Interviews

Discovering gifts within yourself — Indian classical composer and singer Ranjana Ghatak presents her debut album, ‘The Butterfly Effect’

When Ranjana Ghatak left her native London and moved to California, she envisioned the entire process as a “surrender experiment,” brought about by a period of uncertainty and confusion. Intent on “letting go of the old and welcoming the new,” the young singer and composer decided to just follow her instinct and see where life would take her.

This transitional period is captured in her debut album, The Butterfly Effect. Featuring songs in English, Hindi and Sanskrit, with texts taken from mystic poets and prayers, the album pairs Ranjana’s Indian classical singing with Liran Donin’s bass and Jack Ross’ electric guitar, creating an intense, varied soundscape shaped by the contrasting musical languages.

In this in-depth interview, I talk to Ranjana about her life, her creative process, the “surrender experiment” and her unique journey leading up to The Butterfly Effect.

Please tell me a bit about your start in music and your creative path leading up to The Butterfly Effect.

My mom introduced me to learning singing. My dad also sings. He was never officially trained, but he loved to sing and my mom plays the Hawaiian guitar. They both met through music. So, music was a part of the household — singing in the house, singing in the car. My mom saw that I had a tendency towards it, so she put me in for Indian classical singing classes.

I started when I was around four. It was me and my brother and two other family friends. We would have classes at home. It was just kind of a fun thing to do, but I loved it straight away. At the same time, we also went to stage school. My grandfather was an actor, as well. Not professionally, but he did it a lot. He worked in journalism and he loved acting. My brother took the acting side and I took the music side.

My mom found this local theater school. The classes were on Saturdays. It was three hours of training — singing, dancing, speaking, drama. I was very shy as a kid — I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I would just talk to my mom, hold her skirt and be really timid. When it came to music, something would change and I would be very comfortable singing in front of people. I think my mom probably got a little bit worried that I was so quiet and shy, so she thought sending me to stage school would help me come out of my shell. So, that was part of my musical environment.

There, it was more musical theater and commercial-type things. I had a very interesting transition to Indian music when I was a teenager, around thirteen or fourteen. I was going to give up music because I didn’t play a western instrument at school. That was at the time when you had to choose subjects. I had this great teacher who said, “You can use your Indian music and still study western music. You can bring your Indian side to it through your performance element and your composition element.” That was a really powerful moment for me because I felt included. I’m a brown-skinned woman in a predominantly white environment, which is something I was always unconsciously aware of, so it led to that thought that I couldn’t do music at school because I’m not trained in violin, for example. My teacher’s words actually developed my interest for Indian music even more.

I started listening to a lot of classical music around that age. It opened me up to listening to a lot of experimental music and other genres that I was not familiar with, as well as contemporary classical music. It just opened my ears a lot. I was at a school in Central London and I was lucky because there is so much happening, musically, around there. I was very active in the music department but I didn’t develop into choosing music as a career until much later, because I didn’t know what was possible, living here. So I got a computer science degree and landed a job working at the BBC, doing digital media. (laughs) My first job was as a web assistant. It was so incredibly boring but, you know, it was my first job so I thought, “This is what I have to do.”

After university I went to India and started training with my guru, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty. He is a real master. All of this time, I had been training with teachers in England. When I went to him, it was nerve racking. He’s my favorite singer as well, so it was really incredible to be in front of him. He is very committed to teaching as well as performing.

He auditioned me and took me on as a student, but I had to start from the beginning. I had to sing like a five year old again. That was an incredible but heartbreaking experience, because I thought I had reached a certain point and then I realized I knew nothing. He said, “Your voice is there, your tuning is there, your ear is there, but you picked up some bad habits. You need to relook at those.” That also confirmed to me that I couldn’t do music as a career then; I was twenty-one. That’s why I went into work and getting a job.

I worked in an office for ten years. I worked for the BBC for five years and then I worked for five years for the London Symphony Orchestra, as a project manager. That was a part-time job. I thought, “If I can’t perform, then let me work in music in another way.” I like to organize things. I’m quite an organized person. I’m a Virgo, if you’re into astrology. (laughs) I started to organize concerts and things outside of my job, which gave me an experience of live events.

So I got this project manager job. You know, it’s the leading orchestra of the world, in the Barbican Center, which is this incredible art center. It was great. I got to see them rehearse and hear them perform. That opened my eyes to the western classical world and what it required to book an artist. Just the other side of the arts world. It really taught me a lot. I also did a Master’s in Arts Management. I was really serious about going into the arts, but through a different route. I learned about funding and cultural governance and just how the arts sector worked. I had no idea before. I had a very limited view. It completely opened me up in that sense.

Also, I was going to a lot of gigs and watching a lot of live music — frequently watching jazz gigs, world music, experimental, alternative music in the London scene, which is so strong. I was able to absorb so much through doing that.

One day, I just decided it was enough. I felt like I was lying to myself, trying to pretend that I could make this work, when I couldn’t. It was like being in a wrong relationship or something. (laughs) I think your body knows. Your instinct knows. But we’re so conditioned in the world we live in. And it’s understandable. You have these real responsibilities. You get a lot of musicians that work as performing musicians but dealing with the uncertainty is so stressful that they go back to getting a safe job. Then they stay in the safe job for a while and then go back to the uncertainty. It’s like a hamster wheel. It’s really unhealthy for your system. Sometimes you have to just fully let go and see if this is going to work. That’s what happened to me.

I grew up with a lot of security. My parents came over from India in the ’60s. They worked really hard to provide us with a lot of security. On the flip side, I was so used to that security. We always had food on the table, we had a warm, nice house, they had safe jobs and all of that. They could give us the money for lessons, we went on holidays. I was really blessed and lucky in my childhood in that sense. I had a very privileged childhood. But that meant that to take a risk and then to move into uncertainty was really scary.

In 2009, I went back to India for a month and did some training with my teacher. I just told him I decided to do music. I didn’t even ask for his permission. He was very supportive, though. I just made the decision and I was very blessed that work started to come in. I didn’t even necessarily contact people and say I’m available for work. It’s just that work started to come in. It got to the point where I was able to give up my job in 2010 and I’ve been full time since 2011.

I was doing solo work, I had a quartet, which is featured on my Awakening EP. In 2010, I started working with a musician named Jesse Bannister, who is a saxophone player. He had a band called Samay and he had done a lot of research into playing Indian classical music on jazz instruments. He used to teach at Leeds College of Music. He had been wanting to do a vocal project, so we worked together on the Awakening project. We arranged four pieces for quartet and we developed more material. I released that in 2012 and started touring with it. I also had another band, with beatboxing and drums. That was also an experimental project and we were touring and performing quite a lot with that. It was another world.

So you were basically gigging and touring, for the most part. You haven’t recorded anything else outside of the Awakening EP.

That’s right. I was in another project, but we didn’t come out with any recordings. We had two names. The first name was Open Souls and then we changed it to Human Beamings. That was with Jason Singh, who is a beatboxer and Seb Rochford, who is a drummer. That was something we did for maybe three or four years. It was around the same time as Awakening.

With the Awakening project, I worked with different musicians. Initially, I worked with Al Macsween on keys, Joost Hendricks on drums and Alex Dale on bass. Then I changed the musicians because I was based in London and I needed to have London musicians. So I worked Asaf Sirkis, who is an amazing Israeli drummer. I first had Ruth Goller on bass and then Liran Donin, who became my producer, and Nick Ramm on keys.

Those two projects I was quite active with between 2011 and 2014. Those were the main performance projects; I was doing other projects that I was booked for. I toured with the Odissi Ensemble. Odissi is an Indian temple dance form.

In 2014, Liran said to me, “Why don’t you do something as a soloist?” We’d started trying out new material with the quartet but I was just going in a very different direction. I had also been to the States, traveling a bit more by myself and starting to question what I wanted to put out. So that’s what initiated the idea of it.

It took a while. I applied for funding and that kind of stuff and then we started working together on The Butterfly Effect. I also started to compose around that time. I was getting asked to write music for choirs and other projects, so that was exciting.

You’ve spent quite a significant amount of time perfecting your craft. It was a long journey to The Butterfly Effect.

Really long journey (laughs).

What I found really interesting about the album was the instrumentation. Your vocals are firmly rooted in Indian classical music but you have no Indian instruments on your album. How did you decide to pair traditional Indian singing with electric guitar and bass?

It kind of happened through experimentation. Obviously, I’d had these previous projects where I’d worked with drums, bass and piano, which had more of a jazz quartet feel to it. It felt very natural. I was really surprised at how natural it felt in that format. Then I sang with drums and beatboxing, which also felt very natural. Rhythm and playing with rhythm is a very strong area I’m interested in. Balancing that sound takes time and development.

When I started working with Liran, it was just the two of us. He was playing the bass also as a percussion instrument. I think he started as a drummer and then became a bass player. When the idea came about, we got offered a whole lot of shows and realized we need to come up with some material. (laughs) Some of it was was with existing songs that I already knew and some of it we wrote.

In 2016, it really started to lift off. We were commissioned to write some music for the Bath Music Festival. It was called New Meetings. They brought two musicians from different backgrounds to create new music. It was just the two of us and we had to create a whole show of music. That’s when we started to really play with what’s possible with the voice and bass. I found it very grounding, because singers can naturally go quite high and obviously the bass is kind of rooting it. He was playing the double bass with his hands as well, as a percussion instrument. I liked that element. There was a lot of variety. We were also playing about with electronic sounds a little bit. It started with that.

Once we had done that performance, we went into the studio and started writing. I think it was this natural place where we both just thought, “Let’s try working with a guitarist.” We were asked to do a concert for the London Jazz Festival and Jack was asked to be the presenter for that concert. Jack and Liran had worked together on Namvula’s album. That was also what interested me about working with Liran, because I liked what he had done with her music.

I like these different sounds, but I also know that it can go away with the fairies. I wanted something that had a strong sound that was held. That was very important to me. Indian classical music does go on its own journey. It’s improvisatory by nature, when you’re singing a raga or playing a raga. It’s a being in itself. You don’t know where it’s going to take you if you fully surrender to it. But it still has a shape to it that you can really connect to. I wanted that with this music as well. I listen to a lot of music. I’ve watched a lot of collaborative music — Indian classical music with jazz or Indian classical music with other instruments or a lot of alternative music — and I think that helped me get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I think you get to know yourself through that process.

I didn’t realize how much that was going to help me until we were in the process. Liran and I had maybe three or four song ideas and then Jack came into the studio and we started working together. It felt like it naturally opened up. We did a tour in Dorset a couple of years ago and we were thinking maybe we will add percussion, but it was also something that wouldn’t be a strong part of it. I liked that it was so string-heavy and that it also had a percussive element through it.

I think if you had added percussion it might have taken away from the impact of your voice. Indian classical singing has a certain vulnerability to it. Jack’s guitar and Liran’s bass already add an edgy, contrasting sound. I think having percussion also would have had the instruments overwhelm the voice.

It’s interesting you say that, because that’s what my instincts were saying as well. What ended up being created was so intense that anything more than this would take me and other people over the edge. (laughs)

What was it like to pair Indian classical singing with these kinds of instruments? How does this shift the challenge of what you have to do, vocally, technique-wise? What was the biggest challenge for your voice in this situation?

Initially, what had gone through my mind was this concern of whether this was gong to work and whether I knew enough about their language to have a conversation. Because what I haven’t enjoyed about collaborative music is that it can sound like two people having separate conversations. And your ears and brain get split. It doesn’t sound together. I think that’s something I have thought about. I think it’s either having a conversation or a sense of what it is that you are trying to create once you start playing together. I mean, obviously you can just start playing and see what happens. That has happened as well. But I generally have had some kind of idea of what wants to be said even if it’s not necessarily in the words but just in the feeling. I find that, then, some kind of union can happen between the two instruments.

As a fiction writer, I’m always inclined to thinking of things as “stories.” Often times when I review music, I talk about the “narrative coherence” of a particular work, which is to say whether the track placement was chosen in such a way as to reflect a narrative development. Was that the case in The Butterfly Effect?

That was intentional. What the story became through the process was just a reflection of my own experience of transformation.

I was going through a lot of change. I was questioning where I was living. I’d let go a lot of people from the past. That can be quite a confusing, uncertain time.

I had already decided to start working on the album and then I went to the States for three months. I didn’t plan anything, because I like to plan things, so I thought, “Let me see what happens if I don’t plan things for a while.”

I experienced a lot of flow, a lot of synchronicity, a lot of ease and a lot of new experiences through not trying to control. I didn’t know what was going to be and that was a scary thing, but I had to trust it. So the story became about the letting go of the old. With that comes a lot of grief. Once you enter that state, it’s like a freefall, almost. It’s why the first track has that energy to it, because it was what I felt I was going through.

Then I started to experience just being a little bit more in touch with my own internal voice, with what was possible within myself and in life. That’s how “Hidden Tombs” came through. It was more of a spiritual concept of being more in touch with your intuition and just discovering gifts within yourself and with other people that you didn’t know you had. I think it’s quite easy to go down the rabbit hole to focus on what’s wrong. And I do that a lot too. (laughs) It was juxtaposed with feeling really crappy but also discovering these gifts as well.

I started to take my own personal healing a little bit more seriously, because I was going through a lot of change and this gave me the space to really look at myself — hopefully not in a narcissistic way, but just how I show up for other people and myself. So, “The Butterfly Effect” was written with that in mind. I’d heard about that concept in chaos theory where, when you take on your own healing, it has an effect around and how a butterfly’s wings can have an impact across the world. I thought that was a really powerful concept and a true concept.

I’ve always been interested in the mystics. So, Kabir and Mirabai… I had learned their songs growing up, existing melodies. To write something to some poetry was a challenge to me. And to write it in a way that wasn’t completely conventional but with guitar and bass and in song format was exciting for me. The penultimate piece is the Yaman Tarana, which is a classical piece. That was going back to my roots, in a way. The last piece is a prayer to the sun. That, to me, depicted an opening and a new life. It was composed by Ali Akhbar Khan, who is this prolific musician and sarod player, whose school I teach at in California. Going to the States was such a strong part of that journey. I felt very connected to him and his music. It was wonderful to have his melody at the end of that, so it goes full circle in terms of the narrative.

Why did you choose to move to the US?

It’s weird. I don’t have an exact reason why. I’d gone there before with an ex-partner and I’d been as a child as well. There is something about California, where the land is just so vast and so different from the UK. I love the UK but there was something about the vastness of it that felt very opening to me. Just with your sight, when you can see so much breadth. I think it does something to your system, when you’re used to things being kind of narrow, if that makes sense. That’s what I liked when I would go there. It was so different from what I’m used to but it feels like it’s very opening for me, like it’s doing something for my system in a good way. I think travel is important for everyone. It does something for you.

That was just an initial experience I had and I felt pulled to go back again by myself. I didn’t really have an exact reason why. I think I just thought I was searching for something and I felt pulled to that area. And then, when I got to the Bay Area and to San Francisco… I hadn’t connected the dots, but a lot of Indian classical maestros lived there. And it’s so fascinating. Ali Akbar Khan was there in 1950. He was the first Indian classical musician to bring that subject to the States. He played in Carnegie Hall in the ’50s. He lived in Marin, in Northern California and he set up a school in the ’60s. He was teaching all the hippies. There’s this whole scene that was created in that area. And he then invited Zakir Hussain, so Zakir came and taught there for ten years. He invited all the maestros.

Ali Akhbar’s father was a musician called Baba Allaudin Khan. He was seen as the grandfather of Indian classical music. He was also Ravi Shankar’s guru. So there were all these real legends and jewels of Indian music who somehow all just migrated in that area and lived there. There was this community that I suddenly got in touch with when I went there. And there was something to the land. I could feel that there was something that was different and that was inviting to that music there. So that’s what really called me.

Did this move to the US precede the album? I know it was recorded in 2018.

The album was after the trip. I first went on this three-month trip in 2016, then I went back the same year and was offered some work. I just went for a couple of weeks. Then I let go of going back to the States. I was just focusing on my work here in London, writing the album. It was coming to the end and it wasn’t quite coming together. So I thought, “I’m going to go to India!”

I arranged to go to India for a couple of weeks, to spend time with my teacher. It was really weird; there was a bad phase of Dengue fever going on over there and it was not a good time to go. I had a conversation with my mom who said, “Why don’t you go to California again? You really like it there. It seems to be a good supportive space for you there.” I just contacted the college and said, “Can I come out for a couple of weeks and write and listen to the library?” Because there’s a library of Ali Akhbar Khan’s music. They said yes so I just went on a whim for two weeks and listened to a lot of music and finished writing there. Coincidentally, I got offered a whole ton of work the following year and I got offered a visa so I went back the following year, in 2018, for six months. I recorded the album before that.

I love how you sat on it for two years and then, this year, you thought, “This is it! This is the moment to put it out!”

I know. (laughs) Liran thought the same thing. But we finished it in 2018 and then I went to the States. And I thought I was going to be there for three months and ended up staying for six months. A lot was changing again and I just can’t push music out. You can’t do it with music.

We also needed time with mixing and mastering. I didn’t actually finish mixing and mastering until 2019. Then I came back to England, went back to the States, and was offered a place to live. I was living there, I finished mixing and mastering and then we got offered to do a gig with John McLaughlin. So I came back again and did that show.

That was obviously a logical time to put the music out, because I had this big show. But I hadn’t done the artwork, I didn’t have a distributor at the time, so it felt premature even though it made logical sense. Now I’m so glad that I waited an extra year because I got a distributor, I got a PR company to work with and now Covid and this weird year we’re in, it really feels like the themes of the album are much more relevant now. It didn’t feel so relevant before. Now I understand why we had to wait.

Do you feel a deep connection between your spirituality and what goes on in your life on a spiritual level and the music you are playing?

Definitely. It was interesting because, musically, once I got to the States I was focusing more on pure classical material and teaching and singing in a more traditional way, with tablas and tanpuras, and focusing more on that. It was interesting to be in this place of doing that and then having all of this material that I’ve recorded. But they don’t feel separate. They feel like they come from the same place for me. But it took me a while to get to that place spirituality, where I didn’t compartmentalize it in my mind. I wanted the music to all come from the same place. It has to have the same energy, otherwise it doesn’t feel honest to me. It was the same with releasing the music. I knew it had to come from an honest place, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.

Did you present the music to your guru?

(Smiles) I have.

What was his reaction?

He hasn’t heard the whole album yet. I’ve sent him the video of “Mirabai’s Krishna” and he said he liked it. I was so scared. (laughs) I don’t know what he will say about the full album. He’s given me his blessings. I asked him a few years ago. I said, “I live in London and I work with other musicians.” He said, “That’s good, you should. You should experiment. You have to be adaptive to your environment.”

If you were an audience member hearing this music for the first time, what do you think you would take away from it?

(Smiles) That’s a really good question. I think I’d be slightly taken aback at first, because it’s obviously a different sound. It’s not something that you can necessarily put into a box. It feels like it has its own box. It sits by itself, in a way. I think I would initially be wondering what it is in terms of style or genre and then, hopefully, enjoying it. Enjoying the journey of it and the range of different emotional responses that cam come out through music. I’d love to see what that brings out in the audience member and whether it brings any sense of peace or any range of emotions.

Do you already have a follow-up in mind?

Yes and no. I have been back in my study process, back into studying and teaching the classical music. That’s what I’ve been focusing on. I’m not sure how that’s going to come out, whether it will come out in a more traditional sense or as something that’s more experimental again or a bit of both.

Get your copy of The Butterfly Effect on Bandcamp and all other digital platforms.

Photo credit: Cathy Dupuy

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