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 standÂ comparisons, especiallyÂ those that club her artistryÂ with that of herÂ peers. “I work very hard to be just whoÂ I am…And because of that I have aÂ desire to exist in my own space, so comparisonsÂ generally just make me uncomfortable,”Â says Dogra. The Indian-AmericanÂ singer-turned-actor might seem to occupyÂ a very secure niche in the indie musicÂ space but she says it’s not safe enough. AllÂ she asks of people is to leave her alone andÂ not judge her. She is just an artist trying toÂ push a few boundaries in the still-nascentÂ independent music scene in India. “I amÂ constantly dealing with this vibe of peopleÂ saying that I am a diva… because certainÂ things in my life have happened ”“ like filmsÂ and brand endorsements ”“ other peopleÂ change. Their perception of you changes,”Â says Dogra aka Shaa’ir, the one half of electroÂ pop duo Shaa’ir + Func. As she goes soloÂ with her debut album Spit, which releasedÂ in January, Dogra talks about ambition, herÂ deepest vulnerabilities and why she wantsÂ more from the indie music scene in India.
You said previously that sinceÂ you’ve been part of so manyÂ collaborations, you were worriedÂ about what you’d have to offer toÂ yourself on your debut album.
When I started out in the music scene, thereÂ weren’t too many women. I think I got comfortableÂ in a space where there was no one.Â And then there were a lot of duos, girl/guyÂ duos…I was asked to be a guest singer onÂ this person and that person’s album. ThatÂ made me feel I wanted to do something forÂ myself, to define my sound.
This [Spit] is letter A in the alphabet forÂ me. I want to build many things thatÂ haven’t been explored in India. But it takesÂ time and effort, and money. Lots of money.Â And no one’s coming in and funding anythingÂ for me. I fund everything myself, soÂ that’s difficult but it’s doable.
But it must be easier now that thereÂ is so much going for you?
My lifestyle hasn’t changed at all, but I amÂ doing a lot better in terms of working inÂ avenues where I do get paid. And becauseÂ my lifestyle hasn’t changed ”“ I’m a very simpleÂ person ”“ I can take that money and produceÂ good music videos. I can pay for thingsÂ that go back to the art.
Randolph [Correia] is one ofÂ the guest artists on ‘Spit’. FromÂ working together for many years toÂ having him guest on a track, howÂ Â was the experience?
It was so much fun; it was amazing. I was recording at Gaurav’s [Raina] studio. AndÂ I did make a deal out of it ”“ I made sure heÂ had a little rum and all”¦He doesn’t wantÂ to be the guy who produces, mixes andÂ masters everything. Sometimes he justÂ wants to pick up the guitar and be a guitarÂ player. Of course, he did help me withÂ production.
‘Spit’ has released on UniversalÂ Music. Does being signed to a bigÂ label help?
No, it doesn’t help. No one is looking atÂ developing artists in India, even if the artistÂ has a standout reach and I think I haveÂ worked to the point that I think I do. DevrajÂ Sanyal [MD & CEO, South Asia, UniversalÂ Music Group] is helping me personally, butÂ the conglomerate ”“ unless they see that independentÂ music makes money, they aren’tÂ going to invest. I could have easily becomeÂ a Bollywood playback singer and then IÂ would have got investment. If I was like aÂ Hard Kaur or… that kind of music speaksÂ to the masses.
Any duos that you are fond of, fromÂ the ones you mentioned have comeÂ up lately?
I am fond of them all. Every time I see a woman on stage in the indie music scene, I can relateÂ to that, how hard it is to do that. IÂ think Madboy/Mink are doing great things;Â it’s just that I don’t like being compared toÂ people. So whenever I feel that things areÂ happening or occupying a space where IÂ was once pioneering, I want to move intoÂ new space.
I have done six release tours already, IÂ played all the venues in the country, everyÂ festival in the country, and they aren’tÂ growing at the rate I want to grow at. InÂ fact, many people who have managed meÂ ”“ and I have been managed by everyone,Â pretty much ”“ they would say, ‘Your ambitionsÂ don’t match what we can deliver’.
IÂ wouldn’t blame anyone for things not goingÂ fast enough but I only blame people for notÂ dreaming. And I am constantly dealingÂ with this vibe of people saying that I amÂ a diva, I know people say a lot of thingsÂ about me, and even if they know me personally.Â But because certain things in myÂ life have happened ”“ like films and brandÂ endorsements ”“ other people change.Â Their perception of you changes.
In the indie music scene, bands get paidÂ anywhere from five thousand rupees aÂ show to say a lakh; the best bands, aroundÂ four or five lakh. But examine Bollywood,Â and it’s between five to 25 lakh. And it isÂ sad, I feel.
If my expectation is something, itÂ doesn’t mean that I am a diva but that IÂ am an artist on another level and I am aÂ proponent of the music scene being biggerÂ than what it is today. Artists need infrastructure,Â we need money, to buy betterÂ gear, to play better shows, to produceÂ better content. I don’t have family here,Â I’ve got no one in India besides myselfÂ and I can’t ask my aunties or my uncles toÂ give me shit.
You said you hate being comparedÂ with other artists. But actually,Â you have set a benchmark of sortsÂ for others. You occupy a very safeÂ position.
No, I never feel safe. I never feel I haveÂ done enough. I never feel successful.Â Those are things I never feel. See, I haveÂ known Saba [Azad; Madboy/Mink] forever,Â I have known [singer-actor] AnushkaÂ Manchanda forever, they were singingÂ when I was singing, we’re all the same age;Â it’s just that she [Saba] started now and IÂ started then. Anushka and I at one pointÂ were compared constantly, and it wasÂ even harder on our friendship, becauseÂ as an artist ”“ particularly for me.
I never feel safe.Â I never feel IÂ have doneÂ enough. I neverÂ feel successful.
I workÂ very hard to be just who I am, I haven’tÂ changed myself at all to fit into a model orÂ an expectation of what I ought to be. AndÂ because of that, I have a desire to existÂ in my own space, so comparisons generallyÂ just make me uncomfortable. It’s notÂ about who I am being compared to, unlessÂ the person I am being compared is likeÂ ”˜Oh my god, I’d die to be that’ like BjÃ¶rk orÂ Joan Baez or Patti Smith, I like that, butÂ comparisons closer to home make me feelÂ I am not doing my job well. That’s why itÂ bugs me. Saba is gorgeous and Anushka isÂ super hot, and we are all contemporaries,Â but I don’t want people to see me andÂ think of them or see them and think of me.
But such things happen even withÂ actors all time, so you can’t avoidÂ it, I guess?
You can’t avoid it for sure, it happens. It’sÂ just something I don’t like, but it’s somethingÂ that will constantly motivate me,Â the same way that I don’t like doing whatÂ I have already done over and over again.
Tell us more about the albumÂ and the title ‘Spit’; it kind of attacksÂ you when you read that word.
SpitÂ for me is nakedness, it is uncensored,Â raw, it’s about saying what you feelÂ like. When I went to write the record,Â I thought , Am I just saying things becauseÂ they expect me to do that?’. Then,Â I was like ‘No, I will name my album ”˜Spit’Â because this is coming straight from myÂ guts and it’s just coming out’. And I alsoÂ knew that it was one of those words thatÂ people might have a negative feeling about,Â but the word’s lovely ”“ it’s what we kissÂ with, what we love with, what we digestÂ with; it’s fluid like love.
Spit is a snapshot of the last three years ofÂ my life. It is a summary of how I felt aboutÂ all the people around me”¦When I was publiclyÂ shamed with thousands of people whoÂ I had very real relationships with, themÂ sharing posts and liking, retweeting things,Â as if I wasn’t going to see it, but saw it. IÂ mean, people who have lived in my house,Â people whose babies I have held, who I wasÂ close to.
You mean what happened with theÂ ‘Shiver’ Kickstarter crowdfundingÂ campaign [which drew flak]?
Yes. You know I can’t be talking to you rightÂ now and then go ”˜that bitch’, because itÂ is a contract for me, it’s a promise toÂ keep it real. If I don’t like you, I won’tÂ talk to you; I won’t be this invested andÂ be something different five seconds later.
But you saw that happen to you aÂ lot?
With everybody, yes. And it just made meÂ feel, ”˜Nothing’s real, no one’s real, so what’sÂ the point.’ ”¦But after all the hate that cameÂ after the crowdfunding campaign, I’m stillÂ here and still releasing the album, so it’sÂ fine.
You seem very wary of being in theÂ spotlight”¦
I feel on one level, you have to not bother butÂ then you also have to care. You cannot notÂ care. I was a judge on [reality singing contest]Â The Stage and now after the show isÂ over, I get so many calls from some of theÂ kids and they tell me, ”˜You know this one isÂ talking about my body, about my dress’. I tellÂ them, ”˜Guys, welcome to the club’. Because itÂ sucks… I have lost five kgs this year becauseÂ it affected me so much!
How did you take the backlash toÂ ‘The Stage’?
I wasn’t listening to the backlash from TheÂ Stage because I was still reeling from theÂ backlash to my crowdfunding campaign.Â With The Stage, it was just like, people wereÂ saying dumb things that made no sense toÂ me at all.
Watch the first single off ‘Spit’ “Say What You Like” below.