As a thumb steps across a harp, Vandana Jain is a singer with a deep voice and soft eloquence. Layers of experience, and the polarities of shades of grey, reveal themselves in Vandana’s creative process. Finding a home in the land of Williamsburg, New York, we get to know her stories in a place that now full of bankers, was once full of artists.
How do you start your day?
I will have a couple of cups of tea. When I have my tea, I will squeeze myself a grapefruit orange ginger and pomegranate juice, which I love.
You mentioned studying arts while at university in London, how did your passion for music arise?
I grew up in India, and I come from a very traditional Maravi family, a Jain family. My parents are quite traditional, and in the beginning, my father didn’t let me go to Central Saint Martins. I was only 16. I would plead, and bang my head against the toilet door. I would go on strikes, food strikes, to show him I really wanted to go, and he eventually allowed me.
I always thought that I would be an artist. I studied typography and film. These are things that you do as a form of expression. It embeds itself in your memory, and it builds these layers. No matter what you do as an artist, you draw on this. You know, if 6 years ago I went to this exhibition and it impressed me, there are these ideas and feelings that are now coming from this experience. You soak it in, and in your projects it seeps in subconsciousness. I love that process in which you don’t know where it’s coming from but it’s there. That’s how life should be.
At what point in your art process do you become conscious and critical?
Whenever I start a song, it’s very intuitive it’s very subconscious. You suddenly have this idea, you lay it down and build on it. It’s a very natural and organic process. When 80% or 70% of the song is made, it then becomes more conscious. I start editing and consciously adding and removing elements, making it more of a concrete idea. The same with lyrics. It’s almost a ramble, you just put it down and you then start cleaning it up and making it more lyrical, changing words to make them better.
There are times when it happens naturally and there are times when it doesn’t work. You go, have a sit on the piano, and really think about what you're doing. I never studied music so I just play by ear. I write everything by ear, and, when it starts to make sense, I find a mathematical solution rather than just an intuitive one.
Are there moments that stand out in your life as places you draw upon for your music?
Absolutely. Those moments happen quite a bit. What brings back a memory is usually something that you’re doing at the moment, and it suddenly reminds you of this other time and you think about it. There are times when I smell something and it just takes me back to some past experience. Was it in my house, was it my Grandma’s house? Was it the soap? I used to love this soap in my grandmas' house, and I used to want to just go and play in the tub because I loved it so much. There was one shoe that I really loved the smell of that my dad bought me. These are things you are brought back to when you get older; it just makes you savor, and maybe be creative and childlike because we miss that in our adult lives.
Lately, I have been quite obsessed with good food, and it can happen that I’m eating something and suddenly its smell or its texture reminds me of something I ate for the first time in London. When I was studying there, the food was very different from the food I grew up with. I would live on the most basic food. Once in a while I would eat something that was so tasty that I would try really hard to take pleasure in that moment. I’m going back to that memory a lot now that I eat good food. It's a kind of memory one hold on to very dearly.
I can't explain really but it all has effect on my creative process. It helps me be more gracious and thankful. These are things that come to me in a very simple way but I cherish greatly. Just like when I'm seeing an exhibition, and I'm in awe of being creative and what is being said. There are times when I just see a beautiful piece or an incredible performance and it makes me cry, I'm so overwhelmed of what the world can produce. A long time ago, I would feel like I would I never get there, I would never be as wonderful as that. I don't think of it in the same way today. I don’t compare myself. What I realized is I want to contribute, and as long as it’s real and genuine that’s all that matters. I believe all ways of expression are a contribution.
How would you describe your music?
My own feeling towards it is that it’s definitely intense. The voice is something very sweet and calm, but the beats are very abrasive or lo-fi, the base sound is really acidic. It’s not background music. It’s not one of those pieces of music that you can have on, and not pay attention, because it can be a little bit agitating and jarring. Listen to it a few times, and you then start to like it. In the process, you say, I don’t want to hear that again. My friends and people who have written to me let me know that it has grown in them and has become something solid.
I’m not using traditional recording techniques. Some of the songs are recordings, and some elements that I’m using are sounds that are from construction sites nearby. I use those sounds, and I make that into a drone and bass line, or chop them up or use them as percussion elements. Some of the sounds are not traditional sounds, so when you listen to it for the first time, you can’t quite place it what makes you not like it. But over time, anything can become a part of your understanding and a part of your liking. Bjork was the same in her beginnings. It all sounded very strange, but she’s become one of those musicians,...You can return to her because she’s one of those musicians with whom you'll feel something’s wrong but after some time you'll really start to like her.
How does culture develop in this process of layers in listening to music?
My style is unique and it’s one of those things that once it catches on it will hold meaning to a lot of people. I feel that already happening. I hope people can give it time and listen to it openly. That’s something that we don’t do in this ADD culture. Everything should be on this platter, right in front of you, plain and simple because you don’t invest your time into these things. That's why people like pop music. You listen to it once and it’s in your head. It’s easy but it’s not challenging. I want to be challenged in that way every day.
We also forget to acknowledge that maybe the artist who is making this stuff, in any medium, has a distinct vision that he wants to get across. When you feel that slight uncomfortable quality you’re drawn to it but you’re also like, I can’t quite place it. I would then like to listen to a different song or movie by that same artist because it gives me a background and a taste. After that, you can like it or not. That’s something I want to do in this digital age. That is the beauty of it, that someone can be heard. Some people take a long time to surface.
Who are your creative influences or collaborators?
I usually listen to new music, I’m constantly searching. I’m very inspired by the people I work with too. For instance, DJ Rashad and Teklife, their stuff is so simple. It’s the kind of simplicity I am really drawn to, basic and minimal. Using old techniques, and making something that is totally new. I think that’s just brilliant.
I love Jack White, even though his music is very different to mine. I really admire him musically. Matthew Dear, is one of my favorites as well. I love the vocal treatment he gives to each of his songs. A lot of these things I see not only as a songwriter but also as a producer. You hear all these different techniques on the speaker and it teaches me something about my own process. There are many people making really excellent music.
What are your indulgences?
Hanging out with my friends, that's one of my indulgences I would like to say.
I’m obsessed with plants too,I have 35 plants in my house. I go around looking at each one of them just see if there's a new one flowering. When they are coming out they are so tiny, and some of them blossom into these massive leaves. It’s fascinating how these plants grow, I’m shocked. How the colors change when they are turning, and how they become a very different color as they get older. They are all a certain shade of green, and I have a lot of purples, deep reds and pinks. I’m constantly looking for a new plant color. I took my friend plant-shopping a few months ago, and there was this purple light color plant. I really wanted one and there was only one left, so I said you have it, I took you shopping. She gave me a cut of it the other day with some leaves growing. I’m so excited about this one! So I would say it's an indulgence now as I have no place for plants in my house anymore! And of course, good food, always.