UAE's Shilpa Ananth features on Grammy nominated album
Dubai-raised Berklee College of Music graduate lent vocals to record, ONA
In a story befitting a movie, Dubai-born Indian vocalist Shilpa Ananth completed a standard degree back in Bangalore, was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, moved to the States and whilst on holiday back in the UAE earlier this year had to give up her life in New York as it became increasingly clear she would not be able to return as a result of the pandemic. Oh, and while over here she managed to put together a remote music video, secure employment as a teacher and be nominated for a Grammy at this year’s now postponed ceremony. Here we find out how.
First off, tell us about growing up in Dubai.
I studied at The Kindergarten Starters until fourth grade and then Our Own English High School until I finished my 12th. My dad has lived in Dubai for 40 years now, working for the government, and my mum works at a bank. My parents wanted me to have a traditional Indian upbringing and so by the age of three I was already attending classical music ‘Carnatic’ voice lessons, and a few years after that I also began taking classical dance ‘Bharathanatyam’ lessons. Competing as a finalist in the national-level UAE vocal competition ‘Best of the Best’ made me fall in love with the stage, and further strengthen my resolve to be an artist.
How did you get to Berklee?
My first degree was in Media Communications and Psychology, from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. Though it was very different from music, it served as a potential Plan B, just in case things didn’t go as planned. I was still actively competing in local karaoke, and state collegiate-level music competitions, so I never gave up on my dream. When my brother found out that Berklee College of Music was touring and holding auditions in Mumbai, I didn’t think twice about following that clear sign, and applied immediately. I was actually accepted and that too on a merit scholarship! Though it wasn’t easy for them, after seeing how much it meant to me, my parents finally decided to let me travel halfway across the world to pursue my passion. I graduated from there with a Degree in Professional Music, and took music theory, voice private instruction, ensemble, music business, songwriting, and performance classes.
Did you embark on a career as a professional musician straight away? How soon did ONA by Thana Alexa come into your life?
I moved to New York City to start the real life hustle of being a professional musician. I started working on the songs from my debut album Indian Soul, and realised that my calling was to fuse the styles from my background in the East, with the Jazz, RnB, Soul styles I had studied from the West. I joined an all-female, vocal group named ROSA, created by Aleksandra Denda, where we sang traditional Serbian music. This was around 2014. It was during one of our concerts at the Carnegie Hall, four years later, that we were discovered by Thana Alexa, an incredible Croatian-American vocalist and musician. She invited us to be featured vocalists on her album ONA, for the title track of the same name. It is now nominated for two trophies at the upcoming 63rd Grammy Awards 2021. It has changed my life because I now feel what I considered out of reach is in fact very much possible regardless of a very unpredictable and volatile year.
You’ve bagged a job teaching at Berklee Abu Dhabi whilst stuck here during the New York lockdown.
I came to Dubai to visit my family in March just after my music tour around India came to an end. I was supposed to spend a month with them and then head back to New York, when life as I knew it changed completely, and we went into lockdown. I had to keep postponing my flight tickets, until we decided to just cancel them. All my shows were cancelled in the US, and my landlord wanted me to clear out if I wasn’t sure when I’d be heading back. My friends went to my apartment, packed everything up for me, and helped move my stuff out. It was surreal, I was in shock and grieving the loss of my adopted home. During this time, I reached out to the Admin team at Berklee Abu Dhabi and one thing lead to another and after several rounds of interviews, I secured the position to join the faculty there! In a way it worked out to be the best turn of events because I would not have been able to pursue such an opportunity had I gone back to NY as planned in April.
And you created a song during your time with your family?
I wrote Align and released it early last year. I then embarked on a tour around India for the best part of two months. During the lockdown in March while I was in Dubai, it became clear that all my upcoming gigs were to be cancelled, and that I would not be able to travel back to the US, I had no other choice but to sit down and face the emptiness. I started working on a remix version of Align with a Brooklyn-based friend and collaborator, ARKTKT, and we soon created Align 2.0. I barely knew anyone in the entertainment industry here, and it was important to create a music video for the song, so I started from ground up, talking to people, connecting with their recommendations, creating a vision for the video, and trying to get as many people to believe in it as I did. Ken Del Rosario from The Studio, Dubai, was the first person to be involved in the project, and agreed to direct it. After close to two months of working long hours, and getting all the right people on board, I finally had my dream crew ready. I felt honoured to have the opportunity to work with all of these industry titans, and my main take away is that despite all the uncertainty of the pandemic, our livelihood being unstable, and emotions running high from not knowing what the future may be, all of us coming together in absolute alignment as we did that day was a huge win for those who dare to follow their passion.