An Interview with Shubh Saran
Hey AAPI Musicians fam!
It's been a few months since I last updated the blog, but it's great to be back! Thank you for being patient with me; I put this project on the back burner for a while, as work had momentarily picked up and I also spent a considerable amount of time working through some personal issues.
Today, I'm back with an interview with artist / guitarist / composer Shubh Saran, whose music I randomly discovered on Spotify a few weeks ago; I was listening to some one of my own math rock playlists and Shubh's song "Slip" came on immediately afterwards. I noted that I did not know the piece nor the artist, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he too was an AAPI and immediately reached out to see if he would be open to an interview. Lucky for us, he was down! In addition to Shubh's music being some of the most fascinating, textured, and engaging instrumental music I've listened to in the past year, he had to be one of the most well-spoken musicians I've ever interviewed and I really enjoyed the opportunity I had to chat with him. With that said, let's dive into our first post-APAHM interview :) and I'll post more of my thoughts after the its conclusion.
To kick this off, I noticed that your bio mentions you are New-York-based, but that you grew up in 6 different countries--wow… so, when people ask you, "Where are you from?", how do you answer that question?
That's a loaded question for sure. It's difficult to answer without giving a lot of backstory... but, I usually just say India--I say "Delhi".
Is that (Delhi) where you were born?
I wasn't born in Delhi; I was born in Bangladesh, but my parents moved around a lot as Indian diplomats. I lived in India twice in my life--once when I was in 1st/2nd grade and then again for high school. High school kind of solidified my "Indian-ness", I guess (*laughs*). I say Delhi, as my parents still live in Delhi and I go back once a year. However, I've been living in the US since 2010 and New York since 2014. New York definitely feels like home, but I definitely still say that I'm from "Delhi".
Wow, the son of Indian diplomats--very cool. Now that you've settled in New York, do you consider yourself to be / identify with the term "AAPI"? If you do, what does that term mean to you?
I do mostly consider myself to be an AAPI because I've made a career for myself in the US; there's an American-ness to my music and my identity, for sure. When you grow up elsewhere in the world, you're still inundated with American media, movies, music etc.--that definitely shapes your global outlook as well as the kind of music and art you want to create. So yes, I definitely see myself as an "Asian American" / AAPI. I'm very proud to be a part of a community in the US that represents Asian American-ness. To me, being an AAPI means experiencing the struggle to create a unique identity for yourself, with the US being a "hybrid"--whether you call yourself "Asian" or "American"...the intersection of that is not simply one or the other, but rather a wholly new unique identity that exists only in this part of the world. It speaks for and stands for diversity and equity and those are wonderful things to associate yourself with. So, to me, it means a new hybrid identity that only exists in this part of the world.
Let's go back in time a little bit. Could you please tell me how you first got into music? Did your parents encourage you pursuing it and did you study music formally in college etc.? Your music fuses so many genres seamlessly, I'd love to know how that came to be.
Early on, my parents put us in piano lessons. I didn't take guitar lessons back then. I started playing guitar on my own, playing punk and pop punk--all of that was just self-taught, online, reading tabs and watching YouTube videos.
I did go on to study it formally though; I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston for undergrad and when I graduated I moved here (New York).
Yeah, so initially when I picked up the guitar, I was just an angsty teen alone in his room, living in Geneva (Switzerland). We were listening to a lot of American music as well as European rock music back then--which was heavily inspired by American rock music. I was also taking classical (guitar) lessons for a year, (*laughs*) cause Geneva... so I had a mix (of influences).
My parents were very encouraging... well, they weren't super psyched when I wanted to be a professional musician initially, but now they're my biggest fans. Early on, it was just them driving me to see shows and really encouraging me to play. While my parents are not musicians, they're music lovers for sure.
I know how I mentioned this before, but I truly love how many elements of different genres are in your music, from jazz to rock to classical to folk Indian music… that said, how do you go about writing new music? Do you set out intending to fuse certain genres or is that something that comes more naturally?
It's a very natural thing now and it was a very natural thing even when I first started. The Indian folk elements and light classical elements started because I wanted to start relating my musical identity to my Indian identity. I was drawn to a lot of local Indian bands who were writing rock music and Indian fusion music; they were very seamlessly mixing folk music from India and global music. I started listening to bands like Indian Ocean, Shakti, etc. and that was huge for me. When I started writing music, that stuff just naturally came out.
The rule I've set for myself is to not force that stuff in--I don't try to make anything more or less Indian than it needs to be. I just try to make it as authentic as possible because I think if you start putting in elements for the sake of it being Indian, you run the risk of exoticizing the very thing you're trying to fuse. I try to keep it as authentic to the ear as possible.
Wow, very eloquently worded. I can relate in terms of how I naturally seem to fuse many genres when I compose as well. Speaking of your composing work, your latest EP, Becoming, was released in 2020. Do you have any new compositions or projects in the works?
I actually just released a podcast about Indian identity. I interviewed seventeen different Indian diaspora musicians around the world. [You can listen to it here!]
The new single from my upcoming album comes out on October 1st! [linked here] October 29th the full album drops. The album is called inglish (Indian English) -- it's a metaphor for my personal identity... how I relate to the world as an Indian person who sometimes feels too Indian in some situations and not Indian enough in others. Outside of India, Indian English is considered too Indian, and in India, it's considered not Indian enough.
I started the podcast (which accompanies the album) to dig deeper into my album's cultural identity theme.
Do you have any final thoughts for the AAPI Musician community--whether words of advice or questions to pose to the community? Any final questions for me?
This interview comes at a really interesting time, as I've been specifically thinking about ethnic and cultural identity a lot over the past two years. I know you mentioned you wanted to learn and talk about it more, too. It's always been in the back of my mind, but now I feel the need to talk about it--I'm not sure if it's just us growing older and wanting to embrace our heritage or if the events of the past year have created an environment where many of us want to speak about these things. I find stories about how one relates to the world, especially as an Asian American person, very interesting.
There was a common theme shared in all the conversations with Indian people I've spoken to on my podcast; all the ones I relate to tend to have deep seeded ideas about Indian-ness and internalized biases we hold about ourselves. Ultimately, those biases end up impacting the individual and the music one makes. Addressing those internalized biases one holds about himself and his community has been extremely transformative for and important to me.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and music with us, Shubh!
Shubh's latest single, "postradition", dropped today, Oct. 1st! Check it out!
You can also check out his brand new podcast "Offstage with Shubh Saran".
Aside from his newest single, "postradition", two of my personal favorites of Shubh's are "Slip" and "Safe". Shubh creates intricate, colorful musical textures with his intriguing, unique melodies, layered instrumentation, and strategic use of space and time. I do not always find virtuosic instrumental music to be also compelling and enjoyable / "listenable", but Shubh walks that fine line brilliantly--each of his pieces telling beautiful stories of destinations I'd never previously imagined. Boundary-pushing and genre-melding, already earning praise from the likes of Rolling Stone India and Adam Neely, yet staying incredibly modest, AAPI artists like Shubh Saran truly make me proud to call myself a fellow Indian American / AAPI. I, for one, look forward to his forthcoming album and his accompanying new podcast episodes; I will be certainly keeping tabs on him and his promising career.
- Summer Swee-Singh / AAPI Musicians
Please check out Shubh's music and follow his musical journey! Instagram: @shubhsaran
YouTube: Shubh Saran
Facebook: Shubh Saran
AllMusic: Shubh Saran
Bandcamp: Shubh Saran
Photos provided by Shubh Saran