Tanuja Desai Hidier: It took me three years to complete both Bombay Blues/Spleen
Born and raised in the United States, Tanuja Desai Hidier is an author/singer-songwriter now based in London. She is the recipient of the 2015 South Asia Book Award (for Bombay Blues) and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and her short stories have been included in numerous anthologies. Her pioneering novel, ‘Born Confused’, was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and became a landmark work, recently hailed by both Rolling Stone Magazine and Entertainment Weekly as one of the greatest YA novels of all time. Desai Hidier’s ‘When We Were Twins’, album of original songs based on ‘Born Confused’, was featured in Wired Magazine for being the first-ever ‘booktrack.’ Her new award-winning novel ‘Bombay Blues’ and her accompanying album of original songs ‘Bombay Spleen’ are out now in the USA/Canada and India. 'Bombay Spleen' track ‘Heptanesia’ was recently released on MTV Indies.
In conversation with Radioanadmusic.com the author-singer-songwriter talks about her upcoming projects.
How many more music videos do you plan to release?
‘Bombay Spleen’ - my ‘booktrack’ album of original songs based on my novel ‘Bombay Blues’ - has a dozen tracks. It would be lovely to see them all take filmic form one day. Tim Cunningham (who directed the music video for ‘Heptanesia’, the first release from the album) and I have been working on a few ideas, for ‘Sink & Swim’, ‘Catherine’, and ‘Deep Blue She’. As well, Atom Fellows (with whom I wrote about half of ‘Bombay Spleen’) is directing/editing the video for the track ‘Light Years’. We shot it when I was in NYC for some book/album events that we did together a couple of months ago; it should be good to go this fall.
Do you plan to shoot the same in Mumbai?
I hope to shoot more footage there down the road. As far as the videos mentioned above, ‘Deep Blue She’ will have a few locations, one being Bombay; ‘Light Years’ was shot in New York City. The ‘Heptanesia’ video, though directed/shot/edited by Tim Cunningham primarily in London, also has some additional Bombay footage shot by ace India-based filmmaker Shanker Raman. The video also includes some of the footage I took in Bombay during my research trips while taking visual notes for ‘Bombay Blues’ too (for example, one time crossing the Sea Link Bridge—which is almost like a character, and definitely a muse, in ‘Bombay Blues’-I just held my camera up to the window a few seconds to remember the phantom-ship feel of the structure; this shot ended up interspersed through the video). ‘Sink & Swim’ will likely be a mix like this.
Why did you choose MTV Indies as a platform to release ‘Heptanesia’-the first music video from your album ‘Bombay Spleen’?
A 24-hour channel dedicated to the indie music/arts scene-how fitting a home for this song and album on many levels. Not only is ‘Bombay Spleen’ an independent project (from the album to the accompanying visuals), but in addition to my novel ‘Bombay Blues’ (upon which the songs on my album are based) explores in part this indie music/arts world itself.
The MTV Indies team is just so dang lovely-no faceless/nameless organization, but real live humans with a steady passion for the music and what they do.
If you were given an option to choose between a book or a music album to express your feelings, which one would you pick?
Luckily I don't have to pick between them. I guess I think of it more as expressing a story, just from different angles. Although ‘Bombay Blues’ and ‘Bombay Spleen’ can be read/heard independently, for me they’re one tale relayed across multiple media. The prose and songs developed organically side by side; I don't recall it being a conscious decision so much as a natural way for me to explore and express the story, as books and music have been a big part of my life since I was a child; as an adult (or, older child). I was the frontwoman in bands in NYC and London, I also made an album of original songs to accompany my first novel, ‘Born Confused’ two years after that book first released: ‘When We Were Twins’ (featured in Wired Magazine for being the first ever ‘booktrack’, which was lovely).
And music…makes noise! It’s audible, it’s physical, and some part of the process of making it usually means you have company, too; this provides a great balance and moments of relief during the very long, intense, isolated (except in your imagination) process of writing a book.
How long did it take you to come up with ‘Bombay Spleen’?
It took me three years to complete both Bombay Blues/Spleen -and they were finished within days of each other, during a very hectic NYC April spent in-studio in Brooklyn with producer Dave Sharma by day, and doing my final book pass for editor David Levithan by night. All along the way, each form helped me to dive deeper into the other — both lighting paths to arrive at the story.
What is it that you like and dislike about Mumbai?
I love Bombay (which is the term that to me connotes my own familial /historical link to the city, as it does for heroine Dimple Lala). Bombay for me is the city of the return address on the pale blue airmail stationary letters of my childhood from my beloved Dadaji, the pomfret cooked to mouthwatering perfection by the gift of my grandmother in Powai; it is the site of my parents’ courtship and brother’s birth. And I like Mumbai very much, too (this term to me speaks of the modern-day metropolis and perhaps a future one too). I also love the people, their warmth, humor, hospitality and resilience. I dislike leaving the city.
Which is your favourite chapter in ‘Bombay Blues’ and favourite song in ‘Bombay Spleen’?
I don't have a favorite chapter; they are all part of one ‘being’ to me. That said, the first and last chapters are very special in the sense that beginning this project was such an exciting insomniac hyperadrenalized experience, and the coming to a close of it as well-after three years of burning the candle at both ends. But as I wrote much of the first chapter last - and I’m not really when I wrote the last chapter - in a sense I ended with the beginning (a theme in the book and album as well).
My favorite track would have to be “The Bombay Blues/MerMary Scat”-sung by my elder daughter, with a teeny tiny background vocal by my younger one.
Are there any plans of moving to Mumbai?
Not at the moment (though this metropolitan muse for both my book and album was my primary mental residence —impassioned (pre)occupation —for the last four years). But being moved by Mumbai? Well, that’s already happened!
Are you working on more singles/EP? If any, can you elaborate on the same?
Yes, always. I have some thoughts on a next book-and-connected-album project, possibly London based. As well, Marie Tueje (my co-writer on just about half of ‘Bombay Spleen’) and I have another project called ‘Angels With Whips’ and dozens of songs written for that, which we hope to zone in on for an Angels EP in the near future. As well, Atom Fellows (my co-writer on about the other half of ‘Bombay Spleen’) and I have a project called ‘T&A’, and much tuneage in the works there.
As well, funnily enough, the song that lit the way for my ‘Bombay Blues/Spleen’ path—well, that one remains to be finalized: In 2008 (after a decade away from India), I’d made a very short trip to Bombay to see if it would spark an idea for my second book…which it most certainly did though I didn't really begin work on it till a couple of years later. Back in London, after that trip, Marie Tueje and I got together to work on some music and she began strumming; I began singing on top of that and out flowed ‘Back to Bombay’. I always imagined this would be the theme song for whatever my book/album project turned out to be—and though it didn't end up on ‘Bombay Spleen’, it provided a beacon of sorts for me, in terms of a kind of feeling I was exploring and wanted to delve into for the book and album.
This is the song the fictitious band is first singing in Bombay Blues: I went back to Bombay…but I was the only one who remembered your name. We’ve tried ‘finalizing’ a recording of it several times over the last seven years (it’s gone trip-hop, pared down, even orchestral) and got very close this past April while recording the album with Dave Sharma in Brooklyn. But none have felt quite right yet. Still, in the quest and approximation many lovely things have occurred and gotten made nonetheless.