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In Conversations – Heart to Heart with Shilpa Ananth

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Photo by Matthew Muise

I first met Shilpa Ananth when she was at Berkelee School of Music and where she was performing as part of the Berklee Indian Ensemble. An ensemble was founded in 2011 by the amazing Annette Philip where the mission reads “The Indian Ensemble is more than just a class at Berklee College of Music. It’s home.”

Shilpa is the Sanskrit for “work of art”. There was something about Shilpa that shined through on stage; not just her soulful voice in songs, but her grace and resilience within. I’m very excited for her new EP “Indian Soul” and looking forward to see her at Blue Note. A quote from Rabindranath Tagore makes me think of Shilpa- “Reach high, for stars lie hidden in you. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.”

What is your musical background? Do you have a musical family or did you just fall into songwriting all on your own?

My childhood was about Indian music, dance and culture. About conforming to the mold that every Indian girl is made to go through, by the high expectations of society, grandparents, and of course parents.

Whether it be going to classical music lessons and trying to belt high ‘aalaps’ at the age of 3, singing religious ‘bhajans’ at the Spiritual Community Center, or being able to cook the core dishes of South Indian cooking by age 9, I had done it all. At least I thought I did.

By the time I turned 13, and was made aware of music outside my world by my older brother, I realized that I had fallen in love, with a different world of music! One that was simple, yet challenging, lyrical and passionate, and all I wanted was to sing my heart out- in English- to the bemusement of those around me.

Slowly I began singing in school choirs, musicals, competitions and every time I won a prize, I dreamed how wonderful it would be if I could just sing for a living, and sing until I could no more.

Getting into music school was not easy, I had to carefully orchestrate my plan like a seasoned conductor, and get myself a degree in a field that was deemed “valid” by my society first. I also wanted to test my seriousness and maturity in my dream career, so I decided to study Media, Communications and Psychology and within 3 years after high school, got my degree.
Within this time, I grew as a person and musician, competing in all Singing competitions at college, National and State level, while also managing the school choir and girls a capella team, “Number 332”.

My parents don’t sing, but they are very interested in Indian classical music and dance, and were born and raised into the same traditions I had to follow. They sent me to study Indian music as a little girl, but did not have any idea that I was talented until I was a teenager and started bringing home prizes from school competitions. In Indian music be it traditional or contemporary, most of the female vocals are always high soprano and these voices are considered the best or supremely gifted. Now, because my voice is a low alto, it was very confusing for my family to accept that I was a “good” singer since I did not want to sing anything that was out of my range, or belt out some uncomfortable high-pitched melodies just to impress relatives or house guests. It took a long time for all of us to come to terms with the fact that a low tone is just as beautiful as a high one, and western musicians – particularly Lalah Hathaway and Norah Jones – saved me by helping me see that not every song has to sound like a canary about to burst, or a chipmunk at it’s best, to be considered as a good/talented singer.

After graduating from Berklee School of Music, what sorts of things have you done to improve your songwriting since then?

I moved to New York City, and this is not an easy city to just break into. You have to pay your dues, you have to slum through, be placed in tough situations and learn to fight the demons- most of the time you are fighting yourself and your own self destructive thoughts or negativity – but only then can you see whether what you want is truly worth it, or would you rather give up and go home, and just take the painless route out. Being an artist is not a piece of cake, it is a constant struggle to remain relevant, to feel supported, and to find some stability in life.

There have been moments where I didn’t think this path could be for me, where I was so down I didn’t want to do anything, face anyone. I felt no energy, no life, and I knew I had to write, had to create something outside of me, so I could take the pressure of the inner me. This is how three of the five songs on this EP were born. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when I first moved to New York, everything is crazy and upside down, I loved it and I feared it, but I didn’t know where home was, or how to find it, and the more I let myself be drowned, the more lost I got, until I decided it was time to find my voice.

SA LOGOCan you talk a little bit more about this EP?

The EP is called “Indian Soul” and my band is called SA. This is because in the Indian Music Scale, ‘Sa’ is the first and last note without which there is no beginning or end to music, it is the very origin which is what the other notes are based on, without which music would cease to exist. Similar to the ‘Do’ in Western Music. You can hear the new song Pogathe(Don’t Leave) here.

With SA, I hope to combine flavors from the East and the West, keeping true to my Indian roots, with influences of Jazz, R&B, and Hip Hop to try and create a bridge between both cultures and worlds. The tracks on this record are all symbolic of this new flavor of music, including the infusion of three different Indian languages with English, so that the listener is never lost even if they might not understand the exact words or their meaning. The songs reflect my fear and curiosity of shadows and mirrors, some issues I have had to deal with being a musician in this present music industry, and most importantly my addressing my conflict with my identity – who am I? – trying to find my true voice, destiny, and purpose in this world.

What do you carry closely from your motherland? What’s your motto you live by?

I have these turquoise earrings that I wear everyday, I believe they bring me good luck. I love the colour, and it was a gift from my parents before I left home. The slight weight of these long, swinging earrings, somehow help me stay rooted, it reminds me of memories and moments – of who I was before I came to America, and what I wanted to create for the future. It is a gift that helps me see how far I have come, and to stay focused without giving in to present distractions and frustrations.

A personal motto I live by is something my dad used to say to me as a child. Whenever I did something I was not supposed to do – which was most of the time – he would say “Don’t be afraid to own up to what you have decided to do. If you have the courage to make a choice, then be brave enough to stand up and see it through. Believe that it wasn’t a mistake, even if it might be perceived that way by someone else”

My all time favorite quote that has always had a place close to my heart and spirit is by Friedrich Nietzsche- “… and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”


SA “Indian Soul” EP Release Show at Blue Note Jazz Club

SA Band Members

SA Band Members

Feburary 13, 2015 at 11:30pm-2:00am
Blue Note, 131 W 3rd Street, New York, NY 10012
Vocals- Shilpa Ananth
Guitar – Shubh Saran
Keys – Christian Li
Bass – Max McKellar
Drums – Sebastian Chiriboga
Percussion – Ryan Fedak
Alto Sax – Syl DuBenion
Soprano Sax – Brian Plautz
Background Vocals:
Aleksandra Denda
Irma Seleman 



4 thoughts on “In Conversations – Heart to Heart with Shilpa Ananth”

  1. Claire Shepherd says:

    This is a lovely interview which gives an insight into the motivation behind the work and image of Silpa. I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Erin X. Smithers says:

      Thank you so much, Clairie, for visiting and writing. We will make sure to share some photos after Shilpa’s gig at the Blue Note!

  2. matthew muise says:

    Dear Erin,
    Thank you for your gorgeous interview, and thank you to Shilpa for your gift of music and courage which you so freely share!!!

    1. Erin X. Smithers says:

      That picture of Shilpa is gorgeous, Matthew, thank you for writing.

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