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Arts & Culture

East Meets West In Anoushka Shankar's Latest Album

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR FEAT. NORAH JONES SONG, "OPENING, FLOWERING, DRINKING")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Anoushka Shankar started to play the sitar at the age of 7. Of course, her father was considered the world's great master, Ravi Shankar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPENING, FLOWERING, DRINKING")

ANOUSHKA SHANKAR: (Singing) Is it necessary to say explicit things?

SIMON: "Love Letters P.S." is her 12th album. It's an East-meets-West collection that mixes sitar with the cello, piano and spoken words. And it features an all-woman lineup that includes her sister, Norah Jones, with new music that muses on the extra burdens women have carried during the pandemic.

Anoushka Shankar joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHANKAR: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What moved you to go into the studio or stay at home and record this album?

SHANKAR: Well, "Love Letters P.S." is a follow-up to an EP released last year called "Love Letters." Alongside the love songs that were on "Love Letters," there were these couple other songs that were just sort of itching at me that I hadn't included at the time. And I just couldn't let them go. And it didn't feel like they belonged anywhere else. They weren't going to carry into a future album. They very much belonged to this story, to "Love Letters." So I decided to do a kind of extended version called "Love Letters P.S."

SIMON: All the musicians and producers are women.

SHANKAR: Yes.

SIMON: Did this just happen? Or is it part of what you're trying to say?

SHANKAR: It started as an it just happened because the first person I sort of sat down with some ideas was Alev Lenz, who co-wrote the bulk of the album with me. And the kind of space that we were creating together was a very safe and trusting and gentle space that was slightly different from any other recording and writing experience I'd had before. And a lot of that was to do with the fact that we were both single mothers working around sort of new parameters in our lives of what it meant to try and work from home around our children.

And then finally, you know, as soon as that started, then, of course, I became conscious of it. And then it became something I did want to extend as much as I could, you know, not just on the front side of singers and co-writers but also, like, I realized how rarely I had worked with female engineers, with female mastering engineers, mixing engineers and just realized, God, you know, even as a woman that people kind of look to and go, oh, wow, she's one of the only women who does what she does, I looked around and realized that in my own musical life, I've been working with primarily men. And I just thought, no, I really need to be a part of adjusting, you know, the percentages in my own musical life as well.

SIMON: Yeah. What's it like to make an album in this time and place under these circumstances with two children?

SHANKAR: (Laughter) It's all things at once. You know, there were big passages of this last year that I couldn't possibly have been creative because the kind of energy and mental space it took to transition into online learning with children and help them through that and help keep them happy and healthy and comfortable with their life was everything. There wasn't space for anything else.

And then there were other times. You know, for example, I moved in with my mom for a bulk of lockdown, and that, you know, created a support network for me where I was able to then kind of step away at night time after they were in bed and work late. And it felt sort of like I could be creative again. And I've kind of battled with jealousy a lot when I look at other people. I've got a friend who just said to me last week, oh, my God, I wrote four albums in lockdown. I just buckled down and locked myself up and just - you know...

SIMON: (Laughter).

SHANKAR: ...And I'm like, oh, right. Great. That's what the other - you know, the non-parents, are doing, you know? (Laughter).

SIMON: Were you the only musician in the room when you recorded?

SHANKAR: Always.

SIMON: Was it ever lonely, personally or artistically?

SHANKAR: I wouldn't say lonely. But something's missing. Just to be in the room with musicians and play - the energy that transfers between each musician the same way it does in conversation or in just sitting and being with someone - you know, the differences between sitting on a screen and talking versus being able to feel the silent spaces together between words, you know, and of course, in music that as well. So it's not lonely, but it's really hard for me to tap into that space alone. And I find it just so much easier. There's a power in being with other people and getting to make music together that I just can fly a different way. So, yeah, I personally find it hard to kind of hit that zone when I'm hitting my own record button and not feeding off anyone else.

SIMON: Can you tell us about the song "Sister Susannah"?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER SUSANNAH")

SHANKAR: As a man, it is important to me that my wife is what I desire her to be. This will require work from you. I have made you this list to help you become the best version of yourself that you can be. There is more beyond this.

I wrote it along with Alev Lenz but also this incredible poet called Nikita Gill. And the three of us were having conversations similar to conversations I was having with many other women in my life, you know, reading up on that and realizing how people in situations of domestic violence and abuse have been affected by the pandemic and how horrific so many situations have been. And it's written almost from the point of view of an abusive partner. And I recite these words as if I'm that partner and speaking to my partner.

SIMON: I think one way or another, people all over the world have been asking each other this question. Here you are, new songs, established artist, what have you discovered over these past 15 months? What's shown up that might be new in your art?

SHANKAR: I get so much more from nature than I ever knew I did. And I thought I knew that I did, but it's something far deeper than I'd ever really appreciated. I'll never forget those first few months of here in the U.K. It was one exercise a day that you were allowed to do, so there was kind of one walk that I took every day. And it was pretty much the same path most days.

But it was like I developed an intimate, loving relationship with these trees that I was seeing every day. You know, I was seeing the same trees every day. And it just got to the point where, in my heart, I was saying hello, and I felt like they were saying hello back. And then after a while, I started leaning against the trees because I figured if I was hugging them behind my back, I didn't look a (laughter) weirdo. And then, you know, it was just kind of, like, I'm hugging. No one can see. You know, I'm just kind of leaning. And my heart's still poking through my back ribcage, too. So this is still a hug, you know?

But just how much solace I got from nature was just a profound realization that feels like - you know, everyone has those at some points. They're so universal, but they're universal because they're true. And that was kind of my big takeaway, I think. And the other was just sort of know how optional so many things that I thought were important are because, obviously, you know, I was healthy. My immediate family were healthy. And so I had moments of true happiness, you know, being really quite still. And that's always hard to say because all of this has come in the context of so much grief and suffering. So it always feels weird to say that, but in my own sphere, in my own day to day, I had moments of just sitting with my kids and just being present, and it was kind of incredible.

SIMON: Anoushka Shankar's new album is "Love Letters P.S." Thank you so much for being with us.

SHANKAR: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR FEAT. ALEV LENZ SONG, "BRIGHT EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.