Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
“We saw two swans doing a heart! How often do you see two swans doing a heart? You usually only see that in photos.” Elan Tamara is standing by Victoria Park pond in the fading light of a beautifully crisp Saturday early evening while Mikael takes her picture. It turns out that the Walthamstow-based singer used to come as a child with her brother to cycle along the twisting tree-lined pathways. She pauses every now and then to take her own photos, pointing out sunset-tinged clouds and laughing at the ducks: “How aren’t they cold?!” Her noticings are exactly the kind that after listening to her music you’d hope she’d make. The world she paints on ‘Shadows’, her new EP produced by Kwes and out today on his Bokkle label, is one of solitary strolls through swirling autumn leaves. Frog Song (listen on the right) calls to mind those precious moments when we revel in our own company, drawing pleasure from our surroundings, dreaming up our futures. It’s not just her imagination that is so beguiling, Elan’s voice is something else too: timeless in a jazz-greats kind of way yet very fresh, very now. There’s something about her enunciation that makes me think of Micachu, or maybe it’s the strength of her vision, the honesty of her self-possession that evokes the comparison.
‘Shadows’ is the follow up to her debut EP ‘Gold Fishes’, released this time last year. It was an exciting debut that hinted at her talent but ‘Shadows’ is in a class of its own, displaying a maturity way beyond Elan’s 21 years. She and Kwes met through myspace in 2006 after she posted some demos recorded when she was just 17. They make a thoroughly enchanting pair: Elan voraciously, joyfully animated while Kwes radiates shy, purposeful calm. You can hear that balance in her music; in the patience and space he gives her songs to unfurl. Later that day we’ll go for curry where the conversation will tumble from Elan’s chutney-making addiction (there doesn’t seem to be a vegetable she hasn’t pickled, which her blog plays testament to) to race relations in the US (where Elan’s father is from) to the potential creative backlash against the current political climate. (“The way things are, I think so many more people – not just in music but in everything – are going to be, ‘look, I’m going to do my own thing because you’re just going to fire me from the council or my job with the NHS, shut down my department or whatever’. I think that it’s time that people just starting doing what they really wanted to do because there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a job. I think you just have to go with your gut instinct.”) But right now, we’re all sat in Amandine, a pretty little café that serves about a million different types of tea much to Kwes’ delight. (Bokkle’s logo is a teapot.) Hot drinks served, we get started.
I absolutely love ‘Shadows’ – it so good.
Elan Tamara: Oh thanks!
I think ages ago, last summer, DELS sent me ‘Gold Fishes’ and I remember really liking it at the time but it feels like ‘Shadows’ is 20 steps up from ‘Gold Fishes’.
Have you just finished university?
Elan Tamara: Yeah, I just finished in June.
What did you do?
Elan Tamara: I did ethno-musicology…it’s just kind of Asian, African music, from various places…Cuban, Middle Eastern, everything basically. I didn’t enjoy it that much (laughs). I did it in the first place because I thought it would be really interesting to study some music outside what I normally do. I went to Brit School and that’s quite pop, and I wanted to do something completely different.
How was Brit School?
Elan Tamara: That was just weird (laughs). I forget about it actually and then every so often someone brings it up and I’m like, oh yeah I did go there. It was really competitive, a crazy experience. It’s kind of a blur now. You’re just around loads of musicians and everyone kind of groups off…you’ve got your metal people, the people who do funk, jazz, hip hop-y stuff and then you’ve got the other people in the background (laughs).
I’m imagining this school ball with all these people in different corners…
Elan Tamara: It was kind of like that in the performances though…here’s a section of metal and here’s a section of jazzy stuff and then a section of pop in the middle. Loads of competitive musicians trying to get into the spotlight, especially if you’re a singer. I didn’t actually sing that much when I was there – just because there were so many female singers and everyone wanted to sing. They discovered I played saxophone and I just ended up playing that in everything [laughs].
Do you play quite a lot of instruments?
Elan Tamara: Well, I play piano, saxophone and Balinese gamelan which is just like a quite of random, off-key kind of thing…[laughs].
I was looking at that on your blog…do you dance as well?
Elan Tamara: Yeah, I do Balinese dance.
Wow. Did you get into that through your degree?
Elan Tamara: Yeah. That was the only thing I enjoyed. Doing the gamelan.
What’s it like?
Elan Tamara: Loud. Really loud. I don’t know how to describe it. I think the reason I got into it because it sounds like nothing else. Not that many other people were really into it because it’s quite loud and clangy and confusing because there are loads of really complicated patterns and stuff. I guess if you’re starting with something completely unfamiliar I guess people are less likely to take to it then to something they’ve heard already.
And is it a set of instruments?
Elan Tamara: Yes, it’s a whole set of gongs and xylophone-y things made of bronze and they’re all carved by hand which takes years and years. They’re really beautiful instruments, they’re amazing.
Is it ceremonial music…or is part of social culture…?
Elan Tamara: It’s both. There are some performances for religious things and temple festivals, and then there are some performances just for entertainment and for tourists obviously. It’s kind of really embedded in the culture, it’s part of everyday life. You’ll see like these videos of 8 year-old kids playing music and dancing like an adult, y’know. It’s just really crazy but it’s just part of life there.
I love the sharp, stylised movements – the darting eyes…
Elan Tamara: Yeah, the eyes!
Elan Tamara: It’s really fun, I really enjoy the dancing actually. I’m not a dancer, it’s just fun. It’s nice to do something different.
So… ‘Gold Fishes’ was your first EP last autumn?
Elan Tamara: Yeah, September last year.
You focused on instruments at Brit, but when did you start doing your own stuff, singing?
Elan Tamara: I think I always wanted to do it on my own, since I was a teenager. I’ve been writing songs since I was 13, 14 – proper songs. Before that I was mostly doing instrumental stuff but I just never played it to anyone. I think it just wasn’t in my personality to be like at front. Most of the songs from the first EP were written at the end of secondary school and at Brit. The second EP [‘Shadows’] is all stuff I’ve written in the last year. Yeah, I just kind of decided it was time…I mean, when I auditioned for Brit, I actually played piano and sung, and then I got in and ended up playing guitar, bass and stuff even though I wasn’t that proficient on them.
It’s funny – around that time, girls were riding high in the pop charts…
Elan Tamara: Yeah, it was very pop. I think it’s difficult when you do stuff that’s kind of out of the ordinary, they don’t know what to do with you. Kind of ‘er, your voice sounds weird’. When you’re doing these performances, doing these covers, there’s not much room for interpretation really, it’s just sing it as it is. When you don’t fit in with that, it’s difficult for them to find something for you to do.
Did you find it quite stifling?
Elan Tamara: In a way, yeah but I think it made me write more songs. I just spent loads of time in the piano room writing songs because I didn’t get to do loads of performances. In my final performance, I decided to sing one song with my friend Hebe, who’s in my band, and one solo song Oranges, which in on my first EP.
Yeah, I love Oranges – that my favourite from ‘Gold Fishes’.
Elan Tamara: [Laughs] So I just decided I had to do my own thing after that. Other Music just got in touch and said we’d love to release your CD. I didn’t have a CD! So we recorded it and luckily I had Kwes who could make things sound good because if I was recording it myself it would probably be really poorly mixed [laughs].
Kwes: Too modest.
Elan Tamara: No it’s true, I can’t mix.
What I really like about your music and your voice, and what you’re singing about, is that it just feels like getting a glimpse inside your head – it just feels really honest and really free. It does feel like you’re literally singing what’s coming into your head in that moment, in a really beautiful way.
Elan Tamara: I just kind of write about stuff, about anything – it doesn’t have to be about something specific…most of the time I record my piano part, and record some other instruments, and then I’ll think what words work with this…and then I’ll just record it. And normally it is just what you said, I’ll just write it really quickly there and then. Maybe one or two words will change after but that’s it.
That’s what feels so alive about it, I guess – it’s here, now. And it also feels like a different way of looking at the world.
Elan Tamara: I don’t know what it is, it’s just weird… [laughs] I don’t even think really specifically think what it is I’m writing about. Sometimes, but I’ll just get that subject and just record it whatever words come up. It’s kind of how a lot of MCs work, they go in the studio and just kind of mic up and flow – just go. Then you learn the words afterwards. That’s kind of how I work.
I really like that, instinctive. What did you listen to growing up?
Elan Tamara: I never listened to chart music growing up. I used to listen to what my dad listened to, a lot of Cuban music. He’s American, his parents are from Jamaica but he’s America. He’s into Fela Kuti, he’s into quite a lot of jazz. He’s into Steely Dan, a lot of 70s…Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye…Van Halen! Anything really. [Laughs] So I listened to quite a lot of everything. Quite a lot of the time in the car, listening to tapes with a whole mix of stuff on them, pop music, disco, jazz, Cuban music. When I was teenager, I went through phases and started to think about what I was listening to a lot more. I started to find stuff. I really got into that Tom Vek album, for me that was a turning point – an amazing album that I can still listen to now and not get fed up of.
It’s when you start to get albums that are your albums, like ‘this is my music’…
Elan Tamara: Yeah…and Bjork as well.
Elan Tamara: She’s amazing, you can’t really describe her amazingness.
What’s so exciting about her is that her self-belief and her way of seeing the world is so strong, she believes in her world so much that other people can’t help but belief in it too.
Elan Tamara: Oh yeah, totally. She’s almost like from another planet. Her sounds – what I love about her is that every time she does an album she has a theme and every time she plays live she makes all her songs, even the old ones, in the theme of that album.
I didn’t know that!
Elan Tamara: So for her latest tour for ‘Volta’, she had a brass section, tubas and French horns and stuff, I saw her at Glastonbury and she played all of her old songs with the brass band. And with ‘Vespertine’ she had that theme of music boxes and loads of small samples and little sounds, she played all of her old songs in that theme using that sounds. It’s like she reinvents the song every time. That’s what I find so amazing about her, she doesn’t hold on to…she reinvents every time. It’s amazing.
That’s so exciting because it blows open wide the recent traditional idea of what a song is – for ages a song has been what has been recorded to that record or that CD, it’s a physical thing that doesn’t change – and that turns in back into an alive thing…
Elan Tamara: I think a live show has to be really inventive. With my band, we never just stick to the same way of playing stuff – we kind of have the space to change things up if we feel like it.
How many people are in your band?
Elan Tamara: Four of us – me playing piano and singing, Kwes playing bass, Georgia on drums and Hebe who plays keyboard and does backing vocals. We’ve being playing gigs for about a year now. Georgia is an amazing drummer, her dad is in Leftfield so probably all the beats have been embedded in her from a young child [laughs]. She’s amazing. And Hebe’s voice is so powerful, she just comes up with these vocals. We’ve got this thing going on, we seem to be on the same wavelength. She knows what kind of harmony I want. She wrote some of the Frog Song with me, the beginning.
While your music isn’t jazz, there’s something about the structure of your songs that makes me think of that…
Elan Tamara: I think it’s probably the chords I use. I don’t really know much about chords! But I just play notes. I listen to a lot of gamelan, a lot of Steve Reich, John Adams and I think that kind of informs the way I play. There’s quite a plinky plonky kind of thing [laughs] – lots of moving notes. I’m quite into layering things up. I really love Brian Wilson, and I get that kind of atmosphere from him. He uses quite jazzy chords.
Kwes: Your voice floats quite freely over it as well.
Elan Tamara: I think that’s because I write the instrumental first. I don’t want to just do a bog-standard chord, I want to add lots of other notes.
Kwes: When I first heard her demos it just hit me in a really strange way. I can’t put my finger on what…like I’d heard something like this before but I hadn’t. I suppose that’s what makes music post-modern; it’s a distillation of so many different things.
Elan Tamara: I think Kwes has helped me refine my music, make it come together.
How does it work with the two of you?
Kwes: Literally she’ll just write the song and I’ll produce it.
Elan Tamara: I’ll do a demo with a crappy drum beat and a piano part and vocals. Then I’ll teach the band, play it live then record it in the studio. Then Kwes will direct the band and be like, ‘play this like that’ rather than do something different to the live.
Kwes: Most of the time, I do things secretly afterwards. I take things out.
Elan Tamara: You don’t know what to expect until you get the song. He just gives it that big sound. I guess we’re kind of spontaneous.
What are your dreams with your music?
Elan Tamara: That’s a hard question. There’s so much you want to say but you don’t know. Obviously I want to be as successful as I can be. Do well. I want people to know who I am.