THERE will be a number of world-class acts performing at the Alchemy Festival in London next month, but the most eye-catching will, no doubt, be Bishi.
The British-Asian musician, artist and performer has been described as the doyenne of hybrid music. Armed with a rock sitar, she has put her own spin on the eastern and western classical traditions with colourful live shows around the world.
Bishi has also done a number of unusual collaborations and her album Albion Voice has some of the most original songs you will ever hear. In addition, she has performed with legendary artists from the western mainstream.
Eastern Eye caught up the multi-talented artist to talk about her music, striking look, inspirations, breaking the rules and more.
How would you describe your time in music?
My time in music has been my life’s path, for which I am extremely grateful. Since I don’t comfortably fit into any one medium, it’s been challenging finding acceptance, as people like things to fit neatly into boxes. However, this has thrown up as many opportunities and the chance to work with people as diverse as scientists at Guy’s Hospital to Children’s Choirs in New York.
What has been the high point for you so far?
Appearing as a guest for the final night of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown was a particularly transformative moment for me. I got to duet with Boy George and play sitar with Earl Slick, who is famous for being one of David Bowie’s principal guitarists. I also got to share a bill with the likes of Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith, two of my all-time heroines.
Where does your desire to explore new musical and visual frontiers come from?
From a raging and insatiable curiosity. I see my work as the product of an extended cultural conversation. I’ve always been drawn into the juxtaposition of artistic languages and ancient cultures mixed with the politics of the modern world. The digital world has many avenues in which to research and explore what is artistically possible.
Who are some of your greatest influences?
Fireworks go off in my head where artistic disciplines and cultures collide. People like Bjork, David Bowie, Philip Glass, Jodorowsky and Joseph Campbell are stunning examples of polymaths I admire. I also adored going to see the retrospective of Alexander McQueen at The Victoria & Albert Museum. In fact, wandering around museums in general is a favourite past time of mine.
How would you describe your sound?
I would describe (my album) Albion Voice as orchestral, folk-inspired, post-colonial pop. My influences for this record have been as diverse as Bulgarian throat singing to Ravi Shankar and traditional British folk music. I’m also greatly inspired by the film music of composers, such as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota.
What inspires your very cool look?
Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Jones and 1960s sci-fi films. The performance artist and muse of Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery, totally shaped my life. The music I make acts as the catalyst to everything I wear onstage. When I am writing music, I often see the visuals/artwork in my head like a film. I keep mood boards and sketchbooks to compile ideas. When we were designing the costumes for the stage show, we were very inspired by art deco and the visions of Erte.
Which among your many amazing outfits are your favourites?
Some custom-made gowns by Manish Arora made for his film Holi Holy in which I starred and provided the soundtrack for as well. I’m also enjoying getting a catsuit made by Pam Hogg. She works more like a painter than a fashion designer. I enjoy the process of designing clothes and getting garments tailor-made. It’s a much more intimate process and you get to become close with a designer.
How much does performing live mean to you?
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth recently said: ‘People pay to see others believe in themselves.’ I take great pleasure in watching live performances of all descriptions as much as the release of being onstage itself. What I like most about being onstage is that it feels like a new experience every time you step out. You get to commune with an audience and really connect in a way you don’t in other professions. Some people may think there is a separation between performer and audience, but for me, it’s like a circle connecting. The energy of the audience is so crucial.
According to you, what is the secret of a good live performance?
Focus and a shot of vodka before I go on!
How much are you looking forward to performing at Alchemy music festival?
I’m really looking forward to it as there is a fantastic line-up. I think south Asian culture is artistically and politically in a supremely interesting place, in which we are perceived as being in the forefront of change; a place deserved of the extended diaspora. At Alchemy, I will be performing Albion Voice Live, directed by my creative partner Matthew Hardern. It’s essentially my album Albion Voice realised as a 70-minute, one-woman audiovisual extravaganza. I adore performing it live. Expect earth-shattering psychedelic visuals, eyepopping costumes set to a background of ecclesiastical vocals and lush orchestras.
Is there a moment from the set that stands out?
The entire performance works as one piece. I enjoy the fact that I get to sing in four different languages – English, Bulgarian, Greek, Bengali – and the lyrics from great poets such as John Milton and Chaucer. There is also a cover of Rabindranath Tagore song Gram Chara performed as a duet with my mother Susmita Bhattacharya, who is a specialist in Tagore music.
You are multi-talented, but which one of your skills is closest to your heart?
Thank you, that’s very kind. They all work in tandem, but I have to say an exploration of the voice is what’s closest to me. Choral singing has been a passion of mine and an exploration of folk songs from around the world. Folk music, more than anything, expressed the passions and pains of each region of the world. Tell us something not many people know about you? I like to design 1950s-inspired women’s suits in my spare time. Think of the TV series Mad Men.
What are some of your greatest unfulfilled musical ambitions?
I would like to get into scoring Hollywood films. I recently sang the theme song to Ava’s Possessions, a film by Jordan Galland, with music scored by Sean Lennon. What are your ambitions away from music? I would like to study for a PhD at some point and work on more gallery-based sound-art installations. I would like to study Sanskrit along with learning to read and write more south Asian languages.
Who has been the most interesting person you have met on your musical travels?
There have been so many, but it’s a toss-up between composer Nico Muhly and Sean Lennon, both of whom have been tremendously supportive of my work. My collaborations have made inroads into the art world, fashion, music and tech industries, so I get to converse with a variety of people.
Is it fair to say you like breaking the rules?
I didn’t know they existed!
What do classical Indian musicians think about you playing a rock sitar?
I was trained in Hindustani vocal music as a child, and learning the sitar has been a great influence on my song-writing style. With regards to playing the rock sitar, I love the classical Indian musicians, but they are not really talking to me any more. I can only interpret that tension as disapproval with the way in which I have chosen to experiment, but it is this tension that opens up artistic dialogue. It is only to be expected that not everyone will approve and I don’t take the disapproval personally. I do believe my sitar teacher, Gaurav Mazumdar, is proud of my achievements and that means the world to me, as he is one of my heroes.
What things would you change about the music industry?
I would create more systems/funds/supports to help all the little people in music. There are too many corporations and multi-millionaire musicians slapping themselves on the back for making themselves more money. They appear to care very little for the plight of their lesser-known contemporaries, and it doesn’t impress me.
Which new instrument would you love to play?
I’ve always had a soft spot for the viola and the harp. I would like to get better at pro-tools. That’s not an instrument, but can be manipulated like one.
What can we expect from you for the rest of 2015?
Making new music and some international travel.
Which new frontiers will you be exploring next?
I will be exploring more interactive technology and a ruminating on classic 1970s electronica.
Why should we come to watch your Alchemy festival performance?
Because it’s a collaborative, audio-visual spectacle and we will blow the roof off. I am also celebrating the release of my new single Look The Other Way, which is a nine-minute extravaganza featuring a spoken work section by the late [Labour politician] Tony Benn. I had the privilege of spending some time with him at his house where he shed much wisdom on human relations as well as multiculturalism.
Finally, what inspires you?
Talking to other people and hearing about their lives. Looking at www.brainpickings. org, wondering around the Tate Modern and attending lectures at Treadwell’s Bookshop in London.
Bishi will be performing at Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank Centre in London on May 25 as part of the Alchemy Festival. To find out more,