"I feel like everything in my life has led up to this moment," says Akhila Ramnarayan, the lead vocalist of Akhila & the Alchemists, who released their first single, Think Miyazaki, on 6 August on all streaming platforms. And by September this year, they plan to release a full-length indie rock album, Woe Begone, an impressive feat by a collective that has never really come together in real life. Ramnarayan's collaborators—Vedanth Bharadwaj, Doug Carraway, Praveen Sparsh, Shreya Devnath and Paul Jacob—were all dear friends, she says. "It all happened so organically," she says with a laugh, adding that the music evolved in "assembly line". "Each of us would work on a song and then send it to the next person," she says. "With every new addition, I felt like I was unwrapping a birthday gift."
Creating an album was a childhood dream, says the 47-year-old, who admits to having a somewhat complicated relationship with singing. She grew up in a house filled with Carnatic music, listening to her mother Gowri Ramnarayan rehearse kutcheris with her grand-aunt M.S. Subbulakshmi. "I was trained in Carnatic music and started singing by 4-5," says the Chennai-based Ramnarayan, who wears multiple hats—actor, writer, singer and academician. While she loved her initial music lessons with her mother, she spent most of her teens dodging a slew of gurus, she says, with a laugh. "It came from rebellion and wanting to be cool," says Ramnarayan, adding that she was also discovering other music back then. "My mother would be singing with M.S., and I would be there too—reluctantly—dressed in a pavadai sattai. But in my head, I heard the voices of Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain. I just wanted to break out."
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And breakout she did. By 18, she joined her first rock band, Nemesis Avenue, one of Chennai's best-known bands—AR Rahman was part of it—and began doing some backing vocals and harmonies for it. Around this time, she met composer Paul Jacob, one of the band's founding members. "We were doing the music for a college play in which Akhila was acting and singing," recalls Jacob. He remembers being stunned by her voice and her stage presence. "I told her then that she should never compromise on her music and never succumb to commercial compulsions," says Jacob, the bassist of Akhila & the Alchemists. "Today, that has become a reality with this project, and I am extremely excited to be a part of it."
Grad school in Columbus, Ohio, further expanded her horizons. "The riches I gained, in terms of music, was just fantastic," says Ramnarayan. The largest independent music festival in the country, Comfest (the Community Festival), was held at Goodale Park within walking distance from her house. And there were bars and cafes everywhere too. "You could go into one and three bands would be playing," remembers Ramnarayan, who began writing songs with different indie bands and performing too.
She met Doug Carraway, who currently works at Ohio State University as a video producer, back then, and the two became good friends. "We both had bands here, but she and I never made any music together," says Carraway, who tracked drums for the songs in the album. "I think we were just busy with our other projects." However, they stayed in touch—even after Ramnarayan returned to India in 2011 and the music dried up. " "I switched off that part of me that would go into a neighbourhood dive bar and rock out," recalls Ramnarayan. Part of the reason, she says, was that she wanted to assimilate. "I didn't want to be that sort of an NRI," she says with a laugh. She also began immersing herself in theatre, a completely new discipline she hadn't done since college. "Understanding the craft took a lot of time."
It was a December morning, she remembers, way back in 2018 when music returned to her. It had been a challenging year: her parents had had some serious health setbacks, forcing her to become suddenly aware of human mortality. "I woke up one morning feeling very blue," she remembers. It was then that the first song, which became the title track of her album, popped into her head. " So, I just plopped myself on my bed and wrote it," she says.
When she told her friend, musician Vedanth Bharadwaj about her song, he told her to come over to his studio and record it. So they did just that, jamming and recording song after song over the next two-and-a-half odd years. "I had no recording software at home, no mike, no studio headphones," recalls Ramnarayan. "I would Whatsapp him a song and go over there," she says. What made the entire collaboration so exciting, adds Bharadwaj was the way it crossed genres. "Since she's been through the rigours of Carnatic classical training and has also been part of rock bands, her singing voice and expression is unique," he points out, adding that since he too had done a lot of genre-hopping in his career, they shared a lot of common interests in music.
By 2019, her other collaborators began to get involved too: Jacob, Carraway and two Carnatic musicians—violinist and vocalist, Shreya Devnath and mridangam exponent, Praveen Sparsh. They continued creating all through the pandemic, coordinating virtually to create this album. "I was living by myself and could not meet my parents. Music kept me sane, as did hearing from my collaborators," she says, adding that the very last song—Think Miyazaki—was written in February. That is when she realised it was coming to a natural conclusion, adding that Woe Begone was mixed by Carraway and mastered by Brian Lucey of Magic Garden Mastering in LA.
The result is an album that combines 90s alt-rock, 80s new wave, classic and Carnatic elements, pulsating with universal and contemporary themes: mortality, loneliness, climate change, surveillance, capitalism, pandemic life, apocalypse, heartbreak and love. Creating it was an unusual experience for the various collaborators, one that none of them has been privy to before. "It was a very interesting way to work where you didn't know how a song was going to evolve after the next person got their hands on it," says Carraway, adding that many songs changed dramatically over time. "We were really able to put our stamp on this record, and it is indeed a lovely alchemy," he says.
Jacob, who calls himself an " old-school guy who likes to jam before we record", admits to being pleasantly surprised by the actual outcome. Every person has come in with their own set of musical influences that have enriched the songs," says the founder of the music label, Bodhimuzzik. "It is interesting to see how all these varied influences have merged on a single canvas," he says, adding it has changed his perspective on long-distance music collaborations completely. "All I can say is that I am already looking forward to the next album with this gang. Ramnarayan, however, says she hasn't thought about what she wants to do next. Instead, she is simply revelling in the moment, knowing that her music, created—as she puts it—in a cycle gap (a quintessential Chennai metaphor for a narrow window of opportunity), is finally out there. "The album has been a way for me to reconcile my 'away' self with my 'home' self," she says. "It isn't a complete reconciliation; no reconciliation ever is. But it is a way of letting both these selves breathe, be at peace with each other."