Sheila Chandra: The pursuit of radical vocal expression

Sheila Chandra has engineered a career that has consistently defied expectations — from producing lyric-less drone-based soundscapes, to forging a new global vocal vision out of a re-imagining of myriad vocal traditions. Hers is a living, breathing music that manages to reflect the context of its making, as well as creating a timeless reflection of the inimitable power of the human voice.

There really isn’t another artist like Chandra out there anywhere. Metro Magazine

That pursuit of radical vocal expression has been a lifelong process. It began when she made history at only 17 in 1982 as the first South Asian woman to appear on the UK’s flagship chart show ‘Top of the Pops’ with her band Monsoon’s global hit ‘Ever So Lonely’. In a sea of then-fashionable synth-pop, Monsoon’s fresh raga-based acoustic sound, topped by trendy crash beats over sensuous tabla cross-rhythms, nevertheless insinuated its way into public consciousness.

“Ever So Lonely,” was an astonishing leap between East and West, and became a huge UK chart hit, a ground zero for much of what might follow in cross-cultural collaborations.” – Rootsworld

It was a watershed moment for the South Asian diaspora in the UK. Clad in a purple silk sari and teardrop tilak, this was the first positive representation of Asians from a mainstream media that had played on racist tropes in comedy and whose documentary makers had unfairly and persistently portrayed the community as a ‘social problem’ for 20 years. Monsoon’s ‘Ever So Lonely’ was simply too innovative and catchy a record to be ignored, and a mere two years on from the Southall riots, suddenly an Asian diaspora sound was fashionable for the first time.

The 70s had featured anti-racist protesting across the nation, aiming to combat the popularity of fascist organisations like The National Front. Chandra’s appearance in traditional Indian dress, as well as her very existence as a South Asian female artist, and one utilising traditional sounds, became a radical act of representation, five years before the term ‘World Music’ was coined to represent such a free-flowing mix of cultures. It was the first of many boundary-breaking moves that she made throughout the following 40 years of her career. Those decades saw her ignoring trends and pursuing her own musical interests, regardless of the pleas of industry marketing executives. For her, breaking musical ground and moving music itself on, always seemed more important than making a commercial record and selling as many copies as possible.

Sheila Chandra - Ever So Lonely/Eyes/Ocean (live at World in the Park 1992)
A woman working out on the boundaries of the possible. Melody Maker

“I knew this music would be a revelation for the wider public at the time,” Chandra says. “However, Asian culture isn’t just a flavour or a costume that can be picked up and then discarded at will. It has roots that are thousands of years old and deserves its own space to be explored.”

But major UK labels in the 80’s didn’t understand that. Monsoon’s initial success was followed by an almost immediate disbanding when their record company Phonogram demanded they drop their Indian influence. At that point, Chandra eschewed her previous pop leanings to produce a run of five experimental solo albums on Steve Coe’s Indipop label. Between 1983 and 1990, she used these records to delve into the cross-cultural resonances of global music traditions, and there being few-to-no predecessor artists to follow, to map previously unexplored musical terrains.

“I made my writing debut at 19, on my second solo record, Quiet,” Chandra says. “I was starting to find my identity as a solo artist and I came up with the concept of 10 lyric-less soundscapes that layer the voice as an instrument – effectively creating a vocal playground for myself.” After rediscovering the North and South Indian classical music she had little access to while growing up, Chandra was experimenting with hundreds of layers of vocal textures, the centuries-old vocal percussive technique known as ‘Konnakol’ where rhythms are communicated through onomatopoeic syllables, the vocal stylings of the muezzin, and drone-based harmonies from Bulgaria.

Next came a five-year sabbatical, where Chandra took time out from the gruelling work schedule she had been following since she was 12, to develop her craft without the pressure of the studio. In 1990, the release of Roots & Wings found her taking her music into even wider-ranging territories, when she began to utilise folk standards on the track ‘Lament Of McCrimmon/Song Of The Banshee’.

“Paul James from the folk group Blowzabella, who had played on the Monsoon album, pointed me towards the best female British folk singers like June Tabor and Maddy Prior. And I realised that many of the vocal ornaments that are used in British folk are also used in Indian music,” Chandra explains. “In fact, having grown up on pop and soul, it was easier for me to learn them via folk songs and apply them back to Indian Classical vocal. And I became interested in the crossover point between those influences.”

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.

Sheila Chandra records vocals in The Work Room during Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Andrew Catlin.
If ever there is a simple expression of all that world music entails, Sheila Chandra has found it. Cameron Parker – GreenLeft

It was a formative moment and led to the high point of her career. From 1992 to 1996, Chandra produced a benchmark trio of albums on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, which are now thankfully being reissued, to cement Chandra as one of her generation’s finest vocalists and writers.

Famed for her staunch independence, she formed Moonsung Productions to make the trilogy, and approached Real World Records to release it. Chandra felt Real World was the right label due to its reputation for the highest quality World Music recordings thanks to its flagship Real World Studios, and because of its artist friendly stance. This was crucial after her experience with Phonogram. The label licenced each album from her unheard and before it was mixed.

Her 1992 debut on Real World was Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices. Across the album’s 10 tracks, Chandra presents a solo voice distillation of the previous decade’s study and practice: sample-like broken time cycles of Konnakol on opener ‘Speaking in Tongues I’, North Indian structural influences on English folk standard ‘The Enchantment’, and even a re-imagining of her first hit ‘Ever So Lonely’. Throughout, she foregrounds carefully crafted and multi-layered drones – the primordial ‘constant note’ that provides the sonic foundations for Indian classical music. It was an aesthetic choice that also allowed Chandra the opportunity to do something she had never done before: give concerts.

“The idea for the album came from my wanting to play live for the first time, after being a studio artist for 10 years,” Chandra explains. “I was a shy perfectionist and I knew nothing about stagecraft. I didn’t want to get involved in the logistics of touring with musicians, so I decided to go on stage alone. It meant pushing myself into new technical ground to, among other things, sing a fresh arrangement for a classic pop song like ‘Ever So Lonely’, which I knew everyone would want to hear, but that usually has 48 different tracks of instrumentation layered on it. I had to find a way of doing the song justice with just a solo vocal and drone. It took me 10 years of development as a musician to be able to achieve that. I needed enough confidence, technique and control at my command, because onstage there was going to be no one else to fall back on.”

The resulting solo arrangement, ‘Ever So Lonely/Eyes/Ocean’, is hauntingly beautiful: an interweaving of Celtic lyricism with two-and-a-half octave-leaping pop falsetto and subtle Indian classical melisma. Of the Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices album as a whole, she says. “With only a single melodic line available to me, it was crucial to create a way of moving between vocal traditions without taking a breath. That’s where those gateway vocal ornaments common to so many vocal traditions became key.”

Sheila Chandra feature in The Guardian

Sheila Chandra's book 'Organizing for Creative People' is an expanded version of the advice she orig...

One of the most beautiful voices on earth. Billboard

Chandra ensured that equal attention to detail was paid to the compositions in the studio. She’d spent her career to date working with Steve Coe as her co-writer and producer, and after over a decade of exploring the finest nuances of her voice, both of their ears were finely attuned to its intricacies and how to treat it. “Solo voice work can be a challenging listen. We knew that Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices had to be produced in a way that ensured it wouldn’t bore people.” Chandra says. “Where the average band would take hours or days to mix all the instruments and then run out of time and mix the vocals in the remaining hour or so, we reversed that. Steve decided to take 16 hours to mix each vocal track, since the voice was so central, chasing delicate studio effects, some set up for only a single phrase. People had never listened to such lavishly crafted naked vocals, or bothered to treat voice like that before, not even in the most sophisticated studios in the world. And I heard stories from mainstream producers in subsequent years, of the album setting a new production standard in the industry. But at the time, my main responsibility as an artist was to come up with vocals that were interesting enough to warrant that level of detail.”

When Chandra made her triumphant solo debut on the ‘live’ stage, mostly via WOMAD festivals across the world, she’d deliberately start her performances with one of the ‘Speaking in Tongues’ compositions. Ten years of studio work had allowed the rumour to spread that she ‘couldn’t actually sing’ and that her recordings were the result of studio trickery. Amused, Chandra and Coe deliberately constructed these four vocal percussion tracks to sound as if they were heavily sampled – breaking time cycles at the most awkward points, turning from one technique to another on a dime, and emphasising each volte-face with the liberal use of delay and extreme EQ. No one expected her to be able to perform them. With a live sound engineer primed to mimic that studio treatment from the front-of-house sound tower, she would silently take the stage and begin by replicating these machine-gun-fire compositions syllable for syllable, putting paid to the rumours instantly.

Chandra managed to weave a trance-like mood using little apart from her voice. For those familiar with her recordings who haven't seen her live, she really can do all those high speed percussive vocal tricks in one breath without overdubs… The audience, sitting and standing, seemed spellbound, like snakes before a master charmer. David Lowe at WOMADelaide 1993
Photo credit: Sheila Rock

The pair settled into a rhythm and would spend 10 months writing and rehearsing arrangements per album, before booking a week in the studio to record the vocals and another week or so to create the mix. It was an intense process but by 1994’s The Zen Kiss, the practice had paid off, producing 11 songs that seamlessly interweaved such strands as traditional English folk, Iberian and Celtic song, Gregorian chant, percussive vocals and yearning laments.

In the UK, Chandra was still seen as something of an outlier – an experimental tour de force, pushing the boundaries of Asian fusion. But in the US, Chandra was building on the commercial ground she’d seeded with the college radio play she’d gained with her first five Indipop albums. “I got rave reviews in America for Weaving and I became the biggest selling artist on Real World at that time,” she says. “People here in the UK thought I just miraculously came to be able to sing these songs, whereas in America they appreciated how much I’d had to study my craft.”

Repeated questions about where she found inspiration led to Chandra’s 1996’s final Real World album. Consisting of six tracks of de-emphasised voice peeping in and out of the album’s multi-layers, ABoneCroneDrone is a startlingly original examination of that essential element of Indian classical tradition, the drone itself. “The drone is a primordial element in all musical traditions,” Chandra says. “It’s the thrum of the blood in our ears. Drones surround us, especially in the modern machine world, and I was writing the things I was hearing in them. I wanted to give the listener an experience of that magic and teach them how to listen to the potentiality in drones properly, to experience their ever-changing potency as creative powerhouses for themselves.”

Photo credit: Aditya Bhattacharya.
One of the most compelling, powerful and underrated voices of our time. Nigel Williamson - Author of ‘The Rough Guide to the Best Music You've Never Heard’

Ultimately, Chandra sees the Real World albums as the creative pinnacle of her career. They are her testament to the universality of the voice. “It’s the one instrument that we’ve all had access to, across time and across the globe. It is the only instrument used in every single musical culture and the only one whose construction has never changed. And so, every vocal music has the potential to speak to the commonality of human experience for any listener in any emotional place and time, if they can open their minds enough to hear it in a stylistic form which is unfamiliar.”

After her time with Real World, Chandra returned to Indipop to produce a deliberately less sweet-sounding and challenging collaboration with the Ganges Orchestra on This Sentence Is True in 2001, and worked with the multicultural folk supergroup Imagined Village in 2007.

Yet, the Real World albums have a poignant significance because they are some of her final solo recordings. Diagnosed with Burning Mouth Syndrome in 2009 – a condition that makes it incredibly painful to sing or talk – Chandra was forced to retire from performance and recording.

“I can’t listen back to those records now in case I am tempted to sing along, as it would be agony.” she says. “I’m so proud of what I managed to create, but I know I’ll never be able to do it again. These days, I’m an artist coach and non-fiction author. I empower other artists to create.”

Still, the trilogy feels just as radical and emotionally accessible now as it did when it was first released, 30 years ago, and a testament to Chandra’s creativity that gains relevance as the years go on. “Those albums are my secret world as a musician – they were the world I explored for the pure joy of it. Audiences and critics sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of the music of certain traditions as generic. But the trilogy is very much a reflection of me personally. The albums don’t sound like any other Asian musician who was making music at the time, and I very much doubt that they sound like any other Asian musician today.”

There is a key reason for that, Chandra explains. “With the voice, there’s no physical division between you and the instrument that you’re having to master. The instrument is you, so you’re  liberated into a completely abstract creative space. The music you create there is a closer picture of your soul, freed from the psychic limitations of race, gender, orientation, and age than any other human space I can think of.”

Listening to these vibrant records today, they are proof not only of Chandra’s joy in musical exploration, but they stand as an example of what the music of all cultures should be: the individual giving voice to herself, as well as the universality of emotions that make us all human, no matter what our native musical language.

Perhaps one should listen to her music at the end of the day with the lights down low. Heck, turn out the lights altogether – with this music you won’t need them. It glows in the dark… La Dolce Vita

Featured albums

  • Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices

    Sheila Chandra

    Released 10 May 1992

    On her Real World debut Sheila Chandra explores the musical territories of her spiritual ancestors, drawing upon South Indian, Celtic, Spanish and Muslim influences. This album concentrates on the purity and emotional intensity of Chandra’s extraordinary voice.
  • The Zen Kiss

    Sheila Chandra

    Released 02 May 1994

    An extraordinary exploration of pure vocal power and sensual expression, The Zen Kiss is a highly personal vision of a woman working on the boundaries of convention.
  • ABoneCroneDrone

    Sheila Chandra

    Released 22 September 1996

    This album, the third in her trilogy for Real World, gives you the fullest access possible to Sheila Chandra’s imagination — its melodies are within the bones of the drones.

By Online Editor

Main image: Sheila Chandra. Photo credit: Sheila Rock.

Published on Fri, 28 April 23

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