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Interview: Bishi's album Let My Country Awake is a call to empathy

Image credit: Photo of Bishi, photographed by Frederic Aranda

'Let My Country Awake' is the new album by visionary London musician, producer, composer, and founder of WITCiH, Bishi Bhattacharya. Produced by Bishi and Jeff Cook, this new release on Bishi's own Gryphon Records, explores dual identities, anti-racism and a call to find empathy in a divided world. Featuring Bishi's trademark electric sitar, 'Let My Country Awake', was originally commissioned by National Sawdust in Brooklyn and includes sampled interviews from Nikesh Shukla, Salena Godden and Darren Chetty. Leslie Deere caught up with Bishi for an exclusive Run Riot interview about this exciting new project.

Leslie Deere: Hey Bishi, how are you?! How’s it going in your world as we (are trying to) emerge from the covid crazy?
Bishi Bhattacharya: I am OK. I tend to dig deep creatively and make things work, when the going gets tough. I’ve come to view it as a superpower of mine. I’m really pleased that I’m getting to release my third studio album, after postponing by a year and premiering two new works, this winter, one for Coventry City of Culture and a choral piece for Spitalfields Music.
Leslie: Let’s talk about your new album. It takes inspiration from Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. Nikesh has a feature on the album as well. How did this collaboration come about? Can you share how the project started?
Bishi: South Asian creatives are like hen’s teeth, so we all know and respect one another. Nikesh is someone I’ve known since my late teens. The impact of ‘The Good Immigrant,’ was not only a publishing sensation but spoke massively to children of immigrants, growing up in between cultures. The book’s themes and essays really hit home. This album was initially born out of a residency at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. Before I flew over to co-produce and record with composer Jeff Cook, I interviewed Nikesh Shukla, Salena Godden and Darren Chetty, as source material for the album that became ‘Let My Country Awake’.
Leslie: You have titled your new album Let My Country Awake, referencing Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning poem Gitanjali. Can you tell us more about this and the conceptual themes of the album?
Bishi: My mother, a respected contemporary classical singer, is an expert in Tagore’s music, so I grew up in a house filled with his music. Tagore’s influence has always seeped into my subconscious, whatever project I’m writing or producing in. I was struck by the similarities in the poem ‘Let My Country Awake’, and some of the themes in ‘The Good Immigrant’, which include freedom from colonial oppression, and reckoning with your past for a brighter future for all to benefit from.
Leslie: The avant-garde seems fundamental to your work, would you agree with that? And I know you have studied with Meredith Monk. In what ways did the avant-garde or more experimental elements influence this album?
Bishi: I’ve been hypnotised by the avant garde, since I started researching the history of music and the history of performance in my early teens. I’m a product of London subculture’s and inspired by people who fearlessly forge their own path. Meredith Monk’s extended voice technique and emotive use of her vocal range, often without lyrics, has been a massive source of inspiration. We were introduced by the composer, Nick Hallett at her birthday celebrations at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. She’s been a real encouragement to me as an artist and the chance to study at her infamous retreat and workshops, in the very TriBeca warehouse where she wrote her seminal works, is a complete trip. It’s surreal even talking about it. She’s got a terrific sense of humour, playfully teasing me for drinking too many martini’s, which I am famous for.
Leslie: I know you come from a club culture legacy in London. Do you still feel strongly connected to that world and does it inspire your work?
Bishi: People ask me where my confidence comes from and it formed from djing, performing and working in nightlife for years. Admittedly I don’t get as wasted anymore, because the amount of work I have on doesn’t allow the time my hangovers need to mend!  During the lockdowns, I was able to enjoy some Covid safe events at Adonis Adonis Adonis, outdoor performances by Georgie Bee and A Man to Pet and nights out at The Glory which saved my soul. I ended up dancing next to Bimini and T’ayce, before they blew up on drag race. It was LOLZ. As events return, I have had an amazing time at Club Vanitas and the epic, DayTimers rave, where I was in a south asian moshpit during Young Singh’s DJ set. I was next to the Sikh guy who did the backflip. Over the summer I performed at - Glamrou’s summer festival and I sang in Jim Warboy’s Techno Rave Opera ‘Shutdown The Club’ which starred Lewis Burton, Samantha Togni and Neco London. Every person I’ve named here, has brought about the transgressive freedom, only borne from nightlife. It completely nurtures my soul.
Leslie: From one WITCiH to the Grand WITCiH, let’s talk about technology. You just produced an arts and music festival, headlined by Laurie Anderson. How does tech influence your work?
Bishi: Tech influences my work, because it allows the confluence of different music styles, cultural influences and global ideas seamlessly. In some of my most recent works, I’ve been experimenting with gloves, VR, AR and AI in my work with various collaborators.

In all honesty, my career as a mainstream pop star didn’t manifest but I kept getting opportunities from the art world and technology spaces. Both worlds are artistically less restrictive and controlling than the pop music industry. My creative partner at the time, Matthew Hardern encouraged the experimentation with immersive and interactive technologies. Everyone thought we were cray at the time and now the AV show is the most commonplace of all performances. As I was touring my second album ‘Albion Voice’ I identified  this polymath artist who was usually female, trans or nonbinary with technology at the centre of their practice. We needed our own space to thrive, so I founded WITCiH in 2016 to elevate these marginalised voices. This year I curated a digital festival called WITCiH Digital which starred Ana Matronic, Hannah Peel, Nemone and Laurie Anderson, and commissioned five new pieces from artists, including Hinako Omori and Halina Rice. It’s brought so much meaning to my life to be an artist/founder.
Leslie: What’s coming up next for you? Where can we hear you play and see your work?

Bishi: I will be launching my third studio album ‘Let My Country Awake’ at The Purcell Room on Wednesday 13th October 2021. The album comes out on October 15th on all streaming platforms.

I am also performing at Anoushka Shankar’s Reflektor Festival in Hamburg on the 5th November and opening for Garbage on November 17th at Bournemouth NEC.

I will be premiering a new music AV video piece called ‘Reflektions’ commissioned by Ludic Rooms for Coventry City of Culture.

It’s a new piece of music I’ve composed, featuring Hazel O’Connor, Anna Phoebe, Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres, co-produced by myself and Richard Norris. It will be installed as a 5 screen video piece on the canal basin in Coventry. The visuals are a collaboration between myself and Output Arts and feature psychedelic 3D volumetric capture of Coventry’s architecture. You can see this from November 11th - November 14th.

Bishi - LIVE at the Southbank Centre
Wednesday 13 October 2021, 20:00
SPECIAL OFFER: £12 tickets reduced to £5
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Album released
Let My Country Awake
Friday 15 October 2021


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