Ever So Lonely"The trouble was I wasn't representative of the larger Asian communities in the UK. I wasn't Punjabi, Gujerati, Bangladeshi, Muslim or Hindu... I wasn't even full blooded Asian – I have an English grandmother who never set eyes on England... Yet I was having to represent all these communities under the disapproving eye of the first generation who had emigrated who felt I was 'bastardising' their culture with fusion. They didn't see that our culture had to adapt to its context and exist as a living breathing tradition to survive."
Sheila Chandra talks with Chris Nickson about a magic moment in the 1980s when everything changed.
Over four decades, Sheila Chandra’s reputation as one of the most adventurous singers has grown and grown. An Anglo-Asian woman, she’s pushed deep into the singing style of different traditions and spent many years working with drones in her music. Her trio of solo albums for Peter Gabriel’s Real World album helped make her a global name, finding a good base for her relentless experimentalism and continuing beyond that.
But by that time she’d already forged a career, both as a solo artist and initially as the 17-year-old singer with Monsoon, who mixed Indian music traditional music with 1980s dance. The band’s first release, “Ever So Lonely,” was an astonishing leap between East and West and became a huge UK chart hit, a ground zero for much of what might follow in cross-cultural collaborations. Breaking up after one album, Monsoon’s legacy lives on in the song and the others on the LP. Now the Cherry Red Records label has reissued it, with some unreleased tracks, a radio sessions and remixes.
For a number of years, Sheila has suffered from Burning Mouth Syndrome, which makes talking painful and difficult, and singing impossible. She was kind enough to discuss Monsoon and its impact on music – and on her.
How did you feel when Cherry Red said they wanted to make a big reissue of Third Eye? Did it take you by surprise?
In fact, I approached Cherry Red myself in the spring of 2021 as I knew the 40th anniversary was coming up. I made the case for a reissue and they were immediately enthusiastic and got on board. At Cherry Red’s suggestion, I also made the initial approach to Universal who own the Monsoon album, to ask them to licence the tracks, as they felt an approach from the artist (or one of them) would be more personal and likely to succeed. It’s always good to have the artist on board with reissues as they can get the word out to their fan base and most labels recognise that, as well as it being a goodwill thing.
Cherry Red are excellent at handling these sorts of reissues and coming up with a really special package. I’m delighted with their approach to both the extras, the remastering and the expanded booklet for Third Eye. We managed to include some previously unseen behind-the-scenes session photos and there’s a new Q&A from me. I went up into the attic and located two tracks that never made it onto the album which I’d forgotten about. Universal were able to find the original tapes, so those make an appearance - as well as a Capital Radio session from March 1982 (also from the attic) which is the closest thing you’ll get to hearing Monsoon ‘live’ as we only ever played one gig in August 1982. So all in all, it’s got lots of new goodies.
Hearing “Ever So Lonely” again, it’s a reminder of just how groundbreaking the song and arrangement was in 1982. Did any of you have an inkling back then of its impact, or did you simply see it as a good song for the dancefloor and the charts?
I was acutely aware of how groundbreaking “Ever So Lonely” was at the time! For a start, synths were everywhere, with bands like Human League, OMD etc. And “Ever So Lonely” was (apart from the crash beat) a track made up of entirely acoustic sources. That was totally ‘out’ at the time, as was any kind of Indian influence. It was a hit five years before the term ‘World Music’ was invented and I know that it pointed the way to the fact that there might be a market for world music in the West.
The fact that there was no World Music chart or media ‘apartheid’ at that time also made the hit special. “Ever So Lonely” broke in the gay clubs first. It was so catchy a chorus and had such great cross rhythms that people took it to their hearts and it would pack dancefloors in any club with people of every heritage. In shops it was racked alongside every other pop single – no division. These days if a World Music album outsells Sheeran or Beyonce, you’d never find out about it, because its sales are counted via a separate chart. If it has the power to become music that’s ‘ours’ emotionally, rather than ‘othered’, again it’s not played on mainstream shows where the listening public gets the idea that it might be something that articulates their emotional experience just like other mainstream tracks.
There’s a special moment on the 12 inch of “Ever So Lonely.” As with any classic pop song, you’ve heard the verses and choruses build to the middle eight. And then of course we all know what happens next… The arrangement breaks down for the instrumental break. At this point you’ve been dancing to a sensuous catchy tabla rhythm being crossed by a familiar trendy crash beat, bass guitar, cabassa and a drone rhythm played on the sitar’s sympathetic strings. Even the vocal and piano top lines use a catchy cross rhythm. As a dancer, you know how to move to that wall of rhythm and you’re enjoying yourself. But then all those elements are withdrawn as the arrangement breaks out. And you find yourself dancing for virtually the whole instrumental break to just the tabla, sitar, jaws harp and a few bars later, Chinese gong. It’s a great little ‘bait and switch’ because suddenly, whoever you are, whatever your heritage, you’re dancing with all your friends to an Indian classical raga and loving it.
All in all, the single marked a special moment in time as far as the crossover of world sounds goes. One that couldn’t happen today in the same way.
Most Westerners who heard the song on the radio would have had no idea of the real raag roots. I imagine that would have been different for young Asians. Were you aware of how much you were representing them?
You’re right. Most people who remember the single are aware that it’s a quirky melody but they’re not sure why. It’s because the song is loosely based on the raga Johg – i.e. a pentatonic scale commonly used in British folk music too and which lends itself to the blues as well. And as it was a decade before chill out, audiences weren’t used to listening to drone-based music either.
I was 17 in 1982 – in fact I turned 17 a week before my Top Of The Pops appearance. I was also at the older end of the second generation. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but lots of influential Asian music biz people, such as Outcaste Records founder DJ Ritu, Asian Network’s Bobby Friction and Steve Chandra Savale of Asian Dub Foundation, have reached out to say how mind-blowing it was as children, to see a South Asian woman proudly wearing a sari and tilak on the show.
What you’ve got to remember is the previous decades saw openly racist coverage of the Asian communities by the mainstream media in Britain. We had the stupid Jamila from [the BBC TV program] Mind Your Language and Michael Bates in brownface in [another BBC program] It Ain’t Alf Hot Mum. We had documentary makers discussing the ‘problems of integration.’ There were never any people of colour in make up or washing powder adverts as there was a tacit assumption that people would associate a darker skin colour with dirt. Curry came in those Vesta brand boxes in the supermarket and contained raisins. There were no Asian journalists on mainstream news or mainstream TV shows. No Asian soap characters either. Saris were specifically banned from Stringfellows clubs. Asians were terminally ‘uncool’ ignored and misrepresented. And in those days few TV actors crossed from TV to music at all, let alone in any credible way. Kylie and Jason came five years later.
I was also aware that it was a huge responsibility. I absolutely had to get things right because I couldn’t let an opportunity for a positive image of Asians like that go to waste. I didn’t need to be told that, it was something we all grew up with as second-generation Asians. ‘Never give people a chance to criticise us’ was drummed into everyone of that generation.
The trouble was I wasn’t representative of the larger Asian communities in the UK. I wasn’t Punjabi, Gujerati, Bangladeshi, Muslim or Hindu. I didn’t speak Punjabi, Gujerati, Hindi or Urdu. I wasn’t even full blooded Asian – I have an English grandmother who never set eyes on England. I’m South Indian, I was a Christian, a meat eater and had never been to India. Yet I was having to represent all these communities under the disapproving eye of the first generation who had emigrated who felt I was ‘bastardising’ their culture with fusion. They didn’t see that our culture had to adapt to its context and exist as a living breathing tradition to survive.
So my appearance caused waves. Some people refused to believe I was Asian because ‘Asians don’t go on TOTP do they?’ But the deliberately cultivated racist mainstream image of Asians as uncool, and a problem, with nothing to contribute was over. “Ever So Lonely” broke that completely in one fell swoop and set the stage for fairer mainstream representation over the next decade. A song that got under everyone’s skin was a serious challenge to how the white British community saw us. That representation isn’t perfect these days, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was in 1982.
It’s an album that has a very strong psychedelic and electric side, as well as the Asian. Were there originally plans to delve further into the fusion of cultures before the label wanted you to be more commercial?
Well, our founder member Steve Coe – who wrote all the first Monsoon material after he fell in love with Hindi film music from the golden era of the early 60s, which his Asian neighbours were playing – grew up listening to the Beatles experiments in India. And music technology had just taken a huge leap forward. It was the era of accessible synths and early computer mixes. That also influenced Monsoon, because for the first time, you could beef up the bass end of the tabla sound – the baya – to compete with western drums. And sitar no longer sounded tinny and twangy as it did in the late 60s. The full nuance and roundness of the sound was something you could finally capture on tape properly. Martin Smith who co-wrote much of the later material for the album was a multi-instrumentalist which gave us yet more to play with. So we didn’t shy away from the possibilities that the electric side of things gave us. We wanted to use them all.
We were all discovering other Indian musical traditions as well. Indian folk from various regions as well as the South Indian rhythm and dance traditions. We felt like kids in a sweet shop as virtually no one had broken that ground. But Phonogram saw the Indian influence as more of a ‘costume’ – as cultural appropriators usually do. It wasn’t entirely their fault. That was the prevailing attitude in audiences of the time and as a commercial concern, they were simply responding to it. And having ‘done’ Indian stuff, they wanted us to ‘take it off’.
With the end of Monsoon, your solo career began, with you and Steve as partner. Quite literally, you began to find your own voice. How rapidly do you feel your musical creative side developed from the start of Monsoon? The series of albums on Indipop were all astonishing leaps forward.
I think my development begins with Monsoon because we were using very expensive high -tech studios and I began to learn about the recording process and what was possible in the studio. But the leap forward for me with finding my own voice, was when I became when I made my debut as a writer on Quiet, my second solo album, which was an album of 10 lyric-less soundscapes using voice as an instrument. The reason for making those four albums in just two years – when I was between the ages of 18 and 20 - so intensively was because the whole point was to move my musical evolution forward as quickly as possible. I didn't want to go out and play live and play the same songs over and over every night for months on end. The whole point of being in the studio with four albums in two years was to push the envelope of what I could write and what I could sing. So those four albums are rather experimental in some ways rather rushed but they did enable me to make huge strides as a writer and singer and in the evolution of my own style.
What made you choose to work with Real World for the next three releases? You hinted that there might be something special coming to look back on those – can you say anything more about that?
Real World struck me as ideal because they had a terrific reputation in terms of recording standards and also the quality of artists that they chose to be on the label. I'd been away on a sabbatical for five years after making my first four solo albums and a quick early 90s one. The whole music business landscape had changed because the world music genre had been invented - together with all its attendant specialist press and radio programmes - and I felt that it would be good to access the audience that the Real World label had cultivated. They had a reputation for being artist-friendly and as I was going to tie the next record into my live material, which was solo voice and pretty austere, I felt that they would be the ones to understand and not interfere with the artistic direction I was going in -which they didn't. I also knew we were a good match because I looked at their roster at that time and there were an awful lot of African artists and an awful lot of male artists and I thought ‘What you need is an Asian woman!’ At that time they didn't have any artists that were local to them. They tended to grab artists had been touring from various countries with Womad and record them when they were nicely warmed up at the end of a live season and then put the record out the next year when the artist was back in their country of origin and wasn't around to promote it. So I felt it would be useful to reverse the process and make the record first, using their studios to mix, and then back it up with live performances and be on hand to promote the record I made with them when it came out. There is something special coming in the middle of 2023 - Real World are looking to reissue the trilogy for the first time on vinyl so look out for that.
Your work gradually became more drone-based, for the rest of your solo recording career. What brought you to those?
The solo voice and drone stuff came out of the fact that I wanted to play live for the very first time as a solo artist, Monsoon had only ever given one gig and done one radio session for capital radio in March of 1982. so it was completely unexplored territory for me as I explained I'd use the studio to push the boundaries of the Asian fusion genre. there was no one to learn from at that time it was ground that you had to break yourself and the studio was the most efficient way of doing that. but by the early 90s I felt that I wanted to play live and I didn't know anything about stage presence or stagecraft and I didn't really want to get bogged down in the practicalities of taking a band on tour with me.
So I decided that the best way to learn would be to have nothing to hide behind and go onstage completely alone. But this left let me left me with a problem because, for instance, I knew people would want me to sing a version of Monsoon's 1982 hit “Ever So Lonely.” The original recording had 48 tracks on the recording and I wasn't going to go onstage with lots of instruments on tape as I felt that would be very disappointing. Moreover, I'd been experimenting with layering up various kinds of vocal from various vocal traditions and I couldn't go onstage with another dozen of myself so I was going to have to find a way of moving between all those vocal traditions within a single melodic line and that became the technical challenge of Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices.
It’s fairly well known that Burning Mouth Syndrome makes it almost impossible for you speak these days, never mind sing. However, you developed another career as an author. Would you like to mention your books?
Burning Mouth Syndrome made it impossible to sing or even warm up properly from about 2010/2011 onwards so I decided to become a non-fiction author, which I know sounds like an unlikely choice, but I love being useful and I'd already given workshops with Womad and informally mentored other artists in the area and intensively mentored the street artist Stik. Teaching, coaching, and mentoring come naturally to me. My first book was quite mainstream in that was about home organising. Friends had noticed that I had my own system that meant even if they dropped round unexpectedly the house was always completely tidy and when I explained that I didn't have tidy up sessions they asked me what that system was. I wrote it down and it became "Banish Clutter Forever" which was released on Vermilion. My second book was "Organising Your Creative Career" on Watkins and a second revised edition came out in 2020. it covers all the artist infrastructure you'll likely need to need for your career from organising your studio, through to contracts, assembling a team, social media and right down to disposing of your copyrights and your legacy. I was very aware that I was lucky enough to be able to learn from more experienced people when I started at 14 and that not everyone has access to the right network in order to learn the work culture of the arts so I wanted to pass that knowledge on. I also do that by coaching artists via video link all over the world.
All audio courtesy of Sheila Chandra, Indiepop and Cherry Red