Catharsis, Divinity & The Breaking Of Genres: A Conversation With Aish Divine

With a background in Hindustani classical music, a BA in composition and a minor in vocals, there is no doubt that Aish Divine knows what he is doing. He has also studied jazz and improv among other things — as a result, his music relies on a variety of sounds from all over the world, and is, in his own words, masaledaar.

Photo Credit: Lia Larrea

As someone who is always looking for meaningful conversations, speaking with musician Aish Divine is magical — or, for lack of a better word, divine. Based in New York, the musician and songwriter is enthusiastic, warm, and meditative.

These are also qualities reflected in his music: Aish Divine’s debut album Mother is heavily orchestral, and encapsulates themes of accepting his queerness, and contemplating over his turbulent relationship with his family and motherland. The singer’s newest record, The Sex Issue, is more textured, with electronic influences that flow magically alongside chamber music. The album has a variety of songs: from the heavy Sadness, to the more poppy, danceable BBC, and the retro-inspired title track.

With a background in Hindustani classical music, a BA in composition and a minor in vocals, there is no doubt that Aish Divine knows what he is doing. He has also studied jazz and improv among other things — as a result, his music relies on a variety of sounds from all over the world, and is, in his own words, masaledaar. Experimentation, change, and individuality is important to Aish Divine; he sees his albums as beings of their own, and himself as a parent letting them out into the world. In a world with endless art, there is no doubt that Aish Divine stands out brilliantly, and is an artist who has managed to break through the boundaries of music, and transcend.

Q: You released The Sex Issue late last year. When did you start working on it, and did Covid-19 have an effect on your creativity or working style?

The album came out on December 4th, and the virus did affect it — but I had written the music before Covid hit. The thing that Covid-19 affected was the release date. I wanted to release the album earlier and tour on it, but that wasn’t possible anymore, and we had to push it by six months. I am writing a new album now, though: the sound is very different, and Covid does impact my process. It’s hard not to see other people, but it’s bringing a whole different sound to my music.

Q: I’ve seen a lot of artists experiment more boldly and switch to drastically different styles during Covid. Is that something like what you’re doing?

It’s a different sound, but it being a different sound isn’t because of Covid. If you listen to my first album, for example, it’s all big orchestral strings. The Sex Issue is more electronic. Every album is its own being, its own person — and just as people are individuals, so are albums. So, the third record is a very different sound because it’s an individual of its own.

Q: Even within The Sex Issue, every song has a different energy, and there’s a great variety. Did you have a specific sound in mind while creating the album? Any influences?

I wish I could give you an influence, but I like to think of it more in terms of inspiration, like a spirit that embodies me. The people who inspire me — and who sometimes possess me, if you will — are David Bowie and Nina Simone. Nina Simone is a very real, direct, reflective artist. And David Bowie has fun with whatever he makes. Every record of his had a different sound, a different personality, a different character. My inspiration is to that extent. I really wasn’t thinking of a genre while creating the record — I think that genre is dead. I wasn’t thinking of a certain artist to sound like. I want my work to be free. I don’t want rules around it. But the closing track The Sex Issue sounds like it’s straight out of the 80s. What I get from it, often, is that it sounds like A-ha’s Take On Me. I love that song. I thought about how to make it more contemporary, that’s why it’s so minimal and sparse.

Photo Credit: Joe Martinez Jr

Q: When you create music, does it feel scary to put yourself out there? Or is it a cathartic experience for you to just sort of get it all out?

There’s catharsis any time there’s humans. If not for art, what are we living for? We can all find ways to resolve our basic needs, and every other species on earth does it somehow. But what we can do — the divine, magical gift we have — is to make something so evolved, something so artistic. That’s a gift that needs to be done something with.  So, catharsis is such a personal thing. Any time I make art, there’s something that possesses me, and that’s catharsis. It’s the catharsis that could be talking about an experience that happened to me, or resolving something that is happening to me. The Sex Issue is about that — it’s part autobiographical, part cathartic. And that catharsis is mine. I cannot expect you to feel the same catharsis. In fact, if you do feel catharsis listening to this music, I hope it’s your own catharsis, in your own way, of your own experiences. Although, when I was younger as an artist, I released my first album very, very slowly, because I was so afraid to let go. As a parent of my work, I was afraid to let go of my children. The album — Mother — was very personal. The Sex Issue is a lot more dancey and boppable, it’s got a lot more texture to it. But Mother is a very vulnerable album, it’s heartbreaking, it’s about how my family broke apart. To put that vulnerability out did feeldenuding, like I was naked in front of people. It was difficult. But with the second record, I ran out of fucks to give. I knew there’s going to be angry people, trolls, people who love it — and it’s their choice to feel the way they want to. As I’m growing older, I’m more secure about my work. As you get older and do more work, you start to care less about what others think, how people feel. You just start to care about how you can make that thing you’re creating the most beautiful that will make the listeners feel something.

Q: How do you hope your music makes listeners feel?

That’s a tough question because we’re sentient beings, and we have a different way of processing and creating. Art and technology are things that separate us from a lot of other beings. That doesn’t make us superior. What makes us able to make art is the fact that we can sew or embroider our feelings into what we create. And that, to me, is divine. So, for my art to get to a listener, is just a magical idea. I have made some frequencies, and it is reaching your body through your ears, and it is invoking a certain feeling in you. That is just divine. Sure, there is physics behind it, but isn’t it magical? I want people to feel that magic. I want them to feel blood flowing through their body when they listen to my music. I want art to move, and I wouldn’t go beyond that because our feelings are so personal to us, and my art is a child that I made, but I have let go of it. So anybody can feel any way about it. I respect and appreciate people who love it, critics who may not love some work. I appreciate trolls too, who haven’t even heard the music, but the look of it, the idea of it, is difficult for them. So, I don’t have an expectation. Just as when you raise a child — it’s a very hard thing for a child who was raised with expectations to be someone, or make somebody do something or feel something for themselves. That’s how I feel about music. I don’t have an expectation of how people should feel. All I want for my music to do is make people feel something.

Q: Was your process of creating The Sex Issue different from previous music?

Yes, it was very different. Before I went solo, I was in a band, and it was a different process then. My first solo album Mother is very orchestral, and the process tends to be that you write strings, then you put a beat — the recording process is very different. Strings are a very living, breathing thing, and when you combine them with electronics, it has to sound just right, otherwise it’ll sound very cold. You have to mess with electronics to make them sound warm, and like they’re a part of the music you’re playing live. The writing process was also different because for Mother, I was writing from a place of grief and heartbreak and loss. It was very focused because I was dealing with a lot of depression at the time, and I had to work some stuff out. For The Sex Issue, I would just walk in with a beat and sing phrases to it, and the writing would be done in the studio. That’s why it felt much more immediate. For the first album, I’d been writing at home, and turned my poetry into songs.

Q: I was talking to a friend about this, and the reason that I like The Sex Issue so much is because it’s so vulnerable. And there’s something so special, I think, about queer vulnerability especially — because it takes so long to be at peace with yourself. Do you think your music will connect more with a particular group of people? Do you have a specific audience in mind?

I don’t have a particular audience in mind. Going back to the analogy of children: if I had a queer child, would I expect them to be only in queer circles? No. I’d expect them to go everywhere, and be exactly who they are, and let the world interpret them in whatever way, as long as they’re secure of who they are. I don’t write music thinking “this is for queer people” or “this is for straight people.” I can’t speak for India, but in the US, queer people’s rights have really accelerated beyond even black people, whose rights are still being encroached upon. For queer people, there’s still a long way to go — but it didn’ttake that long for us to become legitimate, and for the public opinion to change in favour of queer people. And that’s because we are intersectional — we are brown, black, white, poor, rich, male, female. Queerness cuts across all sections of society. Being queer is a part of me, but I don’t expect it to be a part of my audience. What I do want to do is kill the line between what is queer music, and what is not queer music. I want to live in a world — and this might sound post-progressive — where we aren’t so concerned and consumed by identity. I don’t want to be listened to because I’m a brown person. That being said, the queer perspective definitely comes through because that’s who I am. I don’t write about a queer perspective, I just write my perspective.

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Gramigna

Q: That’s something that a lot of artists have talked about: not wanting to be pigeonholed into this one section of music or pushed into stereotypes, and only be marketed to one specific type of audience.

What bothers me is it’s when people go “oh, this is a queer artist, this is a brown artist, this is a black artist, and we must have them because we need to be diverse.” It’s like putting an ointment on a problem that’s much deeper. It’s tokenizing. And it vanquishes my identity as an individual. Now, I’m only under layers and layers of blankets of identification. It’s good for some artists because there is a systemic issue in the industry, and once you get a foot in the door, you get to mess with it, and shake it up. And particularly a legion of black artists have done that.

Q: Do you think the industry treats people of colour or queer people differently?

Yes and no. I think anything that happens between two entities is a co-construction. Look at Freddie Mercury — he was never a queer artist, never a brown, Indian artist. I mean, he was fair-skinned so maybe he could pass. But maybe, it’s a function of time. Maybe identity wasn’t such a big deal at that time. So, the expectations on Farrokh Bulsara or Freddie Mercury did not exist. Now, the industry has realised that it’s not diverse and there’s a problem with it. There have been people who’ve shown themselves to be brown, queer, etcetera, but not individuals to cut through and become a part of the main idea. I’ll give you an example. There’s the band The White Stripes, they’re quite big in the rock scene. For my first album Mother, I talked to a record label executive here in New York. I used to live in San Francisco and I flew all the way to New York with my dreamy big eyes, thinking “Maybe I’ll sell this record to somebody.” Little did I know I had walked into one of those offices of, you know — straight white man, looking to make money, no bad intention, he’s just a businessperson. And he’s like, “Do you know who just walked out before you came in? It was Jack White.” And I said, “Wow, I love Jack White!” He said, “Jack White has something special about him. He comes from a family of upholsterers. He knows everything about upholstery. The sofa he’s sitting on — he told me about what kind of layers, what the technique was — see, that’s different about him. What is different about you?” And I just looked at him and I thought: you have no idea, I have travelled across continents, I am an immigrant, I didn’t have the same stepping stones, and my music is nothing like Jack White’s. He is definitely not making orchestral music with electronics. All that went through my head, and I thought okay, I get it. I went back to my studio to my producer who I love. He’s a straight white man from Wisconsin, and I told him about it, and the first thing he said was, “Oh, yeah, Jack White. That’s what we need. Another white man with a guitar.” It didn’t even occur to me that that was going on, and this other white man was able to see it. All these white men with guitars, and they keep coming up. So, there is a problem. These people aren’t bad people, they’re just scared. They’re scared because they don’t think they can sell. Another example would be Beyonce. Beyonce doesn’t do interviews often, and she did an interview and took over the cover of Vogue in around 2018. In her piece, she told Vogue that even now, people tell her “black don’t sell”. If that’s happening to the number one pop star of the world, what do you think is happening to everybody else? So, yes, there is a systemic issue with how people are treated. But I also don’t want to pander to tokenization. I’m not going to ethnify my music. In the first record, there’s zero South Asian influence. In this record, there’s a lot, because internally, I’m reconstituting my identity. I’m trying to figure out what these pieces of my identity are. I’ve been separated from my family for a while, and I haven’t been to India in about 15 years. But I recognise that I’m Indian as I get older. So, my work will be different and as a result it will be treated differently.

Q: Do you ever feel the pressure to represent since there’s so few mainstream Desi artists?

No. Because if I represented Desi, queer, South Asian, brown artists, I’d be doing them a disservice because I’d be erasing who they are. You and I are different people. You represent your brownness in a very different way than I do. And if I were to represent you, then I’m erasing you. Also, the pressure to represent does unnatural things to your work. It’s not real then, it’s a performance. And who can connect with work that is not real? I do feel the need to make room and pave a path. Any opportunity I get, I will help somebody who’s good and underrepresented.

Q: Do you think the industry is changing in an authentic way, or does it still feel like tokenism?

I think it’s just the beginning. First, this problem wasn’t paid attention to because the market was for white people, and there was a whole separate market for black music. There were very segregated markets. As a result, we found very segregated genres like country, rap, hip-hop. What’s killing the genre is pop music. Because pop is a vehicle you can do anything with. Anything can be pop. For example, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus — they did a thing, and that’s an example of how, culturally, two different genres integrated and killed the genre, as a result. When genres get killed, the industry starts to see a little shake up and movement. Established markets are being usurped. So, yes, the industry is changing, and now, the people in it are scrambling to figure out what they should do. As millennials, I think — or at least, I personally — don’t care as much about identity. I care about a diverse taste, like my album has so many flavours. I want a landscape. People in my generation and younger want that variety, we seek that variety. So, the establishment is getting a real shakeup, the future market wants different. It’s just the beginning of a much larger change. And I feel very grateful and lucky and proud to be at the forefront at it.

Q: Have you been to India, by the way?

I went to high school in Delhi, and I would go to Bombay sometimes. I think it was the 90s. I found New Delhi to be a bit of a difficult place to be, but Mumbai — the people are incredible, it’s so progressive. It’s a whole different kind, it felt so safe.

Q: What is your relationship with India like?

I have a really interesting relationship with India. I love the land — in Mother, I’m asking the questions: what is motherland, what is homeland? When I was in New Delhi, it was such a cultural shock. People weren’t kind. And when I stepped out of New Delhi and went to the mountains or even Mumbai, people were so incredible. So I have a very conflicted relationship with India. Also, being a kid who was different — I was somebody who had an accent, somebody who was chubby, and hadn’t realised they were gay. I did ‘act queer’, in a way — I was quite creative, I had a very specific sense of how to dress. I just didn’t know how and why that was the case. So, I was bullied a lot, even outside of school. And my family had a really hard time with me being gay. A lot of people would randomly make jokes about queer people in an unkind way. There was also a lot of violence. But, India is still supposed to be the motherland, it’s still supposed to be a gift. So many incredible things came out of India. A lot of history of the world is based around finding India.But I still haven’t found it. So, I have a very conflicted relationship with India.

Photo Credit: Joe Martinez Jr

Q: Your vocals are so powerful, and I was wondering if you had training for music, how you got into it as a career — the whole origin story.

Once music is inside you, it doesn’t leave you. I studied music, I went to college for music. I have a BA in composition, and a minor in voice, which is more rooted in the Graeco-Roman traditions of Western music format. And I studied Hindustani classical music as a child in Bhopal. Do you know Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? He’s a huge name in the East and the West, in Sufi music — he’s passed away, unfortunately. They come from a gharana, from a school of Sufi Hindustani music. And from the same gharana, there’s another famous act called the Ali Brothers. And I studied with Sukhawat Ali Khan in the States. Then obviously, learning in California — a more progressive place — in Berkeley, I learnt about the gamelan, which is an Indonesian instrument. That was more experimental, on the ethno-musicology side. I also studied jazz and improv, which is more from a blues perspective. So, I’ve studied all these forms and as a result, you get what you get. And what you get is a very different, spicy, delicious, masaledaar product — never a dull moment.

Q: How soon is your next project coming up? Any hints?

I don’t have a date. It’s still in the making, I’m still pregnant, and I don’t know how long the gestation will be. That’s why I’ve sort of taken a step back from being on social media, because I’m in another world right now. The next album thematically is going to be much more surreal. You’re going to see guitar, you’re going to see experimental sounds, you’re going to see surrealism. David Lynch is one of my favourite filmmakers, and he’s absolutely surreal — this show called Twin Peaks, this movie called Mulholland Drive — it’s weird. But he gets his dream sequences into film, and he weaves it into a story. So, the next record is going to be very surreal in that sense.

Q: To conclude, what is your dream collaboration?

My dream collaboration would be with David Bowie. I want David Bowie to be my producer. I will sing, and be in the video. Maison Margiela would be the art director and design the costumes, David Bowie will be the producer, David Lynch would be the director of the film, and my co-writer would be Fiona Apple. My voice coach would be Asha Bhosle. My spiritual coach would be Anohni. My final blessing would be Nina Simone.

About the author

Saachi Gupta

Saachi Gupta is an LGBTQ+ activist, animal lover and the author of 'With Love, or Something Like That.' She is a strong believer in equality amongst mankind.