American Artist Sandhya Balances Darkness and Mirth on Soaring Rock Album ‘Innocent Monster’
The Indian-origin writer and singer-pianist based out of Baltimore turns away from her previously established jazz palette but keeps things groovy
At the center of Indo-American singer and composer Sandhya Asirvatham’s recently released album Innocent Monster is irreverence, in sonic styles and her witty lyrics. An award-winning writer and jazz-pop artist, Sandhya says about her mocking manner of music, “It’s how I think and speak every day. I’ve called my fan group the Joyful Cynics and our motto is ‘We are unimpressed by humanity but still love life.’ That about sums it up for me.”
Currently based in Baltimore, Sandhya was born in Pennsylvania and spent most of her childhood in New Jersey. When she began attending Columbia University, Sandhya terms New Yorker as her “deepest identity, even before musician or writer.” Born to Tamilian and Gujarati parents, she visited India twice but notes that it only reinforced her Americanness. Sandhya adds, “In my late teens and 20s I attempted to backdoor my way into the culture via university classes in Indian literature, Sanskrit, and South Asian Art History. I know more about India than the average non-desi American, but I’m still somewhat removed from the culture.”
While you may not find any traces of Indianness on Innocent Monster, there are plenty of twists and turns across the 10-track record which Sandhya began working on in 2018 with producer Pete Strobl. “The Neighbors” is a Rear Window style murky tale of paranoia told through jazz and blues flourishes. “Better” starts off with a ridiculous utterance about the supernatural that gets you hooked. “Last Two Standing” goes out to lovers, invokes the year 2083 and everyone living underwater.
Sandhya helms keys and vocals (even recording vocals herself at home during the pandemic), while Scott Smith takes on guitar duties, with Jean-Paul Gaster on drums. Producer Strobl also handled bass duties, while a host of instrumentalists appear on tracks like “Lost Child,” “Mark Me” and “Ode to Nick Drake.” Sandhya has previously released a jazz-pop album Memoir in 2007 and joined singer-songwriter Ellen Cherry for Mobtown Moon, a tribute album to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in 2013. She says, “My harmonic and melodic understanding is still very informed by progressive jazz and blues. It’s a hybrid I intend to explore in new songs as I go forward. That said, I also think I should try my hand at writing songs with two chords instead of seven or eight, one of these days.”
Jazz, pop, blues, funk and rock leanings included, storytelling is still very much the intention on Innocent Monster, but the music comes across as equally alluring. So it’s no surprise to know that the lyrics come first for Sandhya. “I’m a storyteller and philosopher by nature. I need to be saying something meaningful, even if it’s not always transparent or obvious. It needs to land with some weight,” she says.
Although there’s a wider audience in mind with the sonic diversity on Innocent Monster, Sandhya says she finds it liberating to be “toiling in semi-obscurity.” She adds, “I wouldn’t mind hitting the Billboard indie charts at some point in the future. Just for the ego stroke.”
For now, Sandhya and her band are still finding their way around performing the record mid-pandemic. There’s one house concert in Palm Springs, California coming up and another tentative one on the American East Coast this year. “But at this point I’m primarily trying to set myself up for 2022-early 2023, when I hope to record another record and start touring. The world is still on fire! And there’s no deadline when it comes to making new and beautiful things,” Sandhya says.
Listen to ‘Innocent Monster’ below. Stream on more platforms here.