(Originally appeared in Mutant Renegade Zine #13, Winter 2000)
At the age of 17, Shelia Chandra became Britain’s first mainstream Asian pop star as the voice of chart toppers Monsoon. Soon after she embarked on a solo career that has been instrumental in getting audiences through out the world to accept the sounds and structure of another culture as pop music. Contact with Peter Gabriel’s record label, Real World and WOMAD in 1991 allowed her, with her releases Weaving My Ancestors Voices’ and The Zen Kiss, to illustrate the idea of moving seamlessly between various traditions through the mind and voice of one person.
I had the opportunity to see this wonderful artist perform live, and soon after even got to talk with her. Her voice is enough to make one fall in love, and I was completely entranced as we talked about her work on the Real World record label, why it took so long for her to play out live and of course her beautiful singing voice. So here it is, my interview with Sheila Chandra.
MR – When did you first realize that you could use your voice as a musical instrument?
SC – When I was 12 and my voice broke. Women’s voices do break; they get slightly lower, and there’s that point where they move from that children’s voice which is very unemotional, you know, if a child is upset its voice remains the same, that kind of high pitch thing. Where my voice connected up with all my emotions, that’s when I really had a tone, an instrument that I really wanted to develop.
MR – How did you go about developing your voice?
SC – Well, I was in theater arts school and we were doing music and singing lessons, which were completely unsuitable for me. So I went off and started singing everything that I was interested in which was mostly pop and soul type vocals. I spent a lot of time working on my voice in that way, motivated for my own love for voice rather than a specific course or anything.
MR – When you sing live, are you ever afraid that your voice will go out? And what do you do to prepare your voice for a performance?
SC – I spend a lot of time rehearsing, and what I do when I rehearse is I sing continuously. There’s a thing about going on stage alone in that the performance is completely dependent on me. If my voice goes out, I just can’t say to the guitarist “do a solo” while I go off and grab a cough sweet or something. So when I rehearse, I sing for at least an hour continuously so that I know that my voice can take it. If it can take it during a rehearsal situation, then I know that it can definitely take it on a day of a performance.
I also use Alexander technique. Are you familiar with that?
MR – No I’m not.
SC – It’s a technique developed in Australia about 100 years ago. It has to do with the internal suspension system, which we have in our bodies and which we misuse. If you start getting your body back toward the way in which it should be used; if you can activate that internal suspension system then you become a much better resonator. Then your voice seems to revel in the amount of time you sing whether than becoming degenerated by the amount of work you’re giving it. Children do it naturally and they seem to lose it about the time they go to school.
My technique is up to scratch and that’s what saves me. I don’t think you can do anything just before a performance, if you haven’t prepared beforehand. The whole thing about Alexander technique is the months you spend rehearsing that sees you through on the night [of the performance].
MR – How do you go about writing a song, and what is the correlation between your voice and your lyrics when you do write a song?
SC – I write with Steve Coe, who also produces for me. Because we’ve been writing together for 10 years, we’re a very integrated unit. We’re almost like two sides of a brain when we’re writing. It’s very difficult to say who writes what. We both have our strengths. Steve is particularly good at arranging and lyrics. I’m particularly good at vocal ornaments and wordless melodies and things that express emotion. But we swap and we swap fields very successfully. One of us will have an idea based on a technique we heard or an emotion we want to explore, and pretty much I write on my voice. Steve used to write on the piano, but now writes on his voice as well. Working with me has improved both his writing and his work as a producer. It’s very difficult to describe, actually. Sometimes he’ll sing a phrase and I’ll say “Is this what you mean?” and he’ll say “No, but that’s better.” Who wrote the phrase? It just goes on and on like that
MR – Where do you draw inspiration from when you write?
SC – Sometimes there’s a particular technique that I want to explore or there’s a particular connection that I want to explore. On the song Women I’m Calling You for instance, I wanted to go back for the first time in a long time, to that soul vocal I learned as a teenager. I wanted to draw into it the Islamic ornaments, which I also know, the Arabic ornaments. Because in fact they’re basically the same, they’re simply sung with different vowel sounds and different psychology’s. But the juxtaposition of notes on the trills and ornaments are in fact exactly the same.
The motivation for the Speaking in Tongues pieces is my love for vocal percussion. I think it’s completely an emotive sound. And the way I do it really turns it into an art form that is no longer about drumming. A drummer cannot play Speaking in Tongues III or IV, because I’m throwing in syllables of my own and because I’m breaking the time cycle. There’s usually a vocal challenge. There’s also an emotive reason why. I don’t really know, and I think it’s good that I don’t really know because I’m not tempted to go back to any particular place or a formulaic-type of inspiration.
MR – Tell me more about your Speaking in Tongues pieces.
SC – I use the seven basic syllables which are onomatopoeic syllables for the drum. So when you strike the drum in a certain way there is a corresponding syllable. Since it is an oral tradition in India, people have over the years learned to say patterns of these syllables in order to communicate with drummers, and for the drummer to be able to teach. Now as I was saying before, what I am doing with the Speaking in Tongues pieces is taking them way beyond that.
I really want the pieces to characterize chaos. And to characterize that kind of space that an artist continually goes into when an artist faces a blank page what they’re really facing is a mirror into their own soul, a mirror to all the things that are unborn in them, things that take a risk to express. That’s where the best art comes from. It’s that knife-edge, chaos kind of point. And to express all the chatter that goes on in your head when you face the blank page. That’s what really motivates the Speaking in Tongues pieces.
MR – Was there any particular theme in mind when you wrote and recorded your album The Zen Kiss?
SC – The Zen Kiss really grew out of live performance, because I hadn’t done any live performance for the 11 years that I’d been a recording artist until 1992. I wrote and recorded the material for Weaving My Ancestors Voices with playing live in mind. As I developed toward longer and longer performances, because I started in the festival setting and then moved out into full-length concerts, I started to develop the kind of material that I thought the audience needed at certain points for the pacing in the performance. That was one theme, if you like, the fact that all of it had to be reproducible in a concert situation.
I think that in a way, since I’ve written Zen Kiss over two years, what comes out is almost a record of your own psychic state, a record of where you are and what’s important to you. It’s the same for any artist.
I didn’t set out with a great theme in mind that I felt needed to be expressed. I often find that I can’t do that in any case. I can’t say “I’m going to write a song about crossing this vocal technique with that vocal technique,” if there’s no actual basis in my voice, which makes it a valid experiment. I really have to do what my voice is capable of whether than do things purely out of intellect. So I think the album is more instinctual rather than having any particular theme.
MR – You were a recording artist for more than 11 years before you did a live performance. What made you decide you were ready to play live?
SC – I have never been a fan of live performance, so that’s why I never performed live. I just didn’t know what made people so excited about live performance. Over the years, talking to musicians, who really enjoyed going to concerts, I started to detect this twinkle in their eye and I really wanted to know what this overwhelming curiosity for what made people feel like was. Because they were talking about the best concert they ever seen from Kate Bush to Howling Wolf; it could have been anything. So I thought “Right, it’s not a certain performer or a certain style of music.” It’s something far more intangible and universal. And I decided in the end it must be a quality of concentration, it must be a quality of involvement that the artist brings to their music and they are able to sustain even though there are lots of people watching them.
When you see an artist on stage, you are very unaware of what they’re seeing. What they’re seeing is a mass of faces and it can be very intimidating. I decided that I really wanted to experience that. That’s why I decided to go for solo voice presentation as the only way I would play live. I really wanted to maximize that potential for that kind of rapport between the audience and myself.
MR – I really like your song Mother and Child, how did that song develop?
SC – I wrote the text, the spoken part of it, in 1987. I don’t know why I wrote it. Like the title of The Zen Kiss, it just came out of nowhere. I had this picture in my head and I felt that I should keep writing about it until the piece was finished. So it all came out in one go. I read it to Steve and it was a few years later that he thought that it would make a good track. It’s sort of a completion of a psychological journey for me. I think I was wrestling with the issue of being seen as a woman is to be seen as this virgin Mother Mary or Mary Magdalene. Women are either one or the other, they’re not both. They’re not both at the same time, not both in the same life. And they’re not supposed to be both in the same moment, and that is what Woman and Child is about. That it is a ridiculous split. It is even more ridiculous split when you truly understand the biological fact about childbirth, breastfeeding and so on. That it is a sensual experience too. So that’s what really the whole piece is about.
Do yourself a favor and pick up the Sheila Chandra Retrospective Release Moonsong on the Real World Record label. You can also get more info at…