Sheila Chandra recalls her first visit to Real World Studios

I only just got myself invited to the first Real World recording week. I’d approached Real World a month before with the suggestion that I work with them and with WOMAD and they invited me along. I’d no idea what to expect. It was nothing short of a musician’s paradise. Glorious sunshine, too many studios to count and amazing sounds coming out of them all!

You could meet other artists in Lulu’s Café which had been set up for the week, and chat over a delicious lunch. You could stroll around listening to all the amazing tracks being created and watch people discussing, learning each other’s musical language and collaborating. Real World had set up an extraordinary generous space for people to work together, and that generosity trickled down to the way everyone worked.

Sheila Chandra records vocals in The Work Room during Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Andrew Catlin.

Perhaps the best thing was the way in which other people’s performances had the power to draw something out of you that you never knew you had to give. I’ve never been a ‘leap in there straightaway’ kind of improviser. I’m by nature a perfectionist and shy songwriter. But in the writing room one day, I heard a backing track which three drummers had laid down simultaneously.

These days, you almost never hear a track like that. Three styles of drumming on full kits recorded entirely ‘live’ instead of on a machine. It was exhilarating. Someone had added a couple of sets of chords which loosely delineated ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’ type structures. And Rupert Hine, the producer in charge of that session asked me if I’d like to lay a vocal over the top.

I said I’d work out which scale the chords suggested and that I’d need a drone. Someone said “Oh there’s always a drone, floating around at Real World” and pushed up a fader. And there was I perfectly in tune drone, which I think was left over from the previous session, just waiting to be used.

Sheila performs 'Speaking In Tongues II' live at World in the Park 1992, Victoria Park, Bath

I remember saying “Okay, I’ll have a go, but I don’t know if this will work” before the set the track running. All sorts of things run through your mind when you’re going for a take. Often they’re nervous distracting thoughts, but having to get a take right in front of strangers tends to concentrate the mind! I’d just got off a plane from Kazakhstan via Moscow. I hadn’t warmed up for days and my throat was completely dehydrated from all the flying. And, of course, I had no choice over the key as it was already set. I thought I’d start on the lower octave with my chosen scale (which was loosely based on the raga ‘Kafi’) and maybe work up to a few phrases in the octave higher towards the end, to give the track shape.

L-R: Pól Brennan, Remmy Ongala, Cosmas Chidumule, Maire Boine Persen, Sheila Chandra, and Andy Breslau recording in The Wood Room. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

Well I sang the first phrase and realised that really wasn’t going to work. It was too hard to distinguish my voice from the chords and the vocal had no ‘excitement’. With a lurch in my stomach in the couple of beats I had to think, I realised I’d have to do the whole thing an octave up. I had no choice bu to just ‘throw’ my voice at it.

I heard this sound come out— more like an adolescent boy than my own tone. To my surprise, all the right sorts of phrases came to mind, and all inspired by the sound the track was forcing me into producing. Sometimes, stepping out of your comfort zone is exactly what you need.

So if you’ve never been to one, how would I sum up the experience of a Real World Recording Week for a musician taking part? Terrifying. Exhilarating. Awe-inspiring.

Recommended Listening

  • Moonsung (A Real World Retrospective)

    Sheila Chandra

    Released 05 April 1999

    Starting off with a reprise of ‘Ever So Lonely’, the Top 20 pop hit she had as a teenager with her band Monsoon, Moonsung gathers together the finest moments from the three albums that Anglo-Indian singer Sheila Chandra made for Real World in the 1990s.

By Sheila Chandra

Main Image: Sheila Chandra, taken from the artwork for her album ABoneCroneDrone. Photo credit: Aditya Bhattacharya.

Published on Tue, 30 April 19

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