Talented singer Unnati Dasgupta has a strong artistic heritage. The daughter of renowned Indian classical vocalist Nitai Dasgupta, she first became connected to music as a six-month-old baby when her father held her in his arms while doing riaz (practice) with his tanpura.
Unnati received training from him at a young age and performed alongside her father at high-profile events, including a concert in front of 3,000 people as a four-year-old for Janmashtami, where she sang the hymn Raghupati Raaghav. Thanks to her father, she immersed herself in genres like Indian classical, spiritual, folk and contemporary music.
Fast forward to the present and Unnati is a talented singer in her own right, doing shows around the world including performing Raghupati Raaghav at Westminster Abbey for Sir Richard Attenborough’s Memorial Service earlier this year - the track was in his film Gandhi.
Eastern Eye caught up with Unnati to talk about her journey, forthcoming Alchemy Festival appearance, inspirations, the challenges of being an independent artist and the strangest place she has come up with a song.
How would you describe your time in the music industry so far?
I’ve been very fortunate to have an amazing journey musically. I spent my youth performing with my father and touring with him across Europe. Since he passed away in 2003, I’ve followed a solo career and collaborated with other producers.
I’ve toured India, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe, and I’ve also lent my voice to collaborations with Talvin Singh, Johnny Kalsi, Bappi Lahiri, Rob Lane and Diamond Duggal.
I’m releasing my new album Indigo Soul in the UK and India during 2015/16. I’m excited as my progress over the past few months has been rapid and new opportunities are flowing my way.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as an artist?
I write my own independent music, and one of the biggest challenges is there’s not a massive infrastructure for the type of music I’m recording in the UK or India, as everything revolves around Bollywood music or bhangra.
There’s only one (major) Asian radio station, BBC Asian Network, in the UK and they play mostly bhangra and Bollywood music. There’s very little independent music on their playlists. Also, I’ve got nowhere to place my music on mainstream TV without a massive budget behind me. So avenues to get radio and TV play are very limited in the UK and India for an independent artist like me. The other challenge I face is to monetise my music.
How would you describe your sound?
My music is inspired by my life experiences and it has a strong Indian connection. My compositions are inspired by ragas, but the production is accessible and contemporary. Some would call my music crossover but I prefer to call it international music.
How much has the live arena shaped you?
Live work has been my biggest achievement to date as I’ve toured around the world with bands and as a solo artist. I’m also known on the live circuit in the UK for collaborating with other producers as well as performing my own material.
Which has been your most memorable live performance so far?
Performing in front of celebrities such as Dame Judy Dench, Sir Ben Kingsley and Sir Michael Caine at Sir Richard Attenborough’s Memorial was a magical experience for me, as Westminster Abbey is so divinely inspiring.
I’ve also toured St Barts Caribbean, Mexico, for the Cervantino Festival, and India to release my first album with my sister Vishwa in 2002 with a six-city tour around Mumbai, Pune, Coorg, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.
It was a special time for me as my father was also on tour with us, so I’ll always remember my India tour with a huge smile.
How much are you looking forward to performing at this year’s Alchemy Festival?
I’m excited. I have performed there several times as a guest artist, but this is the first year I will share my solo material, which is a personal milestone.
What can we expect from the show?
I will be performing songs from Indigo Soul live with my band. My music is acoustic and soulful with strong influences of elements of genres such as Indian classical, jazz, folk and spiritual music.
Is there one song you enjoy performing the most?
I love Teri Yaad Aati Hain as it has a special place in my heart. It’s a Sufi song that I wrote about remembering a love. It could be interpreted as love for another or love for the divine.
What is the plan for the rest of the year?
I have some exciting projects in the pipeline. I cannot give too many details, but I can say I’m working on some new collaborations. I may even delve into acting alongside my music career.
Who would you love to collaborate with?
I would love to collaborate with Emelie Sande, Beyonce, Indie Arie, Norah Jones, AR Rahman and Shankar Ehsaan Loy.
Where is the strangest place you have come up with a song?
In the shower! I once had a song idea during my morning shower and rushed out to record it to avoid losing that creative thought-process.
Tell us something that not many people know about you?
I’m a trained dancer in Kathak and Bharatanatyam. I also play the piano and guitar, but I don’t get to practice much. I used to love playing chess as a child and I’m terrible at poker – I lose every time.
What inspires you?
Nature really inspires me and I love being at one with it – lush green trees, the sea, sunsets and dusk. I find I write my best songs when I’m connected to nature. People inspire me too: my best songs have been inspired by those in my life.
If you could have written and recorded any song from the past, which would it be?
AR Rahman’s Zara Zara. The vocals and melody are beautiful. Bombay Jayshree is a south Indian classical vocalist, so her approach to the song is totally unique and I love AR Rahman’s production. I would have loved to have sung and written Zara Zara as I really enjoy its composition, lyrics and the production.
I also love the lyrics and the way Beyonce expresses her voice in Flawless. I would have loved to have written that track as I think it’s one of the best pop songs I’ve ever heard. Ironically though, Beyonce never released it as a single. I discovered the song on a deluxe version of her album that I bought in India.
If you could ask any of your own musical heroes a question, what would it be?
I would like to ask AR Rahman how he is able to compose and come up with so many new musical ideas all the time without feeling drained or losing his creative drive!
I would like to ask Shankar Mahadevan how he has trained as I think he’s one of the best singers in the world. I would also ask Abida Parveen, the queen of Sufi music, what inspires her.
How much practice do you have to do?
Literally years of practice is what it takes to sing well and be able to keep up with touring, which can be very tiring. I’ve been singing for over 25 years to be where I am today.
Do you think British-Asian female artists get enough support in the UK?
I like to think of myself as an artist first, regardless of my gender. I think if you’re good at what you do, you stand out regardless of your gender. In fact, I have found my best mentors have been men.
I’m inspired by female artists such as Beyonce and Lata Mangeshkar. With vision, hard work and the right team working with you, everything is possible and the sky is the limit.
What would you like to change about today’s music industry?
I would make music business information more accessible. Also, I would go back to the days when the record labels ruled because unfortunately now with streaming and downloading, it is hard for many artists to make strategic decisions in their career and monetise their work.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Never give up and stay focused on your dreams – if you’re serious about making your mark in the music industry, the key ingredient to many successful careers is persistence. Persistence pays off.
Finally, why do you love music?
I have never been about being a singer for the fame and fortune. If I was, I would have given up years ago. For me, it’s always been about healing others. I’m extremely spiritual and feel my life purpose is to be a healer via my channel of my voice.
Music has the power to change your mood, heal you when you’re down and raise your spirits. That’s why I love doing what I do – I feel like I am healing others and making a difference to the world. I have always felt I’m just a vessel through which people can find peace and stillness.
Unnati performs as part of the Alchemy Festival in the Central Bar at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. The free event is on Friday (15) between 1pm-2pm. Log onto www.south bankcentre.co.uk to find out more.