Sheila Chandra explores the human voice

May 2001

Story: John Lewis


If you're writing an article about Sheila Chandra, you have to start by mentioning her role in 'Grange Hill'. It's the law, you see. "I wasn't even 16 at the time", she groans. "Looking at old episodes I was spectacularly wooden. I was just a sulky teenager playing a sulky teenager".

Of course she's a serious singer now, someone who's released increasingly intense vocal albums for around two decades, accompanied by an equally complex commentary. "The voice is the only instrument that's connected to your blood supply", she muses. "Singing is imperceptibly linked to your internal sense of perception"

This level of self-analysis isn't what you'd expect from a graduate of the Italia Conti Drama School, the institution which also bred Martine McCutcheon, Naomi Campbell and Bonnie Langford. It's unlikely that fellow Italia Conti alumnus Louise Nurding ever talks about 'our cellular appropriations of vocal culture'. At least not in front of Jamie Redknapp.

But such ideas are important to Sheila Chandra, whose music explores the human voice as a musical instrument. Her albums - including several for Peter Gabriel's Real World label - pitch her voice against 'drones', constant pedal notes played on Indian tamboura or synths. After recording her gorgeous, painstakingly plotted vocal lines, she and her musical associate Steve Coe will spend weeks in the studio, slaving over each note. Conversation is peppered with talk of 'extreme EQs', 'sonic spectrums', 'patches', 'pitch-shifting' and the judicious employment of reverb, compression, distortion and filtering.

It is music that rewards close listening, although much of it is beautiful and accessible to anyone. After a string of recent PBS radio appearances in the United States, her recent album was the top seller on for a whole day - outselling Madonna and Destiny's Child. Chandra might be an intellectual, but that's not how she approaches her music.

"I need to respond to a sound emotionally, otherwise I wouldn't have a musical vision", she says. "With singing, you can't ever get as intellectual as you can with other instruments, it is much more instinctive and visceral for me." Her vocal lines explicitly draw connections between the vocal styles of different cultures. Hindustani themes are set alongside Celtic and East European folk melodies, often within a single phrase. "When you're exploring vocal cultures, the similarities are the things that really leap out. With the voice you're dealing with the same instrument throughout the ages. Even with, say, bagpipes. Macedonian bagpipes are constructed differently to Scots bagpipes, so you don't know that playing techniques and so on can be achieved on the same instrument. But you do know that with voice".

"Making music this Spartan also throws the onus on you to produce a strong melody. You can't get away with producing a weak melody and beefng it up with chords, as you might in blues or pop."


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