Anoushka Shankar’s latest EP Love Letters is disarmingly honest, sometimes brutally so. The six songs were written in the wake of Shankar’s divorce from filmmaker Joe Wright in 2018, whom she married in 2010. Love Letters, she said, deals with the “processes of falling in love, desire, heartbreak, loss, and healing through loss”.
The opener Bright Eyes begins with the lines, “Does she feel younger than me? / As you’re lying in your bed / Does she feel younger than me? Or is that in my head?” before moving to the painful question: “Do you call her bright eyes too?”
Shankar and her band will perform songs from the album in Mumbai on February 13 and Delhi on February 14.
Despite the deeply personal nature of the lyrics, Shankar says that focussing too much on a song-writer’s personal history will prevent the listener from fully embracing Love Letters. “In an ideal world, a record becomes important to a person because it resonates with them and draws something that is inside them from the beginning,” said the 38-year-old musician. “Then the record becomes the soundtrack for someone else. Knowing too many details about the artist can stop one from having that personal experience. But with lyrics so plain, it’s obvious what the writer wants to say but the hope is that the listener connects to it as well.”
Shankar’s primary collaborators on Love Letters are mostly women, something that happened by design. Without intending to release the material, Shankar began writing tunes and journaling thoughts that she had shared with her friends “in a safe, intimate way, in comfortable living room sessions”. The first people Shankar spoke to about the tunes were women, which led to her thinking that the songs had a “kind of female energy” that could be focused on at a larger scale.
The singers on the album include Alev Lenz, the German musician who is heard on four tunes. Also on the album are Indian singer Shilpa Rao, British vocalist and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, and the Afro-French Cuban twin sisters Ibeyi.
“There’s talk about representation, equal opportunity in the film industry all the time,” Shankar said. “I wanted to do that on a musical level, get women to engineer and master the songs and not just play on them.” So in addition to the songwriter and musicians, the mastering engineer is also a woman: Heba Kadry. The album’s illustrations are by Azeema Nur.
Shankar describes Love Letters as her “most personal” work so far, even more than her seventh album Traces of You (2013), which featured songs Shankar had written in memory of her father Ravi Shankar who had just died. But, again, she noted that an artist’s story or intention behind their creation should not colour a listener’s impression or understanding of it.
“What’s personal is just one parameter out of several while talking about art,” Shankar said. “My last album, Land of Gold, which was about the refugee crisis happened because I was moved by the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee kid who washed up on the shore. I was moved by it as a mother. That feeling is as personal as writing songs in the aftermath of my father’s death or a breakup. The experience of writing feels the same, it all comes from emotion.”
Mumbai and Delhi are the first and only places in which Shankar will perform her latest batch of songs. Shankar says that the difference between Western and Indian audiences is not as apparent as the difference between audiences across venues and cities.
“Playing to thousands of young people dancing in a fest is obviously different from playing to a hundred sitting in an auditorium,” Shankar said. However, if she had to point out one major difference between Indians and the West, it’s that “Indians don’t belong to a clapping culture. In the rest of the world, you play for seven hours, and people acknowledge that and clap and give it back to you. In India, the audience stays silent.”
Shankar has passed several milestones in her career, from inspiring the name of an asteroid to being a six-time Grammy nominee. Her first Grammy nomination in 2003 made her the youngest-ever and first woman nominee in the World Music category. Does the Eurocentric “World Music” label still bother her or has she become used to it?
The latter, Shankar said, but she added “if we just use a different word instead of world music, you are not actually getting rid of the concept, which is looking at every music from a Western lens. So an alternative term doesn’t make sense. The best thing to do is to call musical genres by their original name.”
Among the experiences of her long career that she values, Shankar said, was acting in a feature film. She played an Indian classical dancer in Pamela Rooks’s Dance Like A Man (2003), a National Award-winning film, based on Mahesh Dattani’s play of the same name.
It was a shock for her, Shankar said, to realise how differently film works than music: “With music, if it’s recorded inside a studio, it is a private process where you feel safe. On stage, you are slowly building your energy up to the moment before the performance, so you can let it all out just during the few hours of playing. But in the case of film, you can never separate yourself from the pent-up energy because you need to hang out on sets for 12 hours not knowing when you will be called back to shoot for just a five-minute scene.”