JBL emerging interview: ganavya on her new album, like the sky, i've been too quiet

South-Asian vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and composer ganavya has been hailed as “among modern music's most compelling vocalists” by The Wall Street Journal, making a name for herself as an in-demand artist who consistently confounds expectations. Tamil Nadu-raised and New York-born, hers is a deeply profound and – for mainstream music fans at least – a unique, ethereal voice. In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, Ganavya reflects on her spiritual upbringing and how embracing practices instilled in her as a child inspired her new album, like the sky, i've been too quiet.

“Among many of us in the diaspora, there's this urge that we have to show how unique we are,” ganavya acknowledges dreamily from her home in Irvine, California. A deep thinking, spiritual wordsmith to her core, every sentence uttered sounds as if plucked from the most exquisite poetry. In her soothing, almost whispered tones, each word is weaved into an irresistible and elaborate storyteller's tapestry. 

“My life is a little split right now,” she shares. “This past year has been one of living in between places. My roots have been in a cup of water instead of soil.”

Back to her mesmerising, unique vocal prowess: ganavya’s voice conveys a myriad of emotions, hypnotically and seemingly effortlessly traversing ethereal highs to resonant lows. 

“Children of the diaspora have been taught that we have to be a certain amount of ‘unique’ to survive or stand out in this world,” she explains of her nomadic upbringing, (having moved between New York, Florida and Southern India). “We have to be special. In one way, my path is unique, and in another way, it's the same that hundreds of people have walked,” she contemplates.

Born into a family deeply rooted in the Carnatic tradition of South Indian classical music – “I do struggle with the word ‘classical’; anything that has the word ‘class’ in it is telling you there's some kind of problem” – ganavya's musical journey began at a young age. Immersed in the rich melodic and rhythmic tapestry of Carnatic music, as a young girl she honed her skills under the guidance of eminent gurus, mastering vocal techniques and intricate compositions.

“I trained in Carnatic music,” she nods, using the background noise in her apartment during the interview as an example: “I can hear two separate planes that are running; there's one car, there's a fridge motor and a small fan that I can hear from one story below. The bathroom on the left side also has a small fan, and even though I don't have perfect pitch, all the notes are forming a song in my head. The ability to relate very quickly to the intervals is something that Carnatic music and that my mother and my grandmothers have taught me. 

"In the same way, every single time I hear a note, I hear it in my heart all the time, incessantly, and that is because of Carnatic music. I hesitate to use the word ‘virtuosity’ – because it feels a little bit like peacocking – I'm not really interested in having to prove some kind of technical mastery to earn someone's respect. I just mean in the simplest form: you're a kid, you wake up every morning and you go to class. It's just a muscle that's practised.”

Children of the diaspora have been taught that we have to be a certain amount of ‘unique’ to survive or stand out in this world.

ganavya may be reluctant to use the word unique to describe her sound or experiences, but compared to the majority of people born in New York, her childhood could not have been more different. She explains that she spent much of her youth on the pilgrimage trail in Southern India, learning the storytelling art form of harikathā and singing poetry that critiques hierarchical social structures.

“The sampradaya is a pilgrimage tradition where you walk for days at a time towards the temple, and you would sing,” she reflects. “You weren't singing to people who had paid for a ticket to come and listen to you, you were singing with many people underneath the sky as you were walking amongst dust and tumbleweeds in the heat. You were singing, not necessarily to impress anyone, but because honestly, if you weren't singing, it was really hard to walk. It sounds folk-like to people listening.”

Trained as an improviser, scholar, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist, ganavya maintains an inner library of spiritual blueprints offered to her by an intergenerational constellation of collaborators, continuously anchoring her practice in pasts, presents and futures. However despite her musical prowess and having spent days at a time singing as a child, she shares that she actually wanted to be a dancer; a dream which came to a sudden halt after injuring herself through over-practice.

“I was told my name means, ‘One who was born to spread music,' and there really has been no life outside of this as a possibility,” she muses pensively. “I'm only reckoning now, nearly a decade later, how much I'm still reeling from the suddenness that my way of being in the world as a dancer has ended. Maybe that was a saving grace,” she suggests. “I was so self critical and was really harsh on myself as a dancer.”

My way of rebelling against my family was to say: I'm not going to do music or dance, I'm going to do science.

Unable to see a way forward in the dance world and feeling lost, ganavya returned to the US. “I couldn't bear the grief,” she says. “I didn't know how to be with myself. Most of my family are artists, and my way of rebelling against my family was to say, ‘Well, I'm not going to do music or dance, I'm going to do science or something’,” she grins, acknowledging how unusual this sounds. 

“Singing is what I did in the quietness of home. I was a very petulant teenager, and sometimes still am,” she laughs. “I said, ‘I understand how fickle this life of performance can be. In one day, everything can be taken away from you in one single injury; I need to do something else’. And I did. I needed to step away.”

That something else was education. Despite not being schooled traditionally as a child, ganavya (quietly) boasts degrees in theatre from Broward Community College, psychology from F.I.U., and graduate degrees in Contemporary Performance from Berklee College of Music, ethnomusicology from UCLA, and Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry from Harvard.

“I kept falling back into music though,” she says, not dwelling on her educational achievements for a second. “I feel like gravity and grace combined just pulled me into a world.”

Today, ganavya has released two albums, the first one which she describes as being an uncomfortable process. “It was very difficult and left me feeling raw and estranged to my own voice,” she says.

Promising to herself that she would only return to music when she felt truly ready, ganavya shares that she will soon be releasing her new album, like the sky, i've been too quiet. “The album name comes from acknowledging that I have been quiet, and now I'm no longer quiet. I am stepping forward and things are moving quickly.” The idea to work on new music again stemmed from an experience that left ganavya questioning the things humans are pressured to prioritise.

“I was a finalist for a fellowship at a prestigious university and on the day of my interview, I couldn't breathe properly. I tested positive for covid,” she explains. “I asked them if I could postpone and they said no. So I interviewed, struggling to breathe, and was left feeling so sad. I was like, ‘Something has gone wrong. Something has been broken that this is where we've arrived. There's a small child in me, who I'm holding, and she was sad’. I remember sitting in New York feeling a great sadness.”

I was told my name means, One who was born to spread music, and there really has been no life outside of this as a possibility.

A musician friend of hers rallied around with what ganavya insists was the world’s most disgusting soup. “It was the worst thing I've ever drank in my life! But I drank it and within a day I felt better.” Feeling more positive, they got to talking with a mutual friend and floated the idea of making an album. A few days later, ganavya booked a flight to London and started making her new record, although the process was somewhat unconventional.

“I sang for three days, nearly nonstop. On the third day my friend was like, ‘Now we're going to walk to the underpass near my house in silence’. He had a recorder out and I just sang in the rain, and he said he would find the snippets. Effectively, he, in the kindest of ways, basically said, ‘I know that you're hurting in many different ways because you have questions about the world and the industry, but making some music together is one thing I can do’. He produced the album, and that's how it came to be.

“The first track on this album happened after hours of singing together. You hear me kind of cracking open,” she points out. “I'm not trying to control anything; I am trying to let go.”

The album’s lead single, forgive me my was inspired by ganavya’s time spent living in a chapel nestled in the mountains – “and it's as idyllic as it sounds,” she brightens. “My friend left her bass with me and I started playing bass like a child – I don't proclaim to know what I'm doing, it just gives me strength to keep walking. I started thinking about my life. For instance, I'm queer, and it makes it hard to go back to certain places at home and the same people who raised you. I didn't realise how much I was missing the familiar response. I would put out a call and I got many responses in my current life, but there's a very specific groove to the old songs that I was used to singing. 

"When she left her bass with me, however crudely, for the first time in 10 years, I was able to give those responses back to myself. It truly felt like a circuit being plugged back in. It felt like my light was turning back on after slowly dimming over the years. It made me think about the things that I used to do when I was a child that I'm not doing anymore. I'd become so dim that I wasn't fully present. It always felt like some part of me was clocked out, and I didn't understand why. I think it was grief.”

What ganavya was grieving was a long forgotten simpler way of life, surrounded by family. “One of the things that became apparent to me is that I grew up singing poetry. I grew up singing with a lot of people, the house was always full of people, full of arguments, full of food, full of love, full of laughter, full of crying. I grew up in a world where people were everywhere, and suddenly I was looking around, and they weren't.”

It felt like my light was turning back on after slowly dimming.

Searching for a connection, ganavya turned to an unlikely source: social media. “I was in this chapel looking at this strange thing that is social media and decided that I could ask people who followed me if there was a song or a poem that I could sing back to them, because I used to sing in languages not really spoken anymore. And in that way, I started learning, truly, without exaggeration, hundreds of poems, and I kept singing them back to people. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was practising for six to seven hours a day again, which is something I used to do when I was a child.”

forgive me my took shape when someone sent ganavya some poignant words about a loved one who had passed away. “I heard it as a sigh,” she says, “He said, ‘Forgive me my forgetfulness, no one can forget gentleness’. It stuck with me, and when we were in this three day session I found myself – from a place of grief and joy – just suddenly sighing out the same song that I had been singing the past three years, repeating that line, ‘Forgive me my forgetfulness, no one can forget gentleness’.”

On her creative process in her home studio, ganavya admits that she has been hesitant to invest in technology in the past, but shares that she’s recently invested in an AKG P220 vocal condenser mic, K240 MKII headphones and a pair of JBL 305P MKII compact powered studio monitors.

“I come from a family and maybe even culture, I think that's fair to say, that is very sceptical of 'the material',” she acknowledges. “They're always pushing us to not think of life in terms of material things or money, but what ends up happening is that you become very hesitant to spend money on things like studio monitors. It's taken me a fair amount of time to realise that anything that helps us do our jobs better, makes our path of service easier. For years I hesitated to buy monitors, and now that I have them, my ability to do my job is so much better.”

She suddenly thinks of an analogy to better explain: “When I was a graduate student at Harvard, for the first two years I rented the world's cheapest apartment. It was also the world's ricketiest apartment, with 49 holes in the wall. I fixed the walls and was constantly updating the bathroom. My partner at the time very gently looked at me one day and said, ‘What would your life look like if you just rented a functional apartment instead of trying to save money to fix this non functional entity?’ Well, my relationship to these studio monitors is that if I had just bought good monitors instead of all smaller solutions over the years, I would feel the ease that I feel now. 

"Having good equipment is part of the job and they’re a pleasure to have on my desk. I've often depended on studios, but there's nothing quite like being able to get up in the middle of the night and do work in your own home, and that has been deeply helpful and transformative.”

Finding a microphone is a little bit like, the wand chooses you.

ganavya’s AKG mic is particularly well suited for her nuanced and dynamic vocals. “I think that finding a microphone is a little bit like, the wand chooses you,” she grins – Headliner did not have her down as a Potterhead. 

“AKG has been something that I can use across the board. My voice seems to have very specific profiles. I have a very thin, whispery voice that I sometimes sing from, then the volume can get quite high and there's a lower register. There's certain mics that work really well for any one of those aspects and AKG mics can catch all of it, which makes my job easier.”

On her professional over-ear, semi-open headphones, ganavya shares that she has benefitted from their ability to deliver a wide dynamic range, increased sensitivity and ability to withstand countless hours in the studio. On why she likes them, she blends the practical with the philosophical:

“I think the most exhausting thing about being in a studio is this impossible ask,” she muses. “On days where I'm really cranky, it feels like almost an unholy ask – to create something. If what I'm wearing and all the contraptions are on me like a tight shirt instead of like a loose dress, I'm more aware of the fact that I'm doing something that can live much longer than me – and that's very uncomfortable. 

"The second you go into the studio, you feel the gaze of something watching you enter a state of ease and gentleness and to be in the moment, so everything that we're working with should sound as close to mundane life as possible. My favourite thing about this particular set of headphones is that they’re so light, they sit on my head and I forget that they’re on, instead of something that's very bulky or tight on your ears. These headphones are like the loose dress that I'm wearing right now,” she smiles.

like the sky, i've been too quiet will be released March 15 2024.

Image credits: Ricky Weaver