I had never heard of Arthi Meera until I saw her perform at the Voices of Resistance 5 festival in 2006 in Chicago. She played guitar and sang two or three songs she had written. The songs and the performance were stunning.
Later I bought her self-titled, self-released CD (available at iTunes), and it has not left my CD changer since. The production, like Meera’s voice, is clean and spare. The power comes from the understatedness.
You can listen to several of her songs in their entirety atwww.myspace/arthimeera. My favorite is Wander Away.
Recently I got in touch with Meera, and discovered that she had just moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to join forces with her brother, Anand Subramanian, who is also a musician. (Arthi’s full name is Arthi Meera Subramanian, but she writes and performs as Arthi Meera.) I interviewed Arthi Meera via e-mail.
How’s L.A. so far?
I just got here and it’s exciting!
Anand and I have each been working on different projects for a few years: I was doing solo acoustic stuff in Chicago, and he was living in San Francisco and collaborating with people out there. In 2005, I visited him in San Francisco for a few months. We played a few shows together and it just worked so well. We have always gotten along very well musically, and that kind of compatibility is hard to find.
A few months ago, we decided to both move out to L.A. and really make a big push for our band, Fair and Kind (www.myspace.com/fairandkind). So the solo acoustic stuff that I was doing in Chicago will be put on the backburner for a little while. The timing was actually perfect for me because I was able to finish the solo album in Chicago, and then move out here and turn my attention to the band.
Where are things now with Fair and Kind, and what are your goals for the band?
We are working on a three-song demo right now. We are both writing, singing, and playing electric guitar, and we are looking to complete the band with a bassist and drummer. The music will be quite different from what is on my solo record. The songs will be melodically driven but will have a rougher edge to them, with lots of electric guitars. I’m very excited about the songs we are working on and there are so many more to be developed.
After we write and record these songs, we’d like to play as many shows as possible around Los Angeles and maybe some time next year we can do a national tour. The ultimate goal would be to do music full-time, to tour at least six months out of the year, and to make it to Europe and Asia (especially India and Japan). That is the dream!
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes. Although nobody in my family is a musician by profession, a lot of my aunts and uncles sing bhajans, Carnatic music, film songs, etc., and play instruments; and I studied piano, harmonium, and Hindustani vocals on and off for about 10 years. I grew up in a house where music was a big part of life.
The bands I started listening to in junior high were also a huge influence on me. A lot of these bands—The Smiths, R.E.M., The Sundays—were introduced to me by Anand (who is a few years older than I am). The summer before I started high school, I went to my first concert. It was Weezer at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A., and it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life. That night, I knew I wanted to be a part of music somehow.
When did you start playing guitar?
In college. I bought an old classical guitar off a guy in my hall and looked up tabs on the Internet and asked people to teach me songs. I never took guitar lessons. I learned at my own pace, learned what I wanted, and practiced when I wanted. I learned a lot of early R.E.M. songs, which are pretty simple. I got the guitar I use now, a Yamaha acoustic, for my 19th birthday. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie, so I learned a lot of those songs as well. Soon after this, I started writing my own songs. My last year of college, I performed here and there on campus, but nothing too serious.
What did you study in college?
After growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I went to Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and received a B.A. in organizational studies with a focus on non-profit management. The reason I chose that major was that I wanted to run a record label or music venue. I interned at a few labels and music websites between semesters, but somewhere along the line I became very interested in non-profit organizations. I had never considered being a musician at all, mostly because I was incredibly shy to perform. Even as recently as a year ago, I would make plans to go to an open mic, freak out at the last minute, and just stay home. And that’s just for open mics! It took many years for me to even sing audibly, to overcome shyness and stage fright. Now I love performing. I still get nervous every single time, even just at an open mic with all my friends around, but now it’s an exhilarating kind of nervous.
What do your parents do for a living, and what do they think about what you and Anand are doing?
My dad is a physician and my mom is a homemaker. They are both very supportive. They believe that focusing on art is just as legitimate as pursuing something more traditional. At the same time, I know that they worry about each of their kids living the musician’s life with its uncertainty and instability. Right now, we both have part-time jobs, but the goal is definitely to be able to make a comfortable living from music alone.
What’s your process for songwriting?
I play around a lot on my acoustic guitar, and sometimes I come up with something I like. It’s normally just two or three chords in a progression at first and I’ll play it for at least a few days to see whether it sticks. Some kernels stay and others don’t. If they don’t stick, I lose interest within a week or so. If they do stick, I become obsessed. I’ll play the riff over and over and think about where it should go. I’ll work on the structure for a while, replacing one chord with another to see which progression I think works best. If I really like the progression, I’ll stick with it for as long as it takes. There’s one that I’ve been working on since 2005. I like the chord progression so much that I can’t bear to put lyrics to it!
As I’m working on the structure, I’ll hum something that eventually becomes the vocal line. I work on lyrics either as I’m putting together the structure of the song, or after it’s nearly complete. Lyrics are definitely the most difficult part for me. When I first started writing, I wrote lyrics just as I spoke. Some of these songs are on the record—I wonder whether people can tell which ones they are. I worked on the lyrics for the first track, Silty Sea, incessantly for a month. I try to be a perfectionist when it comes to lyrics. Every word is important.
Do you carry a notebook?
Always. You never know when an idea will strike. Sometimes I’ll jot down a phrase or fragment that I like and try to work from there. I’ll also jot down subjects that I’d like to write songs about. At first, I think songwriters tend to write about themselves and their lives. I am trying very hard now to break away from that, especially from songs about love and relationships, just because they are so overdone.
How much of your songwriting is inspiration, and how much is perspiration?
Probably about equal amounts of both. I’ve tried before to sit down and work on music on a schedule, but it has not worked. I definitely need to try again, though, because if you want to make a career from music, you can’t very well sit around waiting to be inspired. Inspiration can abandon you for weeks or months at a time. It’s difficult, though, when you aren’t working on anything particularly compelling, if you’re not obsessed with a few kernels. The best is when you have two or three kernels that you’re very interested in.
Why do you write and perform music?
When I first started writing songs, it was a therapeutic process for me. I wrote a lot about loss and sadness at first, and each time I sang the song it was like letting go of some of that sadness.
More recently, I’ve just wanted to become a good songwriter. I want to write songs that people can connect with on a broader level—songs that are accessible but still interesting.
I’ve come to think of music as a language that makes sense to me for whatever reason. But it’s a language I don’t ever want to stop studying, because the process is endless.
I also do this work as a way of connecting with people. It’s the greatest feeling when I play a show or even just one song at an open mic and someone tells me later they really enjoyed one of the songs, or really understood it. When I was younger, I was very shy. I spent most of my adolescence searching for a way to connect, and music has been a way to do that.
For me, creating music is going to be a lifelong journey, and I wouldn’t have it any other way; and that, more than anything else, is why I keep writing and performing music.
To learn more about Arthi Meera, or to listen to some of her songs or purchase her self-titled CD, go to www.myspace.com/arthimeera. You can also listen to samples of her songs or purchase her CD at iTunes. The Voices of Resistance festival is produced by the South Asian Progressive Action Collective. For more information visit www.sapac.org
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|