Priya Darshini, whose debut album ‘Periphery’ has been nominated for the Grammys, has immersed herself into musical forms from all over the world, which characterise her distinctive sound.
Struggling as an independent musician is tough. The pain of rejection, search for motivation, and abject lows of starting from ground zero, this Grammy-nominated singer has been there. Priya Darshini took those struggles and poured them into her deeply soulful and unique sounding debut album Periphery, which has been nominated for the Grammy Awards 2021 in the best new age album category. In each riff and score, Priya dives into questions of identity and finding that all-illusive space – an authentic voice. All this in a live recording with nary a chance for post-production. A barrage of congratulatory texts is how Priya found out about the Grammy nomination, with Anoushka Shankar (also nominated) calling as well. “It feels surreal. It’s wonderful, and I am grateful to be recognised by my peers and people I respect considering this is my debut album. It came from my process of healing— a very intense and beautiful experience. I was hoping that whoever listens would feel and find a little bit of themselves, and connect to my place of healing,” says Priya Darshini from her Brooklyn home, of the album. Recorded in an abandoned Brooklyn church, Priya, the Chennai-born, Mumbai-brought-up girl reveals, “It was very raw, and you can hear my voice and all of our raw emotions. We wrote the album in the 12 preceding days to the live recording.”
Of her fellow nominees, she is amazed to be among such an eclectic group. “I am a big fan of Laurie Anderson who is a pioneer and has done such inspiring work. Of course, Jon Batiste has done such incredible work,” says Priya who has in the search for her musicology turned inwards – more philosophical and introspective.
She started music at age five. Her parents had learnt Carnatic classical music, and her amma also studied Bharatanatyam. Both her grandmothers were also musicians – her father’s mother played the veena, and mother’s (who she is named after) was an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer and singer. The Tamizh ponnu from a middle-class Tamilian Brahmin family moved to Mumbai from Chennai, and her first teachers were her grandmother and Bombay Lakshmi. Since 14, she has been studying Hindustani classical music with her guruji Sunil Borgaonkar. This deeply entrenched musical tutelage gave Priya the notes to fly – a unique almost gentle world view which can be heard in the soulful riffs of Periphery. “The sounds I created are different because I dabbled and immersed myself in many different styles. I studied jazz, and still continue to. I started getting interested in Macedonian, West African, Arabic, Electronic, experimental, and microtonal music. I try not to think about it as a genre – the moment you put something in a box, and you want to think out of the box, all you’ll see in the box. There is no box. I functioned and wrote from a place of full authenticity,” says Priya who started out singing covers and songs for Bollywood, a journey that brought her face to face with an unforgiving and nepotistic industry with few female composers.
“Mumbai was an incredible experience. Making it as a singer and musician in 2000 was tough. A lot has opened up now, but then the independent scene was non-existent. To make music, you needed a connection to Bollywood which I did not have. Learning to navigate in an industry which works on no specific systems, I sent CDs, dropped cassettes, did random studies recordings, and even saw my CDs thrown out.” she adds.
At 16, she was humming along as an intern at an ad agency when someone heard her, and she was offered a jingle, one of innumerable she has done. Films came by “sheer luck.” For a girl whose musings into music were so deep, all this work did not satisfy her insatiable creative appetite. It was in 2005, Priya started voice lessons and studied with a jazz vocalist at the Big Apple at the New York Film Academy. Back to India, in 2008 her musical fortunes slowly started aligning when she toured with Futureman and the Black Ensemble with Roy Vouton at Nashville.
Life – A musical learning all the way
She worked with Dave Eggar, a virtuosic cellist, on Periphery, “We share a deep bond, and I love him dearly. He can bring out the best in people. It became a beautiful form of expression for us. Max also has the same connection with Dave. Feeling safe and playing music – it was amazing. With Chuck Palmer who is a brilliant musician, he played just BROOMS, jhadoos! He understands the sensibility of music, they brought their A-game. For Dave, Chuck, Max, and I, it was a difficult process but how it evolved was beautiful to watch, each kept a space for the other, and allowed for a deep connection at a subliminal level to play out.”
Working with Living Color drummer Will Calhoun, was, “Awesome!” A legend, Priya couldn’t believe he was happy to be on this album. “Will Calhoun is one of the kindest, most humble, immensely,” she quips.
Her learning with Futureman was the best foundation any artist could have asked for. “That’s where I learnt that there should be no box. Futureman is a genius who goes into unique places – an inventor, scientist, he is honest with his exploration, and a big fan of physics, mythology, maths, and also invents instruments. Being around him when I was starting out was invaluable. I am eternally grateful,” says Priya.
The Priya her family knows
The outdoorsy girl mulls about how her family and friends thought she was a weirdo who kept doing strange things, but that has only made her oeuvre all the more distinct.
She calls her father the constant gardener who has taught her sister and her ethics and values. Her mother, she feels has played many parts, “It was beautiful to grow up with such a strong mother (figure) leading the way. I don’t think she even realises how much we have learnt just by watching and observing. My parents are very giving, the kindest, most generous and selfless people,” says the Grammy nominee who is currently working on a folk album with hubby Max ZT, and a studio album.
She also works with her social worker parents at their Mumbai-based non-profit organisation Jana Rakshita as a trustee, and has in the past worked with undeserved paediatric cancer patients, etc.
New ideas captivate her, and now she is busy studying biomimicry and sustainability. Cooking, travelling, and steadfastly curious about people, her debut album explores those deep musings to find one’s identity. There is a daunting sadness that brings her lyrics alive in Periphery. Her poignant single Home explores the feeling of being alienated, and searching for identity, she says, “Coming to New York and finding my place as a musician, having to re-establish my music and finding my authentic voice, all this was when I was questioning myself about my cultural identity and the anti-immigrant rhetoric was quite strong. This finding myself again is active work that goes on forever,” says the singer who believes everyone has a unique story to tell.
In her song The Banyan Tree, she collaborated with prolific author and award-winning journalist Joan Morgan who is called the Godmother of the Hip Hop feminist movement. “It came from an urgent need to address the silencing of survivors speaking up against abuse. It is a love song for survivors,” says Priya who shares how when Chesky Records reached out about writing the record, she was looking for accountability for a celebrated tabla guru’s abusive and perverted behaviour which led to her being harassed and silenced. Working with Joan Morgan on the lyrics was an incredible experience. “She took my rough draft and wove it together beautifully,” she adds.
For all those independent musicians out there, she shares wisdom from her mentors— trust the process, and your intuition. “Once I started to trust the process, focus on the now, and disconnect from results, unconcerned about outside validation, dropping all ego, I found my own. I continue to be a student and will always be one,” she says.
Her days in New York post-pandemic are spent exploring melodies and lyrics with riyaaz, playing instruments, writing, analysing pieces, and a “sacrosanct” weekly lesson with her guruji Borgaonkar even after 16 years. “When I have an idea, I write and expand on it. Using improvisations and allowing for the magic of the moment to be a part of the song is important,” she says. Incidentally, she is also the first Indian woman to complete a 100 km ultra-marathon in the toughest of terrains – the Himalayas, another of her passions.