigration, status or gender? How do we feel at home?” she asks, explaining that she just wanted to create something from her healing process.

Quick questions with Priya Darshini
Quick questions with Priya Darshini

Spilling the genes

Her music is a mix of genetics, sheer talent, love for the artform and curiosity: Her parents listened to Carnatic music, ’50s and ’60s films music, Beatles and ABBA, and encouraged her to listen to a diverse range of genres, her father bringing along records from his travels. Studying music was non-bargainable with her mother teaching Priya and her sister how to sing and grandmother, a musician and Bharatanatyam dancer, also started teaching Priya. So, natural ear-training was inevitable. “My family made sure I had a strong musical foundation irrespective of whether I would pursue it professionally or not,” says Priya, who started learning new tools as she started training in Hindustani classical music with Pandit Sunil Borgaonkar.

“Since I was a kid, I dreamt of singing for people. There was a deep intuitive understanding and music was my way of travelling the world and understanding cultures,” says Priya, a self-confessed bathroom singer who would use the hand shower in their Mumbai bathroom as a mic all the time when they first got it installed when Priya was seven years old!

Priya Darshini shot as part of The Home Series during the lockdown (Francoise Lebeau)
Priya Darshini shot as part of The Home Series during the lockdown (Francoise Lebeau)

A bathroom singer to a Grammy nominee – how did Priya find out she had been nominated? Turns out, Max was asleep and Priya was trying to go about her day asking her brain to keep the anxiety at bay when her phone started blowing up with people congratulating her. “I had to look it up online and couldn’t find it. I only got a confirmation when the recording academy tagged me on Twitter,” she laughs. Then she called up her folks, even though it meant waking them up at night. Then, she got a call from (fellow nominee) Anoushka Shankar. “I hope she wins,” smiles the musician whose first Grammy memory is that of Alanis Morissette picking up Best Rock Album for Jagged Little Pill at the 38th Grammy Awards.

No room for error

The most exciting part about the album? It was written in 12 days when record label Chesky Records reached out to Priya. The entire album has been recorded live and on one mic, which means no one can make an error or the whole thing would have to be re-recorded. They played it thrice and picked the best version, raw as it comes.

But what convinced her this is the album is that it was recorded in an abandoned church in Brooklyn using HD recording technology that records sound in 3D space, allowing the space to contribute to the sound. “I wanted to bring the architecture of the space in the album so I learned to create effects with the space we had. We realised we had to be completely honest, authentic, disconnect from the result, drop our egos and be vulnerable. And in that moment, all I could do is be myself,” she reveals what we feel is the secret ingredient that worked in her album that seamless and intrinsically binds elements from the East and West.

Priya is married to Jewish-American musician Max ZT (Ben Rosser)
Priya is married to Jewish-American musician Max ZT (Ben Rosser)

“I don’t like the term fusion because it insinuates that the two genres are separate. For me, all these cultures exist within me. If you function from authenticity where all styles live in you, then everything you make is just you,” she adds, confessing it was only when she started immersing herself in different cultures that she found her sound.

When love conquers all

What added to it, was her meeting and marrying Jewish-American musician Max ZT. The two met in 2010 at a party in Mumbai, where he was living and studying music while Priya was visiting home while living in Nashville. She was there to attend a jam session (which didn’t happen), but the two connected over music and got talking. It was only a year later when he was moving back to New York and Priya to Mumbai that they decided to play music together and got into a long-distance relationship for two-and-a-half years before Priya moved to New York. They even had a wedding with Jewish and South Indian ceremonies and a mandap that was like a Jewish chuppah (a canopy under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony) on top, and their bandmate, who is also a Rabbi, officiated the wedding and performed at the wedding!

Musically, the duo stuck to their own music initially, because they were personally connected and Priya found communicating her musical ideas challenging given how different their music education is. Building on their common base of Indian Classical music, the two have, over the years, starred in each other’s albums, including Max in the Grammy-nominated album.

At a live gig with The Epichorus that performs Indo-Arabic roots music; Famous composer Chuck Palmer, who has played in Priya’s latest album; during the recording of her Grammy-nominated album Periphery (Radhika Chalasani)
At a live gig with The Epichorus that performs Indo-Arabic roots music; Famous composer Chuck Palmer, who has played in Priya’s latest album; during the recording of her Grammy-nominated album Periphery (Radhika Chalasani)

And as much as she’s over the moon, Priya can’t help but point out the fact that the Grammys and Oscars don’t have many categories from around the world. “They are trying to address it, which is why they changed the world music category to global music category, and why the Latin Grammys began. But, it’s still a crowded category with artists and music from every culture. How can you put it all in one category and compare it? It’s like the foreign film category in the Oscars,” she explains.

What about Bollywood, where she also sang some songs in 2005-2006? “There’s a lot of original music coming in India with people getting exposed to different types of music. There’s no strict fad-based fixed system. There are still some who abide by this rule, but people are now breaking out of it, listening to and demanding better music. Even indie music is finding a way into films. I would love to sing in Bollywood now,” says the musician who hopes to start spending six months a year in India soon. Well, we can’t wait.

Follow @KKuenzang on Twitter and Instagram

From HT Brunch, January 31, 2021

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