In May 2018, sitarist Anoushka Shankar, 38, in her divorce proceedings with husband and director Joe Wright, cited adultery. Months after the split, when actor Haley Bennett was pregnant with Wright’s child, Shankar wrote on her Instagram page, “It’s against my faith in life to let pain close me up, and just for today, as I learn to be single and to be a single parent, I will manifest this feeling of being ‘in love’ when I kiss my children, when I watch the waves roll in, when I play my sitar, when I sit in moonlight, and when I pray…”
Last year, she gave the world Bright Eyes, her single from the forthcoming album Love Letters, which explores infidelity and loss. In the black-and-white video of the song — set to the poignant Bhairavi, the raga that defines the moods of separation and sorrow — a short-haired Shankar dwells on her personal life.
The year was also difficult owing to personal health issues, including a hysterectomy and removal of multiple abdominal tumours. “I’m better and feel healthy again,” she says in this exclusive interview, ahead of her concerts in Mumbai and Delhi (13-14 February), and on the sidelines of the release of Love Letters in the year of her father Pt Ravi Shankar’s birth centenary. Excerpts:
All of art is private in some way. Traces of You (2013) was your tribute to your father after his death in 2012. But Love Letters sounds like your most personal record so far. What is it like to make public your innermost thoughts and personal life?
What’s interesting is that I’m currently finding it easier than ever to share my innermost feelings musically. This may change in the future but at present that’s the case. Writing can flow out when I’m feeling something strongly, whether that’s joy, pain, fear, desire or anything else. The challenge is actually later, in the second or third or 100th draft of the music, when it can be so easy to cover up the original sentiments by making the music more ornate or cloaked. My friend, co-producer and co-writer (German-Turkish singer-songwriter) Alev Lenz was brilliant at cautioning me whenever I would move away from the original rawness of a song, and gave me the encouragement needed to share the meat and bones of the songs with people.
When did you begin work on this record?
It’s been a slow, gentle and ongoing process that began just over two years ago. This was no formal recording process; I wasn’t ‘in the studio making an album’. It was more of inviting friends for tea and a couple of hours of singing and playing together, and allowing songs the time to breathe and exist in between sessions.
For this album, you’ve again collaborated with Lenz, after Land of Gold (2016), which spoke of the refugee crisis. How did your relationship with her evolve?
Alev is an absolute darling and an incredible talent. We met through a mutual friend while I was working on Land of Gold. We had an instant musical chemistry on the song we co-wrote at the time. On Love Letters, we created a safe nurturing space for ourselves, often working without engineers present, and wrote, played together, engineered for each other, produced each other, and became extremely close friends along the way. We had gone through some similar recent life experience and our songwriting was compatible, so I think we leaned into that.
You’ve also sung for the first time. We didn’t know that side of you. Was singing another outlet for your pain?
By the time I was in the studio with (the musical duo) Ibeyi, recording Lovable, I had had numerous intimate sessions with various collaborators including Alev, cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson and also Lisa-Kaindé (Díaz) of Ibeyi. They are all generous, big-hearted collaborators and encouraged me to use my voice. In the context of these songs, that didn’t feel like a gimmick or massive statement, but simply a natural extension of the personal nature of the songs. It felt right for my own voice to be present among the other voices.
How was it to collaborate with playback singer Shilpa Rao, who sings your English poem in Punjabi?
Her voice is so beautiful and I love how it adds to my sitar and Ayanna Witter Johnson’s gorgeous cello. She also introduced me to Shirin Anandita, who developed my English poem into beautiful Punjabi lyrics.
2020 is your father’s birth centenary. What does it mean to perform in his 100th year?
It feels poignant to be planning the special centenary celebrations. We are doing concerts and events around the world, beginning in London on what would’ve been my dad’s actual birthday. This will also be the very first time my sister Norah Jones and I perform together on stage. We tour America with more concerts featuring special guests such as (composer-pianist) Philip Glass and (singer-instrumentalist) Dhani Harrison. We will conclude the celebrations in India, featuring special guests and many of my father’s incredible disciples.
Earlier, when Panditji was around, you could ask him questions during riyaaz. Do you seek explanations yourself now?
Yes, I do look inwards a lot more than I used to, but that’s possibly a maturation process as well. Occasionally, if I’m in doubt over specific Indian classical or raga-related questions, I’ll find myself going back to my lesson tapes or my father’s recordings.
Did massive scrutiny of your work make you uncomfortable earlier? Is it less now?
Perhaps, there is less scrutiny now. I’m not sure why. Though I do think it’s partly due to the state of the music world in general rather than me in particular. The concept of crossover music was more novel 20 years ago. Some of the more intensive scrutiny when I was first starting out definitely used to be tough to handle; I was only a teenager, yet was being analysed in newspapers world over, often by people who already had a strong opinion about my privilege before hearing me play. But I always tried to learn from the useful reviews and take the rest with a pinch of salt!
You’ve deftly merged classical raga structures on sitar with flamenco, electronica and blues. Was classical music by itself limiting or dissatisfying?
I’ve always been extremely interested in the technique and thought it required dialogue with other musical styles at a high standard, rather than just some casual jam or fusion experiment. I can’t say at all that Indian classical music is in any way dissatisfying; it’s as vast as the ocean. However, I need to make music that represents my inner truth and inner voice. I’ve found myself more able to do that within an international space that has an Indianness at its root but branches out to encompass sounds and cultures across borders.
You once wanted to write orchestral music. Has that worked out?
It’s still very much my ambition to write for orchestra one day. But at the moment, I’m drawn to intimate music. I love working with orchestras, and playing my father’s great works such as his three Concerto and one Symphony. It’s inspiring to be immersed in music.
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