SHEILA CHANDRA CD INTERVIEW WITH STEVE COE
A PERSPECTIVE ON HER FIRST FIVE INDIPOP SOLO ALBUMS

Steve:

Welcome Sheila! We're here to chat about your 5 Indipop solo albums.

Sheila:

Yes Steve! As my writing partner and record producer for the last 19 years, you're well placed to provoke some interesting responses from me.

Steve:

Well, it'd be good to discuss how these albums : "Out On My Own" "Quiet" "The Struggle" "Nada Brahma" and "Roots and Wings" fit into your career contextually. Maybe we can also encourage you to share anecdotes from that era too?

Sheila:

I'm sure you don't expect me to give away all my secrets! But yes, people tend to know about my Monsoon recordings from 1981 and 1982 and my Real World output during the 1990s, but they often have only a sketchy awareness of my Indipop albums sandwiched between them.

Steve:

Why did you decide to sign to little 'old Indipop exactly - this would be 1983, right?

Sheila:

Indipop were a fiercely independent tiny label and their cottage industry approach inevitably led to fewer sales and minimal media exposure. But this apparent limitation was in many ways the attraction for me to sign to them. There was very little commercial pressure on me and I had virtually all of their attention.

What meant most to me at that time was to have creative and legal control over all aspects of my music - to evolve in a safe environment until I felt ready to re-join major multinational labels - albeit via a so-called 'specialist' label. You were asking for context and perspective. Well, I left Monsoon (after a bitter 'fight' with the record company) at a time when I could easily have signed to another major as a solo artist.

The impact that Monsoon made - their highly developed distinctive sound and pioneering insights into World Music Fusion - was acclaimed worldwide. They were way ahead of the field. I feel very proud about that. To most people I was Monsoon! I'd already achieved my fairytale fantasy dream - an innovative Top 10 hit with my first ever single at the age of 16! With the Monsoon album we'd uncovered a rich musical vein - the drone and raga base that underpins all my recordings. I was looking into a vast cavern of musical possibilities just waiting to be explored.

 

For instance, by using bagpipes, gamelan, hurdy-gurdy, Spanish guitar, shawm, etc on the album, Monsoon pointed the way towards connections with other musical cultures besides Indian that incorporate raga and drone into their heritage - Celtic, Arabic, Andalusian, Eastern European, Mediaeval, Indonesian, etc.

Anyway, it was an exciting place to be and I was intent on spending as much of my immediate time as possible writing, recording and developing my voice in a controlled studio setting - as opposed to going the rock and roll route of constant touring and promoting. I found myself in quite a unique position for a relatively inexperienced artist. Steve, I remember you pointing out to me that even without promotion or marketing I could still sell between 5-10,000 each of my solo albums going via the exporters to audiences around the world. It was felt that these fans would grow with me in my musical evolution. In other words, I had a ready-made audience! - which I decided to use as a buffer zone so that I had an arena to grow in.

Steve:

In practical terms, how did this work?

Sheila:

Because Indipop would own the recordings and press up the vinyl albums themselves, they would receive a large financial slice of the cake. The profits from each album of this phase (4 albums in 2 years) would finance the next album etc - with payday hopefully after the fourth if all went well!Also, using Indipop's studio set-up we could have all the studio time we wanted - limited only by the discipline of working on an 8-track machine. Practically it all sounded feasible to me. Creatively it sounded essential - a great hands-on fast-track learning experience - quite an irresistible and unique opportunity.My main point of scepticism with the project was that you expected me to start song writing during this era. You seemed to expect that I would rise effortlessly to any challenge - even though I was only 18. I mean, writing? That's what other people do. Besides, I don't play keyboards or guitar! I would therefore have to write on my voice. It seemed impossible for me, but in fact it gave me a better perspective on the way you construct melody for voice and the different ways voice could be used. Altogether a great example of a problem being an opportunity in disguise!

Steve:

Well, with a bit of prodding you did start to write and it probably helped that in producing the albums we fell into a kind of rhythm and flow.

Sheila:

Yes, a kind of pattern soon emerged for the first 4 of my solo albums. We would write and record for 3 months or so on each album. Then, whilst we booked mixing time (on Richard Branson's Virgin Barge Studio) we prepared artwork and took sleeve and promotional photos. After around 6 months we had pressed up the albums, sent out 100 promos to UK and overseas media and were beginning to conceive the next one!

Steve:

Did you feel any pressure at all?

Sheila:

Well, it was a kind of hot-house situation. But, along with Martin Smith who was invaluable as co-writer, sound engineer, photographer and multi-instrumentalist, we were able to minimise time spent in music business administration and maximise our input into the artistic and creative endeavours. It was a kind of crucible in which my identity and skills as an artist were formed and this is exactly what I had hoped would happen going into that era. Also, learning through first hand experience about all aspects of the music business - from mail-outs to A & R decisions, from music publishing to legal contacts and licensing - was an eye-opener and essential for me in my teenage years. I made sure I was involved in everything that was happening including the financial side of things.It all sounds very grand, but really it was just you, me and Martin Smith in our front rooms finding a way to make it work and getting on with it - and, to a large extent, making it up as we went along!

Steve:

What do you remember about Musik Natet Waxholm?

Sheila:

Indipop took on one licensee during this time - a Scandinavian record company called MNW who in 1984 were a co-operatively run record label - very unusual. Over the years they were an invaluable source of support, comparison, experience and money for Indipop and myself.

Without getting too melodramatic, the musical odyssey I set off on with Indipop had a few downsides. One of which was a quite isolated existence. So the trips I made to Scandinavia were very sustaining - like a friend feels on joining a family for the occasional Sunday meal!

Because of MNW's expertise, and enthusiasm, "Out On My Own" was Top 40 for many weeks in the Scandinavian album chart. This, despite my policy throughout my 9 solo albums never to release singles.

As you know, Indipop released "Out On My Own" as a limited edition of 5000 copies - each one personally signed by me! I would sit in front of the TV watching films and signing. It only took 40 hours. There are some things that are fun to do once in your life!

Steve:

Let's move on to your sabbatical between "Nada Brahma", your fourth album and "Roots and Wings", your fifth. The sabbatical lasted nearly 5 years! - weren't you concerned that your audience would have forgotten you by the time you re-emerged?

Sheila:

It was a great research opportunity, musically and personally. The expectations and pressures of the music business can eat you up if you don't find ways of protecting yourself and your musical willingness. After "Nada Brahma" in 1985, I had nothing more to say musically - so I stopped. And anyway if you have the courage to go away for a long time and grow, when you come back you have a 'Lazarus' kind of aura - you've sort of come back from the dead, which I think intrigues people. And it was only through doing that, that I could have developed the seeds of what carried me through the 90s musically. For "Roots and Wings" I used Indipop once more as a firm base to get back to album making after my first sabbatical ended in 1990. But increasingly I felt I had outgrown the very small-scale-ness that first attracted me to Indipop. I felt I could do certain things better myself. My needs and expectations had changed - that's when I decided to go to Real World Records direct. You were very good about it, Steve, but then it did mean less work for you.

Steve:

Yes, I could concentrate on just the creative side. What was going to Real World like after the protected confines of Indipop?

Sheila:

Well, by that time, the gentle long-term learning curve had led to a good all round understanding of A & R, publishing and the copyright stuff. I had sat in on enough Indipop/MNW contract meetings to feel ready to conduct my own with Real World.

So in 1991, I formed Moonsung Productions and Moonsung Publishing, to make "Weaving my Ancestors' Voices" and so far I've licensed each of the albums as one-offs to Real World. This way I can safeguard the way my music is formatted, promoted and used in other settings such as film and TV etc.

And they wanted things to be fair so they were helpful, although nevertheless my style - the toughness and readiness to say no and walk away are infamous! I haven't needed a manager - partly because Real World don't have any or many prejudices about dealing with the artist or a woman for instance, but also because I revel in the first hand communication with these very skilful people who take my records into the market place for me.

Steve:

Given how devoted you are to your singing first and artistry in general, people may be surprised to hear that.

Sheila:

Well it's a full circle process. Understanding what all these people deal with on my behalf is essential. It makes me more tolerant of record company politics and the limitations inherent within hierarchies and systems. Certainly recently I have been developing a genuine empathy and respect for their culture and roles. And I can tell you that, as a person who works in isolation but with complete freedom, without that understanding, the tolerance would be hard to come by!

Having said all that, this empathy for their roles also makes me even more intolerant if, for whatever reason, the job isn't being done well!But it's full circle, because by having greater control, it has empowered me to take greater risks in my music - I am both creator and protector.

Steve:

Interestingly you haven't been content to take one sabbatical, you've just had another!

Sheila:

Since "AboneCroneDrone" I've had in effect another 4 year sabbatical - enforced because of my voice problem. So I've been writing lyrics for the last couple of years. I'm currently (Spring 2000) writing singles-orientated songs now I finally have my voice back. I'm really excited about this latest stage in my musical evolution - and a little anxious, which is good!

Steve:

So, any more stories from your Indipop era? There was a weird coincidence when you were recording "Roots and Wings" wasn't there?

Sheila:

Something uncanny happened on the vocal session for "Lament of McCrimmon". It was one of the first pieces I sang that was not written specifically for my voice. I was down in the games room at Strawberry Studios wondering how I was going to bring the emotional colour and intensity needed to a fairly technical and difficult piece mourning the loss of one of the greatest pipers in all of Scotland.

Studios are often air-less, artificially lit places that seem to lack any form of context. And having kept out of the session to let you get on with it, I was feeling pretty cut-off - so I thought I'd read.

The only book lying around was a copy of 'Thomasina' by Paul Gallico. I picked it up, having no idea it was set in Scotland, and opened it at a random page. I was immediately gripped by that charged section of the story where the village children are burying a cat they believe to have been "foully murdered" with full honours : pipes, tartan, heather-lined casket and a funeral procession to a remote fairy glen.

I was completely caught up in the mystery and atmosphere. Just as I was finishing the chapter, I was called up to do the vocal for the lament.I've never been so well primed in my life!

Steve:

Working with you as a producer you've always been willing to experiment vocally with whatever was required. Does any example come to mind?

Sheila:

Yes. One of the more bizarre - and certainly unbeautiful - vocal moments occurred during the recording of the track "Nada Brahma".

About 12 minutes into the track, I sang various notes into the back of our upright acoustic piano with the loud pedal held down. Totally bizarre. I'm still not sure how I allowed myself to be talked into that one!

On a different note, if you remember, we made an unusual executive decision in 1992 about which I still have no regrets (fortunately)! All my 5 Indipop albums were by then released on compact disc - in effect each one is a digital master. My contract with Indipop stipulates no remixes. So in a moment of boldness and clarity we boxed up all the tapes and back-ups connected with my 5 Indipop albums, went to the tip and binned them! Excellent feng shui!

Steve:

Yes, people pay therapists a fortune for that kind of cleansing. The title "Roots and Wings" is from a famous quote, isn't it?

Sheila:

"If you only give your children two things, give them roots and give them wings." Anyway, nice chatting with you. I must dash - I've got a new album to write and my cat needs feedingˇ..

Steve:

Oh, just one more thing Sheila. You started out with Monsoon and were very happy to be mainstream and singles-orientated. Then in your solo career so far you've decided to be defiantly left-field and uncompromising. Why did you decide to do that? You haven't got a private income, so how on earth have you got away with it?

Sheila:

I was the only Asian to have a mainstream hit in the 80s - which gives me a kind of edge.