Sheila Chandra Interview
MO: Good day Sheila, thanks so much for taking time to chat with me today, it is an honor to have this opportunity. I would love to start from the beginning. What originally got you interested in singing? Did you have any particular influences in the public eye that inspired your sound?
SC: Singers are born, not made. I had the instrument and when my voice broke at the age of 12 I discovered how pleasurable singing was. But before that, it was obvious my brain was musical. At 3, I was singing songs off the radio with all the verse lyrics – I sang as I did housework. You couldn’t shut me up! I used to emulate any skilled singers I could find to listen to. Not so much the Adele style ‘belters’, as my throat wasn’t suited to that – but the soul singers of the late 70s. And of course, I studied songs from the musicals at school.
MO: When you eventually got into singing professionally, what were the the challenges for you? What were the challenges in joining a band and getting yourselves off the ground?
SC: I went to a theatre arts secondary school (you would call it ‘high school’ I think?) and I left in the summer of ‘81 with no real plan, but I was already rehearsing with Monsoon. We made an EP and Steve used it as a demo tape to take to all the major record companies. As he had been working in the pop industry for more than 10 years, he knew many of them.
They all turned us down – except one. And that was only because they were, quite coincidentally, developing a Japanese pop label and thought we might ‘fit’ within a wider brief on it. Dave Bates who was an A&R man at Phonogram took a chance on us, booked us into Rockfield studios just before Christmas and blew his entire demo budget on us. But the result was the hit version of ‘Ever So Lonely’….. We were incredibly lucky, but I also think it was the power of that song that gave us our big chance. The US is album orientated, so it was never big there, but it was a hit in virtually every other serious territory around the world that summer.
The other challenges were mostly from my family who were dead set against me being a singer. I think they went along with Monsoon because there is some cache in having your daughter in the charts and on TV. But when my solo career started, they couldn’t see the point and nagged and harassed me about it for two years while I was making my first four Indipop albums.
In India singers conservative families consider singers to be, socially, only one rung above actresses and dancers – who are considered only one rung above prostitutes. So you can see why they were upset.
It was impractical for me to tour as they didn’t want me on the road alone with lots of male musicians (probably right as I was still a teenager) and I had too much experimenting to do in the studio anyway. Consequently I didn’t play live until 1992 with the Real World stuff. In the end, for those and other reasons, I left home and didn’t have any contact with my family for 10 years.
MO: Tell me about the collaboration process working with Steve Coe and Martin Smith? What was the environment like and how together you guys created such a unique and successful sound?
SC: Before I started writing songs at 19, both Steve and Martin would just present songs for me to learn and imbue with my own style. Once I started writing, I tended to partner up with Steve Coe for writing sessions and learned such a lot! He had written standard pop stuff for most of the 70s and was fed up of what he called ‘three chord wonders’ – he chafed against those constraints around ‘what was allowed’ in that genre.
For that reason it wasn’t always easy to get him to write something more catchy but he was really good at it when he wanted to be. I didn’t play an instrument, and his was piano, so on ‘Quiet’, we started with some riffs and I wrote melodies over them. And later as we moved to drones, he began to appreciate just what the human voice is capable of and I think it expanded his ability to write for voice too.
Martin used to write alone and then we’d pool ideas for instrumentation or any other additions. I think as I went on with my solo albums, Steve and Martin’s styles of songwriting become increasingly distinct and divergent.
MO: Being in a band and also being a solo artist, did you prefer one lifestyle over the other?
SC: You have more control over your career and your direction as a solo artist. So I preferred that naturally.
MO: What made you decide to move to singing permanently?
SC: I always wanted to be a singer from the age of 12. And as most singers will tell you, it’s a vocation, a madness that grips you. My voice broke when I was 12 and I discovered it when a temporary teacher in singing class asked me to demonstrate a song no one else knew and this fully developed sound came out that startled me (and him!) After that, there was no other path for me. I had to be a singer.
MO: When collaborating with Coe and Smith, you made the album Third Eye which ended up being incredibly successful especially the song “Ever So Lonely.” But did you have any other favorites from that album or songs you enjoyed writing?
SC: I think ‘Eyes’ showcased the direction we were going in as far as writing was concerned. Unusual riffs layered over each other – not always a classic chorus set up, and not always comfortable. But for instrumentation ‘Third Eye and Tikka TV’. There’s so much going on in the backing track…
MO: Monsoon’s sound is considered Indian pop along with other styles. Can you talk about how Monsoon came to find their sound and would you describe Monsoon’s sound also?
SC: How would I describe Monsoon’s sound? Lush, expensive, Indian influenced pop. Monsoon wasn’t my project – it was the brainchild of our producer and writer Steve Coe who fell in love with classic Hindi film songs. He had Asian neighbours and heard their old records, and wanted to do something with that sound. He wrote enough songs for an EP, and went searching for people to be in the band. I was at theatre arts school and they’d send me for auditions. He found an old audition demo tape at Hansa Records, knew instantly that I was the right voice – and couldn’t believe his luck when the receptionist pulled my photo from the file and I was Asian…
MO: In Real World Records biography of you, they describe your voice saying, “Her new found ability to cross continents in a single vocal line…”. How did your background and experiences growing up influence your music?
SC: The biggest factor was being aware that I had another heritage to draw on if I wanted to – not that I was interested. Racism is both macro and micro. It affects the psyches of BAME children, and at that time our culture was seen as terminally uncool! So as a teenager before Monsoon, I avoided it like the plague and listened to pop instead. I wasn’t even a fan of Hindi film songs (most commercial Bollywood films are musicals) as many Asian families were.
All that changed after I joined Monsoon and I realized how much catching up I had to do. I went to lots of Indian Classical concerts (both North and South Indian – two different schools of music) and listened to the golden era of Hindi film songs (my mum dug out her old 78s from the attic).
I was also around some amazing musicians. It was Paul James the saxophonist from Blowzabella who pointed me towards British Folk and June Tabor in particular. I was fascinated with the way her vocal ornaments were the same as some of the ones in Indian classical music. And so I went beyond a heritage that I could lay claim to as an Asian and found I had a world heritage as a singer – something that is every singer’s birthright.
MO: You’ve experimented with so any different styles, techniques and sounds in your music from traditional Irish songs to Indian ragas with your solo music. What made you decide that you wanted to completely change course from Monsoon’s original sound which was more Indian Pop?
SC: One has to evolve and I wanted more vocal challenges. If you listen to Monsoon what I sing is essentially standard ‘pop’ vocal. What one considers sophisticated and the height of your powers at 16 will not be the same at 27 or 30. There was little Asian Fusion around in the 80s other than the psychedelic experiments from the 60s and I knew there was a whole world of possibilities and combinations to be explored. But there was no one who could teach me. That learning was done by making experimental work, and both standing and falling by it. I don’t think my early Indipop albums were that great. They could have been tighter and we probably should have spent longer on them. But on the other hand, without that ‘being willing to fail’ spirit, my later work would not have been so rich.
MO: What was your favorite album that you released under Real World’s label?
SC: Probably ‘Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices’
MO: Were there any fears you had moving to the new label? Any fears you had when releasing some of your albums?
SC: Well, no because Steve Coe and I were on sabbatical and looking for a way to ‘relaunch’. We looked around and saw that Real World had the best and most respected reputation in World Music at that time – and probably could reach the audiences we needed. We also saw that their roster at that time was very African and male. So we thought they’d probably appreciate an injection of Asian Female creativity!
We didn’t have the specifics of the concept for ‘Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices’ sorted out when we first started talking to Real World. I knew the album should coincide with my first real ‘live’ performances and that I wanted to keep it simple so they’d be solo voice and drone. But what that voice would do was not clear. It was a worrying time because I was walking blind into a structure we were creating and trusting that something good would come. Then one evening, while frustratedly trying to explain to Steve (about a concept I was playing with) I improvised that ornate half arabic vocal line from the last verse of what was to become ‘Donalogue’. And I knew we had it!
As to moving to Real World – it was a bit of an adjustment because I had to do all the negotiating too. But we chose them very carefully for their profile, reputation and approach. And I really couldn’t stay on Indipop forever!
MO: Did you feel like splitting from Martin Smith or Steven Coe put your career at a halt at any point or make you lose motivation to continue singing at all?
SC: No, not at all. Those splits happened quite naturally at the right point for each of us. And if you know singers, we’re fanatical about singing. I can’t imagine anything that would have made me want to stop. It’s a physical high you get addicted to.
MO: When you switched from Monsoon to a solo career with Indipop Records in the 80s, did your sound change at all? What would you describe those changes to be like?
SC: I think we were going for something less obviously commercial or rather paying less attention to that because I was very aware of how much I needed to grow as an artist and I was on a the tiny independent Indipop label. And we had far less of a budget. We did the recordings using a home studio, which was very new technology at the time and mixed the tracks at a commercial studio. We also used it as an opportunity to experiment – and the sound was much ‘rawer’ than that glossy expensive sound we had the luxury of with Monsoon. I also began writing songs on my second solo album ‘Quiet’ (which comprises 10 lyricless tracks which use voice as an instrument) so my direction became much more vocally orientated.
MO: You’ve done a lot of collaborating with other artists or bands, what was your favorite collaboration?
SC: Imagined Village was probably most fun. We toured the UK too and I’d never toured with a band. But being onstage with lots of great musicians was a real treat
MO: In 2000, you contributed a remix to the song “Ever so Lonely”, to the album, Gifted. What made you decide to do a remix?
SC: To be honest, it was one of those rare occasions where I wanted to please Real World. They were very excited about ‘Gifted’ as it was part of the campaign to release a new fragrance as well. I had just been through a rocky patch with them – and was aware of my own shortcomings when dealing with them as a result.
I know it must have been galling to have an artist on their label who denied permission for so many film usages and remixes etc. on artistic grounds. I saw no problem when I liked the song they requested (‘Song to the Siren’) – though I don’t think I did a particularly good cover – or with trying a remix with so illustrious a producer as Stephen Hague (who’d worked with lots of big names including Tom Jones). I don’t think in the remix is particularly inspiring, but we had a go….
MO: In 2002, you performed “Breath of Life” for the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. That’s such a cool experience and Howard Shore wrote this particularly for your voice. How did that make you feel and how did you react when someone approached you about this opportunity?
SC: It was very last minute because I turned their first offer down. They came back some months later with a better one but that meant we had just a couple of weeks for me to learn the song and do the session. And they sent me sheet music. Well I don’t read ‘the dots’, so in the end, with just a couple of days to go, Paul Broucek who produced the session, had to sing it down the phone to me!
Howard Shore the composer had chosen my voice because he said I hit certain frequencies on certain notes and he wanted that quality. So he’d written the melody specifically for my voice which is such a luxury! Singing with a huge orchestra was also great. After working with just a drone for a decade or more, the swell of the strings under my melody was very intoxicating!
MO: You’ve done so much musically at this point. What’s your favorite project you’ve done? Which was the most enjoyable?
SC: I think the Real World trilogy is my best work – certainly in terms of studio quality and also in terms of the time I had to refine them. And I used to really enjoy singing that material ‘live’.
MO: I see that now you are helping people as a creative career coach and your book Organizing for Creative People: How to Channel the Chaos of Creativity into Career Success was a Foyles bestseller. What’s the most common thing you tell people who are seeking creative careers?
SC: I had to stop singing (and even talking much!) after a bad intubation during an emergency operation to save my sight resulted in scarring and after suffering years of pain because of that, my system became ‘primed for pain’ and I developed Burning Mouth Syndrome (neurological pain in the tongue).
I didn’t want my experience to go to waste so I started writing books and have become a career coach for creative people in all fields. My advice? The commonest problem I see is that many people are multi-talented and don’t know which direction to choose. So they try to do them all. Biggest mistake you can make!
MO: Why do you think it’s important to have a career coach as someone in a creative career?
SC: Not everyone has good role models or a network of sensible arts people to consult, though I encourage everyone to cultivate one. Not everyone grows up with family or friends in the arts and that’s particularly true for people from underprivileged backgrounds. Your colleagues’ advice will always, usually unconsciously, be tinged with self interest.
And without some mentoring – especially at the beginning, but also when you feel ‘stuck’ – you can spend 30 years learning what you needed to know ideally from the outset. Coaching for your creative career levels the playing field which is particularly important for BAME and working class artists. It’s a consultation with someone who is on your side – a cross between a manager and a counsellor to whom you can take both the emotional and practical elements of your creative career dilemmas.
MO: Is your career coaching best suited for one particular creative career or all creative careers?
SC: All creative careers share commonalities, especially around the creative process and the dilemmas surrounding artistic direction versus commercial work. If a client is in a field I’m not familiar with I’ll say so – but there it’s that I have less to offer in the way of mentoring or specific advice. That said some models are transferrable if you’re creative about business – and I have coached people in theatre and TV and in the visual arts.
MO: What kind of resources can people expect from you if they sign up with you?
SC: Of course every client is an individual – and what they get from me is a service tailored to them. But I offer both coaching and mentoring in a session where required, so that we explore both where the client can be more successful by seeing new possibilities and I offer industry insights and resources where required. This combination means the client gets their foundation right – their motivation, direction etc. But it’s not just an echo chamber. I offer my thoughts too. I’ll also recommend specific therapies or practitioners or mentors where appropriate too.
MO: Sheila, Thank you so much for your time. I’m excited to see what you do in the future.
Sheila Chandra Biography:
“ Chandra is one of the most distinctive, imaginative and unbelievable vocalists you’ll ever hear. ”
Sheila Chandra made some of the most beautiful and innovative recordings in the World Music category − beginning with her band Monsoon’s 1982, ground-breaking Asian Fusion, Top Ten hit around the world, ‘Ever So Lonely’ − until voice problems forced her to retire in 2010.
Since then, in an unlikely twist, she’s gone on to become a best-selling author with Banish Clutter Forever (2010) outlining her own system for home organizing, which she says makes it possible to “pretty much, never tidy up again”.
“ I’ve read other books on clutter but nothing really seems to work. Sheila Chandra’s system is so simple and effective it even worked on an inveterate hoarder like me. Absolutely brilliant. ”
She also began mentoring the (then homeless) street artist Stik in 2008, writing a version of Organizing for Creative People just for him. Stik has gone on to become one of the most famous and collectible street artists in the world. This is an expanded version of her artist advice to him on how to build a strong foundation for his career.
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