Self-Portrait: KAVYA

There’s a raw, emotional quality to New Delhi-based singer-songwriter KAVYA‘s creations; her blissful vocals atop soft piano licks and sparse percussion conjuring up sonic comparisons with James Blake.

Music has been her calling since her early teens, and with this dream being nurtured by her school and her teachers this became her life pursuit, at first with her band MOSKO and later as a solo artist, primarily working with her trusty guitar and voice notes before moving into more electronic realms.

Following the release of her latest single ‘Quin’, a warm, electronic composition, celebrating vulnerability and self-love, KAVYA laces together a collection of released tracks and works in progress in a pledge to share her production process, instead of just the destination. This sits alongside an interview about a life spent saturated in music, her journey into production and how the process of learning never ends…

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

My earliest musical memory is going to take us all the way back to my formative years – my mother’s lullabies. They were always slightly off-track yet not so surprisingly exactly what made her such an idol in my eyes. Instead of the classics like, “twinkle twinkle”, Sangeeta used to sing George Michael, ABBA and Boney M songs in her unabrassed influenced-accent. My sister and I used to try learning the words of “Careless Whisper” just to accompany mom’s naturally sugar voice with our high-alto mumbles. 

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

At the back of my mind, I genuinely think I do. In my house, we always had a cassette tape running first thing in the morning and always had devotional hymns playing. In our school, “Miramika” we were always encouraged to sing, dance, act and voice our need to pick up new instruments. The ethos of the school ran on individualistic interests of each student.

For example, once my teachers were made aware of my love for music, they increased the number of music classes in the curriculum. My school orchestrated a seamless environment when it came to their support for anything creative. My teachers would encourage us to write our own poetry and teach folk songs that we learnt from our relatives back at home. Therefore, I was a part of a very strong community of music-lovers and artistic parents that made sure we all danced to our own tunes.

The only thing I have ever taken formal lessons in, when it comes to music, is in Carnatic Violin – that too only for a few years of orchestral playing. Unfortunately, my violin was stolen from our auditorium’s submission’s cupboard after an annual performance. But by the time I had digested the loss, I had moved on and gotten interested in other instruments, like the guitar and the drums. 

What led you into music production?

My sister and I have been writing original compositions from early school days with little to no knowledge of the formalities of songwriting. I think the big shift came when I started surrounding myself with more and more musicians as I got older and by the time I was 17 years old, I knew that I needed to step my game up. That’s when I formed my band, “MOSKO”. We toured plenty, played at the biggest festivals in India and met even more musicians who introduced my ears to new soundscapes. It was these personal experiences that urged me to start observing and learning about electronic set-ups.

I only started digging deep into the world of production in 2017. The act of collaborating with artists was the pivotal moment that got the ball rolling! My mind was blown when I got to work with artists such as Dualist Inquiry, Grain and Blot. Watching them navigate through technical mixing, probing questions when I wanted to learn about the fundamentals, and finally taking it upon myself to start watching YouTube tutorials on EQ, Compression, DAWS was an establishing note to taking this up full fledged. I feel there’s heaps of freedom attached to being a part of a track from the get-go. It’s truly fulfilling and I know I’ll never stop my learning process. 

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

Of course! I believe every form of art is inspired by another. There are so many artists that I have pure unadulterated love for. And these influences keep changing in tandem with my shifts of mood and songwriting. I’ve always felt an emotional tug towards James Blake’s productions and there’s this genius in his piano arrangements that I feel is something I hope I can learn to do.

The fresh and unexpected production of Norway-based artists Eivind Helgerød, Emilie Nicolas, Nicolay Tangen Svennæs and Anders Opdahl have been sticking out to me because of my love of grounded textural sounds. And last but not the least, the Berlin and London-based singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, and DJ Fink will always speak to my acoustic roots. 

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio?

Yup. I have a very strict set of personally induced rituals. I have a very tidy “to-do-list” notebook that I jot down and follow to the T. I have separate days for creating, mixing, tracking, learning while applying course material.

For tracking days, I keep a safe distance from any alcoholic beverages for two entire weeks, I always carry Samahan (a concentrated, water soluble herbal preparation of selected medical herbs used over centuries in health care) and consume one before I even reach the studio and I conduct a few vocal exercises on my drive to the studio.

When I am working out from my home space, I try to meditate, listen to music before I sit at the table, and note a few key production embellishments that strike out to me. Once I feel fed, rested and up for the ride, I sit for hours with 20 minute breaks. 

Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

Sometimes, and sometimes no. I think it depends on the mood. I have days when I have accumulated my folder with lyrics, a voice note with a melody, and a few pictorial references that allow me to make music in a more sensorial way – those jams are all about execution. Other times, it’s going in with a blank slate and seeing where each added layer takes me. That kind of spontaneity is actually my favorite type of jam because I think I really like being surprised. A big part of me loves to sit back after a good session and wonder how and where those ideas even came from! 

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

I have a confession to make: I fall in love with the first takes and sketches so much that if I was an impulsive person by nature, I would release them and never look back. But, I have managed to create a really amazing team of ears that I respect and have made me understand that each track needs it’s own time and space. The conclusion is, it’s never a formula for the type of music I write. Sometimes, it’s best to nurture the raw emotions and other times, it’s important to marinate, and edit. 

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track?

I have a really lush collection of voice notes that are the fundamentals of every song I have ever made. I always import that as the first layer and work backwards from there. The melody is something that I have naturally been able to depend on and therefore, everything rides on it. I write to the melody and not the other way round. The scratch allows me to create a concept board: Colours, Pictures, Song references and one paragraph that explains what the lyrics mean to me. From then onwards its trial and error, collaborating with different instrumentalists and producers, so on and so forth. 

How much of your material is sample based and how much is original?

In all honesty, I don’t think I have used a single sample so far in my productions even though I have a growing bank of percussion samples that I have collected over the years. I think being a singer excites me heaps right now because I’m learning how versatile that instrument is. 

What’s the most important bits of kit that make a KAVYA track?

A signature KAVYA track depends heavily on using the voice as a leading instrument. All songs have a very personal story behind them and each tracking is like reliving some experience or the other. Therefore, it’s fair to say that the vocals are very emotional in nature. That’s something I feel I don’t have control on. My tracks are an open opportunity to explore cerebral tingles with textures, panning, and lyrics sounds. There’s no hiding of my acoustic singer songwriter roots and I always actively try to blend them with my electronic arsenal to create a very characteristic listening experience. 

This mix is 100% original KAVYA material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

This mix is a pledge to sharing the process, instead of just the destination. It has a mix of both released tracks and some demos that I have been working on. I guess this mix is my open letter for a healthy feedback session. There are two tracks that were absolutely key for me to share here. (1) “Words from a wise old man” is my perfect confession for the love of male vocals, processing/playing with my own voice in order to hear what I would sound like from a different perspective. (2) “Try to talk” is about surrendering, something I have personally been working on. These are works in progress and I’m lucky I get to share them with you.

Anything on the horizon for you? Any releases we should know about?

I’ve been working on my upcoming EP, “Know Me Better” and a few collaborations across the globe as well. One thing is for sure, there’s nothing called a timely release of music. Which is why I will set no date as of now, and only focus on the audio-visual development at hand. It’s very exciting for me to be able to work with some individuals I have looked up to and cannot wait to share the record with everyone!

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