Tag Archives: female musicians

Songs about Lovers: A Chat with Suyasha Sengupta

16 Feb

If you’ve been paying attention to the music coming out of Kolkata for the past few years, you’d have heard of Suyasha Sengupta. She was the lead singer for the Ganesh Talkies – a rare frontwoman / guitarist – and went on to form her own electronic solo act called Plastic Parvati.

Last month, the reputed Toto Awards chose Plastic Parvati as the winner of their Music award for 2019, from among a formidable list of upcoming musicians. Recently, we caught up with Suyasha for a long-ranging interview covering the prestigious award, new music, artistic influences, and so much more. Read on below:

Top Five Records: Hi Suyasha!

Suyasha Sengupta: Hey!

TFR: Thank you so much for doing this! Just to give you a little bit of an introduction – we are Top Five Records, an independent review website that’s been online for about six years now. You may not remember, but we actually featured one of your songs a long time ago.

SS: Oh, yeah, was it before the album or something?

TFR: Yeah, it was literally like in 2013.

SS: Oh yeah, had to be one of the first ones.

TFR: Yeah, we’re really big fans of you and Ganesh Talkies, so we’re really glad that we could take the time to speak. So let’s get started, from the beginning. When did you start to get interested in music?

SS: Well, I come from a very Bengali household, so there was always some kind of music on when I was growing up. The stereotype is, you know, that Bengalis always have Rabindra sangeet on somewhere in the background, and that was quite true. There was a lot of folk music, traditional Bengali music, and there was also a lot of Elvis, the Beatles, Nat King Cole and all of that. Even before I started playing music, I would say that since I grew up with music, it helped the process.

I think I was about 10 or 12 years old when I realized I wanted to start singing and writing music. I started taking guitar lessons when I was about 14. And then of course, I discovered Nirvana and Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots – the whole grunge scene. I think I always knew that I would pursue something in the arts, but music was always my release, my go-to. It was a very natural process.

TFR: Right. And so, do your parents like the fact that you’re a musician?

SS: (Laughs) Well, I’ve been doing this for a while, so they’ve kind of abandoned the hope of me pursuing something else. It wasn’t very smooth in the beginning, but since I’m an only child, I played that to my advantage. For Indian parents, to let their children go into a creative field, it’s a little bit scary, because the future is always uncertain, and it’s an unstable profession. It doesn’t have the comfort of a steady 9-to-5. My parents were obviously apprehensive.

I started singing professionally at 18; this was when I was still in school, playing a gig on the weekends, going back to school the next day – for pocket money. They figured out that I would pursue something in the arts, but they encouraged me to at least get a bachelor’s degree. After graduation, they were like, “If you can manage both, then go ahead”. I actually ended up quitting my Master’s program after a semester and moving back to Kolkata, and that’s when I had a more serious conversation with them. Initially, they weren’t happy but I think they’ve gotten around to it.

TFR: Yeah, especially if you’ve always had music in your home, they would be semi-okay with the idea anyway.

SS: Yeah, and they were happy that I was doing my own thing and taking care of myself. And unlike the sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll stereotype, she hasn’t turned up in a ditch somewhere yet (laughs).

TFR: Haha, right. So at what point did the whole Ganesh Talkies thing start, and when did you decide that you wanted to start the Plastic Parvati project on your own?

SS: Going back to the band when I was 18, we were primarily a covers band, and we used to play at this place in Kolkata called Someplace Else. The bass player, Roheet, and I eventually wanted to play our own music, from our own set of influences. One of the things we bonded over was ‘90s Bollywood. Not the music necessarily, but like a certain Govinda movie or some dance step. That’s how Ganesh Talkies started, and then the guitarist and drummer joined in. We came from different sets of influences, but the common love for – I wouldn’t say trashy – but the over-the-top Bollywood helped us.

TFR: Yeah, that ostentatious element.

SS: Exactly. Unreal, gaudy. So that’s how we started Ganesh Talkies. We focused on making our own music rather than covers. When I was in the band, I started experimented with production. I was the primary songwriter for the band, and sometimes I’d have a keyboard or drum idea in my head, but I couldn’t always explain it to them. So I was like, okay, if I could map it out on a software, then maybe they can understand.

At the same time, I also realized that some of the stuff that I was writing was a little bit too intimate for the band. It was just my stuff and my moods. So Plastic Parvati started off as a passion project – and a learning project. I would use it to learn how to produce and how to write music personally.

TFR: For sure. Earlier on, you were mentioning that Nirvana and grunge is a very big influence for you. Does that carry on to Plastic Parvati?

SS: Nirvana for sure, that’s going to have an influence on everything I do. I think grunge in general has had a huge impact too. Apart from Nirvana, I was discovering a lot of female artists – musicians, directors, poets. I stumbled upon Hole, Garbage and Bikini Kill. These women have left a deep influence on me – because of their music, I don’t feel inhibited to say how I feel with Plastic Parvati. I’ve always been attracted to the fringes, the left-of-center artists.

TFR: That actually reminds me of this VH1 show called Left-of-Center.

SS: Exactly! I remember watching Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson videos, and I thought it was so cool. I’m a sucker for commercial pop too, but I really related to that. And that was the only good thing on TV around that time, and I feel privileged because they actually used to play music on TV back then. Now it’s just reality shows.

TFR: Yeah, now it’s just trash.

SS: Yeah. I don’t even own a TV anymore.

TFR: Same here. Going back to your album [Songs About Lovers, 2017], what was going on through your mind when you were putting that together?

SS: So with the album, we – by we, I mean me and my mentor Miti Adhikari [noted Kolkata-based producer] – we were putting together these snippets when the Ganesh Talkies was having an off-season period. I played him a bunch of unfinished scratches, about 20 of them, because I had all of these clips but I didn’t know what to do with it. There were some that we rejected outright and some that we picked out to work on more. That’s when the idea for the album came about. Miti is someone that I feel extremely comfortable with, so it was a very collaborative process. While I was songwriting, he gave me all of these ideas in terms of instrumentation or production. We’d worked together on Ganesh Talkies but that was as a producer; this was a more intimate process. I’d share the ideas and record the vocals at his place.

I didn’t initially plan on releasing it – it was originally for my mental health, that I could finish the project, because I was trying to tell these stories through my songs. The theme in my head was essentially a chronicle of my experiences as a woman in India, and an exploration of my sexuality.

TFR: Right. We’ve heard great things about Miti from Nischay Parekh as well, about how he was instrumental in developing his sound, too.

SS: Yeah, he’s really one of the key figures in the music that comes out of Kolkata. It’s a small city, and we’re all friends with each other.

TFR: Yeah. So I wanted to ask you about your experiences as a female Indian musician. What kind of changes would you like to see as a performer, for indie musicians to really get the recognition they deserve?

SS: It’s still a tiny bubble. For Indian musicians to get the recognition they deserve, we have to break out of the bubble. We all play gigs in the major metros or the tier-2 cities, but it’s not enough. How many people actually hear anything indie? Firstly, we need a scene which is not just, like, 10 people from Bombay; more inclusive of other people, other voices. And we need more female, trans, LGBTQ voices – moving away from the straight, upper-caste Hindu, male thing. We just need more involvement.

In fact, I was recently looking at some of the American festivals – there’s always one or two women headliners, but we don’t have that here. Like, last year, there was this festival on Women’s Day, that had an all-women lineup, but it was organized by men! The point is not to have an all-women line-up. The point is to normalize the role of women or other communities amongst what exists now.

TFR: Exactly. They essentially didn’t do much except filter by gender.

SS: Yeah, like there’s a “genre” called “girl-band”. For other bands, there’s genres like rock, hip-hop, whatever, but for these girls, there’s a genre called “girl-band”. That doesn’t make sense! The conditioning needs to change, basically.

And another aspect is that I’m basically in the black-hole of the country [musically]; we in Kolkata don’t always get the push we deserve. But I love Kolkata, it’s very comfortable.

TFR: Yeah, this is what we hear from the Chennai bands, too: “No one really cares what we do in Chennai, so we just have a lot of fun by ourselves”.

SS: Exactly. If you look at the music that’s coming out of these two cities, it’s extremely different and diverse. We have to work harder, and we don’t get the kind of recognition in other cities, so we have to focus on our craft more. We have no infrastructure, just us musicians. We have to travel to Bombay or Bangalore just to play a gig.

TFR: Speaking of gigs – what’s on the radar for Plastic Parvati?

SS: The next gig I’m playing is Control Alt Delete. It’s actually my first as Plastic Parvati in Bombay. I’ve consciously stayed away from club gigs because I’ve done that extensively with Ganesh Talkies. I also want to put out some music by the end of the year, because there’s been a change in my musicality. I want to see how that works, in the context of an EP.

TFR: Nice! So do you have anything down already?

SS: I’m still writing, so it’ll take some time. I don’t like giving myself a deadline, because I feel pressured, but I have some scratches down.

TFR: Cool! So the last thing we wanted to ask you is about the Toto Award, which you won recently for Music. That’s a great achievement, congratulations! What does the award mean to you?

SS: Honestly I didn’t expect it at all! Although I’ve been playing music for a while, Plastic Parvati has just been a year of me seriously trying to do something. In terms of independent arts in India, this has been one of the groups that has been supporting artists for a long time. And the previous winners are all artists I deeply admire – it’s great to be one of them now! Toto has always been great at selecting the non-mainstream, slightly underdog artists – there’s some pressure on me now to live up to their support. It’s also encouraging to know that there’s an organization like that that appreciates artists like me. I’m hoping that it’s a message to younger girls, too: there’s people out there who do support you.

TFR: Well, that’s all the longer questions we had. We just want to do a quickfire round now, cool?

SS: Sure, yeah!

TFR: Who would be your favorite Indian artist, apart from yourself and Ganesh Talkies?

SS: Fuck. This is hard. I can’t pick one! I’ll go with Parekh & Singh, and Peter Cat (and LIFAFA and Begum).

TFR: Awesome! I guess our tastes match exactly, because the last two interviews we had were with Parekh & Singh and LIFAFA.

SS: Nice! Yeah, I feel like they’re very representative of Indian indie. They’re not trying to do like weird raga type things with Western instruments, but they are writing their amazing songs, and their sound is incredible.

TFR: It’s very desi.

SS: Desi, but perfectly balanced. Oh, I actually really like Disco Puppet as well. But that’s a personal bias! And… can I name one more? I’ll say Pulpy Shilpy [Gowri Jayakumar’s solo project]. Spoken-word, hip-hop, R&B. And she’s doing everything by herself, so I’m a deep admirer of that aspect.

TFR: Right, ties in with who you are as well. So moving on, which musician, dead or alive, would you most love to work with?

SS: Definitely Sandunes. I love everything that she does, her music, who she is as a person. Her music is very calm, thoughtful. I’m the opposite, like a hurricane – would be very interesting to see what a collaboration would be like.

TFR: Third question. What’s your drink of choice?

SS: Royal Stag, with water.

TFR: Nice. Classic. What’s one track or album on constant rotation lately?

SS: An LP that I found recently – Yellow Magic Orchestra. It’s these three Japanese dudes who made weird stuff in the ‘70s. All analog stuff.

TFR: Very left-of-center, as we were talking about. Final question – what’s been your favorite gig so far as Plastic Parvati?

SS: This is also a little difficult, all gigs are so different. I did this one REProduce session in Varanasi. We were on the roof of a hostel overlooking the Ganges, full-moon night. The crowd was an interesting mix of foreigner tourists and some locals, who were listening to non-Bollywood Indian music for probably the first time in their lives. It was super interesting, and the lineup was great, too. Fun gig.

TFR: Absolutely. So, that’s all from our side. Thank you so much for speaking with us! We’ll keep an eye out for the new EP, and it was a blast speaking with you!

SS: You, too. This was so fun.

You can listen to Plastic Parvati on SoundCloud, Spotify, and iTunes. And keep an eye out for her new music!

Taking a Ride with Ladies Compartment: An Interview

15 Jan
Image by Blankfound Creative

Ladies Compartment is a Mumbai four-piece comprising of Ramya Pothuri (acoustic & vocals), Aarifah Rebello (drums & vocals), Aditi Ramesh (keys & vocals) and Nandita V (bass & vocals).

The band’s sound is a refreshing mix of jazz, soul and blues, with the occasional, intriguing addition of Carnatic classical music. Beyond their sonic palette, the band’s mastery of vocal harmonization really sets them apart. For a taste, have a look at their version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”. A lone guitar forms a tentpole for the ladies’ four perfectly harmonized vocals in a haunting, stripped-down rendition: a truly unique cover of a timeless classic.

Video by Ladies Compartment via YouTube

If you’re just getting to know the band, let us assure you that these women are not newbies to the scene. Aditi and Ramya are singer-songwriters with a debut EP each; Aarifah, a singer-songwriter in her own right, drums for several other acts, and Nandita is an up-and-coming bassist in the indie music industry. The strength of their individual musical talent creates an easy-going camaraderie that’s highly listenable – and repeatable, too.

We sat down with the ladies earlier this week for a quick chat about their influences, experiences, and plans for the coming year. Read on:

Top Five Records: There’s a great mix of genres in your music – soul, funk, and glimpses of many others, too. What are your key musical influences as a band and as individuals?

Ladies Compartment: Individually, we are four musicians with very different tastes and styles, and we bring our individual influences together to create the sound of Ladies Compartment. If one were to consolidate all of our interests and influences, the list would include Soul, R&B, Funk, Folk, Indian Classical, Jazz, Alternative Rock, Dream Pop, Progressive Rock, Western Classical and Blues music. But these are just influences – we don’t like to label our music because we find this limiting, and one can always go beyond these labels and boundaries when creating music.

TFR: Some of your tunes are well-harmonized ditties while others are much more jazzy and freeform. Give us a little detail into your songwriting process. How do you go about it?

LC: There is no one process we follow. With our earlier songs, Aditi would come up with chords and a rough melody. The band would add instrumentation together, while Ramya and Aditi worked on lyrics and Aarifah and Nandita sealed the piece with smooth transitions and rhythmic patterns. With one of our newer songs, Nandita wrote the lyrics, melody, bassline and backing vocal parts, and the band fleshed it out by adding instruments and modifying the chord structures in certain bits. In our newest song, Aarifah created a rhythmic pattern which the whole band then sat together in one space. Each of us have written our own verse over the same music and you can see how different we are as individuals by the varied ways in which we all have interpreted the music. There is no one process we follow, and we are continuously experimenting with different methods.

TFR: What has been your experience so far as an all-female project in the Indian indie music industry?

LC: We have been well-received and supported by multiple platforms and performance spaces. We have pushed forward by focusing on our music, but the truth remains that people love to overuse and push the ‘all-female’ aspect for branding and this sometimes shifts focus away from the music. We’re trying to move away from this type of branding.

TFR: With the indie scene still being at a somewhat nascent stage, what changes would you like to see for artists to really succeed and cross over into larger audiences?

LC: Monetary returns for artists in the indie scene need to go up. There needs to be more respect for artists, and the careers of artists need to be more sustainable for artists to grow and reach larger audiences. There is an attitude with many venues that if they can get the same act for a lower cost they’ll take the opportunity and pay them less. As a result, many artists are scrambling for survival, and this often stunts their artistic development and ability to reach more people.

TFR: You are hot off a performance at Weekender’s Pune edition this year. How was that experience?

LC: We had a lovely, supportive audience and it was the first time we performed on such a large stage.

TFR: What’s on the radar for Ladies Compartment in 2019?

LC: We are finally going to be recording our original music and releasing it this year. We are also in the process of writing more songs and arranging new covers, so you can expect new material at our live performances this year as well!

TFR: If you had to recommend one or two songs of yours for our first-time listeners, what would they be?

LC: “General Specific” and “Don’t Waste Your Time”.

Ladies Compartment performing “Don’t Waste Your Time” on the talk-show Son of Abish

TFR: Thank you, ladies. Before we wrap up, let’s do a short quick-fire round!

TFR: What would be your dream collaboration (any artist, alive or not)?

LC: Jorja Smith.

TFR: What’s a tune or album that’s been on constant rotation?

LC: “If I Get High” by Nothing But Thieves.

TFR: What’s been your favorite gig so far?

LC: When we were told that our gig at a prominent venue in Bangalore was cancelled upon reaching the venue and we put together a house gig instead, within an hour, with the help of our friends from Bangalore Recording Company and LVNG!

TFR: Who’s an Indian musician / band that you really admire?

LC: Sandunes.

Check out Ladies Compartment’s music on Facebook, Youtube and Soundcloud.

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