Anoushka Shankar And Norah Jones: Half-Sisters Collaborate At Last | Texas Public Radio

Anoushka Shankar And Norah Jones: Half-Sisters Collaborate At Last

Oct 20, 2013
Originally published on October 20, 2013 7:02 pm

Anoushka Shankar began playing sitar with her famous father, the late Ravi Shankar, when she was 4. But until recently, she'd never entered a studio with her other famous relative, half-sister Norah Jones.

When the two met up in New York recently to work on a new song together, a spooky thing happened: Working off Shankar's lyrics, Jones devised a tune that sounded remarkably similar to one their father had written in 1955 for the acclaimed Bengali film Pather Panchali.

"And when I said that to her, I was surprised to find out that she'd never heard that melody before," Anoushka Shankar says. "And it just felt like a lovely affirmation that we were on the right track."

That song, "Unsaid," is one of several collaborations on Shankar's new album, Traces of You. She discusses the making of the record with NPR's Arun Rath. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

When master sitar player Ravi Shankar died last December, he left behind a couple of daughters who followed in his footsteps, though along very different paths and on different continents. Norah Jones was born in Brooklyn. I'm sure you've heard her sing.


NORAH JONES: (Singing) I waited till I saw the sun. I don't know why I didn't come.

RATH: Half a world away, her half-sister, Anoushka Shankar, studied sitar at their father's side.


RATH: For Anoushka Shankar's new album, "Traces of You," she and Norah decided to record together, and it was during those sessions that their father died. They'd only worked together once before, so this was a new way to bond.

ANOUSHKA SHANKAR: Yeah. It was a really amazing experience to get to work with her, actually. You know, whenever I get to work with someone I actually love and am close to, it adds another special dimension to the musical collaboration.

RATH: The first song featuring your sister, it's called "The Sun Won't Set." And you have a lovely explanation for the title of that song. Could you talk about it?

SHANKAR: Yeah. Well, when I wrote the song, I was with Nitin Sawhney, my producer on the record. And I was sort of explaining to him how I wanted to get some emotions out around the fact that my father wasn't well at the time. It was still a few months before he passed away. But I didn't want to be really direct about it.


SHANKAR: (Singing) The sun won't set, not now, not yet...

I know that my dad's name Ravi means sun in Sanskrit, and so I was toying with the idea of the sun won't set, not now, not yet, as a refrain to play around. And the whole song is kind of using the idea of sun as a poetic place keeper for his name, really.


SHANKAR: (Singing) Golden ember spinning around the day is almost done. I wonder how it felt beneath the early sun. Each sunset keeps me still, the tree has shed its leaves. The wind, the evening change is hardest to resist.

RATH: You mentioned your producer Nitin. And remarkably, he also lost his father while you were recording this album. And I'm wondering about how, you know, that worked in with all of this. How did it work through the sessions you were doing?

SHANKAR: Well, it was something really huge that hung over the entire process, as you can imagine. And, you know, obviously, neither of us could have imagined we'd both simultaneously be going through that while working together. And so it influenced all of the music. And perhaps, you know, I can't obviously speak for him, but I hasten to guess it was a place that both of us could kind of put some of our emotions around that stuff. And there was a way in which we could quite uniquely write together about emotions that are actually quite personal because we were going through them at the same time.


RATH: And he's a pianist, a really remarkable pianist, in addition to producing and doing other things that we hear on the album. I'm kind of amazed by how well he can blend the sitar with the piano, because I think, you know, the tunings are so different and the scales are so different. But - how do you work that out with him?

SHANKAR: Well, Nitin is known for his ability to blend styles and work within an area of different cultures of music. And he's an amazing guitar player, pianist. And the piano can often cover the sitar with its resonance, and he was very sensitive about the way he approached the piano when we would work with sitar and piano together. As far as the tuning goes, I'm quite used to that because I worked with Western music a lot. And when I do that, I do have to slightly alter the micro-tuning of the sitar to kind of fit Western scales a bit better.

RATH: One of my favorite tracks on the album - and I have a lot of favorites on the album, there's some really beautiful stuff.

SHANKAR: Thank you.

RATH: But in particular, "Metamorphosis" is a beautiful piece. And it incorporates Sanskrit chanting that - ordinarily, you'd hear it as a single priest doing that in a temple. But you have it as kind of like a harmonized chorus, almost.


SHANKAR: I did that with two lovely singers who are based in San Diego, actually. And we recorded it and doubled it up to make it sound quite symphonic and full. And if one's ever heard, you know, a room full of priests reciting chants together, it's incredibly powerful. I always get goose bumps when I hear that. And I wanted to try and emulate that, but, of course, kind of set it to a particular tempo within the song and stuff. But it's recited very much within the traditional style.


RATH: Well, it's interesting being able to blend those things because, you know, to speak in sort of rough terms, Indian classical music tends to be so melodically oriented and there's not the harmonies the way that there are in Western-composed music. And to sort of hear them together, it's an interesting feeling.

SHANKAR: It's a tough one that - it's got a really fine line where you tip in one direction or the other, because sometimes I work in a way that harmony can only be used in ways that employ notes that are in a raga and that can sound very pleasing to an Indian ear and sound somewhat simplistic or strange to someone who's more used to harmony. Similarly, you can go in the other direction and do more sophisticated harmonies underneath an Indian melody, and that might sound downright outrageous to an Indian ear because it's employing notes that aren't in the raga. So it's a really tough one to make a choice on. And, yeah, I tend to choose differently song to song, I find.


RATH: I love the story. It's kind of amazing about how Norah came up with the melody for the song "Unsaid." Could you tell the story?

SHANKAR: Yeah. "Unsaid" was - of the three songs we did together, this was the one we really wrote together from the ground up. And I knew I wanted there to be a third song when I was traveling to New York and didn't have it yet and started writing the lyrics on the plane, and I ended up with all the lyrics ready. But the melody I was singing them in my head didn't really seem to fit once I was showing it to her. But as she was sort of sitting with the words and at the piano starting to try out different things, it was sounding weirdly familiar to me.


JONES: (Singing) Love wasn't left unsaid...

SHANKAR: And I realized it was really close to the theme of "Pather Panchali" that my father - that our father - had composed decades ago.


RATH: For people who aren't familiar, that's a classic Indian film.

SHANKAR: And I've heard it said that it's like one of the best music and film marriages of all time as well, and so it's a very iconic melody. And when I said that to her, I was surprised to find out that she'd never actually seen that film and never heard that melody before. So it was a coincidence that she was singing me that melody. And it just kind of felt like a lovely kind of affirmation to me in a way that we were on the right track with that song, perhaps.


JONES: (Singing) Love wasn't left unsaid, thank you that was left unsaid. I see you may be left unsaid, I don't know what was said.

RATH: Anoushka, this was great. Thank you so much.

SHANKAR: Thank you.

RATH: Anoushka Shankar. Her new album is called "Traces of You."


RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.