The fear of not belonging, it seems, is quite central to what makes people uncomfortable. As social beings, many of us feel most uncomfortable when we are somewhere new or where we feel we don’t quite fit in. What may add greatly to the discomfiture is the concern of being judged because we stand out. NISHA, born in Nigeria to Indian parents, who moved to the United States when she was just shy of ten, coaxed me into this epiphany. “Like you can belong everywhere, but in some ways, you don’t fully belong anywhere,” she surmises.
What is handed down to us from our cultures, our history and our parents is not always best suited for the challenges we face, and it rests on each individual to make a choice about what to keep; about what to preserve and protect and what to leave behind. This notion heavily inspires NISHA’s music and to an extent also how she lives her life. “For me, music was the space to work on how to integrate all my cultural experiences.”
Her track, ‘Sunbutter’ is about finding a way to convince someone you are perfect for them, “I gotta get you under pressure, ’cuz I’m goin’ insane...”. It sounds happy but the undertone is quite desperate for approval. Her new work, ‘Paris’, is the departure from that model, the story of which explores the circular patterns of set- ting oneself free and falling back into currying acceptance because of the constant pressure there is to conform. Working on ‘Paris’ and a short film while living shores away from her family, NISHA is only just about getting started. We spoke to her about belonging, music and more.
Let’s talk about your growing up years.
I was born in Nigeria to Indian parents and then I moved to the United States when I was nine years old. In Nigeria, I grew up in a big family. I was the youngest of all the cousins so I ended up spending more time with the grownups or just by myself. When we moved to the States, the transition was definitely a culture shock, we were separated from our extended family and my parents were working overtime to give us stability so that time period left me with a lot of time to myself. I think that’s how I developed such a deep relationship to music and writing. I started keeping a journal around the age of ten and it was really my best friend. I still journal every day. I was a super awkward preteen, very shy, but I loved singing and did that consistently. I always dreamed about being an artist even though I couldn’t really articulate it at the time.
What is your earliest memory of music? And what music did you grow up around?
We are a really extroverted and funny family. Performing, singing, playing antakshiri and dancing was always a big part of how we entertained ourselves and each other. My siblings and I would perform at weddings as a kid. I loved the stage. I won my first contest (as a mime true story) in first grade. Once I got in front of people, I just felt like myself. My music education started in elementary school choir, which was my favourite time of the day. I found singing and making music as a group to be a really spiritual experience. When I was fifteen, my family moved to Orlando, Florida. I had already been taking acting classes and my parents moved to the city I think in part because they sensed how strong my dream was. At a new high school, I auditioned for a student production of ‘The Lion King’. It was a life changing moment - I wasn’t planning to audition for the solo but when I did, I found my voice on stage. We ended up winning the local district competition and within a few months I was performing in front of fifteen thousand people.
Everyone in my family was really into music, but into really different music. The one thing we had in common was Bollywood. My mom and grandfather are both singers. They’re also very spiritual and I grew up hearing a lot of bhajans at home. Growing up, I was influenced by Afrobeats in Nigeria, American top ten pop and R&B. My sister expanded my palette by introducing me to Indie artists and song- writers and when my older brother had control of the stereo we listened to hiphop. He was a really big Tupac fan so I grew up knowing a lot of those lyrics at the age of ten, much to my parents’ chagrin but I think it was such an important piece of my development and understanding of myself as a person of colour in the United States. Studying music and singing in choirs fur- ther exposed me to classical, jazz and musical theatre.
Can you talk a little about your dual identity and how it has shaped you as an artist and as a person?
When it comes to identity, I always felt present to a balancing act between who I was and how I was expected to behave. I wanted to title my first EP, ‘Behaviour Self’ (say it out loud) to honour this juxtaposition. I’ve had the privilege of having been exposed to so many cultures. The hard part is this sense of feeling like you can belong everywhere, but in some ways you don’t fully belong anywhere. For me, music was the space to work on how to integrate all my cultural experiences. A song like ‘Sunbutter’ combines Afrobeat, classical piano, an Indian inspired melody and American lyrics. The through line, as corny as it sounds, is love.I try to follow the feeling of love over the feeling of pressure to be something. I’ve travelled, written and released music all over the world. I’ve had hits in India, Brazil, South Africa, the US and Israel. In many ways we are different but I’ve found that our emotions and our desires are universal.
These are tragic times — so many politi- cal issues are hitting home. Do you think as a young artist, there is some sort of responsibility that you have towards your audience?
More so than ever. To say, ‘I am an artist’ is to say ‘I create what doesn’t exist’. To me that’s a declaration of leadership. Through imagination, art can reflect the world we want to be in and that is a responsibility. I consider it a privilege to have the attention of people who are coming to my music to find a space to feel good and to feel understood. I am a queer brown person, so my existence as a successful and independent artist inherently defies racism, sexism, homophobia and classism. I try to bridge the divide in my music through love but I also state my boundaries. It takes nothing to sit in a position of power and claim you are better than another. But it does take work to let go of the pride and ego that separate us from understanding each other. The artists I love and respect the most spoke the truth and definitely spoke their mind. My work as an artist includes staying as educated and informed as I possibly can.
Do you remember why you started song writing and recording?
My dad was the first person to suggest that I start writing my own music, but initially I was fixated on being a performer. After college, I started going to open mics in New York City and meeting a lot of other young musicians and participating in jam sessions. A few months in, I found this little gem in the Lower East Side called the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I played a show there and performed my first original song. I got a really great reception and afterward I asked the director if I could perform a show there. He agreed but his caveat was that they didn’t book cover artists; if I had original material, I could play. I booked the show with two songs written and over the next two months I started writing daily. It was really a good fit because I had spent so many years journaling. Soon after, there was the digital music revolution and I was recording with friends in home studios. The songs we wrote eventually led me to writing music with bigger artists and writers and signing with Universal Music in Los Angeles. There are obviously a million little steps in between but the main thing is that I just sought out people who wanted the same thing and collaborated as much as possible, while also putting in time to make sure my own skills were at a level that I could be a contribution to any room I was in.
How would you describe your sensibility as a musician?
I love artists who had a mainstream impact and were able to fulfil pop structure while keeping one foot in another dimension. Artists like Nina Simone, Mariah Carey, Frank Ocean, James Blake, Miguel, Janelle Monae and Robyn have been huge influences on how and why I make music. Sonically, I gravitate toward intensity: if it’s happy it has to be Euphoric, if it’s mad it has to feel like Kali. I think this probably explains why my music can feel so varied, I tend to push things to their limit to feel them fully and understand them.
What do you hope for your music to do? Does it have a purpose?
When I’m making music, I allow myself the space to create without an agenda, to go into my own Pandora’s box and see what’s there and what I can honestly express. The main goal is for it to connect. I hope people see themselves and the things they are feeling or want to feel in my music. Beyond that the purpose is simply to create without limitation.
What’s your creative process like?
The actual process of making music for me varies greatly. Sometimes it is collab- orative and sometimes I’ll just be in the practice of it and find something I love at 4 a.m. by myself. I think when you commit to being an artist, life becomes the process. Louis Armstrong says, “if you don’t live it, it can’t come out of your horn.” So that really stuck with me. I see my life as a creative process and the music I make as a reflection of that. When I first started out, I didn’t take breaks at all. For the last ten years, I’ve always been working on something. I’m finally getting to the point that I allow myself to take time to reflect and just live life for periods of time without actively pursuing a creative goal and I definitely find that it serves to clarify what I want to do and generally just allow me to be happier and more inspired while creating.
Is ‘Paris’ any different from your previous singles?
‘Paris’ was made between LA and Paris with French producers, Le Side. There were many departures, both literal and figurative, from how I had been making music. The synergy with Le Side isn’t something I can put into words but I was working with six extremely talented writers and producers. Creating with them was like being at the best party but you were making up the music as you went along. I took a lot of personal risks to see the album through: organising the trips, finding a team, funding and fundraisingfor the music even through this last year. I faced many obstacles but I just loved the music so much I couldn’t abandon it. When I got to the point that I wanted to give up, I would listen to the EP and it would break my heart to think it might never meet the world, so I felt compelled to keep going. I’ve never worked as hard as I did for this EP. The song ‘Paris’, is about the process of self-liberation and I was really going through that: being in my thirties, not having the stability of a traditional job or partnership and still feeling unapol- ogetic about embracing the happiness I had found being an artist.
The new EP has a loop format. Why did you choose to do that?
At some point during making the individ- ual records, I started to see a bigger story forming. I saw the songs as different parts of the cycle of attachment and heartbreak: thinking you found your ideal match, getting hurt and waking up. Memories are a land of their own and they show us who we think we are but you discover so much more about yourself when you challenge those angles.
You’re also working on a musical short film with ‘Paris’. Can you talk a bit on that?
This short film was a lockdown miracle and due in large part to the brilliance and the efforts of my team. Meghna Chakraborty was one of my dancers who approached me to see if I needed help with the project and we started working on a script for the video. She was really patient in helping me sort through the complexity in trying to tell this story. Once we had a script, my friends, fans and family came together to make and fund the film. We hired Kal Visuals, a brilliant local production company in Orlando and my friend, stylist to the stars, Venk Modur, sorted out clothing that was sent from India, Los Angeles and Nigeria. We worked with incredible designers like Reena Mathur, House of Wasee, Bloke Nigeria, Illesteva, RC Caylan Atelier, Vincy Vintage, Harleen Kaur and Regard Style House. My old roommate and background singer from my New York days, Ande Alvarez drove down to do my makeup and my dear friend Joseph Acevedo was a production jack-of-all-trades, scouting locations and building sets. We included my dancers from LA and my creative soul mate, Amita Batra choreographed the beautiful storytelling in Paris. The film is currently in final edits with an incredible LA based editor, Ruben Cortez. It’s been a labour of love for all of us and something hopeful to focus on during such a difficult year. The story reflects my own metamorphosis through the metaphor of a monarch butterfly. I had been seeing them everywhere and when I researched their migratory patterns, I felt a connection with my own nomadic journey. The other imagery we used as a foundation was that of a storm. My logo is the letter N as the symbol of lightning, something between heaven and earth. When I was researching, I found out that lightning occurs when there is a head-to-head between nega- tive and positive energy. I resonated with this because creating music to me feels like a release, a moment of instant and intense diffusion of both negative and positive energy. We put all these elements together and my team created a visual cocoon where I could explore the themes of this album. In ‘Sunbutter’, I play a Stepford-like role of a suburban wife. In ‘Cassonade’, I express rage, heartbreak and reach a moment of reckoning. In ‘Paris’, I present myself as a human being, absent of the constraints of how we perceive gender.
What are your future plans?
At this moment, I’m totally focused on finishing the video. There is more music that has already been written that I want to finish and release when the time is right. When it is safe to travel, I want to return to Ghana and India and spend time working and with my family. Most of all I cannot wait to start performing again. That exchange of love and energy is what I have missed the most.
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Text Hansika Lohani Mehtani