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June/July 2016

by Chip Matthews

Aaradhna: A Girl That Likes To Sing

by Chip Matthews

Aaradhna: A Girl That Likes To Sing

At the 2013 Pacific Music Awards Aaradhna staged the awards’ first ever clean sweep, setting a record with six awards including Best Album for ‘Treble & Reverb’ and best song for the fantastic Wake Up. No surprise then that she received a very enthusiastic welcome at this year’s PMA ceremony at which she performed Brown Girl, title track to her fourth album due in July. These days LA-based, Aaradhna has been in our part of the world to warm up Australian and Aotearoan audiences to the new album, and to break in a new local band. Regular NZM contributor and bassist Chip Matthews is part of that band and between rehearsals, performances and flights the two found a moment to discuss ‘Brown Girl’, the process, the hiccups and (of course!) her exciting new band.

It’s a wintry June night in Melbourne. Aaradhna Patel walks into the departure area, awaiting her flight back to NZ. Behind her are the first two shows of the ‘Introduction To Brown Girl Tour’, a taster of her new material due for release in July, an album that’s simply, perhaps challengingly, titled ‘Brown Girl’.

As we await the call to board the flight, I grabbed the chance to sit down with the Indian/Samoan songstress and discuss that new album, many of the songs from which I’m priviledged to already be familiar with.

It’s been four years since the release of ‘Treble and Reverb’, Aaradhna’s third consecutive NZ Top 20 album, but a definitive change of style from what had come before. Produced by Evan Short and P-Money, the album was an homage to ’50s doo-wop, ’60s vocal harmony and strong, emotional lyricism. Whilst it has been four years in between that and the forthcoming ‘Brown Girl’ – due to be released in July – the intervening years have been far from sedate.

Basing herself in Los Angeles with long-time manager and Dawn Raid co-founder, Andy Murnane, Aaradhna embarked on an extensive programme of shows in support of the exceptionally good ‘Treble and Reverb’ album. There was a large North American tour with the extraordinary vocalist and Vicks connoisseur, Charles Bradley, as well as a headline appearance to a sell-out crowd at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York at the start of 2015. She admits crying at the experience of playing on a stage so many of her own favourite artists had before her.

Even with a busy schedule, Aaradhna found herself writing for a forthcoming album, early on given the title ‘Under The Blue Moon’.

“I was kind’a already writing new material… while I was on tour,” she says as the airport announcement system fights for microphone attention.

The process saw her committing ideas to ProTools, taking “… a melody [which] comes in, and then line that goes together with it,” and building what would become skeleton songs for future development.

“If I have an idea, like I heard it in my dream or something, I’ll just record it on my phone,” she chuckles, as her surprised interviewer wonders how it is even possible. “When I just finish hearing it in my dream I have to force myself to wake up and get my phone, so I can record it, so I don’t forget it.”

The creation of new material is of course just one step in the process of making a new album, with the next being, who to record with? Enter Jeffrey Scott of Truth & Soul Records. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, Truth and Soul itself was born out of another label, Soul Fire, which was handed over to Scott and partner Leon Michels by Phil Lehman. (He had previously left the Desco label, which he co-founded with future Dap-King and Daptone Records’ founder Gabe Roth.) Truth & Soul went on to establish themselves at the forefront of a growing movement towards soul revivalism. The list of releases from the label is impressive, as is the list of artists they have worked with; Lee Fields, Aloe Blacc, Charles Bradley, El Michels Affair and, significantly for Aaradhna, both Adele and Amy Winehouse.

It was a suggestion from P-Money to Murnane for them to meet Jeffrey Scott that set the wheels in motion.

“We invited them to the gig I did in New York, and afterwards we met up and it was cool. He was like, a cool guy and he appreciated whatever vibe I was on,” she laughs as she remembers, before continuing. “And just because of his history – especially working with people that I admire. Amy Winehouse and Adele, that’s enough for me to be like, ‘Yeah, of course I wanna work with him.’”

Considering that legacy of work, I can’t help wondering aloud if it is a somewhat intimidating experience working on the other side of the world with someone such as Scott.

“At first it was,” Aaradhna concurs, before reflecting, “You know, I gotta be sure of myself, and I’m confident in what I do.”

Work on a new album began in earnest during 2014. Aaradhna providing her skeletons of tunes to him and Scott typically flipping things around before returning them.

“They came back, totally different… even better!”

Whilst that was, in her words, pretty cool, it was also a process of compromise.

“There were other times where like, you know, I would feel like, ‘Aah maybe don’t replace that, can you just keep that in there?’”.

Many times they met somewhere in the middle. What shines through at this point, is Aaradhna’s vision of keeping her music developing. There is an awareness that as well as maintaining her ideas for the tracks, this middle ground is where the vision of the tune grows. I mention that this openness for producers to reinterpret her songs adds another layer to the piece, and she agrees.

“I’m always open to something new. I don’t want to keep doing the same… I don’t want all my songs to sound the same from what I’ve done before. And it’s good to have someone new come and bring in some other kind of ideas and hear this other lil’ tune that he could add to and make 10 times better.”

Logistically, the album was recorded across both coasts of the States. Primarily based in LA, Aaradhna would head over to New York to record the early demo versions, with Scott travelling to her side of the country to do further vocal recordings.

He brought together a stellar cast of musicians, from Truth and Soul co-founder Leon Michels, to Homer Steinweiss who played drums on the Mark Ronson-produced tracks of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back 2 Black’ record, along with Lee Fields’ guitarist Vincent John. It creates a link between the contemporary soul movement, players who were instrumental in elements of Aaradhna’s inspirations, as well as her own incredible vocals.

The result of this work is ‘Brown Girl’, mixed in the UK by the Grammy-winning engineer for Adele, Dan Parry, and mastered by Tom Coyne who has Adele, Sam Smith, Amy Winehouse and D’Angelo on his CV.

If ‘Treble and Reverb’ had an air of ’50s doo-wop about it, the new album takes on a more serious, deeper tone. It seems almost a case of where those doo-wop singers had grown, experienced even grittier aspects of the world, and recorded again a decade later.

“It’s more moody, and definitely is darker. Everything that I started writing, rolled into that sound.”

‘Treble & Reverb’ introduced a newly confident Aaradhna, perhaps best evidenced in the insanely catchy Lorena Bobbitt, a song which, despite its lightness of tone, leaves the listener uncomfortably aware that it could well be a sentiment which the songwriter had expressed and fully meant at some stage. As the title itself suggests, the songs on ‘Brown Girl’ have a very autobiographical nature to them.

“Yeah I’m pretty personal… I try not to be too personal in my songs, but I’m not the type of person that would talk to people and express myself.”

It’s the honest baring of her soul that resonates, and is clearly one of the things that make her so appealing to audiences.

“When I write my music, it’s just my way of, yeah, talking”.

With her stunningly emotional version of another ‘Treble & Reverb’ tune, I’m Not The Same, which she performed at both Australian shows fresh in my mind, I ask if for her songwriting is a form of keeping a diary.

“Yeah… it’s pretty much, yeah, it’s exactly that,” she agrees. “I don’t know why I let myself do that, it just… helps me. Even just sharing this personal stuff, I dunno, for me, it just keeps me sane, to just say whatever I feel.”

Seen from the very advantageous position of standing stage-left of her as she sings live, it is this very openness that you see connects so strongly with the audience. Crowd members sing favourites as though she is speaking their lives, something she builds on.

“I know that some people, they won’t be able to express themselves. There are people like me that probably won’t be able to sing out how they feel and stuff like that… and I’m glad that people can relate to it.”

It’s similar to her approach to the production of her tunes. As much as she is open to taking on the interpretation of her music through the eyes of others, there is a symbiotic relationship with her audience. She sings for those, like herself, who find it hard to talk about how they feel, what they are going through. And this theme of openness – raw honesty – continues on the new album.

Devil’s Living In My Shadow alludes to demons, almost as though they haunt you, stalking you, while Talk Sweet To Me seems to be a simple refrain on the desire to be loved, to be appreciated. But it is the tune, Empty Hall, which is significant, not just in terms of personal reflection, but speaks to one of several delays in the album release.

A break up with her long time partner, by whom that tune was inspired, led her to a period of change in direction.

“There was some music that is not on the album now. I wanted to change some stuff, and that’s when Empty Hall and stuff like that was written. I sent them a bunch of new stuff to create, and that probably took some time.”

A need to have some personal down-time rode the decision, whilst also trying to balance deadlines that needed to be met and managed.

“There’s people waiting on you, people that are working, and that’s a lot of pressure,” she admits, a refrain coincidentally familiar from the Amy Winehouse story.

Coupled with delays from the Truth & Soul side of the equation, it all meant that the release of ‘Brown Girl’ is now scheduled for July of this year.

In terms of her personal life, her partner and she have reconciled, and in turn her music has become cathartic in regards to their relationship. It again talks to the ability of Aaradhna’s music to reflect her real life, as well as reflect the lives of those around her. The importance of that diary-like nature of her music comes though again as a theme.

“Every song is part of a timeline,” she says, then with conviction adding, “But I’ll never forget every single feeling I had when I wrote the songs.”

From Melbourne we are heading to Auckland, where Aaradhna will perform the Brown Girl single at the Pacific Music Awards, followed by album showcases in Auckland and Wellington.

Along with touring her new songs, Aaradhna is touring a new band; a stripped-back trio consisting of Jeremy Toy (She’s So Rad, Leonard Charles, producer to many), Tom Broome (Esther Stephens & the Means, Homebrew) and myself, Chip Matthews (Homebrew).

“I love to do every other show differently and you know, not exactly the same,” she smiles saying she had always imagined these new songs as being stripped back.

We discuss how difficult it can be between finding the balance of audience expectations of how songs will sound, with the need for musicians to keep music fresh and exciting.

“It feels better, when I get to just, I dunno, just do a little different lick here and there. I’m not a robot – I just want it to be live – like, super live,” she laughs.

And with our flight now being called, Aaradhna reflects the anticipation that’s building for her album release.

“I’ve been waiting for this.”