BY STUART SUMNER
PHOTOS BY PRAMILA SRIVASTAVA
Anisha Srivastava has no problem calling herself an alien. Referred to as ET by her close friends, Anisha likes to use beats as a jumping-off point, drifting to new planets and reporting back in the form of lyric and melody. At 25, Anisha has been influenced by genres from all across music after living in Thailand, Dallas, Austin and now the Bay Area. Although a recent addition to the music scene, her soulful R&B is full of passion and confidence, her resonant vocals evoking a feeling of floating through space. After only a moment, it was clear that Anisha’s bubbly persona exists in contrast to her introspective style. With only four singles on all notable music platforms, she looks forward to releasing a coalition of songs that will unveil the style and soul of a new Anisha. I joined her over Zoom to discuss her new single, “Maze,” and gain some insight into her mysterious sound.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you first start creating music?
I was working as a software engineer, so I was coding, and I’d always sing, but I just had a lot of confidence issues with singing because I mainly did western classical, and my voice is just not – I tend to do a lot of stuff that’s R&B, which is not what you’re supposed to do in western classical. I would write randomly, but I thought I couldn’t really write. Then my last semester of college, more songs started coming, and I thought, “Oh, I think these are good.” And then the idea was kind of planted. I graduated in 2018, and that was when I moved to go to work at Apple. I met people who were already writing and already recording, and I would just sing stuff, like a concert or something. They would ask, “Can you sing on this?” So that was very new to me. Right after I graduated, I didn’t know what a producer was. I didn’t know what a studio looked like. So that really opened it up. It was the best thing. You know, this is a whole other world.
How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard your music before?
For the songs I have out now, I was pretty new, and I was kind of trying a lot of different things. I actually have two EP’s and almost a full album written, which I’m hoping come out soon. I always think of them as cosmic R&B – a lot of metaphors related to the cosmos, things like orbits and constellations and analogies like that. I try to actually model my vocal tone off of what I’m trying to create, and I think the only song that that really comes through is in “Wendy.” I don’t know if you heard it, but I tried to make my vibrato a certain way, because I tried to think what seeing a ton of stars might sound like. I would like to continue and dive more into how you actually can sound like a visual. And especially with things like vibrato, I think there are specific ways that the more I go into that, the more I can make someone see something.
You’ve lived in a few places that are known for their musical culture. Where do your musical influences come from?
I’m Indian, and I was spending summers in India when I was four, so I grew up hearing a lot of Hindustani classical, and then Carnatic music, which is more south India. Because I spent nine years there, I kind of realized songwriting-wise that I’m more country, because there’s a lot of details and specifics in country songs that they’re almost painting a scene to you, whereas in R&B, I think it’s more generalized feelings about love or whatever the topic is. I also feel like a lot of my songwriting now was probably influenced from living in Texas; I always listened to Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, stuff like that growing up.
What artists, including those that you’ve worked directly with, have inspired your sound the most? What led your direction the most?
I think vocally, Alicia Keys. Her second album, Diary of Alicia Keys, I just would listen to it all the time. I just feel like her voice is so R&B, soul. In terms of how to put together a project, Lauryn Hill, with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was so inspired by the way that she took a theme and found such diverse ways to explain that message and explore it from so many directions, so dramatically. But like I said, I grew up listening to a lot of different people. Carole King is maybe my favorite songwriter? My dad loves music, and he would play The Doors and Pink Floyd. One thing that I’ve definitely realized more when I would get in the studio is that when we smoked weed, which was often, I would kind of zone out. So many weird melody ideas will come up, and I would feel like my brain is a file cabinet where I can put these melodies. I didn’t realize how much very specific things had influenced me. One example: my best friend sent me this specific riff that Maggie Rogers did when she was covering this song with John Mayer live somewhere. She did a super unique vocal thing that was almost like a yodel, but where it sounded like she was going to go off key and then she resolved it. I thought it was so mesmerizing. So later I wrote a whole song based around that riff.
What are your overarching goals when it comes to making music?
One of my big things is bringing South Asian representation into my music because there just isn’t much, you know. And I think maybe when there is an artist who’s – I’m Indian, so let’s say Indian – they’re kind of in isolation. You don’t see collectives or South Asian artists working with one another much, so I think that’s definitely something that I want to do. I’m also very involved with social justice. Like I was telling you, I went to India a lot growing up and lived in Thailand. In college, I minored in African studies and African Diaspora studies, and I started learning more about social movements, post-colonial movements and civil rights movements. I started reading a lot about that maybe four years ago, and since then it just kind of expanded. I’ve done a lot of reading on the civil rights movement in the U.S, and recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading on India post independence. So to tie all this back, when I was in California, I was working as a software engineer at Apple Music, which is where I met a lot of music people. I quit last April, so since then I’ve been focusing on music. I just started the last couple months working with two platforms: one of them is specifically focused on South Asian issues, and then one of them is focused more on U.S. immigration and things like that. I’m kind of doing these things in parallel; I’m singing about social movements in my unreleased music, and the Bay Area, where Oakland is, has a huge activism and music scene that is very connected. So I hope to write some songs that speak on some of the stuff I’ve learnt there. That’s more of a long term thing. I hope to kind of unite those in music or on whatever kind of platform I’m able to have. For example, my Instagram. As I share music, I also want to share graphics and links to articles, anything.
I noticed that in your artist Instagram, you have what looks like a personal Instagram linked, where you’re highlighting the more important books that you’ve read. Do the messages from those books ever make their way into the music?
So that’s kind of what I’m hoping I can do going forward. I had to pause being in the studio for about a year because of a lot of random reasons, so I have a lot of music written, and some of the new music incorporates those themes. There’s nothing out that shows that at all, just written or in my brain, but that’s a huge goal – finding a way to put that into music.
Let’s talk about your new song, “Maze.” You’ve said the song is about when communication isn’t there, and you’re trying to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling. What was your process like in creating that?
I think a lot of people create in different ways, but for me, to be honest, I usually just put beats on or I’ll sit at a piano, and then it just comes out. It’s more articulating this vague thing I’ve been feeling for a while. I think about themes a lot, but with a song it’s kind of the opposite; something will just come out. This one was actually really different to all my others, because usually, I like to write with a lot of metaphors and think about it a lot. But this one, I think I wrote in 30 minutes. It was just more of a direct thing; there’s not really a lot of hidden meaning.
Was the message behind “Maze” specific to now, when so little communication is face to face?
I feel like there’s an issue just in general of trying to understand aspects of yourself and trying to understand, Why do certain things bother me? And I think a lot of times relationships can trigger those things, but you don’t necessarily understand why you feel a certain way until after you’ve had one or two relationships. I just think sometimes there are issues that the person opposite from you doesn’t even understand themselves. Sometimes it’s difficult to break through when you may not understand why things are stripped away, so it’s like this maze, because both of you don’t understand why these dynamics are coming up. I guess that “Maze” is more about dating in your early 20s being especially difficult because it’s an area where you build a lot of self-awareness. And with texting, with FaceTime and stuff like that, it’s really difficult to express yourself, right? And then I mean, so much conflict comes because you can’t explain. There’s just so much misinterpreting each other.
I love the production in this song; are you on both the vocal and the production side of things?
No. All of the songs I have out, they’re all different producers. I have somebody in Oakland – we’re super tight, and he started as an audio engineer, but he also produces, so we work on a ton of stuff together. But none of the stuff that we worked on is out. These songs were from different YouTube producers. All three, different ones. But I listened to Youtube beats and I found this one. And yeah, I really liked it.
That’s interesting that it’s different producers, because each song has its own soulful, R&B, falling-off-the-earth sound akin to Mac Miller or Joji. In your song “Wendy”, you start off the song with a Mac Miller lyric: “I just need a way out of my head.” I was wondering if you could speak a little to that?
I love Mac Miller. My best friend and I both love Mac Miller and that song, “Come Back to Earth.” We would always listen to that album, and there was one weekend we were driving back at night from Culver City, where she lives, and we had just been listening to that song all weekend and getting in our feels, so everything about “Wendy” was sort of tied to Mac Miller, specifically to “Come Back to Earth,” just in the mood I was in life then and those specific lines.
Has your process developed at all during the pandemic?
I was supposed to move back to the Bay Area in April, and that got pushed back so much. I had saved a lot of songs to work with my producer that I told you about there. But then when that didn’t work, I started all these songs with chords instead of getting with a producer and singing with the beat. So that was one change that affected everything. Before, it was a mix. But now, everything starts with chords, which I actually really like. And when I do work with my [normal producers], who I could sit with for 18 hours and smoke weed and experiment, it’s not as structured. I ended up starting again recently, because I just need to get some of these songs out, and because of quarantine, I had to go to another studio. We needed to start with a click track where I would sing with a metronome and we would nail down the BPM, the tempo, because when I’m working with other people, I have to follow a more structured approach. We don’t have our own language yet. I’ve actually really appreciated this, because I feel like it’s forced me to follow a specific way of developing a song, and in the long run, that will make me actually be able to work with a lot of different producers and work in other studios settings.
What do these songs you’ve written need so that they can be sent out to the public?
I just want them to be with instruments, you know? I have a four song EP that I just laid click tracks for last week. I have an engineer that also produces – he plays a lot of instruments – and he’s gonna co-produce the project. He’s helping me out, bringing a band in, and he may add production, but it’s very much going to be driven by instruments, which is also why I was saving a lot of these songs. I just don’t want to find a random beat on YouTube or send files back and forth. I really want to have musicians trying stuff and experimenting, but it’s kind of annoying because I’ve been sitting on some of these for a year and a half now. I’m ready for other projects. Not that I didn’t like the others, but to be honest with you, “Maze” was actually a demo. I did this in very few takes. I wanted to release another song, and I had got it all set up with these PR companies, but then some stuff happened with Corona. I was a little spooked, so I didn’t have anything. Well, I already booked this PR, so I needed to release something. And so I was like, let me release “Maze.”
Are you interested in collaborating with any other artists in the future?
Yeah, I would love that! I really want to collaborate with other South Asian artists, but I want to collaborate with everyone. In my other projects, I think that my actual style is more clear, the core style. I really like trying other stuff, though, so I would love it if someone was a country artist and asked me to sing on something.
So are you planning on doing any performances, virtual or live? Or is it mostly just making music, getting it out there and getting some name recognition?
I really would love to perform, but I really want to perform after the songs and the album come out. Hopefully that won’t be too far in the future. I want to wait until those songs are out because I feel like I can then exhale and be like, okay, now you guys actually know what I’m about musically. I don’t know how things will be, obviously, with the virus, but I would love to do live sessions in a studio and maybe stream those or share those videos.