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23 août 2007

Sheila Chandra : A different voice

For boundary-breaking music, Sheila Chandra remains a genre pioneer like no other. Her set is one of the major highlights of Womad Singapore 2007 this weekend.

Sheila Chandra became the first Asian artiste in England to attain Top 10 success via Ever So Lonely in 1982. The song drove the album,

Third Eye, to over 250,000-unit sales worldwide but the inability of recording company Phonogram to capitalise on the musical direction of Monsoon, the band Sheila formed in her teens, led to her leaving the group.

It marked her move out as a musician of fiery independence.

As a solo artiste, she devoted herself to exploring the drones and tones across a dominant Anglo-Indian template, which eventually led to the critically-lauded trilogy under the Real World label. Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices (1992), The Zen Kiss (1994) and ABoneCroneDrone (1996) remain the yardstick for aspiring non-conventional vocalists and the reference point for the possibilities held by the human voice.

In this exclusive email interview, Sheila, 42, recalls the early years that shaped her music and philosophy.

You stepped into the spotlight when you were 16 and then “retired” at the ripe old age of 20. This tendency to take long sabbaticals in between the production of your albums is a pattern that repeats itself throughout your career. Are there any reasons behind your proclivity to appear and disappear from public view?

My reason for “retiring” at 20 was that I had made five albums in three years and I really needed to stop and take stock, to give myself some time to do the wider vocal research I wanted. Sadly, my recent “sabbatical” from recording is due to the fact that I don’t have enough vocal stamina to write following the standard that I wish.

I’d love to record a new album but it will have to wait. Having said that, yes, I do think sabbaticals are essential to staying on the cutting edge of your own creative path. I need time to train and grow if I am to stay happy and engaged with what I do.

Eight years ago, I became aware that I was suffering from serious stage fright. I have spent much of the intervening time overcoming it to the point where I love being on stage. It was necessary for me to do that in a low-profile way that felt “safe” and un-pressured to me. So the time has been invaluable.

After being catapulted into the limelight at such a young age, you have steadily built up a portfolio not as only a singer but also an artiste. Did you recognise that distinction during your nascent years or was it discovered along the way?

After Monsoon disbanded in 1982, I was very aware of the distinction between being a singer and being an artiste, in the sense of knowing how much more responsibility that entailed. The set-up for my early albums on Indipop was very much designed to facilitate the learning process I’d set myself in order to shoulder those responsibilities. Steve Coe, my then-writing partner, and the founder member of Monsoon, grew up with The Beatles and prog-rock.

Although I didn’t necessarily get on with the music he’d loved as a teenager, he did inspire me with the stories of how those bands managed the business around them and their creative processes.

You have to remember I was still a teenager. I was 17. I was far too busy and excited about singing to rebel by dropping out. My rebellion went into my music. To my knowledge, I was the only full time artiste in “Asian Fusion” in the 1980s. There was no one to learn from and I was serious about exploring the form as well as I could.

The voice is arguably the most versatile and powerful music instrument and you have achieved wonders with yours through your Real World releases. How did this fascination with vocal experiments come about?

I was always fascinated by the voice. (It is) ubiquitous and taken for granted. It is the only instrument connected directly to your blood supply and subject to all those chemical processes in the body that make you feel emotion.

It is the only instrument which belongs to every musical culture and which has remained the same in its construction across continents and history. There is an almost cellular memory and instinct in all of us, if we will let it surface, in how our various means of expressing emotion through the voice all connect. The really concrete element to my obsession with voice, however, is how fantastic it feels physically to sing when you can do it well. It is addictive.

Once you can do it, you just want to keep going!

There is a notion that you exist on the fringes of what we conveniently term “world music” – an outer space that is not inhabited by boundaries. How difficult was it to achieve this?

It is both easy and difficult. You must be prepared to express your passion for what truly interests you musically, regardless of how weird and out of step it is and regardless of how it relates to the way you sounded on your last album (especially if that album was successful).

You must be prepared to abort a project if it turns out to be structurally “shaky”. And you must curb your wish to sound “trendy” like everyone else, or to take a successful pre-existing formula from someone else. You must also give up your need to be understood or applauded, or to fit in. Do all that and it is really easy to sound “different.”

Sheila Chandra has a one-night gig at Womad Singapore 2007 (Aug 24-26) during the festival opener tomorrow. For details and packages, browse ( Venue: Fort Canning Park. Asian Dub Foundation, Youssou N’Dour, Daara J, Mahotella Queens, Shooglenifty and more will perform.

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