Ahead of the release of her debut album we spoke with Dewsbury-based, Indian-born artist Supriya Nagarajan, a classically trained Carnatic singer inspired by the traditions of her South-Asian roots and by a drive to explore new ideas, presented within a contemporary British context. The album in question, Dusk Notes, is a mesmerising affair. Written to evoke the atmosphere of a pastoral winter’s evening, the record lulls the listener through Nagarajan’s soaring, melismatic vocals, palpable sounds of nature and richly textural sonic landscapes. In such dark, confusing times, Dusk Notes provides a welcome relief from the stresses and strains that seem to have characterised 2020.
Nagarajan’s path into a career as a musician is somewhat unconventional. Born into an academic, middle-class Indian family, the expectation was for Nagarajan, upon leaving university in Mumbai during the late-80s, to enter into a secure, profitable vocation. This is precisely what she did. Nagarajan started working in the banking sector, a profession on which she looks back fondly: “I actually enjoyed working in the bank. I have a very mathematical brain. I enjoyed meeting lots of people and working in a few companies.”
Through her work, Nagarajan was placed in various locations around the world, before eventually settling in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. In the years leading up to the global economic crisis of 2008, Nagarajan could sense a foreboding shift in the modus operandi of the banks in which she was working: ‘The integrity of customer service was slowly being eroded, it wasn’t about them anymore. I was feeling the signs of what we all felt in 2008 and onwards.’ This prompted Nagarajan to think deeply about her future and what felt pertinent to her sense of fulfilment. Harbouring a passion for music and performance, Nagarajan made the leap into a full-time career in music in 2004, with the help of her supportive family.
The years following this substantial change of direction saw Nagarajan working and touring across the globe, using her prior experience to get the most out of every endeavour and collaboration: ‘I realised that, to make a mark, firstly you need to create quality work, but also know how to manage everything that goes with your practise: time management, money management, strategic thinking. The key skill that I brought from the banking sector was networking. Networking, networking, networking. I can’t begin to emphasise how much it’s helped me.’
Although Nagarajan was performing regularly and appearing on other artist’s recordings, an album of her own had not yet been made. This is where an unlikely encounter with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller at the National Trust sponsored event Be Kinder – a festival which celebrates the outside world and our relationship with it, urging us to be kinder to nature - occurs.
Having been invited to open the Be Kinder festival in 2019, which Cocker and Deller created and were hosting, the pair witnessed Nagarajan’s performance. Enraptured, they pushed her on the subject of an album, keen that she immortalise her music on record. ‘It was very exciting. For me, live performance has always been the thing. I’ve always wanted to be there with the live audience and feel the vibes. Although I have lent my voice to a number of tracks, releasing an album was never a priority in my head. I was always going out and about performing. The feeling that my music was part of a collective enjoyment spurred me to the next thing, which was the album.’
The encouragement of Jarvis Cocker and Jeremy Deller was not the only thing Nagarajan took away from the festival. For Nagarajan, the ethos of the festival itself inspired the creation of the album, particularly the way in which Indian classical music could interact with a quintessentially English setting. ‘I went back to my childhood in India – I was in India for the first thirty years of my life – appreciating the various elements of Indian music that could quite easily weave into the ethos of Be Kinder. Bringing the two together was actually the main purpose of the album.’
Alongside her collaborator, composer and sound artist Duncan Chapman, Nagarajan settled on the context of a peaceful winter’s evening, ‘with the silvery moon peeping through the stark branches,’ for the setting of her debut, selecting ragas and original spoken word pieces that evoke this particular mood. ‘I’m a synesthete, so all my sense have to work together. When I was making this, I felt like I had to celebrate the things that can be in the winter – you can go on these really nice walks in the winter, the winter skies are clearer. In the winter you can see the dusk clearer. That imagery fitted very well for me.’
As a synesthete, Nagarajan composes and performs in an intriguing fashion, creating music that harmoniously combines all the senses. ‘Every note that flows on paper or through my voice is a culmination of various senses. For example, certain Indian ragas, for me, each of them is a certain dark shade of blue and purple. I’ve used this as a matter of visualising the ragas that I’ve selected for this piece of work. Also, there are shapes. I visualise notes as being round, square, hexagonal, triangles. For me, the mathematics, the physical beauty of the notes are as important as how they sound. When I create a piece of work, my mind works in a way that, if I’ve decided this is going to be a round piece, then I need all the notes to flow in a round manner.’ The same goes for when she is performing, as she explains, ‘When I’m singing something, I have to smell the piece. I have to feel the smell of the piece. It has to smell fragrant, a lang-lang smell, the smell of the fur trees, whatever it is that my mind brings up at that point.’
This way of looking at music creates a certain originality and unique sense of harmony within Nagarajan’s work. ‘In Places Unknown we combined two ragas that are usually never combined. They are juxtaposed with each other in a quite confrontational manner. For me, that piece was full of squares falling from a height. That is the way my brain visualised the piece and that’s how it came together.’ Later in the album, we experience the importance of colour in her music. ‘The last piece, On the Banks of the Jamuna, for me that is a total midnight blue piece. I can smell the incense when I’m singing it. It’s a piece that has these bubbles, not circles but actual spheres of blue passing through the head. It’s all about this deep blue colour.’
These features are what set Dusk Notes apart. As listeners, we’re invited into Nagarajan’s world and experience her music, as she does, in a multi-sensory way. You can feel the field recordings of nature, in the same way that you can see the colours that Nagarajan has in her mind’s eye when she performs these tracks. Listening to the album is a profoundly personal sensation, you feel closely connected with the artist and her spirituality. In the same way, the album draws you closer to nature by heightening the senses and capturing the essence of its chosen setting. ‘An intension of the album is to heal the mind and heart, to give solace and comfort to the listener. I think somebody at home with lights out and sitting with their feet up listening to the album should come out feeling comforted, in a strange way. It’s not really about what the lyrics say, but how the lyrics flow and how the music flows with it.’
Dusk Notes will be released on CD and all digital platforms on the 20 November.
Today sees the release of the album’s second single, On the Banks of the Jamuna, which you can listen to here: