I spoke with Sangeeta on the telephone for this interview in the late Autumn of 2019.
Your newest album COMPASSION has been out since August, how are you feeling about it? How did the idea for the album get started?
It is such a great space, the whole production was such a beautiful experience, with the collaborators, other composers, the orchestra, the choir. It was really really big and everyone who was on the production were amazing people, very kind, loving, and talented. It was a fun and very rewarding experience. I feel like the music really reflects that, so I am really happy with it. The album has gotten a lot of amazing reviews and several rewards already, and you know, I am happy to be just sitting with it now, and living with it, sharing it as much as possible, getting it out there, letting people experience it, has been great!
The inspiration for the theme and the title is obvious, you look at what is online, you hear all these stories, what is on the news. I don't tend to follow the news so much just because it is just so heavy. I hear it through my husband, he does follow it. We know there is so much tragedy out there, all things imaginable, and yet sometimes it does not seem real because we are not experiencing it first hand or seeing it right in front of us. Some things that pop out though, with the teens and the children and all of these things that are happening in schools, violence and shootings, and depression, suicide, its just unreal. It feels like, "How did we get to this place? What is driving our youth to this place of such deep suffering? What are we doing wrong?"
It is not their fault, especially the young ones, they are just born into this world. They are shown what they are shown, they have the life that they have. Some are less fortunate than others, some may have some emotional imbalance. We need to really give more attention to the youth and their internal struggles, and look at what we are doing as adults in our society that is for children. It was really hitting me hard, thinking we just can't continue like this. The album COMPASSION came from that place, caring for others, looking out for our children, looking out for the youth. For me, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is someone very special, everything for him is about love and compassion. Just recently he had announced this new program where they want to bring curriculum into the schools called Seeing Learning (https://seelearning.emory.edu) where they can teach about compassion, and empathy, and relationships with one another, teaching how to communicate to one another, understanding our feelings. You know, this whole new curriculum for some schools being added, teaching kids to connect to their feelings, and to other kids with feelings, and you know we really need that!
We are teaching our kids math and science and technology and history and all of that, but we are not teaching them to connect to who they are, and to each other. We are not teaching them compassion. And that is actually human nature, we want to connect. So this album really reflects all of these ideas and feelings that I had for a long time and it was really a dedication to His Holiness and the dedication and the work that he is doing, and to all people, all beings. Just trying to collect more of that into our consciousness.
One of your many video productions won a Global Peace Song award, tell us about Ardas Bhaee, which is a mantra, “A Prayer to Answer All Prayers.”
The little girl is my little niece. We gave her the script and she went home with her mom and studied it, her mom called me the night before the shoot and said "Oh no! I don't think she is going to remember her lines, she keeps messing up, we are going to keep practicing," and I said "Don't worry! It's fine!" She was practicing and she kept thinking she didn't know it, but when we got on the set, because she knew there was this older woman that she was supposed to talk to, I think once that older woman appeared in front of her, it became so real that she just remembered everything! She didn't fumble, she got so absorbed in it because she had been reciting it over and over, it became so real to her that when she met that woman, it was really sweet. It worked! It's her imagination, it is really beautiful. I feel very blessed.
When I recorded NIGUMA, where Ardas Bhaee originated from, it was the first album I had recorded in four years (since the album YOGA IS LOVE), I needed that break to develop more, to grow, to go deeper in my spiritual practice. It popped out four years later and now I am making an album a year, I can't stop. So for the last four albums, for me it felt like growing and finding a sound, finding my voice, finding the sonic feeling to it. I feel like I arrived in a place that feels like home.
Please share with us your thoughts about what it means to you to be an artist in this world.
For me what it means to be an artist starts with really finding what your message is. In the beginning when we are so young we are just creating something innate, something natural just happens. You kind of go with what you are loving and feeling connected to. For me when I was younger I just loved music, I just loved it! I was drawn to it and I loved the human voice, I loved hearing all the nuances of what the voice does to create such beauty. Eventually I felt like I can see the mechanism inside the body, the throat and the mouth and the breath. For me that was something I became very fascinated with. As I grew up and had my own life experiences, and went through all that I went through, when I finally kind of woke up and had a stronger consciousness I knew that being an artist was a huge responsibility, if I wanted to take it seriously and really go forth with it, because as we see music, visuals, film, all of these sensory stimulating things, it is powerful. It affects our emotions, our thoughts, our ideas about being. We are so sensitive to all of these. Being an artist is a big responsibility. What we decide to put out in the world will somehow affect one person, or many people. I really try to be clear about what my message is, and really focus on having an impactful message, one that can really affect someone positively, bring some light into their world, inspiration, upliftment. That is just MY goal in the work that I do. As an artist I feel like when we get to that point we ask ourselves what is our message, what do we want to say to the world? And ask ourselves, does our message help others? And if it doesn't, how do we feel about that? Is it just for us, or for others, and do we want to choose a message that will impact the world in a positive way, because we have to know that it will impact at least just one person in this world that will hear it or see it or experience it. So, as an artist I think it is important just to really be responsible, and clear.
How did your parents introduce music to you?
I am Vietnamese and coming from a Vietnamese family, and especially from my parent's generation, immigrating from Vietnam after the war, their idea was not "Let's raise musician children." No, we need to have better foundations and stability, we don't want our children to suffer and struggle like we did, all out of love. But even though that was their feeling initially and for many years, when I was really young one day my dad came home from work, and he brought home a VHS and he said "Oh, my co-workers said that I should bring this home and let you kids watch this. His kids really loved it!” He popped it in, and I must have been about six, and he pops it in and it was "The Sound of Music!" And you know, if my little soul came into this world to become a musician and a singer, then that was like heaven to my ears and heart and mind! I watched that VHS over and over nonstop for days and weeks and learned every song and every nuance and every gesture. I really absorbed that music, and it was the first time I heard the voice used in that way.
You probably feel the same way, nothing ever happens for no reason, there is a reason to everything, right? I know that my journey in this world, in this lifetime, in this body, was to be connected to music and to use it for bigger reasons and higher purposes. When I look back at my childhood there were no accidents, everything was perfection up to this point, all the positive aspects, all the negative aspects, they were all good at the end. I was so drawn to singing and the voice, and I think that was really the beginning, the beginning of the whole world of music and discovery. From that point on I remember going to school and just wanting to sing and get people together to sing. I was probably trying to copy "The Sound of Music" with the kids. I asked my parents and enrolled in violin and singing and choir, ever since I was six years old through to adulthood, I was in and never left, I was so so so inspired by music. My parents thought "Oh, she just loves music, and it is one of her hobbies, great! At least she is happy, but she is going to be a doctor or a lawyer." And so I did, I went to college and I was a biology major and I was minoring in music. I took voice lessons for the first time when I was 18, and my teacher looked at me and said "Look, you have something. If you really want to pursue it, it is one or the other." And so for a year I just kept minoring in music and then finally I couldn't resist it, I dropped out of biology and went straight into music, and my parents, you know, it took them a while to really accept it. I ended up getting my master's degree in voice performance, and they finally said "Okay, this is what she wants to do." Now they are completely supportive and have been so happy and there is nothing else in the world that I should be doing, so it is all good! And it brought them joy, and it brought a lot of other people joy, they see that "she has been called to do it."
It is the hardest thing to do, to pursue a career in the arts.
I teach Yoga as well, I teach Kundalini Yoga, a very powerful practice, a very beautiful practice, life changing. It really changed my life and brought me a new perspective, it made things very clear to me. I could not NOT share it with others. So in the midst of the world of music I share Kundalini Yoga, especially with the Vietnamese community, since the last ...almost ten years now.
How did you find Tibetan Buddhism?
My father's side, they are Buddhists, my mother's side they are Catholic. Both sides are not just sort of dabbling in it, they are hard core in their beliefs and their practice. So honestly, I am really grateful for that because I grew up going to the temple on one day and then the church the next day. You know it is written and taught, it is really important that children up to the age of eleven are extremely sensitive and open, no matter what they choose in their adult life. Whatever spirituality they choose it doesn't matter, as long as we nurture them in their young life, expose them to spirituality, open them up to it. I really had that growing up, I really didn't follow any of it at all until I became an adult, I didn't feel that it was really "it" yet, until I discovered Tibetan Buddhism. I remember sitting in my first meditation class, it was that moment when everything you are hearing, you have been trying to find those words to say, to explain. I really felt like I came home to something that my heart knew, my soul knew, it resonated so deeply, it made so much sense to me, and then I just could not stop wanting to learn more and more and more.
What exactly is a “sound bath” meditation?
Nowadays a sound bath is so popular, it is as available as a Yoga class now. It is the most healing, most beautiful experience. You basically are in a room, and lying down, and nowadays it has evolved a bit since a decade ago that I remember from when I first started going. Basically you are in a beautiful space, you are asked to relax and the instruments that can be used are gongs, from large sizes to small and it could be crystal singing bowls, Tibetan bowls, these beautiful sound creating instruments of all different shapes and sizes, even a vocalist can be there. The people who are playing these instruments are usually specially trained and they are hypersensitive to sound and creating sound therapy. When they play it, it is like a deep meditative experience, bringing these sounds to stimulate the cells of your body, your energy points, really bringing you to a state of neutrality and relaxation. We know that when we come to that place of neutrality and relaxation things can actually move, energy can flow, balance can happen. Some of the scientific things are for example the gongs, we tend to use the Pasi Gongs, they are tuned to certain frequencies, a high frequency and low frequency. It is said that the sound of the gong is the replication of the sound of the universe. It is like our innate music, it is like the sound that our body and soul is vibrating in it all the time. When we bring that sound onto planet earth, it is like we are coming home again, in that sound current, which really helps to release a lot of toxicity and stress in the body, it brings a lot of balance. It is a great thing if you have a busy life and you are super stressed, in a crazy environment all the time. Just surrender and let someone play these sounds for your body to heal, and your mind to heal. It is guided through sound, it does not have to have words, although it can if the practitioner decides to sing or make sound or say inspiring words. The human voice is an instrument in itself, and it can bring a lot of healing when the intention of the singer is in the right place and there is that purity.
Must the music be live or can recorded music be used in a sound bath?
Actually you will find a lot of recordings of the crystal singing bowls, you will find the gongs, you will find recordings of all sorts of sound elements. It still works, the frequency is much more powerful with it live, but with recordings the frequency is still there if it is recorded properly, and it still is very effective.
With COMPASSION I wanted to create that experience, it was inspired by "sound bath." That is why we brought in crystal singing bowls heard in a lot of the songs, it is very subtle but it does not need to be loud, just subtly there. I wanted to bring in a choir, and explore rhythmic elements and vocal sounds that are used for sound healing as well. So all the songs are basically created with the intent of making a sound bath with these elements of the voice and the crystal singing bowls.
What are you thinking about for the coming year?
This next round of recordings, there is a lot going on for me for 2020. I take my break from October through November and parts of December while I am sort of masterminding what is happening next. I am writing a little bit though, but I am not interacting out there as much, because once I go it is like an 8 month stretch non-stop creating and collaborating. So 2020 is looking pretty amazing. I started working with a pretty legendary producer by the name of Narada Michael Walden. He has produced plenty, many with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, he was one of the producers for “The Bodyguard” with Quincy Jones, all of those amazing people, David Foster. He has quite an incredible career. I was introduced to him recently and I knew about him but I wanted to learn more so I looked him up and all of his releases had the most inspiring titles. They were so powerful, and that was enough for me to say "yes, I want to work with him" I know he was successful and all that, had a great stretch in his career but it is really his spiritual side that drew me in, so I said "ok" someone who is incredibly talented and who has a spiritual life and practice just is a gem!
So I said "yes" right away and we met and he is producing and EP for me, so that is really exciting, I don't know where it is going to go, so far the experience has been beautiful. It is new, it is all new for me and it is new for him with a new artist, so you know we are tip-toe-ing and at the same time really diving in, learning about each other and our process, it has really been wonderful, he is such a beautiful human being.
The universe is definitely guiding me and showing me some very beautiful things. Last night, for example, I was just hanging out with Quincy Jones! That was the most unexpected thing, the opportunity popped up and I was at his house with just about 30 other people. He was doing this new little show, and so I got to be with him for a few hours and listen to him talk, and ask him questions, and connect with the legend. I feel like the universe is telling me something, I don't know what it all is exactly, but I am open. It is so magical.
Thank you, Sangeeta, for your time, it was lovely to speak with you, and all the best to you in the coming new year, I look forward to hearing more music!
Thank you. Yes! Me too! Thank you, and have a beautiful rest of your day!