Interview: Ranjana Ghatak

‘A lot of systems are breaking down now. So much isn’t working. I think it’s that experience of really getting in touch with your own internal voice and truth of what’s right - that’s definitely something that I am going through.’

  • By Olly Wareham
  • 25 Sep 2020
  • min read

Ranjana Ghatak, born and raised in London but now living in California, is a trained Indian classical vocalist, composer and teacher. Her fascination with the voice began after seeing Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty perform at London’s Southbank Centre, leading her to study music at university and subsequently travel to India to embark on her formal training.

Today sees the release of Ranjana Ghatak’s debut solo album, The Butterfly Effect, which was supported through the PRS Foundation Open Fund. Inspired by a period of transition, the record encapsulates the wide breadth of experience and influence in the life of the artist, from the jazz clubs of London to training with Ajoyji in Kolkata, India.

The Butterfly Effect was produced by Liran Donin (member of the Mercury nominated band Led Bib) and Jack Ross (long-time member of Anna Meredith’s band, session player and musical workshop leader) over several years, culminating in an intense three days of recording at the iconic Monnow Valley Studios in Rockfield, Wales.

Listening to the album, and as Ranjana Ghatak attests, it’s clear that the three artists work exceptionally well together, each bringing a unique set of expertise to the process and together moulding the tracks to suit the overarching themes of transition, loss and new beginnings.

Ahead of the album’s release, we spoke with Ranjana Ghatak to explore the record and the inspiration behind it. We discovered how so much of her life is immortalised within it and how the themes of the album have taken on a new resonance with the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis.

Congratulations on the new album! You received the PRS Foundation Open Fund grant for this album. How did that affect your plans for the project and how did it impact the way you went about creating it?

I’d never received a grant for anything before, so it was a real confidence boost and it gave me more focus. I knew that it was definitely happening, it gave me a timeline and through the application process it helped me get really clear on what it was that I wanted to do. That’s a really powerful process to go through.

I had worked as an advisor for other grants for the PRS before, so that was interesting to be on the other side and to really think about what it was that I was doing, who it was for and what the intention behind it was. So once the grant was given to me, it just felt like the gates had opened and that the flow started much more in terms of the creative experience.

'We’re all going through a collective grief, unfortunately. I really think that life is not the same and there’s so many things that we can’t do. I’d like to think that some positive change can come through what everyone is going through.'

So you found that having to blueprint the whole project gave you a better sense of what it was about, as well as the people who were administrating the application?

Yes, definitely. It was something that I had started to work on with Liran (Donin) and I knew I was going to be doing it anyway. Somehow I was going to find the funds to do it. I think that writing process was very powerful and important for me, to zone in on what I was doing and what were my strengths, what were the areas that needed work, those kinds of things.

As someone who’s been successful in their funding application, what advice would you give to someone who’s currently writing their application?

That’s a good question. I would say focus on what the strength of the project is and don’t try to tick every box. Of course, look at what the requirements are, but at the same time focus in one what your strengths are in the project. Go from that place onwards.

With a grant application process, you can suddenly start to contort yourself to meet the demands of whoever you’re applying to and you lose yourself in that process.

The album has a clearly disparate array of influences interacting with the classical Indian singing that you’re known for – from rock to jazz and many things in between. How did you arrive at the decision that this is how you wanted it to sound? It sounds like you listen to music widely.

My roots and experience as a child were more in Indian classical music and still are, but then through school and college I studied music, so that opened me up to listening to other types of music. Then, for about four years prior to the album process, I was really immersed in the jazz music scene in London, working with other musicians. I also worked with a musician called Jesse Bannister who produced my first EP, called Awakening. He’s a jazz musician and he has taught Indian classical music for western instruments. He taught that for several years at the Leeds College of Music. So, working with him was interesting because he had a very particular approach to bringing these two styles together. For that EP, it was more song based and it was arranged for drums, bass and piano. So that was my initial experience of working with other styles, but it also felt very natural - having been born and raised in London and being very much a regular concert goer, listening to music of different styles.

Liran, who produced this album, was playing in that quartet. He has a lot of experience in jazz and in other styles. We started experimenting regularly, trying out different ideas just to see what seemed to fit naturally.

It took me a moment to decide what it was that I wanted to say and what was the inspiration behind it. I was personally going through a lot of change; I was letting go of a lot of people. I was starting to come out to California, just to see what the scene was like in terms of work. I didn’t think that I’d live here. I’d initially come out here travelling. I started to recentre my location. All of that brought up a lot internally for me. That then informed the music.

The entire album was recorded in three days. How did you find that?

Yeah, it was really intense! We were in Monnow Valley Studios. When you book it, you have it first thing in the morning on the first day till midnight on the final night. So, some of it was recorded late at night. We were thinking some of it could be recorded later, but we also had to watch my voice and not overdo it. There were some parts where Jack and Liran were working on arrangements and I would have a moment to rest.

How much of an influence did Jack and Liran have on the album? It sounds like they were pretty fundamental.

Yeah, definitely. I think they had a really strong part in the overall sound. I think it felt like an equal contribution in terms of the overall sound. It felt like a good chemistry. Jack had worked with Liran before and I’d worked with Liran for a few years, so there was an ease of communication. I felt like I didn’t have to say too much about what kind of sound I was going for. It’s a weird one, at the beginning of the process I didn’t know what the sound was going to be like by the end of it, so you can’t always be defined in saying what you want. Once you start trying out ideas you get a sense of what it is that you want.

It’s rare to find one producer, let alone two, that inherently seem to understand the sound you want and are very easy to work with.

Liran has the same birthday as me, in the same year, which we realised soon after the process started. So, I don’t know whether that’s got anything to do with it! It’s literally like he’s in my mind. Jack’s a very sensitive musician. He has worked with Indian music before, I don’t think a huge amount, but in some ways I like working with people who aren’t always in that same sound world because it brings something fresh and new.

'Sound is such a powerful force. When I’m teaching somebody, they’re connecting with their own voice, they’re learning something as well and hopefully some kind of clarity comes through that learning process.'

You wrote the lyrics for two songs on the album. What kind of impact does writing lyrics have on you?

I think it’s a very personal expression and that’s something, in some ways, that’s quite new for me and my performance side of things. I think performing in any way is a very personal experience and generally when I study Indian classical music I’m singing compositions that are taught to me; improvisation is a huge part of the style, so then you bring your own personality to it. I’ve started to develop that side of my voice over the years and I’m still in that process.

I think writing in English was also important for me, because that’s the language that I think and speak in. I journal a lot as well. I felt a little bit vulnerable initially to go through that process, but I felt like I wanted to experiment and explore that side of things. I wanted to see whether they came to me naturally or not. I was quite surprised at how quickly I was able to write lyrics, because initially I thought that it was going to take a really long time. Liran gave me some tips and tricks as well. I found that if I didn’t give myself too much time something would come up pretty quickly. It was the first time I’d written lyrics to be recorded and released.

Presumably, the album was written and recorded before the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent lockdown. As you’ve said that your album is inspired by the cycle of endings and new beginnings, I just wondered now, when you listen back to it, with everything that’s happened, has the way you perceive the album changed at all?

That’s a really interesting question. I feel like it has because we wrote the album in 2018, which is a while ago, and only finished mixing and mastering it last year. I was going to release it last year, but it never felt like the right time. Last year was my first probably more official year of living here – the year before I was here for six months. I was in this transitional place and so then it took me a moment to come here and settle in one place. It really helped having a place to call home. Of course, I was thinking: ‘Why aren’t I putting this out sooner? I should just put it out.’ It didn’t feel like the right time.

Once all of this began, it kind of made a bit more sense to me to release the album, because I felt like it’s so relevant in terms of what we’re all going through. We’re all going through a collective grief, unfortunately. I really think that life is not the same and there’s so many things that we can’t do. I’d like to think that some positive change can come through what everyone is going through. A lot of people are reflecting on how they’re living their lives, what’s important, questioning what they want to do and how much of it are they doing because of what’s expected of them. A lot of systems are breaking down now. So much isn’t working. I think it’s that experience of really getting in touch with your own internal voice and truth of what’s right – that’s definitely something that I am going through and did go through in the album process. Now, listening back and putting it out, feels like the right time in that sense.

As a teacher of music, as well as a performer and writer, do you find that your work in music education impacts the music that you create?

I feel like it does. I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I feel like the music comes from the same space when I perform and when I teach. I think it would be the same whatever style of music I did. I don’t think it’s because I’m doing a style that not everyone knows about or a language that not everyone knows about. I just have this feeling or desire for people to receive it in a clear way and for it to be of some kind of benefit to the people who are hearing it, in some way, including myself.

Sound is such a powerful force. When I’m teaching somebody, they’re connecting with their own voice, they’re learning something as well and hopefully some kind of clarity comes through that learning process. I spend a lot of time thinking about my work as a teacher, and my work as a performer, and I feel as though it comes from the same place.