Sandunes On 'Downstream', Industry Pressures & The Need For More Women In Music
13 October 2016
Sanaya Ardeshir’s got the kind of rare self-awareness, reflexivity and casual (borderline oblivious) verity that makes interviewing her particularly enjoyable. As one of the few artists, and certainly one of the thimbleful of women producers who has successfully managed to navigate the independent music space; she managed to make a living without compromising on her own sound and image.
Her training as a pianist led her subsequent electronic production under the Sandunes name to be (unsurprisingly) punctuated with heavy synth work and lots of melody, which initially took inspiration from UK garage after a stint in the UK. Her latest album ‘Downstream’ moves away from the more emphatic melody driven work to something more adventurous, playful and improvisational with its vibrant bursts of melody and percussion. It might be her best work so far – audacious, effervescent and all the while, completely unaffected.
I call Ardeshir and congratulate her on the album (a nicety that she says she’s never understood) and we go on to talking about the processes behind Downstream, the pressure to cater to dancefloor, her position as one of the few female producers in India and more.
“It really was something that superseded my expectations….”
Our conversation took place soon after her album launch, which kicked things off with a kind of RBMA style lecture with frequent collaborator Jivraj Singh. “It really was something that superseded my expectations. In fact it just came together over a couple of conversations about wanting to do something – whatever that something was - to drive traffic to the link when I got it up. A few spaces had offered to hold different workshops and performances, and then it got fleshed out, not just as a Facebook live thing, but actually like a full event."
The performance at G5A was preceded by a conversational workshop about production and then a sort of demo by Ardeshir about constructing live sets – “We had a really amazing turnout, and I think at lease 50-70% of the people who came were actual music makers and producers, and for me that was amazing, because there was a core community of people who were either into the music or into the philosophy of live music (or whatever you want to call it). It was indicative because I think there’s an interest towards bridging the worlds of live music and electronic music.”
The Facebook live link got a fair bit of traction (it’s still up if you want to watch it here) but what interested me was Jiver’s approach to the live visuals – “We were really calling an ‘anti-visual’ show in the sense that it was a narrative (but nothing too abstract at all). It’s hard for me to describe…you know that term in movies - ‘suspension of disbelief’? He wanted to create something in which there was not a moment of suspension of disbelief. Rohan Ramanna put it in a really great way yesterday; something about how every now and then he was gently reminded that he was not immersed in the world that he thought he was in….”
"I really just wanted to clean up the energy around that and not succumb to the tedium or the work and effort aspects of the process."
I tell Sanaya that the album, for me, was the most effortlessly cohesive so far and very organic - “It was exactly that actually. The process was very organic and what I mean by that is that I definitely tried to go back to the feeling of playing in a band. I would enact all the different players of that ensemble in my head. Technology is limitless these days and as a creator you have so much freedom to infinitely think, so I wanted to come at it with a more traditional approach, I guess.
In an attempt to become the one band she aspires to be, Sanaya told us after the release of ‘Crystal Pink’ that she’s even started to learn the drums (likely another impact of her work with Perfectiming). The need to feel like she was in a more traditional space of live performance was imperative “It didn’t necessarily have sound like a live band – it was more about the feeling of being a part of it. The word that always precedes music is “play”, you know? You play music. And I think over the years it just started to become work. A lot of musicians resonate with that – how you have to drag yourself into the studio to finish something, and your ears are fatigued and your spirit is fatigued, firstly because of the pressure also the weight of judgement that’s come into any creative process. I really just wanted to clean up the energy around that and not succumb to the tedium or the work and effort aspects of the process. So I played and I recorded it first without judging it or falling into that trap of self doubt and lack of worthiness. And I think what unfolded was a very bold sound because of decisions I have not allowed myself to make in the past.
“I’ve really struggled with it and let it become a big bane of my existence in the past, because its demoralising…”
With pressures from venues and performances wanting ‘banging’ performances where they go, it’s becoming harder and harder to make music that doesn’t cater to a club. The pressure from the fact that Sanaya will have to make a living as a musician is real (this isn’t just a side job, and that means the majority of her income is in live performances). And that can compromise sound and integrity of her work.
She tells us about finding a balance – “I made a conscious attempt to construct the music in a way in which I’d be able to translate it live. I1844765's tough to not give a shit about getting gigs at clubs and playing to people’s expectations. I’ve really struggled with it and let it become a big bane of my existence in the past, because i1844957's demoralising when your sets are not “banging” enough (or whatever the word people use these days). For me, there are so many layers involved in enjoying a live set, and I never understand why it’s not “banging” enough. But I try to focus on what I would care about in a performance. I was very influenced with the whole journey I had last year with Perfectiming in that sense, it taught me that it’s OK if the tempo is down and its ok if the bass is not destroying or “killing”…the audience can engage anyway, not just through tempo or volume or whatever…
“…the process called for singularity…”
What was strange about the ‘Downstream’ LP was that this was probably the first release she’s had with such few (well, zero) collaborations, especially after a year of shared work in ‘Sybounce’ and with Perfectiming: “Ya I mean, this is totally non collaborative. Even at the mix stage I held back from reaching out to anyone. I think that the process called for singularity and I think that’s maybe a result of the fact that Perfectiming was very shared.”
About Perfectiming – “We’re tied up in our own work these days – Jivraj with Parekh and Singh and the hotel and all his other work. We consciously decided to give it a bit of time, but recently we’ve been able to reconnect with certain ideas we’re excited about. So hopefully we should have another EP out at the beginning of next year.
“I think the longer I’ve been around the more seriously I get taken. Which feels good because, I’m being undermined less and less especially on a technical level which used to happen all the time…”
How this question doesn’t come up more is a mystery to me but the pressures of being a woman in the Indian music industry can’t be ignored. The fact that we can count all even our semi-successful female producers on one hand should be considered ridiculous.
So I ask Sanaya about it - whether it makes the way she approaches things different from her male counterparts and about the pressures (if any) she faces as a woman “I think the longer I’ve been around the more seriously I get taken. Which feels good because, I’m being undermined less and less especially on a technical level which used to happen all the time – it was really harrowing because when you’re not at a level when you’re self assured then you will begin to question yourself when somebody says ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing’? It’s complex – it’s really tough. But I try not to talk about it too much and just kind of activate projects around it, and it’s nice to see that women are definitely encouraging each other these days. I will only change with time”
The pressure, Sanaya tells us, hasn’t taken a negative toll on her as much as pushed her towards actually doing something to bring about change – “The pressure is actually just becoming aware of a feeling of responsibility. Its very jarring to me that there just aren’t enough women doing music, and I was kind of oblivious it before because I had never been in a circumstance where I was operating with peers of my own gender. And I had the opportunity to do that as late as 2014 where the majority of people that I was working with at a particular residency in the US were women, suddenly hit me like, holy hell, everyone here is female! I realised how ridiculous it was that I’d never been in that circumstance before…because genuinely the energy changes – I don’t think it’s a result of like, female energy and all of that – I think its positive to collaborate with peers of the same gender, who then became role models. So what I still hold is that there need to be more role models of our gender, there needs to be representation.
“Recently I was trying to get off a lineup because I thought that what I was booked for wasn’t a good fit. But the thought that creeped into my head was fuck, but I’m the only girl on this whole lineup. So I should do it. There’s a sense of – sometimes I don’t know how I feel about it – responsibility. “
We end our conversation with a little bit about what Sanaya wants to do for the rest of the year: “I’m looking forward to taking a break after the tour because I’m definitely on my last leg before getting burnt out. But I trying to take this live performance version of ‘Downsteam’ to a new level. And I need to find the right venues so people engage. I am definitely more inclined to grow a little bit out of the state of focussing on just music - the potential of building a bigger world of which music is only one part, is very exciting.
“I think I’m in a bolder place now, and for the rest of the year, I just want to nail it."
Interviewed by Diya Gupta
Image credit (all): Farah Gherda