Coming off her seventh GRAMMY nomination—for the EP Love Letters—Anoushka Shankar has released a single that combines sitar and spoken word to satirize patriarchy’s demands from a woman. She speaks to us on her latest work, the GRAMMYs, lockdown skills, and travel. By Sumeet Keswani
What prompted you to make your latest single, Sister Susannah?
I wrote this song along with Alev Lenz and the poet Nikita Gill, who has written for music the first time. Over the past year, there have been many stories of women’s experiences that have brought certain things to the forefront again for the women in my life. There’s an understanding among us about how universal issues of abuse, manipulation, and control can be. The pandemic has disproportionately affected women, particularly those in abusive situations. I felt like having a song where people can connect to that issue, or a sense of empathy, or a desire to do something about it. Art has a funny way of doing that in a way that talking can’t.
What’s next for you after this single?
Sister Susannah is part of Love Letters P.S., which will contain one more new song and also two remixes of songs from Love Letters. I’ll be releasing these over the next few months. After that, hopefully, there will be more live shows in Europe in the diary.
Love Letters feels like your most intimate work yet. Was it cathartic or uncomfortable to put yourself out there?
This was definitely my most personal work, and it took a bit of courage to trust that process. The catharsis happened in making the music rather than in releasing it. A lot of times, even before this album, it’s the making of the music where whatever I’m going through pours out. Time passes, healing happens, and by the time I release the music, it feels safe to do so… By then I don’t feel like I’m putting myself out there. Because by then, it’s my music, not my experience. I know as an artist that if I put my heart into something, it may not connect with everyone in the world but it’s going to connect with someone. That’s the music that moves us, that matters to us individually as listeners. That gives me courage.
What sets Love Letters apart from the rest of your work musically?
A couple of things. It’s an entire collection of songs as opposed to songs being peppered through instrumental pieces. A couple of the musicians are male, but it’s 70-80 per cent women collaborators. Also, the process of making the music was very informal and intimate. It wasn’t like I signed a contract to write an album for someone and had something to deliver. It was just me writing songs and exploring how it felt, before releasing them one at a time.
You’ve been a regular at the GRAMMYs. What was it that you missed the most this year with a virtual performance?
To be honest, in some ways it was really nice to just be home with my kids. Winning would be one thing, I suppose, but to go all the way to LA for two days and then lose can sometimes feel a bit flat. But also, there’s an atmosphere, an energy, and an excitement to be around all the artists and connecting with them. There’s a celebratory element to being there in person, which is obviously missing when it’s virtual.
Has there been any upside to the pandemic for you?
Absolutely. A big takeaway for me is that my skill as an engineer has improved. I’m now comfortable recording myself and doing more editing and production than before. It’s an essential skill in the current climate, as I need to be able to work more independently.
In what ways does travel inform your music?
The names of my past albums answer that question: Traveller, Land of Gold, and Home all deal with themes of travel in different ways, whether [it’s] historical migration, personal rootedness, or the ongoing refugee crisis. I’ve been fortunate to travel worldwide from a young age, and this exposure to various cultures has been hugely influential on my work and who I am as a person.
What has been your most memorable trip yet?
My most memorable personal holidays include [those to] the Andaman Islands and Jamaica. One memorable tour was a 60-day tour when I was 25. It started in North America, went through 30 cities in Europe, then Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, before ending in Australia and New Zealand!
What is it about India that you miss the most?
Sitting in an audience of true Indian classical music lovers at a gorgeous festival; the atmosphere is incomparable. I also dearly miss Goa, where I used to spend a great deal of time.