Being a Shankar

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By MOHUA DAS
  • Published 12.07.14
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After Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, the next progeny from the famed Shankar stable to watch out for is a doe-eyed girl with flowing tresses and magic fingers called Gingger Shankar. The eldest daughter of violinist L. Subramaniam and grandniece of sitarist Ravi Shankar, the “only girl in the world” to wield a 10-string double violin has charmed her way through making music for Hollywood. From scoring and singing for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Tom Hanks-starrer Charlie Wilson’s War to collaborating with Peter Gabriel, Smashing Pumpkins and now Katy Perry, Gingger has been striking the right chords sitting in LA. An email chat with the violinist-composer-singer-performer…

Gingger, that is a very interesting name! Tell us more…

Haha! The two ‘g’s in the middle were actually put there because an astrologer said my name would be more lucky that way. Right after that I got called for The Passion of the Christ and all my domain names were available, so no complaints.

Tell us about your growing-up years in India…

I actually was sent to Kalakshetra boarding school for dance and music (in Chennai) when I was five, so yes I lived there. Even before that, we would visit every summer or winter break. I spent a lot of time in Madras growing up, and Calcutta and Bombay in my teen and adult years. I have spent so much time there over my life and continue to be there at least once a year. I also grew up in Los Angeles studying music and dance. It was quite a contrast!

Tell us about your roots in music… training in vocals, violin and composing.

As I mentioned, I studied at Kalakshetra. I also had a lot of teachers growing up. My grandfather (V. Lakshminarayana) taught me violin from the time I was a child, my mother (Viji Shankar Subramaniam) and grandmother (Lakshmi Shankar, married to Uday and Ravi Shankar’s brother Rajendra) taught me vocals. I also had an opera teacher in the US as well as piano. I was always fascinated with opera as a child, so I started training with an incredible opera teacher in LA as a child and as a teenager. That led me to performing in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar as a soprano in Carnegie Hall and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As far as composing, I was chosen to attend the Sundance Composers Lab, which was a vigorous boot camp and workshop for up-and-coming composers. That definitely taught me so much about composing.

When did you move to the US?

I was born in Los Angeles and have always had a home base there no matter where I travel or live. I consider myself a child of India and the US.

How much has your family, rooted in musical history and traditions, played a part in shaping the artiste that you are today?

It has played a huge part. Growing up, I didn’t know that being a musician was a special thing. We grew up around music, going to concerts, performing. We were living and breathing music. I don’t think I could have done anything else if I tried!

What does having the last name ‘Shankar’ and belonging to that family lineage mean to you?

It took a long time to accept what coming from two extraordinary musical families really meant. Early on I felt a lot of pressure, especially when there was so much success around me. Now I feel proud and inspired to be part of such incredible lineages. My mother and my grandmother always showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to. The words of wisdom were along the lines of ‘always carry forward, be grateful and never give up’.

How have you managed to keep such a low profile despite having done some major work? Are you an introvert?

Haha, I don’t think of myself as an introvert. I am hermit at times, though.

When was the last time you were in India?

I was there twice last year working on various film projects including Monsoon Shootout that went to the Cannes Film Festival.

What about Calcutta?

I have been to Calcutta several times. Many of my family members live there. I come there every year. I am hoping to perform in Calcutta next year!

You play Carnatic classical on the violin. Is that what sets you apart in the west?

I make music that is a hybrid of my musical training — Indian classical, western classical and pop. I think that, plus the double violin, definitely gives me a unique sound.

How did you master the 10-string double violin?

Very slowly! It was definitely very challenging to learn. I actually started playing the violin and cello and found it difficult to carry many instruments around to shows and to mic them. The double violin covered the entire orchestra range, so once I started on that, I have always used it. It has such a unique sound and it plays such a big part in my live shows as well as my soundtrack scores.

How did The Passion of the Christ and Charlie Wilson’s War happen?

Composing for films was actually not planned. The music supervisor on Passion of the Christ had placed a piece of music with vocals and double violin in the film and Mel really liked it. I was brought in thinking I was going to work on one piece of music, but ended up working on over one third of the score. Passion of the Christ was pure luck. My voice was used for a lot of the darkest scenes, and we ended up recording in LA and London for the project. It was an interesting experience because I had no idea about the controversy around the film. We were in the studio for months and only after we were done did I hear all the press around it.

After that, I went to Robert Redford’s Sundance Composers Lab. That taught me so much and led me to so many other film projects including working with composer James Newton Howard on Charlie Wilson’s War. I met James Newton Howard, at the Sundance Composers Lab as one of my mentors. He asked me to come in and work on a piece for the film and I was terrified! They were recording in all these high-end multi-million-dollar studios, and I was working on my five-year-old laptop! It all worked in the end, and that remains one of my favourite projects. It also led me into working with George Clinton on Mike Myer’s Love Guru and composing music for the Sundance Audience Award Winner Circumstance.

You also sang for Jackie Chan’s The Forbidden Kingdom

My friend and amazing composer David (Buckley) was doing the music for the film and I was asked to come in and sing on it. I loved the music and it was a fun experience.

You recently played the double violin in Katy Perry’s Legendary Lovers… how did that come about?

I was contacted by uber producer Dr. Luke and I did all the strings on Legendary Lovers. I’ve been a fan of Katy’s for a long time, so I was thrilled. It was such a fantastic experience working on the song. Dr. Luke is the top producer in pop music and being able to be in that space and work with him was amazing.

You’ve collaborated with Katy Perry, Phil Collins, Steve Vai, Peter Gabriel, Steve Lukather, Smashing Pumpkins…. What kind of creative force do they look for in Gingger Shankar?

I think they look for a unique and creative sound.

Which collaboration has been your most memorable and why?

That is a really tricky question! I think the most recent most memorable collaboration was with multi-platinum writer Linda Perry who I co-wrote songs with for my upcoming album. Being in a studio with someone of that talent (she wrote Beautiful for Christina Aguilera, most of Pink’s hits like Get the Party Started, Gwen Stefani’s Wonderful Life, etc.) was very overwhelming. But she was such a nurturing and giving songwriter. She definitely pushed me to new heights.

What have you grown up listening to?

Everything! Beatles, Madonna, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Ella Fitzgerald, Bach, Billie Holiday.

And what are you currently listening to?

It completely depends on my mood! There are days where I need complete silence.

Who’s been your biggest influence in music?

My mother has been my biggest influence in music and in life.

Have you ever wanted to be a part of the Bollywood film industry?

Absolutely! I’d love to work on a Bollywood film.

What made you set up Little Girl & The Robot (a music company that specialises in music production, editing and supervision in LA and New York)?

It was a name I had in my head for quite some time and thought it was a great way to showcase a lot of my film and commercial music.

Your description on online sites reads ‘model’. Tell us more about this side of you…

I grew up modelling and enjoyed it. I love fashion and I think music and fashion go hand in hand. I worked with various companies modelling for clothing and music companies. What I really want is to meet upcoming designers in India to collaborate with.

What projects are you currently busy with?

I’m working on an album and tour, which will start fall this year. I’m also working on a multimedia project about the incredible women in my family with Dave Liang (The Shanghai Restoration Project) and artiste Sun Yunfan.

How do you unwind?

Shut off my phone, shut off my computer. I love the Korean spas in LA, I also love to eat! Those are usually how my very rare days off are spent!