Monica Dogra: A New Debut
The singer-actor on her first solo album, “simple” lifestyle, and creating a new kind of art
Monica Dogra can’t stand comparisons, especially those that club her artistry with that of her peers. “I work very hard to be just who I am…And because of that I have a desire to exist in my own space, so comparisons generally just make me uncomfortable,” says Dogra. The Indian-American singer-turned-actor might seem to occupy a very secure niche in the indie music space but she says it’s not safe enough. All she asks of people is to leave her alone and not judge her. She is just an artist trying to push a few boundaries in the still-nascent independent music scene in India. “I am constantly dealing with this vibe of people saying that I am a diva… because certain things in my life have happened – like films and brand endorsements – other people change. Their perception of you changes,” says Dogra aka Shaa’ir, the one half of electro pop duo Shaa’ir + Func. As she goes solo with her debut album Spit, which released in January, Dogra talks about ambition, her deepest vulnerabilities and why she wants more from the indie music scene in India.
You said previously that since you’ve been part of so many collaborations, you were worried about what you’d have to offer to yourself on your debut album.
When I started out in the music scene, there weren’t too many women. I think I got comfortable in a space where there was no one. And then there were a lot of duos, girl/guy duos…I was asked to be a guest singer on this person and that person’s album. That made me feel I wanted to do something for myself, to define my sound.
This [Spit] is letter A in the alphabet for me. I want to build many things that haven’t been explored in India. But it takes time and effort, and money. Lots of money. And no one’s coming in and funding anything for me. I fund everything myself, so that’s difficult but it’s doable.
But it must be easier now that there is so much going for you?
My lifestyle hasn’t changed at all, but I am doing a lot better in terms of working in avenues where I do get paid. And because my lifestyle hasn’t changed – I’m a very simple person – I can take that money and produce good music videos. I can pay for things that go back to the art.
Randolph [Correia] is one of the guest artists on ‘Spit’. From working together for many years to having him guest on a track, how was the experience?
It was so much fun; it was amazing. I was recording at Gaurav’s [Raina] studio. And I did make a deal out of it – I made sure he had a little rum and all…He doesn’t want to be the guy who produces, mixes and masters everything. Sometimes he just wants to pick up the guitar and be a guitar player. Of course, he did help me with production.
‘Spit’ has released on Universal Music. Does being signed to a big label help?
No, it doesn’t help. No one is looking at developing artists in India, even if the artist has a standout reach and I think I have worked to the point that I think I do. Devraj Sanyal [MD & CEO, South Asia, Universal Music Group] is helping me personally, but the conglomerate – unless they see that independent music makes money, they aren’t going to invest. I could have easily become a Bollywood playback singer and then I would have got investment. If I was like a Hard Kaur or… that kind of music speaks to the masses.
Any duos that you are fond of, from the ones you mentioned have come up lately?
I am fond of them all. Every time I see a woman on stage in the indie music scene, I can relate to that, how hard it is to do that. I think Madboy/Mink are doing great things; it’s just that I don’t like being compared to people. So whenever I feel that things are happening or occupying a space where I was once pioneering, I want to move into new space.
I have done six release tours already, I played all the venues in the country, every festival in the country, and they aren’t growing at the rate I want to grow at. In fact, many people who have managed me – and I have been managed by everyone, pretty much – they would say, ‘Your ambitions don’t match what we can deliver’.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for things not going fast enough but I only blame people for not dreaming. And I am constantly dealing with this vibe of people saying that I am a diva, I know people say a lot of things about me, and even if they know me personally. But because certain things in my life have happened – like films and brand endorsements – other people change. Their perception of you changes.
In the indie music scene, bands get paid anywhere from five thousand rupees a show to say a lakh; the best bands, around four or five lakh. But examine Bollywood, and it’s between five to 25 lakh. And it is sad, I feel.
If my expectation is something, it doesn’t mean that I am a diva but that I am an artist on another level and I am a proponent of the music scene being bigger than what it is today. Artists need infrastructure, we need money, to buy better gear, to play better shows, to produce better content. I don’t have family here, I’ve got no one in India besides myself and I can’t ask my aunties or my uncles to give me shit.
You said you hate being compared with other artists. But actually, you have set a benchmark of sorts for others. You occupy a very safe position.
No, I never feel safe. I never feel I have done enough. I never feel successful. Those are things I never feel. See, I have known Saba [Azad; Madboy/Mink] forever, I have known [singer-actor] Anushka Manchanda forever, they were singing when I was singing, we’re all the same age; it’s just that she [Saba] started now and I started then. Anushka and I at one point were compared constantly, and it was even harder on our friendship, because as an artist – particularly for me.
I never feel safe. I never feel I have done enough. I never feel successful.
I work very hard to be just who I am, I haven’t changed myself at all to fit into a model or an expectation of what I ought to be. And because of that, I have a desire to exist in my own space, so comparisons generally just make me uncomfortable. It’s not about who I am being compared to, unless the person I am being compared is like ‘Oh my god, I’d die to be that’ like Björk or Joan Baez or Patti Smith, I like that, but comparisons closer to home make me feel I am not doing my job well. That’s why it bugs me. Saba is gorgeous and Anushka is super hot, and we are all contemporaries, but I don’t want people to see me and think of them or see them and think of me.
But such things happen even with actors all time, so you can’t avoid it, I guess?
You can’t avoid it for sure, it happens. It’s just something I don’t like, but it’s something that will constantly motivate me, the same way that I don’t like doing what I have already done over and over again.
Tell us more about the album and the title ‘Spit’; it kind of attacks you when you read that word.
Spit for me is nakedness, it is uncensored, raw, it’s about saying what you feel like. When I went to write the record, I thought , Am I just saying things because they expect me to do that?’. Then, I was like ‘No, I will name my album ‘Spit’ because this is coming straight from my guts and it’s just coming out’. And I also knew that it was one of those words that people might have a negative feeling about, but the word’s lovely – it’s what we kiss with, what we love with, what we digest with; it’s fluid like love.
Spit is a snapshot of the last three years of my life. It is a summary of how I felt about all the people around me…When I was publicly shamed with thousands of people who I had very real relationships with, them sharing posts and liking, retweeting things, as if I wasn’t going to see it, but saw it. I mean, people who have lived in my house, people whose babies I have held, who I was close to.
You mean what happened with the ‘Shiver’ Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign [which drew flak]?
Yes. You know I can’t be talking to you right now and then go ‘that bitch’, because it is a contract for me, it’s a promise to keep it real. If I don’t like you, I won’t talk to you; I won’t be this invested and be something different five seconds later.
But you saw that happen to you a lot?
With everybody, yes. And it just made me feel, ‘Nothing’s real, no one’s real, so what’s the point.’ …But after all the hate that came after the crowdfunding campaign, I’m still here and still releasing the album, so it’s fine.
You seem very wary of being in the spotlight…
I feel on one level, you have to not bother but then you also have to care. You cannot not care. I was a judge on [reality singing contest] The Stage and now after the show is over, I get so many calls from some of the kids and they tell me, ‘You know this one is talking about my body, about my dress’. I tell them, ‘Guys, welcome to the club’. Because it sucks… I have lost five kgs this year because it affected me so much!
How did you take the backlash to ‘The Stage’?
I wasn’t listening to the backlash from The Stage because I was still reeling from the backlash to my crowdfunding campaign. With The Stage, it was just like, people were saying dumb things that made no sense to me at all.
Watch the first single off ‘Spit’ “Say What You Like” below.