When I tell Anoushka Maskey she sounds like Doris Day meets Bossa nova, she stops me right in my tracks. “Was that you in the comments who said that?” She probes. “There’s someone who said exactly that!”
I assure her it wasn’t me. In fact, I hadn’t even read the comments on the Sikkimese singer's latest single Empire Of Fear and the accompanying music video, both fascinating and mysterious creations. Works of art in their own right, which I will get to shortly.
Empire Of Fear, a name reminiscent of an angsty rock band expressing revolutionary political views (Think Rage Against the Machine), is anything but that. What it is, is a captivating and eerily familiar retro-pop single, thanks to her unique singing style.
“People ask me, all the time, where I get the accent from. You don’t hear it right now when we’re talking, right? But somehow when I sing, it automatically comes!” She reckons.
I want to be the one to stop her this time, assure her it’s not the accent I’m concerned with. Almost everyone in India who sings in English inadvertently does so in some sort of western accent. Hell, even the Swedes sing like Americans do. This is something entirely different. The periodic yodels, the way she shades her voice when she happens on certain words. That’s style, dear! And hence the Doris Day reference.
I remember the day I put on Empire Of Fear. I went around my daily chores as the rich and evocative, almost orchestral, music filled the room. As she sang the first line or two, I darted back to my computer and hit pause. What in the world was that? Had I heard it before? Perhaps in a dream? I hit play again. It was a song that lived in my own subconscious. A refined and enigmatic song with a relaxed tempo. Also, when was the last time you heard a song featuring a trumpet? Or a gorgeously expressive Violin solo?
“I mean... I also got to have a song with a double bass in it! Are you kidding! Who does that these days?” Maskey cracks up.
“But on a serious note,” She continues, “I owe a huge part of it to Compass Box Studio in Ahmedabad. The band that accompanied my singing, session musicians, were incredible! They understood what was needed instantly. I guess that’s a plus when working with legit professionals. We had to make sure it didn’t look too chaotic, or that we were trying too hard and boy, was it the most smooth and flowy experience working with these guys!”
Maskey tells me the song was born from the lockdown (No surprises there, which of the most recent music isn’t?) but what separates this particular track is its lyrical charm. She really is a remarkable writer. One of her previous singles, September Embers, is just as transcendental. While both songs come from dark places in the writer’s mind, neither is choleric nor sullen. With Empire Of Fear, had she not told me about it being a lockdown song, it would simply come across as a song that deals with the fatigues of modern life. And placid at that.
“I loved Empire Of Fear!” she says. “And I haven’t changed a thing about it since the day I wrote it. It truly came from a genuine place. It was at a time when every moment I unlocked my phone there would be some or the other tragedy and I would end up seeing it whether or not I wanted. I developed a sort of social media fatigue. Obviously a huge part of me wanted to detach from it and save some sanity, but again, one feels that the least one can do is stay updated and know what’s happening. Empire Of Fear deals with that incredible dilemma.”
I now want to know how the poignant and meticulously produced track came to be i.e. the melody, lyrics, chicken, egg, which came first?
“There are different processes we go through when composing. Sometimes you sit down specifically to work on something and at other times it just comes to you. Empire of fear is one of those things that just came to me. You know, sometimes when you’re playing something on an instrument, the melody you come up with or the chord progression just gives you the words? It was one of those. Within half an hour I was done writing the song.”
Maskey has always been quite clear about what she wants and tends to stay away from counter-productive dilly dallying when working on a song.
“I’ve realised that if I spend a month or more on writing a song, by the end of it I don’t even remember what the initial concrete idea on day one was. So staying close to the original idea really worked for us this time around and always works for me... in every sphere, be it the writing, recording, filming or marketing of it. It’s important to act on it as quickly as one can. I think that’s one reason it’s so tight. If you look at the studio version, the final product was a single start-to-finish recording. It was a result of ideas and decisions that were taken on that day itself and stuck with until the end. So instead of obsessing over small things and making spur-of-the-moment decisions, what we did was take the best of our ideas and translate them into whatever it was going to be.”
Coming to her music video. Oh, those Eastmancolor days when visual effects like lens flares and overlays made their way into everything from Nancy Sinatra to Earth Wind and Fire. It’s rare to come across an authentic reproduction of that “retro” style even when everyone’s doing it these days. And it’s not entirely about the use of plugins, is it? It’s about the vision and observation, about getting the smallest peculiarities right. You have to stop to appreciate the splendid job by CutReel Films.
“After I recorded the audio at Compass Box Studio, I dashed to Mumbai to meet with the CutReel guys because, let’s face it, in these uncertain times who knew when I’d be able to travel out of Gangtok again. I had a couple of ideas, they had a couple of ideas but we had little time! I think we shot for fifteen hours straight. We started at 3 in the afternoon and finished by 7 the next morning. It was more than anything I’d ever envisioned. These guys are not only really hardworking but also very precise. We had a vision, we wrote it down, and no matter how exhausting it was going to be, it was something we all wanted to get done in the best way possible; In a way that the audience couldn’t take their eyes of the screen!”
I'll admit, it was hard to take my eyes off the screen and by now I think I may have contributed generously to the views on YouTube, which stand at a whopping 55,000. Not bad for an artist who only really began writing and releasing her own music in 2020!
On this note, I’ll end with wishing that the truly unique Anoushka Maskey makes it big, huge. She is beyond question one of the few new artists who has everything it takes to go places in the industry.
Music Video by CutReel Films: Director- Kalakart, Asst Director- Shubham Soni, D.O.P Shubham Soni, Photography Shridhar Selvaraj, Costume stylist- Rutuja Konde, Makeup artist- Anamika Khan.
Live recording at Compass Box Studio: Harmish Joshi – Trumpet, Raag Sethi – Upright Bass / Production, Protyay Chakraborty – Violin / Vocals / Mix & Master, Divyang Arora – Drums, Chirag Todi – Guitar
Designer: Hunaid Nagaria
Core Team: Big Bad Wolf, Pranay Bakshi, Deepika Seth and Anirudh Voleti