Extraordinary Rendition, Rupa and the April Fishes’ debut album, was released by Cumbancha Records.
Where do your songs start?
Songs start through stories, from my own life and from the people I meet, especially though my work in medicine. They’re amazing people, at amazing points in their lives.
I know that you had a very international childhood, and your music has a very international sound. I wonder if this made it difficult to navigate the concept of home. How do you define home? Do you see your music as an exploration of that concept?
Definitely. For me, my music is my way of asking myself “where is my home, where do I belong, who am I?” The sounds that come out are inherently beautiful and confusing, because that’s what it feels like to be a part of so many different cultures. The reality is that you can find yourself at home in so many different places and in no place in particular. For me, home is shared with the people I call my family; my artistic family, my partner, my family of origin. The emotional connection to place, to people who are important—that’s where home is for me.
Have you always used music as a tool for this kind of exploration or is this recent?
I think it’s recent. It was really my father’s death, and what happened on September 11th—both events happened around the same time and were critical in raising those questions about life and identity. I had thought about these questions my whole life, but I had never used music to explore it. What’s important is the asking of the question, not necessarily an answer.
Would you consider your music to be political?
I consider everything political. We’re living in a time that’s incredibly political. So I think that if music comments or doesn’t comment on world issues, that is a political act.
Do you consciously put messages, political or otherwise, in your songs? If so, I would wonder about the tension between wanting to convey a message with your music, and also maintaining a level of emotional honesty.
That’s a really good question. Most of my music is not directly about political issues, unless you consider love political. Political awareness effects how I write. I’m not trying to embed a message in my music—I write from my point of view, from my human experience, and I’m a politically engaged individual.
I’m looking at wars: who’s died, who’s killing, who has what, who hoards what? And questions: Who is this war for? Who benefits from keeping immigrants without rights? Who is harmed? These kinds of questions are very interesting to me, and I think the emotional honesty of my music comes from the asking of questions. I don’t sit around and think, “How do I get this point across?”
The song “Poder” on the album is about what can and can’t cross the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s an emotional song; it’s realizing that a bird can cross, money can cross, an ice-cream can cross, but I can’t. And it’s realizing that human beings are the things being controlled, whereas everything else is very natural moving back and forth across the border. It’s a song about a global issue, but it’s being told through a very human experience. Political issues are human issues.
So I don’t think, “How am I going to remind people that we’re all going to die?” Because that’s one of the most thoughtful of my messages: how do I get across to people that our time here is precious? That’s what I hear at work every day at the hospital. “Our time is limited, our time is precious.” How do we get people to remember that and treat each other with dignity?
How do you resolve the tension between the intellectual content of lyrics and the emotional aspect of melody?
One of the reasons I started writing in French was because I felt that English was a very tired language for me. It was hard to convey emotion rapidly because I was so hung up on the words. So I gave myself an exercise: write 10 love songs in French. Then people could hear the natural rhythm and melody in the language itself, and make that secondary to what was happening literally. I wanted the emotional integrity of the music to be more important than the language I sang it in. And doing that I think has made me a more compelling writer in English, after writing for five years in mostly French and Spanish, because I feel like in I’m the process of loosening my attachments to words, and I’m rediscovering the inherent musicality of the language—and using that as the first priority. And because I was trying to convey it to my primarily English-speaking audience, the task became extremely important. How can I show them that what they don’t understand is not to be feared? Even though they might not understand linguistically, they understand emotionally.
The biggest surprise to me is that people get it. People will come up to me after the show and tell me that they don’t speak French, but they’ll tell me they understood, and they’ll tell me what the song reminded them of. And it’s exciting to me, because it just shows how connected we are with people across what seem like cultural divides.
That’s really beautiful.
Thank you. It’s exciting! We’re living in a time when people want to divide things up and say, “this is you, this is me,” and then feel fear because of it, and kill because of it. I was actually so angry with the Bush administration and the rhetoric they were using after September 11th. I was consumed with anger. And I was thinking about Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” How could I create that change?
I had so much hatred, and I felt just as bad as the people who were pushing to go to war with Iraq. So that’s where the music started. I thought, okay, I’m going to write about love. And not about romantic love; not, “Oh, I love you so much, please come and kiss me.” Intoxicating love. Love that requires surrender. Love that exists outside of borders and boundaries. Love in a time of fear. I guess I have to thank George Bush for that.
Did you construct this album to have a cohesive sound?
The sound of this album is as cohesive as my identity. I was talking to my friend today, and I was wearing this ridiculous outfit. And he said, “Oh my goodness, you’re such a patchwork!” And I thought how funny that was, because that’s what I think of when I think about the music. It’s a quilt, a mosaic, anything that makes more artistic sense when looked at from far away. For anybody who finds their identity in more than one culture, and I feel like increasingly that’s more and more people, I’d say they’d find it cohesive. We contain so many contradictions within ourselves.
Of course, for me, to see the band live is the most important thing. The music on the album is fine, and I love it, but seeing the way that the instruments talk to each other is what’s most exciting. What’s amazing about what’s going on in San Francisco right now is that there’s this movement of musicians who are unbelievably talented when playing live. That’s something that hasn’t happened after the post-electronica era. There’s a re-emergence of real, beautiful, artistic talent.
You frequently collaborate with other musicians, visual artists, and dancers. What draws you to collaboration, and what are the challenges of that work?
I majored in biology and theater in college. I started off acting, and I ended up directing, and I loved creating something for people to walk into, spaces where people would be moved, transformative spaces. So I’ve always collaborated with set designers and writers and dramaturges. I love the collaborative process.
I’m deeply inspired by visual art—a lot of my music comes from images or paintings that I’ve seen—so it makes total sense to me to be working with these people. There’s a real collaboration that happens in the artistic community up here in the city. We’ll sit together, I’ll be playing music, they’ll be drawing, we’ll be cooking dinner. Food, art—it’s a sensory, sensual experience. I love it. It makes me want to write more songs.
When did you start writing songs?
I really started writing songs when I was about 19. Before that, though, when I was eight, I was the most undisciplined piano student the world has ever seen. I’d spend about 15 minutes practicing my lesson, and two hours just fooling around. But what I was really doing was making up songs. Experimenting with sound. I am very grateful to my mother, who was on her way to being a concert pianist before her marriage was arranged to my father, for never stopping me. She just let me play; I was literally playing the piano.
Changing tracks, do you think medicine and music are complementary careers? What root is common to both?
Both are ways of exploring the curiosity I have about humanity, about life, about being human. Being a musician is much more a sensual experience. It’s also a very emotional, spiritual experience. Being a doctor is very intellectual, though most doctors I know have an interest in the humanities, because that’s what we are, we’re humanitarians—we’re interested in people. So being a musician helps me stay open and not be desensitized to things I should stay sensitive about, and being a doctor is what makes me write. The fact that I’m around people and their families and their lives—it inspires me every time I’m in the hospital.
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|