Photo credit - Arsh Grewal
Delhi resident Anhad Khanna and Durham-based Tanner Willeford met in 2016 while working with the NGO, Music Basti. After a year of teaching together, the two decided to collaborate as Anhad + Tanner, a project which focused on making music inspired by their respective backgrounds — Anhad’s being based in the sounds of Asian Underground and Indian electronica, and Tanner’s coming from contemporary jazz and Western classical. Their first release was the mellow and restrained Jiya (featuring Isheeta Chakrvarty on vocals) in 2018, which also inspired the opening track, Jiya II of their debut album, In Other Words.
Coming from different countries and musical backgrounds, it’s fitting that Anhad + Tanner’s debut album is called In Other Words. Released on Gravity Sounds — the label run by Midival Punditz’s Gaurav Raina — In Other Words is where two worlds meet, where the sounds of Indian classical music meld with a modern electronica sound palette. Inspired by the sounds of Asian Underground and artists like Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale and of course, Punditz, Anhad + Tanner’s effort doesn’t shy away from its influences, placing Indian classical music centerstage. It is, as they describe, ‘an album of exploration and discovery’ and one that attempts to add a new sonic chapter to Asian Underground.
The seven-track album was recorded in Delhi and Durham, mixed by Raina at his studio in Hauz Khas and finally mastered by Graeme Durham at The Exchange Studios in London. The album also features several collaborators like classical vocalist Pavithra Chari whose voice is the highlight of Haari, singer Kamakshi Khanna, tabla player Sarthak Pahwa, Vibhor Mathur (flute), Vinayak Panth (sitar), Soumitra Thakur (sitar), Aditya Balani (guitar) and vocalist Saptak Chatterjee, who evokes a sense of nostalgia for days gone by in the melancholic track Childhood.
We got in touch with the boys to know more about their journey and new album.
To begin with could you tell me a little about your growing up years?
Tanner: I was born and raised in Durham NC, and still call the city home. I started out playing piano quite early — I had a lot of musical influences from my mother’s side of the family so music was around me at a young age. That being said, I was never the kind of kid to be stuck in a room practicing all day. I loved spending time in the woods, baking cakes, or making teas from herbs that grew in the garden. Whatever it may have been, though, I believe that the artist in me was always looking for an outlet, and I think creative streaks ran through whatever I was doing at the time. Later in life I ended up majoring in music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it was there that I received the Jazz Studies Award and Francis Philips Travel Scholarship, which enabled me to begin this whole journey in India and ultimately partner with Anhad in writing this album.
Anhad : I was born in, and grew up in Delhi, India and have managed to grow a rather soft spot for the city as I’ve journeyed through the years. I grew up in a household that was always filled with some kind of musical energy. My mum and dad would play lots of ABBA, Air Supply and of course, early Bollywood tunes in our house and on all the car rides we had. When I was six, my dad gave me an old Yamaha drum machine he used to have as an 18-year-old and that’s when things started to become even more musical for me. I would spend all day fiddling with it, trying to play as many cool beats I could and eventually fell head over heels for the sound of drums and music. I studied music performance at Global Music Institute in India and quite recently completed my sound engineering studies at Point Blank Music School in London.
Tell me about your time teaching music at Music Basti?
Tanner: Music Basti managed to put a musician from Durham in the same room as one from Delhi. The first time we met was perhaps at their office when Anhad had just applied and was about to go give in his interview. Music Basti was an extremely impactful experience in many ways. We cannot deny the simple yet important fact that if it wasn’t for MB, we wouldn’t probably have ever met. What even are the odds, right? Of course, the impact MB had on us didn’t end there — we both met many other wonderful musicians, a couple of which are even on the album, like Pavithra Chari and Sarthak Pawha. Music and community go hand in hand, and Music Basti provided a very rich and supportive community for us from the beginning.
Anhad: As Tanner said, music and community go hand in hand and this is for the first time I personally felt that a very honest and strong sense of community had taken over, and was using the medium of music and arts as a catalyst to enhance a much bigger movement — which was to help kids from government schools build their communication skills, life skills and leadership qualities. In retrospect, I think it was our classroom that was teaching us a lot more than we were prepping to teach our students, and now it feels like an inbuilt part and ambition of our lives, which is an exciting and humbling feeling.
How has teaching music enriched you as a musician and as a person?
Tanner: Teaching has given me a more well-rounded view of creativity and art in general. I think that when you’re working on your own music, there’s always a chance of getting too wrapped up in your own ego. In teaching though, the whole focus is flipped and it becomes all about how to give your gifts and talents in service to someone else. Like anything, a healthy balance is key. So, in writing this album, it was key for us to be able to draw on our own personal expression, while also knowing the importance of making space for others’ expression. And in that process, teaching has been a great example to draw on in searching for a balance between centring yourself and centring others.
Anhad: Adding onto what Tanner said, teaching is a fair bit about focusing on your skill set to help someone enhance their own. With every new student I’ve ever worked with, be it in Music Basti or outside as an independent educator, it’s always been a mixed bag of levels and grasping powers, which has always pushed me to alter my way of approaching the subject. Especially with music, I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way — it’s just about being able to look at the same thing from multiple view points and then strategies. This rule has also allowed me look at so many other things in life in such a light. You become more and more welcoming to newer perspectives and that opens a much bigger canvas for you to play around with, hence, enhancing both you as a person and your artistry.
What does music mean to you?
Tanner: Music can mean many things, sound in many different ways, and is mostly quite fluid. However, one thing which has become clear is that music is a fixed source of purpose in my life. When you find that thing which excites you, you are good at, and you can do for work — you don’t just let that go. I love exploring all the new and old ways that music can be a part of my life, but through it all, its place in my life, in whatever shape or form, has been cemented for good.
Anhad: Music has always meant a very honest way of expression for me. Sometimes it might not be about stories or narratives, but could also be a channel to let some of the feelings out. I think because it’s something that comes so naturally to me, it’s added a strong meaning in my life. A purpose I believe in, but is also a tool or practice of feeling stable and healthy.
What inspired the collaboration?
Tanner: What inspired this collaboration is not so much one moment, but more a series of events and conversations that led up to us finally deciding to make the duo official and write the album. We began helping each other out on whatever projects we were working on, even while we were teaching together, most significant of which was a collaboration on a track entitled Jiya, which was recorded at the end of our time teaching together. Following that were a bunch of Facetime chats, and what started out as a seed of an idea, eventually became a plan hatched over the phone to record the album, and now is a small tree breathing as the record soaks in the sun.
You two have distinct musical backgrounds, the marriage of which sounds refreshing. Do you have a creative process as to who brings what to the table?
Anhad: Of course, there are always exceptions as creativity is best when bound by as few rules as possible, but generally we like to work on songs in shifts. It could be either of us who begins the idea, though it is most often Tanner who brings ideas centred around chord progressions and I, who usually brings a new electronic palette. And then from that point, it's just like taking turns building with legos, we just keep adding and taking away pieces until we both are satisfied with what we’ve built. Our work-flow and creative process takes a complete U-turn when we work from the same city. In that case we’re usually obsessing over the same project or song together since time zones are not collaborating with us like they usually do when we work online. We start our days early and get to the studio. We spend hours building on what the agenda is. A part of our creative process is also to let the music sit for a while and let it dictate to us what perhaps is missing in it, rather than us trying to find too much.
The seven-track album was recorded in Delhi and Durham, mixed by Raina at his studio in Hauz Khas and finally mastered by Graeme Durham at The Exchange Studios in London. That’s a lot of back & forth. How challenging was it?
Tanner: It's of course challenging, but it's also a big part of what makes this duo interesting. As each place touches the music in this whole process, they manage to seep into the layers in some very beautiful ways. I don’t think anyone has ever managed to blend the sounds of Durham and Delhi together, and getting to be a part of creating such a fresh combination of experiences is a big part of what makes this all so compelling for us. We won’t lie, it is really hard to work with so many people since you’re constantly revolving around their schedule and making amends in your own, but the addition of it is so worth the hustle as you can instantly start hearing the weight in the music, as it goes via every new door it sets its path through and takes something unique along with it. Setting up sessions, facing technical issues, thinking of more DIY techniques — all these things were challenging but the support our collaborators and team has shown made the process a lot more calming to deal with.
The album also features several collaborators. What was your intention with it?
Tanner: At the root of it, we just wanted a good excuse to work with all of the collaborators we have on the album. Big part of what makes this style of music and genre so compelling is its welcoming nature to collaborate with artists from various musical spaces. I think it gives added meaning to your music, when you can share the creative process with so many wonderful and talented people. Through the whole album process, it feels like we gained a community in which we all are hustling to uplift each other and the work. Simply put, music is meant to be shared, and we wanted to share the album with our favourite people and musicians.
Could you tell me the time you first met Gaurav to introduce your music to him –— considering Midival Punditz were also the pioneers of a similar sound in India — and how did the meetings pan out?
Anhad: I always knew that I wanted to share this music with Gaurav, ever since we started writing and recording it, but gave it a fair bit of time before I actually took the first set of unmixed MP3s to his house in Delhi. That time, Tanner was in the U.S. An extremely casual afternoon hang, accompanied with some chai, we heard the music in its entirety and started chatting on what Anhad + Tanner was truly all about. Our conversation led me to some points Tanner and I were missing before and we could put all the dots together to achieve a cohesive body of work.
Subsequently, months later I reunited with Gaurav in his studio and introduced him to Tanner over a Facetime call. Moving forward, that part of collaboration had a very special feeling of not just an artist approaching a mixing engineer, but an artist duo trying to build on the vision Midival Punditz had put together long back — and I think that’s where we all connected. I’ve grown up listening to Midival Punditz and to be able to have Gaurav and Tapan both be a part of our journey in some way has been extremely humbling. We’ll always be grateful and are excited to take the movement of Indian electronica and Asian Underground forward with them.