CULTURE CLASH

Multimedia cross-cultural performer Bishi defines

our times, while simultaneously defying

categorisation. Strongly independent yet constantly

collaborating, she tells Pippa Brooks about clubbing,

horror movies and never being “let in”


 Portrait by Etienne Gilfillan

Portrait by Etienne Gilfillan

Bishi is a vocally astounding, rock-sitar-wielding, live-looping, creative-female-platform-founding performer and composer. From the top of her sculptural hairdo to the tip of her high heels, she is a potent, creative force. From her debut on the “scene” in her mid-teens, as a classical-music DJ with the Sound Storm collective (formed by two ex-members of Leigh Bowery’s experimental art band Minty), to today, Bishi’s music game has been utterly unique and strong. Since we first met when she was 15, I’ve watched her grow to become the self-assured, self-releasing queen she is today. She’s equally at home accompanying herself on ukulele, singing Bulgarian folk songs or performing as part of a multilayered art projection, whilst looping her own extraordinary vocals live in a vocal odyssey of layers of technology and light. 

Bishi’s particular genre is entirely self-created, encompassing a myriad of classical and pop-cultural strands which clash together beautifully. Bishi’s Bengali heritage collided perfectly with the dance floors of London, as the club kid face of Nineties hot spot Kashpoint. Classical sitar training every summer at the Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi was as important to her developing sound as her love of pop stars like Björk and Tricky, and discovering teen kindred spirit Patrick Wolf in the personal ads of Select magazine. Bishi’s music occupies a unique place between two cultures, whilst being unhindered by the constraints of either. She once brilliantly described her own music as “orchestral, folk-inspired, post-colonial pop”. 

The last show of Bishi’s that I saw was her multimedia, kaleidoscopic extravaganza at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall  that she created as a 4-D illustration of her album Albion Voice. That was three years ago and, since then, she’s been spending a lot of time in New York, collaborating with musicians, doing a residency and generally being fabulous all over town and I’m dying to hear all about it over a pre-shoot lasagne…

Wylde: So, what have you been up to since Albion VoiceFill me in!

Bishi: Well, the short answer is, since the Queen Elizabeth Hall I’ve recorded three new EPs, made an album and set up WITCiH (Women In Technology Creative Industries Hub). I’ve also learned an entirely new piece of tech, the Ableton Push which is mostly used by beatboxers, but I use it like a classical music instrument. Then through working with Daphne Guinness, I met Tony Visconti, who has become a great friend and support.

Tell me about your new album, The Good Immigrant.

The album was commissioned by National Sawdust in New York, an arts venue and incubator space founded by Paola Prestini. I made the album during my residency there at the end of last year, as well as staging it in January this year, and I’m in the process of raising the money to finish mixing, mastering and then releasing it, which will probably happen in the Autumn of 2018.

Traditional folk music from around the world has always been a big part of what you do. I was thrilled to see you’ve done a cover of Willow’s Song from The Wicker Man on your new album, which is a genius choice!

I’ve just always loved The Wicker Man, and that song. A lot of my folk influences come out of my friendship with Patrick Wolf. Patrick was doing what Perfume Genius is doing now, 17 years ago. No disrespect to Perfume Genius, because I love him, but it’s so amazing what Patrick was doing as a child, and there’s no doubt he’s had an influence on so many artists. 

You seem to be more prolific than ever, collaborating with other artists and organising events where you showcase not just your own, but other women’s music, too…

Yeah, I’ve joined a group of self-releasing female artists and so much of what I’m doing at the moment is completely under my own steam. To be any kind of creative or artist, it makes sense to form networks. I mean, we all used to meet in nightclubs, it was like my drag family! And I always come back to my queer club background, which gave me the passport to go where the fuck I want to go!

Speaking of nightclubs, you started clubbing very young! What led you out to the clubs as a youngster?

I knew I wanted to be creative. I’d been watching all the punk documentaries, knew I loved Emma Peel, the history of fashion. My sister and I used to listen to John Peel. We would go to Our Price and buy 99p singles, and it’s weird, because all those amazing artists that were around then, like Björk or Pulp or Portishead, just wouldn’t be invested in by the industry, whatever it has become now. 

When you started going out to clubs, did your parents go crazy?

I never went out to rebel or piss my parents off; I just did it behind their backs because I knew it would just be so shocking to them. I just had this very clear picture of who I wanted to be. I was ready!

Was it hard to make them understand what you wanted to do, and be?

In my twenties, when I got proper TV, like Jonathan Ross and The Culture Show, and proper establishment press, that changed and they understood better. You see, even though my mum [Susmita Bhattacharya] is a singer, and I grew up with a lot of eminent classical musicians coming in and out of our house, the India that they are from is all about the collective. So the idea that an individual daughter wants to go off and do X, Y and Z… it was a complete clash of culture in that way and that’s where tension really came in. But I wasn’t trying to go out and get piercings and dye my hair and rebel like that, that wasn’t my motivation at all.

How did you enjoy the mainstream attention?

Well, I’ve never fully been “let in”. There was a time I was in LA, and Interscope were really interested in me. Their idea was around an overtly sexualised cultural stereotype, and that’s not what I wanted to be. And with those big record deals you’re essentially being given a loan and if it doesn’t perform fast, then it’s over.

Your mum organised the first big Indian music festival in London, didn’t she?

Yes, in the Seventies. She curated it with Ravi Shankar’s cousin, with Arts Council money.

It’s interesting now that you have been drawn back to the collective idea with WITCiH, celebrating women in technology and putting on events to showcase them. How has it been, working with an all-women group?

It’s exciting, people are deciding – especially women and people of colour – that the simple answer is that you have to invest. I mean, it’s great that there’s more awareness and blah blah blah, but it’s really simple, with the minority groups in society, it’s not just about building awareness; it’s the sustained investment that comes with that. And, of course, all the social media and stuff is helpful, but living in a city is so expensive, and politically, everything is so rough and uneven and uncertain, and there’s something powerful about a collective of people coming together physically. 

You’ve been spending a lot of time working and performing in New York. How is the creative process different there, compared to London?

It’s interesting working with artists over there. I’ve been thinking about it and I realise the difference is that we have the NHS over here, and we always have that feeling we’ll be able to fall somewhere, and that makes British art and British society what it is. But the fact that they have nowhere to fall… you have to run. It’s more of an intense marathon. I’ve done things in New York I would never have done here. I recorded a horror-film soundtrack with Sean Lennon and did workshops with Meredith Monk, who had the most significant influence on me as a singer, she’s really something else. My 16-year-old self is really impressed! 

Look out for Bishi’s live shows, whether solo or as part of regular WITCiH events over the coming year, and catch her at the 100 Club on 11 May, supporting Wolfgang Flür, formerly of Kraftwerk.


THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: BISHI


When/where are you happiest? 

Making music or making love.


What is the best advice you've ever been given? 

Know your limitations. Develop a sense of humour.


Who is your best friend? 

My Dad.


What is your favourite recreational drug? 

Prosecco.


What was the last book you read? 

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.


Do you have a hero/role model? 

My family, My friends, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Carl Jung.


How often do you look in the mirror? 

Too often.


What is your earliest memory? 

Being in my pram on the North End Road market, aged 2.


Best gig you've ever been to? 

The Boredoms, Cornelius or Ravi Shankar.


What's the first thing you do in the morning? 

Turn my alarm off on my iPhone. Try not to look at social media… and fail.


What is your greatest extravagance? 

Big hair & lashes. 


What is your pet hate? 

Boorishness.


Should we suffer for fashion? 

Always.


What is the one item, of makeup you couldn't do without? 

MAC Concealer & eyeliner!


Do you collect anything? 

Friends, lovers, memories & tarot cards.


DAVID NEWTON