Thanya Iyer is an enigmatic songwriter who crafts sparkling experimental pop music. Her live trio wields acoustic and electronic instruments as well as improvised projections to flesh out these serene, spiritual compositions. Thanya’s music, coupled with the visuals, empowers listeners to embrace mindfulness, aesthetic beauty and the interconnectedness of all things.They provide a unified experience wherein the result is truly greater than the sum of its parts. We talked with Thanya about her influences, ideology, song craft, and musical practices, and how they all feed back into each other, we hope you enjoy this introduction.
FFO: Moses Sumney, Bjork, James Blake, Jamila Woods, Ohmme, Hiatus Kaiyote
What were some of the early influences that pushed you towards music? What were some of the formative moments that lead you to where you are now with KIND?
I’ve always loved people and community and my community has always had music in it. When I was young it was all my friends singing and dancing in South Indian variety shows within the community. When I was in school, I met so many best friends who I started playing, writing, improvising and learning many different styles of music with. And the Montreal music community that I’m a part of today is full of creative and exciting music coming out of it.
I’ve always been surrounded by music at home as well. My dad (who passed away when I was in high school) always sang around the house when I was a child (old Bollywood film music or spiritual songs). I think that grief and losing a parent so young pushed me towards using songwriting as a tool for processing and healing. We were also a part of a really wonderful South Indian community growing up who put on lots of concerts by South Asian artists from around the world. I learned South Indian Classical dance and singing with a good group of friends and perform together for different community events. Art was always present!
I never really considered myself a singer but always performed in musicals every year in high school with my best pal. I think that’s another place my voice grew. Even though I probably didn’t have the best voice I just loved singing. The voice is such a vulnerable instrument and it’s also a muscle - I think just singing and using it for years and years has helped my voice grow and become stronger.
I remember getting an acceptance letter for a music and science double major for college and being soooo excited. I didn’t realize how much I loved music and how it was truly such a huge part of my life. Music school was a place where I found my people and grew alongside some amazing artists whom I still collaborate with today. (Many of whom are on this album! Pompey! Shaina! Emilie! Shelby! Simon! Felix!)
How, where, and when did you begin this project, as Thanya Iyer the musician?
Tiohtià:ke/Montreal! Where we all grew up. Pompey and I met when we were 17 in music school together and played together in lots of different projects. Pompey moved away to study music at Berklee for a while, but when he came back we started jamming these tunes all day and fell in love.
One day Pompey was busking on the street in Chinatown with an upright bass and Daniel sat and watched him for a while (intrigued by someone who would haul a very big instrument and play it in the hot sun) and they became friends. A couple months later, I was looking for a drummer who was super creative and melodic, and Daniel was just that person. We also later found out we had so many mutual friends in the tiny Montreal creative music community (It’s really beautiful how we eventually all meet each other in this world!).
Since we started playing together, we were all super open to improvising and changing song arrangements. It fostered a sense of freedom within the band where we all were able to grow different motives in our performance and deep listening and communication. I love playing with the textures and forms of songs and feel how it can change meaning, and give new life. These feelings of excitement and support started to grow from the beginning as we learned how to communicate and create together.
What is the story behind the album KIND? What does the word 'KIND' mean to you? And what are some ways that being "KIND" plays a role in your life and community?
The album was written slowly over the course of around three years. I didn’t know the theme at first, however when we began to record and I began to prep for it I realized that they all fell under the umbrella of working towards self-love and being KIND to yourself - that's when Pompey said - we should name the album KIND! It’s not only about kindness - its a word with many dimensions - the many dimensions of humankind and how complex that is - and how we are surrounded by so many different types of people with different values and navigating those complex relationships - as well as trying to work with your internal self at the same time. That journey isn’t easy or straightforward. It’s filled with hurdles and struggles, joys and pains. Accompanied throughout the journey is strength garnered by the beautiful community around us. I think the role that “KIND” plays in my life and community is just people giving themselves what they need to feel good and to do their thing. And after that we can all come together because when we take care of ourselves we can take care of others too.
When we started touring in the states, we landed at the True/False Film Festival, a beautiful festival which we love so much and truly helped us to shape our sound as a band. We would do these 30 minute sets before documentaries and the set up and tear down was extremely fast. We began to collage the songs together with improvisation to keep things fresh and full of life and spice. The sound also changed due to the constraints of touring. Instead of Pompey playing an upright bass he started playing electric and I moved from big piano to my little Yamaha synth. (That’s all that could fit in Daniel’s Toyota Corolla!). Our set began to grow into a more soundscape-y cinematic feeling that led me to Sophia who created a visual landscape for us (and does so live at every show).
Post- a world with Beyoncé’s Lemonade (visual album masterpiece), I was completely intrigued by how powerfully the story of an album could be accompanied by a visual piece. Our last release, the Do you Dream? mixtape, was inspired by our collage-y performances on tour. I wanted to create a snapshot of what we were doing, so we recorded a set, live and organic, and we pretty much just released what we played in Daniel’s studio that summer afternoon (with overdubs from the sweetest MAWMZ choir). For the KIND film, I asked Daniel to create a collage of the album that was more reminiscent of the collages on the Do you Dream LP, layering different tracks and sounds and instruments from various songs and jams. He laid out a sketch and we built upon it to create the soundtrack for the film.
After sending the music and lyrics to Bucky, the director of the film - Bucky pulled out this synopsis that truly spoke to many themes that I was feeling:
"Thanya Iyer on a journey of self-love. The haunting isolation and over-stimulation of the metropolis overwhelms her spirit. The guidance of friendship and haunting allure of the phantom lead her out of the city and through the trials of a labyrinth in nature. The journey to accept yourself leads back from where she came."
Tell us a little more about the visuals related to the album...
I met Bucky Illingworth while filming a live session for a thrdcoast. We had the opportunity to collaborate again on making a music video for “Daydreaming” from the Do you Dream mixtape. We also worked with animator Elysha Poirier on this project and it was just an overall really great experience! Having always been inspired by Beyonce’s Lemonade (I watched it 4x times in a row the minute it came out!), I wanted to create something visual in nature that reflected the sound world we were creating. Bucky is such a talented filmmaker, writer, thinker and positive person and the poems and words that he sketched out throughout the film were so incredibly thought provoking and beautiful! He worked with producer Shelby Shaw to create a storyline and after many sound and visual drafts - we were able to start filming. We met up with Bucky and our friend Nico (who also plays in the really fun band, Nicomo) and our friends from Montreal, myself, Pompey, Daniel and Sophie as well as Shaina and Coco. (Surrounding yourself with the most kind and positive people is...the best! That was this experience and creating the whole album.)
The album art is by Emilie Muszczak, an artist from France (who was based in Toronto at the time). I discovered Emilie’s beautiful work when I was trying to learn Adobe and had a "desire to learn how to make gifs phase" (still in that phase and still don’t know how, but I’m starting to try those video tutorials out!) and just emailed her for some tips. Her drawings were so fresh and light hearted, which I felt complimented the music really well because it showed a different side to the deep, sparkly world it lives in. I look at Emilie’s art and it just makes me feel so good and inspired! She also created a poster that comes with the vinyl, where she drew every musician and visual artist who contributed to KIND in a beautiful desert water setting! It is awesome! And turned all the artwork into GIFs! The artwork reflects a peacefulness and pensiveness that comes in waves throughout the journey.
How would you describe your live setup and performance? What do you try to center in your shows?
We aim to create a universe that pulls each audience member in and lets them feel free, relaxed, and immersed into the world we are creating. I never really say what the songs are about or what they mean to me as it allows for the audience to find their own meaning in it and hopefully enter a place of healing and trance. The set is filled with soundscapes and constant movement. During the performance, each artist in the project is building a little world of their own melodies and motives that grows until they all meet up with the others. While the song/composition acts as a loose skeletal arrangement, each member/musical guest is empowered to express their full creative self through improvisation, centering around the voice that grounds the music together. I believe that each artist has a unique history and story that contributes to their own special artistic voice and bringing them into our community and combining each person’s artistic vision together creates something extremely magical and unique. And that’s what I miss about live music right now too! The ability to collaborate with people on stage and share that connection with audiences, meet bands and so many people from all over on tour and the beautiful feeling that grows from that connection and growing community.
You speak a lot about the importance of community and the role it has played in shaping your sound and the way you create. What are some ways that you’ve been able to connect with and learn more about the communities that surround you, musical and otherwise?
I love working and collaborating with youth. They are so important and have so much to say. I'm constantly inspired by the courage of young voices. Fostering a safe space and helping them achieve their goals, finding what motivates them and helps them grow is something I dedicate a huge part of my life to. I’m able to do that in different ways as an artist, giving workshops in different spots on tour as well as as a music teacher.
I was recently so lucky to do a residency in a community called Witset, BC at iCount Secondary School. This was through an organization called Inpath, whose mission is to connect artists, youth, community members and educators, weaving networks of support for Indigenous youth through arts programming. And all kinds of arts! Beading! Visuals arts! Screen printing, film! Photography! Music! I have met so many amazing artists through this organization.
My time in Witset was a truly inspiring experience. I was drawn to it because I love working with youth, but I also wanted to learn more about the Indigenous communities around me (i.e. how can I be a canadian artist and not learn about Indigenous music or empower young indigenous artists?). At the residency, (inspired by recently making the visual album for KIND), I proposed a project to the students that involved songwriting, free-writing and music video making and eventually making our own visual album. The words and messages that these students shared were filled with so much depth and emotion. It was a privilege to be able to be a part of their creative experience.
When I was in the community, I stayed with an extremely wonderful and warm family. During my time there, the RCMP invaded the Wet’suwet’en territory with weapons and forcefully arrested land defenders on the frontline to enforce an injunction that would put a pipeline throughout the land, impacting waters that are still safe to drink out of, which is extremely rare in this time of climate change. It is so important that land is protected. It is an ongoing issue and the RCMP continues to cause a lot of harm. I urge people to watch Invasion and get to know what’s going on. The leaders of the movement are so incredibly strong and bring people together in such an amazing way.
The current project for Likhts’amisyu is rebuilding cabins that were lost during the violent waves of colonialism. It’s such a beautiful and healing project that involves bringing the community together in so many ways. It also welcomes people from all over who share values of a clean and healthy environment, protecting the land and wanting to get some construction chops.
How would you say your ethos/process/sound as a music maker is influenced by or influences your ethos in your life outside of music?Thinking of KIND, I think of the amazing music/artistic community of friends that came together to make this possible. I love that “DIT” doing-it-together vibe and how such beautiful things come about from creating a space that people feel free to express their artistic vision. And the combined forces of everyone’s creativity, history and vibe creates something truly beautiful. I also love people and as an extrovert, I get so much energy from seeing people and seeing their joy. Music and creativity in improvisation is something that connects us all together. We can make something so powerful through the combined forces of just letting people do their thing and seeing where that magic takes you.