Anjna Swaminathan Offers Pathways Toward Connection and Healing on Debut Album

“I don’t think that music is what I’m supposed to do on Earth,” multi-disciplinary composer, musician, and theater artist Anjna Swaminathan told me in a recent interview. “I think creativity is why I am here. Expression is why I’m here. Connection is why I’m here. Storytelling is why I’m here. Justice is why I’m here. Music is one of many ways in which I can cultivate those things.”

As a child from a family full of musicians, this is an audacious statement. But it’s also indicative of the intentionality and freedom that runs through Swaminathan’s reemergence as a multi-disciplinary creative, and their new body of work, Rivers Above, Floods Below. Being unafraid to take bold steps does not come without the burdens of the past, but on their debut album released today, Swaminathan is embarking on this road of discovery.

On Swaminathan’s mother’s side of the family, everyone is capable of creating art. Their late mother was a polymath, and everything she was remotely interested in turned to gold — a talent Swaminathan inherited, along with intrinsic skills as a vocalist and dancer. But there are more musicians on their father’s side: their paternal grandmother was a violinist and vocalist, and her six children are all artists, dancers, vocalists, and musicians in their own right.

In their formative years, Swaminathan studied violin, Carnatic music, and Indian classical dance. But sometimes gifted children like Swaminathan can be raised in rigorous environments that pressure them to succeed — sometimes without ever asking what is near and dear to them.

Anjna Swaminathan -- Screenshot courtesy of Roulette

Anjna Swaminathan — Screenshot courtesy of Roulette

“I felt very pressured to center my life around being a masterful and virtuosic Carnatic musician,” says Swaminathan. “My parents are immigrants who could not be full-time music and art practitioners because they had to earn money for their families back home in India. They were both scientists by day and artists by night. I saw them putting aside their dreams in order to ensure that we would never have to choose between art and financial survival. Witnessing that pressured me to continue my family’s legacy, while also making my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile by living out their dream. My sister and I grew into these professional musicians when we were very young, and that lent itself to a lot of mental health issues for me.”

As Swaminathan entered adulthood, their mental health wasn’t the only thing that suffered. They began suppressing issues with chronic pain under the weight of needing to meet expectations. In March 2019, the “subtle signs” that something was wrong began screaming “Stop!” from the mountaintop. Swaminathan was pouring milk after a concert when their hand gave out. It started with weakness in their wrist, but they soon started experiencing severe pain every time they thought about playing the violin.

Doctors dismissed the pain as nothing to be concerned about, but Swaminathan’s wife, Shannon Swaminatan-Roper, offered a new perspective rooted in love and care. She asked why they were forcing themselves to repeatedly do something when their body wasn’t ready. But playing the violin was all Swaminathan knew, and they began asking, “Who am I if not a violinist?”

“This idea of constantly pushing your body beyond its limits is rooted in white supremacy, casteism, racism, sexism, and ableism,” Swaminathan says. “The way that classical musicians inhabit spaces, they’re almost like Olympians. When I see some of these prodigies or technical virtuosos in Carnatic music, Western classical music — and even jazz and creative music spaces as improvisation becomes colonized and co-opted by perfectionism — I’m like, they’re Olympians. They don’t get to just be musicians. It feels like the intrinsic bodily urge to create is at odds with the classical and classist impulse towards perfection.”

Anjna Swaminathan -- Screenshot courtesy of Roulette

Anjna Swaminathan — Screenshot courtesy of Roulette

As chronic pain became more present in their life, Swaminathan had to switch gears. Having moved to New York in 2014, they found themselves enthralled by the resistance music that is jazz. The ever-present freedom in the music and culture encouraged Swaminathan to look at music differently. They started improvising more and in 2017, began studying composition in a traditional Western classical framework with Gabriela Lena Frank. But the subtle signals from their body turned into full stops.

“I could not express myself because my hands weren’t working anymore. I needed to figure out a way to convey to other string instrumentalists how to embody what’s in my mind, and my ideas were very string-specific because of my training,” Swaminathan says. “So, I ended up spending about a year or two researching and developing a whole lexicon of Carnatic and Hindustani ornamentation and how it would be notated in Western classical notation.”

Swaminathan utilized this notation to create Rivers Above, Floods Below, an album that almost wasn’t released. Swaminathan received a 2020 NYC Women’s Fund grant for the project, but spent much of the past three years leaning into other creative work outside of music. For a long time, they contemplated what it means to release an album and share your music, and even considered returning the grant funds. But after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade earlier this year, Swaminathan felt a need to release this music, not for their own artistic gain, but to connect people and offer a path toward healing.

Rivers Above Floods Below features resistance music and poetry by Swaminathan with help from their closest friends and musical co-conspirators: Jasmine Wilson, Layale Chaker, Stephan Crump, and Joey Chang. The seven tracks are a soundtrack and healing anthem for those on the front lines fighting for every fundamental human right, from reproductive justice to genocide. It’s a reminder that as history repeats itself far too often, within that repetition are blueprints from our ancestors that we can build upon when hopelessness is more present than hope.

“A Beloved Within” and “A Blessed Flame: I. Kindling” are standout tracks that immediately set the tone, bleeding into each other and creating a continued body of work rather than a string of individual pieces. This resonant space allows the potency of Swaminathan’s lyrics to reverberate, causing chills to creep on the skin, grounding the body, and unclenching the jaw.

The multidimensional project, which also encompasses spoken word, allows you to immerse yourself in an abundance of renewal and reflection. The plethora of sounds and textures are carefully and intentionally layered, so much so that trying to pull them apart and dissect them would lose the true mission of the project, which is to bring forth the compassion and awareness in us all.

“Everything I do is art,” says Swaminathan. “I live an artful life, so I think all of that ends up connecting back to music because sound is how I have expressed myself since I was a child. From intricate ragas that flow through my body after years of mastery, to the silly noises I make to calm myself down, play with the people I love, or self-stimulate as an autistic person, sound will always be my first form of creative expression and connection to others. Whether I know it or not, everything I do connects back to music and sound in some way or another.”

Ultimately, off the beaten path is not an artist lost or struggling to find themselves, but a creative immersed in discovery, openness, and genuine connection. What might appear to some as a struggle is a reemergence into Swaminathan’s true self – a version of what was always, there but may have been forgotten. It’s a chance for Swaminathan, for us all, to breathe.


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.

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