Having grown up in New York and spent 21 years of her life there, Meera Desai moved to Ahmedabad to study Hindustani classical music. Desai’s debut – EP I’ve Never Been Happier to Be Lost – was released in 2019 and inspired by this life-changing move. A versatile singer, Desai's silky vocals are bound to immerse you in a sound-world of interesting harmonies. She recently toured with Heat Sink, a progressive rock band, and says she is looking forward to jazz and folk gigs with the Meera Desai Quartet in August.
In an interview with Lounge, Meera talks about how working at her studio helped her overcome stage fright and why Hindustani classical music is like her therapy. Edited excerpts:
Could you describe your current workspace for us?
My immediate workspace is my room. Recently, I've just been getting a lot more projects, so I've been needing a nice, clean space and just a space that I like being in. I've kind of been putting up some more things on the walls, like poetry and photos of friends. I have a bunch of old furniture here. I would say my workspace is still in the works.
The studio that I go to in Ahmedabad also feels like a second home, because it's kind of where I started my journey as a professional songwriter. It's called Compass Box Studio. It also has that warm, “creativity-conducive” feeling.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
My room used to be very utilitarian. I would have everything– like my recording things and my guitar– out all the time.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
A lot of my writing and my demos are done in the room – just sitting on my bed where I feel most naturally like myself. Like I said, I've been keeping some mementos of people close to me, and photos and poems so that even when I'm not feeling as creative or I'm feeling a bit down, those things always lift me up.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
At the studio, we would have ‘Compass Box Live’ sessions where we’d take five hours almost every weekend and call in these different indie musicians to the studio and record their songs. Arranging vocal harmonies is something I really enjoy and that's what I got to do for a lot of those live sessions. Before that, whenever I was on stage or getting recorded, all of the confidence in my body would just seep out instantly. I think those back-to-back recording sessions really helped me just have fun on stage instead of having a bunch of nerves dampen that.
About my room: one of them was that I made a music video in my room, for [my single] Keys. It was around the pandemic and we were really trying to release a video but couldn't have a big team. The process of thinking about how to present it was really interesting because the whole song is about giving memories away, giving old things away. The eureka moment there was just seeing how far I've come. I've lived in two different places and having those memories laid out in front of me in my own room was very interesting. Feeling uncomfortable and nostalgic in a space where I’m usually comfortable was really cool.
Since you mentioned what Keys is about, I wanted to ask, what was the story behind your song, Salt?
That song was actually written after I read Life of Pi. I finished reading it but I couldn't sleep because the imagery in that book just takes you over for a couple of hours. So I just had this image in my mind and [the line from Salt] “when I wake up, my heart is heavy with hope” is like being out on the ocean, literally or figuratively. In that moment, I had just moved here and I felt a little bit out of place at times. I felt stranded from my other musical interests, my friends, so I think that played into it as well.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
I would hope to take the essence of these workspaces with me wherever I go. I always thought that I'm not very attached to spaces and that I can be comfortable anywhere. But over the past few months, I've been traveling a lot, doing gigs in different cities. When I finally got home, I thought ‘oh, my goodness, this is nice’. I missed the place I kept my pens and the little toothbrush holder in my bathroom, those things I never thought I would care about.
Tell us how you go into music and songwriting.
My mom and my grandmother always sang in the house – a lot of Gujarati folk songs and lullabies. There was some Bollywood influence too: a five year old Meera would always be singing Chanda Re, Chanda Re. My introduction to songwriting was in high school. I was in a bunch of music groups and one of those was the songwriting club. The lovely teacher always encouraged us to share the things we were working on. That really motivated me to finish my songs.
What is the one genre of music you love but don't want to compose or perform and why?
Hindustani classical music is something that I’ve been submerged in for the last 10 years. Everyone always asks: “Why don't you make music in it?” The answer is that I really lean on that genre of music to keep my voice and my mind running. I go to class with my Guruji four times a week, so it's not that I don't enjoy it. It's just that I enjoy it so much that sometimes I want to keep it to myself.