‘THE STAGE IS WHERE I COME ALIVE’
by ASJAD NAZIR
The UK has an increasing number of newly discovered treasures who are shining brightly and rewarding those lucky enough to find them in the music world.
One of these priceless artists is British singer, songwriter and sarangi player Amrit Kaur, who has entertained audiences with her multi-dimensional talent. With her natural gift for music, she makes an otherworldly connection with her listeners. The accomplished London-based artist has cleverly combined Punjabi folk, r’n’b and soul in songs, which she has performed at major festivals.
Also an educator and social entrepreneur, she has a wealth of interesting music on the way and someone you will be hearing a lot more from.
Eastern Eye caught up with Amrit to speak about music, live performance, future hopes and inspirations.
What first got you connected to music?
I will never know how to answer that. All I know is, I wanted a voice and a way to express myself. I used to pray for it, I still do. And here I am.
What led you towards the sarangi and what do you most love about the instrument?
I grew up in the 1990s and wanted to be a pop star. One day I announced it to my parents and they said, ‘if you want to sing, you can go to the gurdwara and learn kirtan’, which is the Sikh equivalent of ‘you can go to church and sing gospel’. I loved singing so it didn’t bother me. I was still writing songs and singing in English too. At the kirtan class I also learned to play the dilruba and sarangi (stringed instrument). I gravitated towards the sound, as most people do. I began playing at 13 and by 14, I was touring internationally with it.
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Movie soundtracks are my earliest music memory. I was that crazy person who would forward all VHS tapes to the credits to listen to the music being used in the film uninterrupted. My first CD was the Lord Of The Rings trilogy score. My dad was, well, confused when I begged him to buy it for me in Woolworths. He said, ‘we already have all three films. What do you want this for?’ My dad caught the woman behind the till watching me beg him to buy it.
What happened next?
(Laughs). He said, ‘alright, but this is your Christmas and birthday present.’ I listened to the songs on repeat, just as I did the movies. I know the music to those films by heart. I can listen to it and can imagine all the scenes. I don’t even need to watch the films anymore. In terms of other influences, there was of course kirtan, Punjabi folk and my dad’s weird 1970s music (which I recently found out was Genesis and some other bands) around the house too.
Tell us what led you towards your unique musical sound?
My music is totally organic. I’m not trying to be innovative or come up with a new genre. My music is a mix of the sounds that make me who I am.
You are able to generate a lot of emotion in your voice, where does that come from?
Singers like Abida Parveen, Reshma, Etta James and Nina Simone all sang from their souls. I was moved by their voices. I connected with them. They seemed to express themselves the way I wanted to express myself. I was rubbish at talking. Singing was freedom.
How much does performing live mean to you and what has been your most memorable one?
The stage is where I come alive. I am my highest and truest self. There is nothing to hide behind. Performing at a UN General Assembly event in New York as a Global Youth Ambassador was amazing. I sang Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come and a wave of sound hit me as the whole theatre started singing with me. I love audiences who sing along. It’s all about the music.
How much does being such a great live performer inform your composing side?
I definitely write songs and music that would be perfect for a live audience. I envision it all while I’m writing and composing. I know exactly how I want the audience to feel.
You have received praise from a lot of high-profile people; which has meant the most to you?
Singing for Rick Rubin at his home in Malibu was a surreal moment. But the audience members who come to me after shows, the tears, speechlessness and warm embraces say much more than words. That is why I do music.
What is the master plan going forward?
No master plan. I’m learning to be content with what I have and make a living being an artist. It is easy to get caught up in the grind and forget that we are artists, not administrative machines. I just want to create meaningful art and touch the lives of as many people as I can with my music.
Who would you most like to collaborate with?
Right now, I would love to work on a film score with AR Rahman or Nitin Sawhney. I’m already working on some exciting collaborations with female artists, who I admire. There are too many to name who I have on my wishlist.
What are your big passions away from music?
I am a historian. I studied BA and MA history at SOAS, University of London, specialising in south Asian history. I am currently writing a historical novel based on women’s experiences in Punjab.
What can we expect next from you?
I am playing lots of live shows and releasing the rest of the music from (my project) #EternallyDisplaced.
You also do a lot of youth work…
As a beneficiary of a youth organisation myself, I became a youth worker. I work with young people around the world from all walks of life; coaching them on how to be socially conscious global social leaders, building their confidence and making sure the next generation learns the lessons from history that we haven’t. When I tour, I usually do outreach workshops with local community groups and youth organisations too. I’ve worked in the USA, Canada, India, China and all over Europe. My favourites were in Princeton University and rural schools in Punjab. I learned so much from them. This experience allows me to be an informed global youth ambassador for A World At School – a campaign to get children around the world into school regardless of nationality, gender or social status.
Tell us about your theatre work?
I trained as a theatre director at The Young Vic Theatre. I was the music director of a play called Tales of 1947 while at the university. Since then, I have worked on many theatre productions as a producer and musician. I watch a lot of Off-West End theatre because there is so much talent to be appreciated and so much art we all should be supporting. I really recommend checking out the Young Vic Theatre, Arcola Theatre, Kiln Theatre and Tara Arts in London.
What music dominates your own playlist?
My listening habits vary according to the projects I am working on. I listen to loads of movie scores and all the power-house female vocalists, old and new. I also love powerhouse male vocalists like Jacob Banks, who is epic when performing live.
As a great sarangi player, what do you think is the future of classical music, is it to mix up with other commercial genres?
I think the keyword is accessibility. There is still a stigma around classical music of all types – that it is costly, elitist, boring and your future is to be a soloist or join an orchestra of sorts. We are surrounded by classical music all the time; the movie scores we hear, soundtracks on Netflix series we binge, or the Indian classical that you hear on ‘ambient’ yoga playlists on Spotify.
There are great teachers out there who make classical music fun. Indian classical music has deep spiritual roots. If this is to continue, we must make it accessible. Instead of the sacred arts fading and being replaced, we can use these sounds to enhance, enrich and diversify the music we make.
If you could master another instrument, which one would it be?
I would really love to master the kora. What an extraordinary instrument.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?
‘The one who conquers the mind, conquers the world’, said Guru Nanak. It’s all about managing your ego, thoughts and the lens with which you see the world. Winning is a mindset. We have already won.
What inspires you as an artist?
Universal human experiences. I have played my music around the world. Many times I have sung to audiences who did not speak the same language as me or understand the language I was singing in. But the tears would come. The hugs would be tighter and blessings would be uttered. This connection we all have, the suffering we are all able to feel, the happiness we can all share – inspire me.
Why do you love music?
My sixth grade teacher, who was also a jazz musician, signed my t-shirt on the last day of primary school: ‘Music is the language of the soul. Never give up.’ Music is more than just pleasure or an audio healing ritual for me. It is my walking stick on an extraordinary journey of understanding something much bigger than myself. It supports me, keeps me grounded and it moves me forward.
Visit www.amrit-kaur.com for more