‘Vande Mataram’ Brings This British Songwriter Home

 London-based singer and songwriter Tanya Wells is a gentle weaver of traditions. Behind the silhouettes of thumri and songs she has picked during her stay in India, Tanya’s spirited style reveals different genres sprawling in her music. The Seven Eyes vocalist opens up new textures in acoustic and contemporary folk with her singing and song-writing. She unwraps musical influences and rhythms, gets into their folds, and wears them in languages that are her own and not. Tanya’s singing has an element of the strings. Improvisations flow carefully. The compositions are rich in emotion, moods and grammatical details. Melodies from the Indian subcontinent breathe on the musical textures she creates — like vetiver breathes on skin. The alaap soars, lyrics ripple into ornamentations, and shlokas swirl into rhythms – freely.

Tanya had lived in India as a child. She returned to learn Hindustani classical music, blending different influences into her singing. Does she need to fit somewhere? There is no room for compartments and no performance “effortless”. This vocalist is on a long journey that extends from London to Dharamsala to Helsinki to the Abbey Road and several milestones. She has responded to the broad spectrum of colours in the music of Anoushka Shankar and Nitin Sawhney while saying her own stories. Collaborations become her thinking trampoline, bouncing her into soundscapes and an ocean of imagery. You could be tempted to pick a strip of sandpaper and move it in circles gently over the raw edges in Tanya’s singing. These raw edges, you’d realise, are the fine lines that connect a thinking musician and the performer in her. The sandpaper crumples and melts. The core, in Tanya’s music, is the integration of different influences; the singing of ghazals, qawwalis and thumris – a sweet crust. She tells Sumati Mehrishi in an email interview about her practice, inner peace and experiments.

You recently walked into the Abbey Road Studios for the mastering of your debut album The Seed. Tell us about the album, sessions and goosebumps.

The album has different musical and cultural influences on it. The songs thematically weave together to tell stories of nature, travel and growth. One of my favourite moments was recording with Guruji Prabhakar Dhakde in Nagpur. He plays violin on “Blue in the Flame”. He is an amazing teacher and a music personality. We had it in just one take – it was perfection. Another great moment was hearing Paulo Vinicius come up with the melody for “Jupiter” on his guitar. The process of developing a song with meaning and structure is a magical experience.

How long do you let the composition season within you before you think it is ready? 

My approach is often to treat singing as an actor expresses a character. If the vocal expression is honest to the content of the song, it serves to move us. Nothing feels better than hearing or witnessing a song come to life because it is felt in the heart. I think that’s how the concept of ‘rasa’ works. We feel goosebumps when the moment is genuine. Singing Sanskrit shlokas sits in a very deep place. Devotional music has the ability to express all heart and no ego.

The Seed has songs in five languages. What does the process of building narratives through multiple languages reveal?

Our band Seven Eyes is discovering its own style and what it is we wish to say in our debut album. Composing and singing in multiple languages allows us to experience life through various perspectives and express ourselves in different ways.

That is what Seven Eyes is all about. What I like particularly about our song “Jupiter” (in Urdu/ Hindi and French), for instance, is that the two languages converse and blend together two different worlds. This impacts the meaning of the song. Similarly, “Ao Ceu Do Brasil” brings together Yoruba with Portuguese, exploring an important aspect of the culturally diverse identity of Brazil where Paulo is from.

Where does your interest in Indian music stem from?

It stems fundamentally from Hindustani classical music which I was thankfully exposed to from a young age. I am fascinated with how a raga can evoke a particular mood. It makes music become rather theatrical, as though a song has a character the artist needs to express. It’s unique.

What does inner peace mean to you? 

Inner peace means actualising the experience of self realisation. Having been a long term practitioner of Sahaja Yoga meditation, I am coming to realise that we cannot truly experience peace in the world if we cannot ‘become’ peace within.

You celebrated the International Yoga Day with singing. Which music genres do your find meditative aspects in?     

We were invited to perform at the United Nations in New York for International Yoga Day. We performed shlokas.

Raga music has a power to bring us into meditation. Classical music and devotional music like gospel and occasionally electronic music do something rather special. Consciously speaking, all good music should take us higher.

What are you currently working on?

Music videos are being made for some songs on The Seed. We are excited to release the album officially in 2017 and some videos before the launch. Potential songs for the second album are already taking form. That exciting development process is beginning once again.

When did you write your first song? 

I remember being eight years old, writing a song, that rhymed about a little blue bird called Jack. It had quite a bluesy melody.

What does song writing stir in you? 

For me song-writing feels a bit like storytelling — in an abstract sense. Having studied theatre, I’d say the songs I mainly write are led by a narrative. They are character-driven and depict a situation.

Your rendition of “Vande Mataram” became very popular. What does the song mean to you?

“Vande Mataram” has a sweet, nostalgic feeling for me because I heard the song in my childhood while living in India. We sang it at school. The praise of the eternal feminine and the depicting of the Mother is empowering.

Which places in India make you meet yourself? 

I was five or six years old when I first visited India and have returned many times since. I lived in Himachal Pradesh for over three years as a child. For me, those mountains at the foothills of the Himalayas near Dharamsala will always be home. Returning there is like returning to my childhood. It’s a very special place to me.

Which new sounds and musicians did you get to know while working on The Helsinki Project

 Most of those musicians are friends of mine. I was visiting them when we came up with the idea to record a few songs together. It was nice to hear my songs played by a band rather than just me simply picking at my guitar and singing. It brought the songs to a whole different level.

What did the collaboration with Anoushka Shankar and Nitin Sawhney made you discover?  

They are artists with immense talent and vision for their work. Working with them taught me a lot about the industry and allowed me to experience performing at prestigious events and some amazing venues.

Have you tasted Indian folk music?

I’m a big fan of folk music in general. When I went to Rajasthan, I got the opportunity to jam with a group of Rajasthani folk singers. We sang the popular folk song “Kesariya balaam” together as well as some Sufi qawwalis. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when I started singing “O Lal Meri”. We had a lot of fun.

What aspects in singing are you working on through your riyaaz?

I consider myself a student in most aspects of life, especially music. Though I haven’t had technical training in Indian classical music for a long period of time, I try to understand the characteristics of the raga and instinctively express the alaap accordingly. I wish I could have said I have learnt and practiced for years. I caught the bug of Indian classical music at 17 and then tried to find vocalist teachers to learn from where ever I could — usually after recommendations from friends. My biggest teacher — my ears. I try to listen to different voices and styles and I practise when I need to strengthen my voice. I know I need much more riyaaz!

Which song writers influence you?

In brief. Bob Dylan, Johnny Flynn, Feist, and Bon Iver. I also enjoy RnB and hip hop poetry — Lauryn Hill Frank Ocean and Nas. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a stunning work of art. I’m a fan of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz thanks to Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals (I read the translations in English) and recently bought a book of Gulzar’s poetry. I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music in an attempt to learn Portuguese. Tom Jobim’s “Bossa Nova” is beautiful.

What elements in Celtic music and American gospel music influence you?  

I am influenced by the ornamentation in those genres. Both gospel and Celtic music are beautifully melodic. They are rich in harmony and so immensely satisfying to the ear.

Do you hit blocks in song-writing? How do you surpass them?

I rarely experience writer’s block. However, if I have a lack of creative fuel, I take to literature, music, films and theatre for inspiration.

I get out of the house or country if possible!

How do you spend the last 15 minutes in the greenroom before you face the microphone?

Warming up my voice. Share good vibes with fellow musicians and crew. Meditate for a few minutes.


Featured image: Tanyawells.com