By Ana Leger
Ashana Sophia's music is world music, it is devotional music, it is Kirtan, and yet that can only tell you what you might expect to hear when you listen to her music. None of that will tell you how you can expect to feel. Knowing where this music came from, however, might at least give you an idea. The following conversation took place over several days and in several places in Lafayette, Louisiana. The feeling was always natural, just two friends talking, even when the questions were probing and deep.
I invite you to come with us, walk down the street, sit in the park, have tea and a snack in the kitchen, and truly get to know Ashana and the music within her. To do so in this way is, I feel, as close as you can get to knowing this music without direct experience of it.
When I asked Ashana what advice she would have for someone listening to this music for the first time, she said: “To stay out of their heads as much as possible
in all the ways in which we decide to judge what it is we’re experiencing or not experiencing, and how it is that we decide whether or not we like an artist
or the music.”
I agree but also tell people, “Yeah, singing Kirtan does look a little funny and it does feel a little funny and, if I step outside myself and watch myself sitting there looking like I’m singing Kumbaya, I have to laugh at myself, but, it feels good, and I feel better afterward. So I keep doing it."
"At a certain point, the words aren’t
even there for me anymore, and
I’m completely inside the experience,
the most powerful place."
Ashana continues by saying that she has a very different experience with it being on the inside rather than on the outside. “I can see how, on the outside of the experience, one could feel distant from it or not understand. But think about a song you like where you might not even know the lyrics; you just ride the music for the music’s sake. That’s really what I’m doing. At a certain point, the words aren’t even there for me anymore, and I’m completely inside the experience and the most powerful place. There are two angles there: there’s the perspective of the experience as a musical experience, and there’s the perspective of the experience as a practice. And the ideal situation is when they both come together. If you let yourself go, you come to this mindless place where then the heart begins to open. And it’s not in your power; it’s not in your control; it’s just something that occurs, and this happens for millions of people, and it has nothing to do with me as a teacher or as a leader. It’s completely due to the subject matter of the practice. The only dividing factor between me and anybody else is the same dividing factor between me and any other artist on planet Earth, which is that I have a different personality and a different voice quality and a different musical interpretation of how I express myself. But the practice itself is totally ancient and completely accessible to anybody.”
She continued, “This album is for everybody. Michael Doucet is a perfect example of someone who would listen to it. Here is a world-famous Cajun musician who has been drawn into this music and is totally a part of it now. This has become a part of his practice and a part of his repertoire. To go back to its universal accessibility, there’s a different quality to the music that’s slightly untouchable, that is mysterious in nature, and unpredictable, even for the person leading the experience (which happens to be me). It’s grace every time it happens. And what ‘it happens’ means is that I and the rest of the people present enter into a trance-like experience without the use of alcohol or drugs or any kind of external assistance or aids. In Western culture, the experience usually occurs in the opposite direction; we drink a little bit, get a little buzzed, then listen to music. With kirtan, we get the buzz from the music. And this somewhat foreign-sounding group experience might sound a little intimidating at first for everybody. But think about this: it’s just like your first day of yoga class, or first grade, or kindergarten…. Then there’s a second and a third, and it takes a while to feel totally comfortable, but eventually you do.”
"And what ‘it happens’ means is that I
and the rest of the people present
enter into a trance-like experience
without the use of alcohol or drugs or
any kind of external assistance or aids."
I suggest it’s like eating sushi the first time and Ashana agrees that’s the best analogy. Regarding kirtan specifically, it’s a personal experience too. So it’s unique for each person listening and participating and it depends on who else is there that night, which songs are played that night, and if they resonate with someone specifically or if they resonate with that person that day—because my favorite songs this week might not be the same ones that I need to hear or that open up certain areas for me next week. And that’s its own separate thing too; there are a couple of generalities, a couple of things that you can say are likely to be a certain part of the experience, but then there’s also the uniqueness of each person, for each person each time. So it’s not even going to be the same for an individual this time versus next time. When I ask Ashana what is the most enjoyable part of her life as a musician, she says, “When I feel completely unified. When I feel the same high, when I’m as moved as the people listening. When I get moved by the music—and that can be by myself when I’m writing it, that can be in the recording studio, or that can be in the car listening to another artist. Really, I always say ‘receiving inspiration’ because it’s still special when it happens. And it doesn’t happen all the time…. That’s the most amazing part. And I’d like to get better at that: receiving information and implementing it;
you know? Writing.”
“It was an especially affirmative experience making this last album [Lumiere], in particular, watching over and over how it changes me and heals me, like profoundly heals me. And also observing. For example, right now, when I haven’t had a good practice for a few weeks because I’ve just been being a mom, [I see] how that affects me, by contrast. And also watching how the music profoundly changes Chad [the album’s co-creator] and watching his whole energy shift. There was a study done somewhere that claims that similar things happen in the brain when you do kirtan as happen when you smoke marijuana. So it actually is a physical, brain chemistry reaction. And that feeling, creating that feeling, is my ultimate inspiration. And that gives me breathing room too because I, like any other artist, criticize myself plenty, and I have goals for myself that I’m sometimes meeting and sometimes not. But then, if I remember to focus on the part that moves me, then it’s all worth it. That’s what makes it worth it, for myself and everyone else because it puts the music and the experience into the category of ‘Useful,’ like folding laundry or making someone a meal. It’s a necessary way of life that many other cultures—like the Balinese—still have intact in their society, but we just don’t have it anymore; we’ve turned social media and media into our pseudo-nourishment. And that might be a little bit inspiring temporarily, but I think, ultimately, it’s depleting. This music just has a different focus: are you interested in feeling a deep-seated happiness? This part of yourself? It’s a big switch. It’s reorienting your entire focus and approach to life.
“[When you ask in what direction would I like to take my music], I think of working with a large professional or semi-professional chorus—like Chorale Acadienne—which still excites me because of all the layers and harmony possibilities. I’d also just love to see if an entire group of people who are used to singing Mozart and Beethoven and Gershwin would find themselves having a different experience singing this music. For now, I would say that, probably because I have two small kids, the direction of my work is definitely in the realm of workshops and probably more recording. There are at least four more songs I want to record with Chad this year and I also want to record the material that’s being birthed in these classes, to capture it. I like working with people because then I feel like, together, we’re making something beautiful. I’m also being forced past my comfort zone now. And I think it’s an amazing process of reframing your humility and your vulnerability—something not all artists choose to do. And I think that might be one of the big differences between me and some other artists: I genuinely don’t think highly of myself; I don’t feel like I’m the best or the most amazing.
"I like working with people because then I feel like, together, we’re making something beautiful."
“[Some of the artists I enjoy listening to are] Jai Uttal. And I love my friend Simrit Kaur’s music. In terms of local music, I love The Magnolia Sisters. And I love BeauSoleil too. Shovels and Rope. There’s lots of local music I appreciate and admire. In terms of more famous names, I would say, Sinead O’Connor, Sarah McLachlan, and Loreena McKennitt (who I’ve mentioned is my idol in many ways). And then there are also so many people that I don’t even know of yet, that I’m so excited to learn about. I mean, I truly admire anybody who can sing their song in front of a group of people. Angelique Kidjo! Love her! Leonard Cohen is another artist that I love. As for other kirtan artists: Snatam Kaur, I love her music. I love Nirinjan Kaur too, a lot. And then the Sikh community: I feel like they’re receiving music in a similar [way] to how I receive music.”
AL: As your taste in music has changed over the years, how do you think or feel that that has changed your own music? Or has it?
AS: I don’t think I’ve changed very much. I remember being three years old and singing this music already. I’ve just slowly been opening up and I’ve been willing to be seen and heard. I’ve also learned to trust the process.
AL: So you’re not just drawn to music; you’re a conduit for the music that you write. But music is just one of your creative expressions, one of several. Besides music, what are some of the other things you’re creating?
AS: I guess that’s what I enjoy most about music. When I’m inside of it, I feel finally like the intensity of who I am is fully embraced and I also feel like I love the vivid presence that it evokes in just about everybody if they’re willing…. And I have a creative mind that can be all over the place. Most people haven’t seen my house and garden. They have no idea of the extent to which I’m working at home and creating on a multitude of levels all [simultaneously]. Music is the area I love the most and it’s the one that I’m most afraid of; therefore, it’s taken me the longest to embrace. But I’m a sucker for beauty, any kind of beauty. I love textiles and perfumes, anything that appeals to the senses. I started out in the realm of food. In my 20s, I was a private chef; that’s how I made my living. I prepared all natural organic meals when I lived in Boston and Miami. Ram Dass was very pivotal in healing a bunch of unhealthy thoughts for me surrounding that. He said, ‘The fastest way to spiritual growth is to feed people.’ And so it was very healing for me to think of all those years that I just fed people. I did it some on Maui too. Generally speaking, though, I knew that the first layer to a good life is eating well. So I’ve done it layer by layer. It started out with food and health, as I am a nutritionist. Now, I want to work with sound. I started out in music when I was a kid; then it morphed into food and health as I struggled, then it morphed into perfumery, and then it morphed back into the music. But the food is still part of my life, because I have to cook for a family and everybody else. And then the garden stems from that because, when you work with food, you want the freshest and most vital ingredients possible for taste and nutrition. Then Agua de Flora [Ashana’s perfume company] was a ‘by accident’ thing. I just got so swept away by the quality of oils I was introduced to. It moved me the way that the music does. I seek out high-quality things and experiences. And once I find something that I know is rare or special, I’m willing to work for it. I’m willing to be tired and exhausted in the name of something that I think is vital for this world, for the healing of the earth.
"Music is the area I love the most and it’s the one that I’m most afraid of; therefore,
it’s taken me the longest to embrace."
This album creation was different [from my other one] because I got to take my time with Chad Viator. We recorded this album over a period of about four months, whereas the other one was done in four days in a studio working around the clock. This album felt like a shared journey and a shared experience, like a co-creation versus something where you just pay somebody for studio time. And because it was Chad’s first full album production too, there was just such a sincerity about it and Chad gave his all. And that allowed me to trust that I would like the music after it was recorded. I recorded some of the tracks repeatedly until we were happy. That was a great experience because there was a trust that we were both going to keep trying and to keep evolving the music until we were both just like, ‘Ok, we can live with this.’ And it was incredibly easy working with Chad. I felt like we were having fun and we gave each other a lot of space to do our own thing. We quickly figured out our roles, and we each did our parts. We barely talked, and it wasn’t because we couldn’t talk, we just didn’t; the music did the talking for us. I can’t wait to do it again. Being in the studio is pretty much my favorite aspect of being an artist. And it takes a lot of patience.
AL: What are the main differences recording with others versus recording alone?
AS: It was just Chad and me. I don’t think people know that Chad is doing the bass, the guitars, the drums, and of course the programming and production. And I’m doing vocals, harmonies, cello, esraj, harmonium, and keyboards. Michael Doucet came on as a guest. Other than that, we pretty much did layers with just each other. Overall, I was and still am thrilled by this fact that Chad and I can do so much because it gives us so much. At this point, it’s our music. And I’m so grateful because I had the challenge of motherhood, sleep deprivation, balancing my marriage because Ryan [Ashana’s husband] had to pull extra weight for me to do this, and all of that was my challenge, but the actual music…yes, I got frustrated with myself with certain ways that I sang on days that I was tired, but I just comfort myself with knowing that I’m going to do more; this is just a capture of a very tired, hard-working, effort-filled period in my life. But I got the gift of [being at] total ease with Chad in this process. And that’s not every artist’s experience of recording.
[The biggest challenge working on this album] was not having the time at home to really both write and compose. I was most nervous about Sois L’Amour. When Chad announced, ‘Let’s do a French Cajun song,’ I looked at him like, ‘Have you lost your mind? When am I going to write that? When am I going to learn French to pronounce that? How am I going to get that translated?’ Then there was also being frustrated in the recording studio with songs like Suddhosi Buddhosi, with the intonation in the singing and getting the harmonies right. And I was so surprised by that, but I struggled with it. And that made me insecure. Even about singing for Festival International, that made me insecure about singing out. And I realized that I couldn't space out for a second. I have to stay super-focused when singing in front of people. And there’s a stress level involved with that. And it’s a good thing for me to remember that when I’m actually in practice, like fully in it, the way I am in class (which is why I love class), I don’t doubt myself so much. I don’t put it in concert category or judgment day category.
AL: What was the easiest part of creating this album?
AS: The music. Everything involving just the music: writing the melodies, recording the music...which just gave me confidence. I would like to write more songs, but the part that would take more concentration with that would be the lyrics. I worked with Sois L’Amour, and I worked not only in English, but I worked heavily with the translation. We translated in French probably four different times, and it came down to a combination of which lyrics I liked best regarding how it translated and also how it could be sung. And it translates so beautifully even in backwards English. Writing is a sincere challenge for me, though. I don’t trust myself with any writing. I’m working on that. So I would like to write more songs. And I know the music is all there, which I think is why I get so comfortable with Sanskrit, because it’s just available to me; the lyrics are available, so then I can just channel all of the varieties of music. I’ve known since I was a teenager that what stalls me as an artist in the world is that I need the gift of a lyricist. I have lots of ideas, but they’re not enough, or they need honing in. Then I feel like I could get to work. The music itself, it’s all there. That’s God’s gift to me. Receiving the music is full of grace. And it’s only been since my late 20s that I trusted that the music was there. And the real reason it took so long is that I had a fear of being judged. So that fear of being judged wouldn’t let the music come through; it would just put up a big block. I think that’s also what happened to me with performing when I was younger too. I would get amazing opportunities to tour with an artist, and I just got stage fright; I froze up. My story about why that happened is that there’s some other energy working with me that has a purpose for this music and the purpose is very specific, and the purpose is to soften people’s hearts to experience the love that’s already there around them. So it either opens or closes doors as it wishes, and sometimes I feel like a puppet. I just have to trust. I don’t have to see anything as a failure. And I’m starting to be able to read these things energetically, but I still don’t always trust myself.
AL: Is there anything else you would like to add about the music?
AS: There’s only one important point, and it’s ‘Has somebody been truly touched, inspired, uplifted, or moved by the music?’ And if they have, you’ve done your job. That’s what’s exciting about being an artist. And there’s not an age limit, so I potentially have almost the rest of my life.
AL: How do you stay grounded? Are you grounded?
(laughter from both of us) We’ll start with that.
AS: I would say that I am grounded. And, I can’t wait to be rested and even more grounded. But I… became grounded, and I stay grounded by sitting with myself late at night, alone, and processing whatever I’m going through emotionally. So even though it has a negative side effect which is that, on the days I do that, I’m exhausted the next day, I’m still grounded because I have fully integrated my experience. That is the thing that is most important for me. That may not be true for somebody else, but that is true for me because, when I don’t do that, I get sick; I get physically ill. And that’s what I did a lot in my childhood; I would get physically ill from unprocessed emotions. And I’m particularly happy about processing my emotions now because it’s a skill I learned before becoming a mom (I could never have learned it while becoming a mom) and it helps me. I think that’s where I teach from too; I teach from that place and I never even really thought of that until this moment. I never thought of it as being a practice. Maybe that’s my yoga practice, without the asanas. I don’t have an asana practice currently and though I want that, I know that I choose music over that…. I can’t do it all at this moment. But I still have to do the emotional piece that goes along with doing an asana practice. You hear all of these horror stories of artists becoming alcoholics or taking tons of drugs or losing their center. And it’s from the pressure, the intensity, which I’m starting to feel, but I trust that going crazy isn’t an option because I have this personal relationship with myself and how I process things. That’s comforting. And I think that’s probably why now I’m ready to grow as an artist in the world; that part had to be there first. And I had to feel safe with that. But I wouldn’t let myself bloom until that piece was in place. I think I just knew somewhere internally that, if you don’t have that peace,
you can’t truly give.
AL: Is there an active Kirtan community that you and your listeners are a part of?
AS: Yeah! We started it. You and me! (laughter) It vacillates in size. I started playing Kirtan here in autumn of 2012. So it completes four years this fall! There was nobody else doing Kirtan in this area. And Chad and I are the first ones to bring it to Festival International, but I have a background in world music and classical music.
AL: OK! So, what in this world inspires you? Or what creates a sense of awe
AS: Nature. Plants. Plants especially. Gardens. But all of nature. Trees in particular. Nature is what I receive the most nourishment from outside of music.
Ashana has mentioned to me many times that evening is her favorite time of day because the sounds of the crepuscular members of nature permeate the air. Her favorite music—the calls of crickets, owls, cicadas, and frogs—arrive with the dusk, the oft-forgotten bandmates she longs to record with in the future. Perhaps that’s some of what we can look forward to on her next album.
Thank you for taking this walk with us.