Batth to Basics

TSKC’s Ashuni Pérez interviews Indian singer-songwriter Alisha Batth!

How’s Mumbai? Are you enjoying it?

Yeah, I am. Just settling back in. I moved back here after six years. I first lived here when I went to college.

I’ve heard some really crazy things about Mumbai.

It’s pretty hectic. But it’s good and it’s quite open. There’s maybe much more happening than in other cities.

With Bollywood and the casting couch, of course.

(laughs) Maybe, if you get involved with some shady people. I don’t go to those auditions. Bollywood is huge, though. There are good people in Mumbai, aside from that.

Of course. So, how did you get into music?

I never really thought I would be a musician. When I was younger I picked up a few instruments. My first one was violin. I studied classical music at school, but that wasn’t very extensive learning. Then, I moved to Delhi to go to a boarding school and that’s when I picked up the guitar. It happened out of the blue that I started singing... That’s kind of how it all began.

You started playing guitar at boarding school. Was that because you were taking a class?

I was actually skipping class.

Photo by Giovanni Riccò

Photo by Giovanni Riccò

I was going to say… (laughs) those stories about boarding school.

Well, yeah. Western music and Indian music is always separated here. So for West music, I had a teacher and I was skipping my actual classes and paying him to just teach me. That was interesting for me. It was quite a fun time. Then, I played in a school band. I didn’t think that would happen. It was all by surprise.

What kind of music did you play with the band?

It was a lot of guys, you know, so it was heavier stuff. Guns ‘N’ Roses. Classic rock.

What was the first album you ever owned?

I would like to say something cool, but I don’t think it was. My first album, I think it was a cassette from the Now That’s What I Call Music! series. Maybe Now 3 or 4. It’s always been difficult to find music to purchase physically, especially back then. Because, it’s always been just Bollywood or Indian music available. But when I was seventeen, I bought a Melissa Etheridge CD. That’s more related to the kind of music I make now.

You have paid homage to artists like Patti Smith to Sade to 90’s legends like Alanis Morissette and Natalie Imbruglia. Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?

A lot of women inspired me when I was younger... artists like Ani DiFranco. I actually have a tattoo of her! (shows tattoo on forearm) I think the people who inspired me have kind of evolved over time. Of course, the people you mentioned have been important. But, Ani DiFranco played a massive role in how I learned to pick up the instrument. Especially, because she’s very percussive, very unorthodox and political with words. She’s a great writer.

Who is someone you would love to collaborate with?

It’s hard to pick someone when there’s so many amazing artists. I have this visualization and I see Nick Cave. But, that’s a really long shot. So, of some of the newer artists I would say Jenny Beth from Savages or Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Soho House Mumbai Setlist, November 7

Soho House Mumbai Setlist, November 7

What’s your songwriting process? Do the lyrics or the music come first?

The last EP, I co-wrote with my really close friend Shourya Bali. A lot of the songs were written quite organically. Some of the lyrics were thrown at me and some were thrown at him. There’s songs that he’s completely written, lyrically, like ‘Confession’.

So yeah, the ideas were with me and there was a point where it just naturally turned into a song. It was never like, oh my god, I need to turn this into a song. I’m still discovering a new kind of songwriting process. Most of the time it’s never been specific to if music comes first or if lyrics come first.
I love how your music videos feel so intimate. The situations are familiar, like meeting a friend for a coffee or going for a walk in the city, but your voice adds so much beauty and intensity to otherwise ordinary situations. As a singer-songwriter would you say that is essential to your music or are these just happy accidents?

This whole EP was so intimate, in the sense of how it was recorded to how it was written to how I want to deliver it. I wanted to keep it simple. There was some incredible people involved in the making of those videos, so in that sense they were happy accidents. Someone who made the video had actually never made a video before. My friend, who is an incredible photographer. Essentially, I think, it came naturally. My music kind of leans towards intimacy in some ways.

Recently, you moved to Mumbai. How is that different from where you were living before?

Before this I was in Punjab, where I basically just spent time with my family and put the EP out. I was working and creating things. But, I wasn’t really living there, it was a transitional phase. I came back from living in Paris last September. Mumbai is very different from Paris. Mumbai always feels familiar, but there’s always a lot of unfamiliarity because I haven’t been back here in awhile. In the last two years, I had kind of stepped away from music a little bit. So, I had a chance to discover a whole other side to myself. It was a very different headspace and how I was functioning was different. Even the queer spaces are very different. That was a massive change, the first time to experience something like that.

How are queer bars different in India?

We don’t have queer bars. There are bars that can host a queer night or give presence to queer acts, for example drag. There aren’t any specifically queer bars, though. But, I’ve just come back to Mumbai and I know that it’s changed quite a bit.

What is the music scene like in Mumbai?

It’s changed immensely since the last time I was here. Now, it’s growing and there’s a lot of independent stuff happening here. There’s literally things that I don’t even know of, but they’re doing great. In a country like this, where Bollywood takes precedence, you know classical Indian music, it’s hard to be singing in English and want to achieve the same things as if you were growing up in London or something like that. But, there’s a massive electronic scene.

Photo by Lea Fernandes

Photo by Lea Fernandes

Is there anything you would like to change about the scene there?

The spaces for singer songwriters here aren’t very open, they’re quite selective spaces, but I hope to work towards changing that. Although, I probably can’t do it alone.  Our work should speak for us. I’m putting myself out there as much as I can, more than I ever have. You have to keep creating, otherwise you lose the intention.

The social climate in India has changed a lot recently. Homosexuality was decriminalized late last year. What kind of impact has that had on your return to India?

I’ve been out to my family since I was seventeen. I’ve always been out publicly or if someone questioned me about it. Also, because my family’s always been very open, so that’s been cool. There’s never been something that’s been really difficult for me just because I’m queer, like there has been for a lot of people. I think that has changed to a large extent. A lot more people are coming out. Like I mentioned, there are suddenly a boom in drag shows. There’s queer film festivals. Mumbai’s Pride parade is in February. I haven’t explored it very much since I’ve been back, so I don’t really know what’s up. But, I know that it’s much more open.

The theme of this issue is ‘Rainbow’. What comes to mind when you think of that?

I think of joy and something you said before, a happy accident.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline? Or anything you’d like to get off the ground?

Well, I’m writing new music. I’m working on having another EP out before September. Hopefully sooner, but now I’ve learned much more about how things work and how much time it takes to really have everything ready. I’m also open to casually putting a few things out. Or maybe collaborating with people over here, because I’ve never really done that. I don’t know what direction I’ll take because I like all kinds of music now and I’m really opening up to a lot of possibilities.

Where can we see more of your work?

Soundcloud or Bandcamp. I’ve had a YouTube channel running since 2007.