Monica Dogra: ‘I’ve Learnt to Play the Game’
She will dance with the devil and she doesn’t need your approvalFeatures, News & Updates October 12, 2016
Monica Dogra has just gotten up from a nap when she opens the door of her apartment for me. I only faintly see her shape as she ushers me in and quickly disappears into an inside room, calling out her apology from there and requesting five minutes. She returns in a short while dressed in home clothes (a pair of weathered boyfriend jeans and gray tank top), her face looking like a dream without a trace of make-up on it. She woke up like this.
Singer, actor, television personality and an overall poster child of everything indie, Dogra appears candid enough during our hour-long chat but her responses are carefully considered. She takes her time while replying to probing questions and sometimes when she has nothing say, she says so. It troubles me no end that she doesn’t make much eye contact and chooses instead to fix her gaze on the objects in the room or look down at the cup of herbal tea she is nursing, sitting curled up on the sofa. Every few minutes, she flips her hair from one side parting to the other. When she is not looking at me, I steal a glance at her gorgeously slender body, especially her long arms and the ring she is wearing on her left index finger, fashionably wrapped between the joint and base. While talking, she isn’t evasive but cautious. Her famously free-spirited nature has brought her vitriolic press in the past and she’s definitely not taking chances. She admits she is even wary of meeting journalists. “I have learnt the hard way. I mean the “Shiver” hate article took stuff off my personal Facebook page and put it into public platforms and that wasn’t for public consumption,” she says as she saves her tea from a teabag that seems to be coming apart. I can’t take my eyes off her perfectly round silver nose ring.
Sometime during this hour-long chat I remind her of our last sit-down conversation, in January, ahead of the release of her debut album Spit. Back then, Dogra was still reeling from all the obnoxious things being spoken and written about her. Her defenses were up and even casual comparisons drawn between her and other women artists made her extremely uncomfortable, in her own words. But that was a long time go. The new, stronger Monica Dogra is growing a thick skin now. You can attack her artistry, choice of clothes or the decision to crowdfund a project, but none of that will stop her from doing what she feels right. Haters gonna hate. Plus there’s so much good work coming her way for her to even want to care about controversy. Woman, the Gloria Steinem docu-series that she was a part of, bagged an Emmy this season, her new EP is underway and the ambitious “Shiver” video released last month. “‘Shiver’ truly was the most massive project that I have taken on ever, as executive producer and creative director. I had my fingers in everything. I am writing checks on the side while I am co-directing actors, while I’m putting clothes on people or painting their faces, or while I am spot-boying.” Then there’s The Stage of course, the music show that she’s a judge on, which premiered its second season last month, apart from several collaborations. Overall, life’s been good and Dogra seems to be in a secure, happy place.
How exciting was it for you to be part of something that the legendary Gloria Steinem has conceptualized— she’s someone who made history back in the Seventies—and also bag an Emmy for it?
It was amazing. Woman as a series has done such incredible work just highlighting things that no one really knew about. When I was brought on board for the show, the fact that Gloria was producing it was a big draw for me, because I’ve been such an admirer of her work for so long. To be honest, I never met her or anything; I wish I had, but because I stay here in India, and they had a wrap party where everybody met each other but I wasn’t in America then so I didn’t get to meet her. I’m kind of in that phase, work wise, where it’s like, the responses and accolades and stuff… I know it’s happening and it sounds great, but I don’t really feel more excited about the recognition anymore; I guess that it’s kind of secondary to me. The fact that I stayed for 10 days on a reserve with families of missing and murdered women—that was the part that was crazy exciting for me. The fact that the show has received such great attention, that’s just press and PR, but the actual making of the work was magical and it was muddy and painful as well. I mean, imagine everybody I met had a sister or a mother who was murdered or raped. It was insane, but wonderful as well to know that I’m in this place now in my life. That was always the dream—to create work that started conversation, made space and developed empathy amongst people. And Woman aligns with that dream.
Do you feel privileged to be in this position where you started off as a musician but are now seen as someone who has a strong voice outside of the creative space? Is it daunting to live up to expectations?
Well, in the U.S., I am completely unknown. You know, I auditioned for this [Woman]. I literally stood out on the streets in Brooklyn near Vice’s office, walking up to random people. I created a pilot; I decided to talk to women who thread eyebrows for a living, and to talk to women about their relationship with hair and hair removal. So it was cool. In New York, no one knows who I am and I’m walking up to strangers and asking, ‘Hey do you do your eyebrows?’ or ‘Do you wax your armpits?’ and I would get them on camera responding to me on their relationship with their own body hair. And New York is the city where—and I’m in sure in India too—there are plenty of women who do not remove their body hair as an act of feminine equality. But on the flip side, there are plenty of immigrants, even illegal immigrants, who are from India, who thread eyebrows in order to make a living, in order to survive and become independent. And they’ve got huge thriving careers. They charge like 30 dollars just to thread some girl’s eyebrows. So, it is humbling for me, because in India, I’m on the cover of magazines, on television. But I like inserting myself into spaces where I have to prove that I’m innovative, empathetic, that I can think on the fly, that I can prove my artistry without a public persona to match up to. That’s one of the reasons why I keep going there, working and auditioning for things. I like having both.
“Now I know who my friends are and who my friends are not, and I really feel okay being alone.”
But isn’t it troubling that you’re a celebrity here and completely unknown there?
It’s not troubling at all, no. I know I’m so lucky to have what I have in India and to be given all of these insane opportunities. But, you know, I also love getting down and dirty on the streets, just learning and rediscovering who I am at any given moment in time.
Coming back to Woman, did you think that the show deserved the award given its hard-hitting subject? [It lost to the Netflix docu-series Making A Murderer]
It’s hard for me to say because I live a very simple life. I don’t watch anything. I am always wrapped up in my own creative process that I don’t really pay attention to… I don’t know what Woman was up against, to be frank.
Maybe that’s a good space to be in, because things affect you less then…
Sometimes my family and friends think it’s very weird of me. But in general, like when The Stage went on air, I didn’t watch it—not because I didn’t want to watch it—but because I am not attached to that part. I’m attached to making art. I am extremely, extremely excited-involved in my creative process and the making of everything. Maybe because I have lived in India for so long, nine years, and though I do care obviously about the way my work is received, I am not super attached to it anymore. So it’s a welcome surprise when these nominations happen, you know, to be nominated for an EMA [under the ‘Best India Act’ category], but it doesn’t make me feel more secure or less secure in any way about anything that I do.
That’s a very different you. The last time we spoke, it was in January, you’d said that you’re extremely sensitive to everything said about you and even comparisons that are drawn between you and newer artists make you very uncomfortable.
I have definitely experienced a major cleaning. So, now I know who my friends are and who my friends are not, and I really feel okay with being alone. Whereas the premise of the early stage of my career was all about community—and I still believe that we will benefit from a stronger community—I personally am now okay if I’m not in a community anymore. I am okay if it’s just two or three people and those are the ones I trust. And I make work that I want to make—I have released a lot of stuff since then, even more than I probably made in previous years and I gained so much just out of making art. I produced “Shiver”, Woman was a huge process for me, I am writing a new EP, I released Spit in January; yeah, I have changed. I feel if pain doesn’t change you, there’s no point in enduring it at all, you know. So, it did change me a lot and I definitely think that it changed me for the better. I feel like I do care quite a lot about my work and the people I love but I don’t really care for people’s approval anymore. In fact, I am starting to see how when met with controversy and disapproval, chances are that I am doing something right.
But doesn’t being a lone ranger make it difficult for you to bag projects and function in this industry?
You know, I’m really lucky because I’ve spent so much time literally digging a space that is so explicitly my own that in India especially, everything that comes my way is because I am who I am. I’m never asked to be somebody I am not. Brands associate with me because of who I am, not because of anything else. That is vindicating because, in the beginning, I was so different and so weird that people would be like ‘I don’t know what to do’ but now, I am good, yeah.
When you look back at your earlier work, the first few videos that you released, do you see another person now?
Oh yeah. Some things are still completely the same. My manager says, ‘No matter how many photo shoots or red carpet she does, she will always be a hippie chick talking about crystals and her water, taking her own agarbattis to the studio when she records,’ which is very true. I see a maturity in my work now. I think I’ve learnt to play the game. But along the way I’ve written my own rules and that’s really freeing. At the beginning, I would laugh at the game or throw stuff at the game but now I understand how to dance with the devil when necessary and I also know how to preserve my voice and how to make sure that the core of me is always protected and never goes off course. So I’m able to, almost like a chameleon, change myself here and there, just to fit in enough when the rest of me stays the same.
When you’re an artist who is in the public eye, you must sometimes see yourself through your fans’ lens and know also that they adore you. Do you ever cut yourself slack knowing that others love what you do?
No, not at all. I believe I have polarized opinions among the masses and I am told that I should be happy that I have managed to do that. But the worst thing would be for people to be lukewarm in their responses towards me. So either people really adore my work or they hate it. No, I don’t feel that I cut myself slack because I’m like ‘Oh, the public loves me’. Not at all, actually. In fact, I was going to say when you were talking about stepping out of yourself and seeing yourself differently—I am actually really bad at that. Which is one of the reasons why in all the interviews I have done before with Rolling Stone, I have been much less careful than I am being today. Because I have always been super open and fluid, and you know, I am always just me— completely disconnected with how I might be perceived.
Have interviews landed you in trouble before?
Yeah, for sure. I would go on Facebook a year ago and I would just rant what I was feeling and post really intimate things. If you check my Facebook for the last year, I don’t do that anymore because I have realised that I am really bad at anticipating how someone might dissect or receive or interpret who I am. Because I am just really simple. Just like you, I want to be happy and just like you, I am sometimes completely insecure and afraid and alone. But now, I understand that I am a public figure and if I post on anything, there are loads of people really excited to rip it apart. And if I don’t trust my own judgement in being able to anticipate how what I say might be received, then I just shouldn’t say too much at all. I have learnt the hard way. I mean the “Shiver” hate article took stuff off my personal Facebook page and put it into public platforms and that wasn’t for public consumption. My friends on my personal Facebook would know how I speak but millions of others have no idea. So yeah, I don’t feel connected by nature to my public persona, and I am trying to develop the ability to do that a little more. So I can just be a bit more wise about the way I say what I say, where I say it and who I say it to.
Does that make you wary of meeting with journalists?
Definitely. I don’t go out anymore. I don’t go to parties any more. That’s what I mean by a major cleanup in my life. I used to be super open—and I miss it actually—and inclusive, truly believing that everybody has your interest in heart and that everybody loves you. I don’t think it’s [about] becoming jaded, it’s [about] becoming wise. You know, you have to protect yourself and what’s sacred especially because I am such a sensitive person. It’s better for me to just keep my world very small and my interactions to a minimum.
But what’s great and what’s blooming is things like The Stage. At least when I interact with contestants on the show, or when I speak with you, I protect myself first and foremost but I’m still, I believe I still allow for… I am always searching for intimacy, even with strangers. But I just allow for a safer intimacy now rather than giving everything all the time.
Tell us about what’s been up with Shaa’ir + Func—are you guys doing stuff together? Because it’s been on hold for a very long time.
I won’t say it’s been on hold for a very long time. Randolph (Correia; guitarist, producer) just released an amazing EP, I just released a solo album, we’ve been a band for eight years; I just think it’s the natural progression of things. That taking space aspect that you were talking of earlier—I really think Shaa’ir + Func is going to be a big part of my life forever—and in order for something to grow, it needs space and it needs time. I’m really proud of the work Randolph’s doing on his own and even the visual content that he is developing… I think he feels the same way about me, about what I am doing on my own… So if S and F were to skip this part, we’d kind of stay the same, in the same shape and in the same form. But if Randolph takes time to grow in his space separately and if I take time to grow separately, we come back together and we’re a whole different machine. There’s nothing greater than an evolution that takes you forward rather than rotating around the same axis.
“It’s better for me to just keep my world very small and my interactions to a minimum.”
Tell us about the projects that you are working on right now.
I released a track with [British DJproducer] D-Code on a UK record label and I recorded another song for his EP which will also be on that label. The Resh [Malaysian singer] collaboration released a couple of weeks ago. That’s the first cross-national Universal collaboration. It’s the first time they’ve had artists across borders collaborate. I have partnered with Sony and Maruti Nexa on a new property called the Nexa Music Lounge where myself, [composer-singer] Vishal Dadlani and [playback singer] Benny Dayal have been given their catalog to reimagine some songs that really inspire us. I’m shooting a music video for that at the end of the month. I am also working on a new EP with a new producer called Abhimanyu Malhotra who is just such an exciting producer. I am really hoping to start gigging again, by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, but again, [I’ll be] rewriting the rules of touring.
I’m going States side again in October. I just signed management in the U.S. and I’m now managed by Untitled, which is amazing. Untitled manages [actors] James Franco and Diane Kruger. It’s a big step for me. A lot of indications here, definitely, I feel that I hit lower—lower than I have ever hit before—in terms of self belief and now I feel a bit impenetrable.
What do you mean by changing the rules of touring—will you be traveling with a big band or doing only select shows or something?
You know, I think I am going to be touring with live musicians for sure. My old approach was to play as many venues as possible and as often as possible, but now I am going to play fewer shows with highquality production; only venues and shows that really inspire me. I am saying no to everything else.
Are you done with the whole festival scene in India, in the sense, does it still excite you?
Yeah, I think it’s incredibly exciting. In fact, some article came out the other day that was like ‘Monica’s jaded by the festival scene’! I am not jaded by the festival scene; I just believe that every artist needs to measure their career path and make sure they’re rising rather than plateauing. A lot of Indian artists are okay with not getting paid to play at festivals—in fact, even paying out of pocket to play festivals in their own country—and I’m not okay with that. I don’t think that’s fair. I think people put a lot of money into bringing down international acts that are not necessarily big names and just because they are international, they are flying business class and staying at five-star hotels when Indian artists are given flat fees to play at these festivals… Within that flat fee, you’re supposed to book your flights, hotel stay, your conveyance and food for a six-person band… And then you’re attending the festival and you’re seeing people from London or States, who you’ve never heard of or have huge fan followings.
I am not okay with that anymore. I was at one point but now I’m not because I don’t see why I should still be having a conversation about indie and you know, it’s like, it’s silly. If I am not going to experience something different after 10 years of being on the cover of magazines; after brands paying me to post for them because my brand identity is so strong; after releasing with every major record label in this country—from Times Music to Sony to Universal—and I’m still in a place where I’m paying out of pocket to play at a festival where I am headlining, it doesn’t make sense and it’s not fair. And I understand that on the opposite side, festivals have been running at a loss for so many years. If they’re lucky, they’re breaking even. But that’s not my problem; I have to do what’s right for me. It’s like no love lost. I am always posting for your Weekenders, your Sunburns, your EVCs, I am attending them and I am attending them respectfully and I have love for all the people behind them. Now that I’m associated with a festival like Magnetic Fields, I am watching it grow over the years. I understand that it really does require so much. But for me, first and foremost and right at the front of my head and my heart, is that Indian artists need to be treated well before we start idolizing foreign acts. And I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet because I see a lot of Indian artists treated badly. But it has to be said as well that Indian artists don’t deliver on their content. They don’t show up like they’re stars and they don’t value themselves; no wonder no one does. So really, it’s a socio-political conundrum that I have no answers for.
Where do you think the indie music scene is heading? Blue Frog shut down recently and Pepsi MTV Indies is on its way out and the only way for an indie musician to survive is to either have a job apart from music or find a way into the more mainstream ad jingle and film circuits. Is the indie bubble bursting?
Blue Frog closing was definitely bittersweet for me. I mean you sit in that green room and there’s history all over the walls, and you go to the loo and see stickers of all your favorite bands. When it opened, it was such a beacon for all of us and slowly but surely it started to suffer in terms of programming, in terms of the gear they have for live bands to play on. MTV Indies shutting down… I don’t know what we need, I don’t know. I think there was a point in my life where I would have had a lot to say about this stuff. I know I did what I could do, and that’s what I feel. I feel I am still doing what I need to do and everybody just needs to go about the business of doing what they can do, you know, and stop sitting around, smoking cigarettes and drinking fucking whiskey and commenting on what everyone else is doing rather than doing what they need to do. For me, too much of that—too much commenting on other people’s stuff, hating on other people’s stuff, assessing other people’s worth and why someone’s getting more attention and I am getting less and blah blah blah. But I’ll be honest with you—it’s easier to be an independent artist today than it was 10 years ago, easily. There are platforms that exist now, there are festivals that exist now. If 10 years ago, artists like Shaa’ir + Func were making records that sounded as good as they sounded… with no studios even opening doors for us because they thought we were just so useless and there was no point, then there’s no reason today why there are so many brands investing in independent music and why there are Bollwood movies about our scene like Rock On!!
I wish there was a Stage when I was fresh off the plane in India nine years ago. There’s an awareness now that we exist where there really was none. There are festivals now where there were none and as much as it is sad that the originals are pulling back—I consider myself as one of the originals—I was a part of so many of those firsts and you know when Blue Frog shut down, I’m sure it hurt them that so few people came out to say goodbye. A few of their goodbye shows were packed, a few of them were not at all. Because at the end of the day, why Blue Frog existed was because a few key people were willing to go all in with so much risk and very little payoff. And in a very similar way, I was always willing to go all in. You want me to do your show for free? Absolutely. You want me to be the face of this for free? Absolutely. And so on and so on. And then because we all did that—the Vijay Nairs and the Nikhil Chinapas, the Ashutosh Phataks, the Dhruv Ghanekars, the Randolph Correias—all of those people… We are all extremely connected and we are all extremely tired. At some point you have to be like, ‘I have to breathe a bit, and then I’ll go back in when I am feeling good again’ and that’s just the natural evolution of things. And now we have [Mumbai venue] Antisocial and it’s got a great sound system and wicked gigs. I don’t know what the scene needs except that it needs more people who are willing to just do it because they love to do it and go all in with everything to lose and nothing to gain, and stop bitching about not getting enough or someone getting what they feel they ought to be getting, whatever. Too much talk, no action.
Monica Dogra exclusively styled in Calvin Klein
Photography: Toranj Kayvon
Styling: Peusha Sethia
Hair and make-up: Cassandra Kehren
Location courtesy: Sofitel Mumbai BKC