In celebration of their EP 'Cove' released by Hudson Records in August 2023, Iona Lane and Ranjana Ghatak discuss pre-gig rituals, formative musical experiences and Sunday soundtracks.
How did you meet and when did you decide to embark on this project together?
Ranjana Ghatak: Me and Iona met on the Making Tracks residency in September 2022. There were eight musicians selected through application to spend two weeks in residency together, with the aim of then touring the material we created. Making Tracks was held in Cove Park, a beautiful space in Helensburgh, Scotland. We heard each other in the beginning - I really loved Iona’s voice and we both shared an interest in working together. It was difficult to find the time, so we literally had about half an hour at the very end of those two weeks, which is when we created and performed the last piece on the EP.
Iona Lane: We were essentially paired up for a collaboration. We sat down to sing together and weren’t quite sure how it was going to work. Luna Silver, one of the facilitators at Making Tracks, helped us with the initial collaboration. We came up with a piece, ‘Surya Pranam/Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ and performed it across ten venues in England, as part of the Making Tracks show. Pretty soon after the tour we decided to work on the EP together.
On this EP, your harmonies sound incredible. The production never drowns out the vocals, but instead adds this gentle droning sound, at times calming and foreboding. What was your approach to the overall production of this EP?
RG: Thank you for your kind comments. We wanted to keep the essence of what we had initially created; what we felt was powerful and how people responded to our singing. Audiences really enjoyed hearing our voices harmonise, so we did not want to add too much in production. It was a new approach in many ways as we had to be very naked and vulnerable with our voices, and to allow that to lead the material.
IL: The harmonies are formed accidentally through the melodic parts of each of our songs. I suppose the production is really minimal; we knew we wanted to record it live and we knew we wanted Andy Bell on sound. The pieces are also performed differently each time. There is a certain level of uncertainty, but then there are also moments in each song where we know it is going to come together, or that we need to bring it together at a certain point where there is a nice harmony or clash.
How was the experience of harmonising in two languages? Did you find it naturally flowed or did anything need to be tweaked in order to make it work?
RG: Once we got out of our heads, we found it flowed quite naturally. The first piece we put together was the sun prayer in Sanskrit, ‘Surya Pranam’, and Iona sang a folk song alongside it. We tried different ways of singing together; what seemed to work in that first instance is that I sang a piece first and we went with a theme. Iona listened and responded with a piece that she felt went with it. We used that similar approach with the rest of the EP. For the second piece, ‘Agar Main Panchi Hota/ Lark in the Clear Air’, I found a poem in Hindi and Iona suggested the lark song. With the theme of birds, I worked with the lyrics, composed and improvised the words.
IL: I think we both needed to be aware of each other, give each other space and give each language space. There were parts that flowed really naturally but there was also quite a lot of ‘OK, when you reach that point, I need to be here.’ There are also parts where we both sing in Hindustani languages or Sanskrit and then we sing in English. For me, getting the correct pronunciation of a language I don’t speak took time.
What was the tone/mood you envisioned for this EP?
RG: The mood was about connecting with the natural world. It was also about allowing our voices to lead and bring two musical worlds together in a way that did not feel forced, but rather a kind of coming together and sharing of a sacred space.
IL: I think the EP is quite haunting; it’s got dark moments and lighter moments to it. We wanted it to be a deep listening experience and, with it being entirely pinned on vocals, we wanted it to have a hypnotic mellowness.
Ranjana, you have stated that ‘Indian classical music is all about creating on the spot within the framework of a melodic structure. In order to get to the point of creation, a lot of time has to be spent in the study and emulation of it [...] I am still a student of this music.’ How does your job as a vocal teacher and workshop leader inform your own music?
RG: I think my work as a vocal teacher and workshop leader helps me get clear on the subject and that in turn informs my own music - understanding the subject shapes what I am making. That understanding is always developing over time; it never stops. The nature of the subject is that you can keep finding musical pathways. This is what makes it interesting, but also frustrating! What I did not anticipate is that, through teaching and explaining and sharing this music with others, I have an even stronger love for the subject, and a clearer view of what I am doing.
Iona, you are touring this year around the UK, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Ranjana, you have also performed extensively, such as in Kew Gardens and at the London Jazz Festival. Do either of you have a favourite city/venue that you have performed at?
IL: I really enjoyed supporting Karine Polwart at Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. That’s such a wonderful venue. The team there are so lovely and welcoming. I love Kendal. I love the lakes. I had a really great gig there that night.
RG: That’s a tough one. I was born and raised in London so I always love performing there. It could be that I feel more comfortable and at ease there. There is also an openness with the audience which forces me to push myself. The incredible standard of musicianship in the city keeps me striving. I also really enjoy performing in Scotland; I did a big tour last year with James Yorkston and Jon Thorne, and I really enjoyed playing in Edinburgh and Stirling. There is definitely some kind of magic in the land. That being said, there is something special about every place that one performs in, and I feel very grateful to be doing what I do. I’ve only done one performance in India, and I’ve done some performing in California, as I lived out there for a while. Those were also very different experiences.
Do you have any rituals/exercises you do before a performance?
RG: I definitely like to be in a quiet space before I perform. I don’t like talking or using my voice too much. I save that for warming up. Before a performance I do some meditation and drink a lot of hot water, but mainly I keep it simple and try to be in a quiet space all day. I need to connect to what I will be singing, the feeling of it.
IL: I tend to do simple vocal warm ups and that’s about it. I know a lot of musicians who play right up until they have to go on stage, but, like Ranjana, I quite like having silence and space to sit down and be still before having to do a performance.
Iona, you recorded your debut album ‘Hallival’ in the Highlands, with a view of Ben Nevis. What has your ongoing musical journey been like since the release of your debut album, and how did your approach differ in the making of this EP?
IL: I suppose I am still writing a lot of music inspired by landscapes and how people fit into those landscapes. With this EP, it was nice to go back to finding the traditional material that I love; some of the music is stuff I sang at university. It was nice to pull from that interest, and it is a different realm from my songwriting.
Ranjana, I read that, after seeing your favourite vocalist Padmabhushan Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty perform in London, you decided to train at Ajoyji’s singing school in Kolkata. Can you tell us a bit more about this experience?
RG: I had an incredible experience studying with Padmabhushan Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty. He was my favourite vocalist, and still is. At the time that I saw him perform in London, I was fourteen and wasn’t listening to much Indian classical music. I was mainly listening to instrumental music, and I hadn’t connected with any vocalists until I heard his voice and just loved the sound of it. His voice was incredible honeyed, and it felt like it touched your soul. I was very fortunate that he opened up a singing school, like a conservatoire. I went and auditioned, and that was my first trip there. It was life-changing, really. If anything, it opened up my desire to sing and study even more. It was difficult, though. I had to go back to the beginning, back to basics, as I had picked up a lot of incorrect habits. I call Padmabhushan Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty my guru. A guru is much more than a teacher. In Sanskrit, the word 'guru' translates to somebody who takes you from darkness and into the light; who brings wisdom and awakens that wisdom within you. It is a lifelong journey. That first trip to Kolkata revealed to me how much there was to learn, but also awakened my desire to take the subject and the music seriously. It was really from that first trip in my early twenties that I knew I wanted to do this professionally. I went with my mother, who had left Kolkata for England when she was about twenty. The whole three months of the trip was a big adventure.
Finally, what is the soundtrack to your Sundays?
IL: Currently, it's the album ‘We are only Sound’ by Lucy Farrell. It’s just one of the best albums to have been released in a very long time. I’m a big Lucy Farrell fan!
RG: For me, it can really vary. Sometimes I teach on a Sunday so the drone, or the tanpura, will be a soundtrack. I also like to have some days where there is no music in the background. Otherwise, it could be Indian classical music, or it could be folk music. Sometimes I like sticking on some 90s and having a dance around. It’s a broad spectrum.
Cove is available to listen to now; check it out here.