Sheila Chandra

Born in South London to a South Indian immigrant family, Sheila Chandra discovered her voice at the age of twelve and whilst at Theatre Arts school. From this moment her chosen path was to be a singer.

Lacking any real contacts or access to the music business, she nevertheless honed her vocal skills as a labour of love, spending up to two hours a night throwing her voice into the tall, draughty and uncarpeted stairwell of the family home: “I didn’t know how to manufacture an opportunity, but I was determined that when a chance came my way I would be ready.”

A chance did come her way, perhaps drawn by the weight of such unshakable belief. Steve Coe, a writer and record producer, was about to form a band, Monsoon, as an outlet for his increasingly Indian influenced material. He came across Chandra’s voice on an old audition tape, lying in a box at Hansa Records and knew that he had found his singer: “The richness, fluidity and quality of her voice struck me immediately. And then when I requested a photo from the file and found that Sheila was Asian, everything else seemed to fall into place.”

Monsoon put out an EP on Steve Coe’s newly formed Indipop label and were signed by the far sighted Dave Bates at Phonogram. The band’s first single ‘Ever So Lonely’ took a song written around a raga and, utilising the new production techniques available, came up with an irresistible but radical modern pop fusion sound. It was a top ten hit and notched up a quarter of a million sales worldwide.

Following singles did not manage to dent the top twenty and six months later Chandra walked away from it all, frustrated by the increasing lack of communication between Phonogram and Monsoon over artistic direction. She went back to the Indipop label to learn her craft as a writer and musician. Free from business constraints and in complete control of her creative life, there followed a remarkable and prolific two-year period. Her first four solo albums for the label chronicle a profound transformation in the quality and depth of her work, both as a singer and increasingly as a writer, in her then chosen field of Asian fusion— learning from the very structures she had ignored throughout her childhood.

Her new found ability to cross continents in a single vocal line and weave seamlessly the vocal styles of the Arab world, Andalucia, Ireland, Scotland, India and more ancient structures such as that of Gregorian plainsong made for a true fusion within one mind and one voice. Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices established Chandra as a spiritual heir to a ‘whole world’ vocal tradition, whilst Coe’s sensitive and painstaking production enhanced this further and acted as an integral part of the recording, particularly on the virtuoso vocal percussion pieces ‘Speaking In Tongues’ I and II. The album spent several weeks in the Billboard World Music Top 10 and outsold everything else on the label in the USA.

After touring the USA with Peter Gabriel’s 1993 WOMAD tour, there followed The Zen Kiss and ABoneCroneDrone. The latter was a daring minimalist strategy to lure the listener out of long accustomed passivity to hear, as Chandra does, the living symphony of harmonics within the simplest of drones.

In 2001, Sheila released a one-off collaboration album with The Ganges Orchestra called This Sentence is True (The Previous Sentence Is False) on the tiny Indipop Records; a project she said helped her break out of her voice and drone box. In the meantime, Sheila’s transcendent vocals from the Real World trilogy had became a staple ingredient of unauthorised dance remixes, and were even copied by session singer Shahin Badar for the infamous single ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by The Prodigy, in 1997.

Fiercely protective of her musical vision, she’s always received numerous requests to allow samples and remixes of her work, and almost always refuses. However, in 2002, fresh from their success with ‘American Dream’, Jakatta used Sheila’s 1982 Top Ten hit ‘Ever So Lonely’ vocals and completely reconstructed the track underneath. The resulting single reached no 8 in the UK charts and Sheila appeared on Top Of The Pops for the second time. She was also one of four soloists on the second Lord Of The Rings film soundtrack, The Two Towers in 2002 (with a piece written especially for her called ‘Breath Of Life’) which went platinum.

Following voice problems, Sheila returned to live performances for a short while in 2007, after a gap of 14 years, giving concerts around the world with WOMAD and other festivals. She also featured on the first Imagined Village album in that year, and toured the UK with them. In 2010 she signed her first book to Vermilion (Random House) entitled Banish Clutter Forever— How the toothbrush principle will change your life.

Unfortunately this innovative artist’s voice has continued to deteriorate. In 2010 Sheila developed Burnt Mouth Syndrome (for which there is no known cause or cure) and now experiences long-lasting neurological pain triggered by speaking. Singing is completely out of the question. She is effectively mute, and communicates in person largely through handwritten notes and very basic sign language. She says she considers the trilogy she made for Real World to be the best work of her musical career.

Further reading

Sheila Chandra recalls her first visit to Real World Studios

A blog by Sheila as part of Real World Tales, marking the label's 25th anniversary in 2014.

Diary of a Festival on Tour: WOMAD in the USA, 1993

Paul de Gooyer, Real World's American label manager, takes us on the road for WOMAD USA '93.

Ring the bells for The Imagined Village

The Imagined Village project grew out of a discussion prompted by the BBC Radio 3 documentary 'A Pla...