Anna Azarov Photography

5 Questions to Shruti Kumar (composer, producer)

Shruti Kumar is a genre- and scene-crossing composer and producer based out of Los Angeles. Beginning her career in New York where she studied at Juilliard, Columbia, and NYU, Kumar collaborated with groups such as Bang on a Can before moving to LA where she has worked in popular, film, and concert music, along with everything in between. Her work has been featured in such an eclectic collection of environments as The National Geographic, NPR, FOX India, A24, Google, Apple+, the 2016 Rio Olympics, films like Da Damdaar (2017), Trivia Night (2016), 2021 Tribeca Film Festival selection Esther in Wonderland (2021) and the music of Nas, Vampire Weekend, and Alicia Keys among others.

In Spring 2022, Kumar will self-release her new album, Nodding Terms, which borrows its name from a quote by Joan Didion. The album features collaborators such as Shungudzo, Def Sound, Brandon Walters, Seema Hari, BISHI, Emily Retsas, and many others, along with an all-women technical team with engineering by Fiona Cruickshank (Dot Allison, Marc Shaiman, Jacob Collier), mixing by Eva Reistad (Hans Zimmer, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus), and mastering by Heba Kadry (Björk, Big Thief, Animal Collective, Beach House, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Garbage, Japanese Breakfast).

Seeing the list of collaborators on your upcoming album Nodding Terms is quite impressive — what has it been like to bring together such a varied and accomplished group of artists?

It’s been one of the most exciting and humbling experiences I’ve had being able to collaborate with such a powerhouse team on this project. I’ve spent a lot of the last several years working across genres and trying on lots of hats. This wasn’t always something that people understood or encouraged me in doing — but it was an expansive education and enabled me to explore musical communication through a wide range of sensibilities and sounds. My community over these years has consisted of musicians, engineers, authors, filmmakers, choreographers, activists, and friends. We have found ourselves taking turns realizing each other’s shared visions, and I am so honored that so many of those artists came on board to complete these recordings I had been puzzle-piecing.

Nodding Terms is like a patchwork quilt of a lot of my musical memories, so each idea suggested obvious people in my life that would help tell the story. Having spent many years creating opportunities and projects that might not have existed prior, a huge part of composing for me has been building teams. So the collaborators on this album are not only contributing incredible art here, but have been such important parts of my career.

This record is an experiment of sorts, and meant to show that there can be a cohesiveness in a collection of music that combines a lot of musical sensibilities and traditions — you can mix sonic elements that you wouldn’t normally hear together. Likewise, we can have diverse creators on a project that progress a shared narrative while the themes, sound palettes, and production techniques provide the overall glue in a way we are often told genre has to. We don’t have to box ourselves into what convention encourages: only express ideas one way at a time. I think we can give a little more credit to our listeners, who likely also enjoy listening to a wide range of noise.

Shruti Kumar – Photo by Anna Azarov Photography

Shruti Kumar– Photo by Anna Azarov Photography

There are many featured artists on the record that will be announced as the releases come. Many of them I have performed, recorded, or written with before. Some are from my radio community through dublab, where I produce a show bringing varied musicians together in conversation and collaboration. The London Contemporary Orchestra (conducted by Hugh Brunt) is a brilliant repeat offender — they helped me use the voice of an orchestra to create a throughline. I also feel it important to note that the engineers involved are crucial to the process. My original sessions were canceled when studios closed around the world in March 2020, so the majority was completed during lockdown.

Tying it all together from different environments was no small feat. Fiona Cruickshank tracked the LCO at Church Studios in London, Eva Reistad mixed the orchestra, overdubbed players, and my electronics/synths together in Los Angeles, Vira Byramji helped complete mixes featuring artists in New York, and Heba Kadry mastered it in New York. These four women have been fixtures in my work thus far, and I was very lucky to have them on board for this in the three cities where this album was created. Every person involved is as important as every note on the page.

My latest single release “SALT” will be followed up with its partner track “LAST CALL” early next month featuring the inimitable singer/songwriter/poet Shungudzo alongside the LCO, my synths and piano, and the players Stephanie Matthews, Marta Honer, Ro Rowan, Emily Retsas, Brandon Walters, BISHI, Aaron Steele, and Hal Rosenfeld.

What does staying on “nodding terms” with your past selves entail to you?

In 2004, a very close friend of mine introduced me to the book Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. In it is an essay, “On Keeping A Notebook,” in which she describes her relationship with her former selves: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…”

This past year I lost my friend, and at the close of the year, we all lost Didion. The self exploring exercise of making this album was heavily influenced by them. All the pieces are joined much like a notebook is joined — by my chronology/history. I started my life in music young, and have sometimes abandoned sensibilities I’ve loved for fear of being perceived as things like “too classical for pop” or “too beat driven for classical,” or not being considered for jobs if I showed a certain side of myself. At the end of the day, this was me proving to myself that I could tell a story with an album including all of my influences and experiences and have the story be the connecting tissue — of course made possible by the incredible humans involved who, like me, were excited to try and mix/eliminate genre and work together. I hoped that all of us would have a chance to nod to some musical parts of ourselves we hadn’t said hi to in a while.

How did you form and bring to life the idea of “SALT?”

The challenges and gifts of communication fascinate me. I can fixate for hours on how a single word can spark many different meanings. The word “salt” is a great example of this — it’s a natural mineral compound. It can be sour while also being essential to our taste. Its physical form has many textures/shapes. We can be “salty” — once describing someone lustful/lascivious, now taken as coarse, embittered, or downright sassy. All these adjectives take on individual connotations depending on our associations.

Our history colors how we express and receive words. Being a part of the first generation of the post-independence Indian diaspora, the word “salt” holds gravity in its centrality to the 1930 Salt March (also known as the Salt Satyagraha), an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Mohandas Gandhi. This inspired this piece’s presentation and form while I was living in the UK and grappling with my own family’s history and nuances. How do we communicate and receive protest, and how does that change over time? I’ve always been drawn to see where music can shed light when words are limiting and language is coded. Using the many gestures and textures within a string orchestra and synthesizers, paired with some cross-genre production, “SALT” explores variances in expression that create different responses for both listeners and players.

This recorded version was brought to life via several iterations. Something I’ve enjoyed in making this album has been letting it cook over time through performances, layered recordings, and added collaborators. It’s been a production conversation between how it’s been realized by different players, in different spaces, and across different mediums.

I started my life in music young, and have sometimes abandoned sensibilities I’ve loved for fear of being perceived as things like “too classical for pop” or “too beat driven for classical…”

How do you view the relationship between being both a composer and producer?

Composing and producing feel very much the same to me. I think we often use the word “producer” only when a final recorded result is the end goal. For much of my composing life, I have been drawn to how we can stretch sound in a studio sometimes more than on a stage. I’ve started incorporating a lot of recording techniques in my live shows and arrangements. It all comes from the same well. The big change of late for me has been freeing myself of the fear of not being understood if mixing many musical approaches together. So many times I’d been told, “You should pick a lane — do you want to be known as a composer or a producer?”

I often tell my students: if you have the luxury of making a living while carving out space for your own writing, you might as well allow yourself some freedom to tap into all the sounds you love. And if we follow the line of thinking that being a producer is getting your composition to a ‘finish line,’ then I encourage the autonomy that comes from doing both! Knowing how to produce your own work encourages more powerful collaboration — when everyone is fully at the table and able to communicate their musical ideas by making it more than talking about it, the outcome is so much richer. This autonomy also leads to a certain liberty to pursue projects like this record that might not fall in line with an existing model.

What are some of your upcoming projects that we can look forward to after Nodding Terms?

I can’t wait to get some shows and immersive, digital experiences back in the mix. Additionally, I’ll have some film and TV work rolling out over 2022 and some albums I’m producing for other artists that will finally be available for everyone’s ears. And I’ve just started a musical essay project with a publisher — we’ll see how we go!

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.