By Michael Nova
How A Musician Can Find His Path In The Music Industry By Paving His Own Road
Karsh Kale is best-known for his work as a world music artist, mixing various genres of music together to create what is known as the Asian underground genre. Melding together rock, pop, electronica and ambient music with Indian classical and folk music, he was one of the first to pioneer the sound, and now tours worldwide performing, in between gigs producing artists and composing music for film and TV.
A self-taught musician, Karsh hooked up with Bill Laswell to join Tabla Beat Science, with Zakir Hussain, Talvin Singh, Trilok Gurtu and Sultan Khan in 2000. As a DJ and electric tabla player, he caught the ear of Six Degrees Records and was signed to a record deal, releasing his first solo album, Realize, in 2001. Since then, he’s released six more solo albums, and many EPs. Karsh has also co-written songs with Sting and Norah Jones, and has remixed songs by Paula Cole, Yoko Ono, and The Cure.
But as with all of our interviews, what’s behind the story is always even more compelling than what’s commonly known. Karsh spent some time with us discussing his career and how he views adversity both professionally and personally. Here’s our interview…
Karsh, you have said that the music teachers you had when you were younger told you to concentrate on one instrument exclusively, but you didn’t want to do that. You wanted to play multiple instruments. Can you share with us those early years and how you eventually found your place in the music world?
Music itself has been the method I have used to handle my own inner adversity. Every instrument or style of music I have explored represents a particular moment in my life where I had something specific to express. Looking back in my life and the role music has played, it becomes quite clear that I did not have a clear path in mind but rather that I was reacting to my own life through music.
When I was a child growing up on Long Island (New York) as an immigrant kid, I often either felt invisible or targeted for being brown. I retreated into a world of comic books and mythology. I connected with characters and heroes that were loners and out castes. Those who used their gifts to battle their own demons while saving a few people along the way. As a kid I saw musicians as having secret powers.
I gravitated early on to the drums. I was naturally inclined to rhythm and was able to make music on the drums right away. Behind the kit I was able to disappear behind a loud chaos that I was in control of. The scared brown kid disappeared and the image of a rock star would emerge in his place for a while.
Tabla and Indian music was something I initially rejected. It was the thing that alienated me. My parents culture was something I initially tried to hide as I was desperately trying to fit in. Eventually I could no longer deny the beauty and richness of this music that surrounded me. After my father took me to see Zakir Hussain perform, all those walls came tumbling down and I became fascinated with the Tabla and Indian classical music.
There was sense of wholeness embracing these two worlds of rock and Indian music, drums and Tabla all of a sudden. It became that thing I searched for that would make me unique. My secret power if you will. Composition in all its many forms has been a big part of my life as well. I love the story telling aspect of music which led me to play other instruments like cello, santoor, guitar, bass, piano and eventually keyboards and production.
I never felt the need to pursue virtuosity in any of these instruments, as for me composing is more of a personal meditation and these instruments at different times were vessels for me to use to compose.
I have suffered from anxiety and depression for the better part of my life. Composing, sculpting, producing and imagining music has been the single most effective way for me to slow the world down, to step besides the chaos that anxiety and depression can bring and look at it, take pictures and make sketches of it in order to understand it better.
Music allows me to stare at the ugliest, scariest parts of myself and make sonic stories out of it . I never felt that I needed to choose one path in music . Music is an unending ocean we never actually have control over . I decided that I would rather be an explorer of new musical worlds rather than stick to one defined craft or instrument.
How did you get your start in the music industry originally?
I came to NYC in 1994 to study at NYU. I also began playing with local bands both as a drummer and as a tabla player . The fact that I did both put me at an advantage so I quickly began collaborating with a slew of artists from many walks and genres of music. I began being asked to record on albums and became a session musician.
Being around and learning from so many diverse characters, I began to realize that it was time to create a music that was my own design. One that represented exactly who I am and the world that I existed in . A few years of demos, failed attempts and eventually striking a chord and getting my music to a few labels, I signed a record deal with Six Degrees Records and finally got my opportunity to release my first solo album of original music.
And you started by sampling musicians and putting them into tracks? Can you talk about that?
Before I ever had the opportunity to work with people like Zakir Hussain, Ravi Shankar, Sultan Khan etc, I was using their music to help create a story by sampling them. I would take large portions from classical albums and then compose around them. This gave me a unique perspective on how classical music could work within different contexts adding chord progressions to otherwise modal music and manipulating the landscape in which the music existed.
It’s how I learned how to interact with the classical musicians I would eventually collaborate with. It allowed me to create a language and a common ground from where I could communicate with musicians from all walks of life. Initially sampling was a way to access something I didn’t have access to, which were the classical musicians.
The fact that in my career, I have had the trust and the respect of some of the world’s greatest musicians to be a part of my music is still a dream. Sampling allowed me to create the blue print for what I would spend my career doing with these artists .
Was it difficult for you at first breaking in to the industry?
I can’t really say that it was any more difficult than anything worth pursuing . What has been difficult and challenging is maintaining a career, keeping afloat through the many changes the industry has gone through since my career began. I have never been a mainstream artist, nor have I ever represented any particular trend, so at times, it has been difficult simply reminding people that I exist.
These challenges have led me to create many avatars of myself as a performer and recording artist , film composer, DJ, curator, etc. I have kept moving and jumping from different scenarios in order to survive.
You’ve also stated that music played an important role in your identity. Can you elaborate on that?
When I was younger I felt that I needed to fly the immigrant flag and tell the story through music . I wanted to make known the otherwise silent or unread novels of the immigrant experience in America. This I believed to be my mission for many years in my career.
Coming from a place where I felt at times ashamed and ridiculed for being the brown kid in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood, I finally found my voice and I could use it in many ways to create a dynamic and profound statement about who I was.
Over the years, this has been replaced with a far more complex and personal identity. It is much less about projecting a bat signal into the sky these days and more about simply creating something that is honest. I have learned over the years the power of my music and I have learned to stay true to what resonates with people. This is quite a humbling experience when you realize that you do not have to yell for people to hear you.
What advice would you give to independent musicians that are struggling to be heard?
I think often times the tendency is to create something that fits the mold. To sound like something that already exists in order to get a foot in the door. It takes a great deal of courage and vision to create something unique and new that might be judged and torn apart, as it stands alone.
I do believe it is those who lead with their own vision, rather than follow someone else, are the ones that eventually survive and create lifelong careers. All the artists that I have looked up to are unique individuals that paved a new path in music. It’s not easy, but I feel it’s eventually a far more rewarding pursuit than fitting into some genre or style .
And for all the people that say having a family and a music career together can’t work, can you also talk about the challenge of being a good father while maintaining your music career?
For me, the two happened simultaneously. After my years as a local NY musician and finally signing a recording contract in 2000, I spent 6 months working on my first album Realize, excited to finally begin touring with my new band and sharing my sound with the world.
Upon completion of the album however, I found out that I was going to be a father. I was only 24 , was just about to start my journey, and was not ready to be a father. I struggled with what life had just handed me after so many years of climbing this mountain, only to find an even bigger one appear.
Within one year, (2001) I joined a band with my musical idol Zakir Hussain, released my first album, was in NY during the Sept 11 attack, and then became a father one month later .
It was chaos beyond compare, as I felt I was on some roller coaster, running way too fast for me to comprehend the changes happening all around me. I was given everything I ever wanted as a musician, and then the world changed, and I not only had to navigate this new anti-brown sentiment that suddenly took shape in America, but we had to raise our new born daughter in this world.
I had no elder or guide to show me how to navigate being a touring musician, and a new born father, so I once again looked to Zakir who has maintained a beautiful family and maintains a vigorous touring schedule to this day.
I became super focused and what seemed fun became quite serious. To this day, it has been a struggle to have to leave for weeks at a time and miss those precious days watching my daughter grow up, but it has also been the single greatest blessing of my life.
No singular being has kept me focused upon my path as my daughter has . I wonder now how I might have strayed had she not been born when she was .
Thanks for sharing that. And when it comes to overcoming adversity in general in your career, how do you think you were you able to do so?
Adversity comes in different forms. I think in the beginning of my career I became very vocal and at times quite demanding that things go a certain way. Often times people in the industry try and take advantage of the artists naivety, so I became someone who took control over all aspects of my career in order to at least appear that I was not one to take advantage of.
Personally I think my own disadvantage has come in the form of depression and anxiety. At times, it has been debilitating making the entire process of getting on stage, and interacting with people almost a torture.
Though it has been a predominant source and muse for my own music when I am creating and writing, it has always presented a struggle when it comes time to perform. Over the years, self medication in the form of weed and alcohol has helped soothe the chaos before stepping on stage. This however, can only last so long before it turns on you.
These days, I try and keep my day a bit more disciplined, integrating breathing, yoga and meditation, so that the pre-show anxiety becomes a bit more manageable. I also have been doing this for long enough to know that the anxiety passes as the energy of performing, and interacting with musicians and the audience takes over.
Another constant struggle has been the uncertainty of being a freelance artist. Like actors or any other freelance artists, we are only employed when we have a gig. The financial uncertainty has at times been a great struggle. I learned that remaining productive and continuing to create helps get through the leaner times.
So in regards to our phrase, “fall down seven times, rise up eight”, from your own experience, what attitude do you have about overcoming adversity and setbacks in life that you can share with us?
I think for me, being a father has given me more strength to keep getting back up than anything else . I have hit many low points where my own belief in myself and my own self esteem has been challenged to the point where I felt like giving up . Being a father has meant I have no choice but to get up again. I can fail myself but I can not fail her .
Also, what kept me going was a return to the source. Something I still do till this day. I would shut the world out, and enter back into the initial inspirations that opened me up to play music to begin with, before I ever made any myself .
Removing my ego, and essentially becoming a child again. I would remember all the dreams that this music would evoke and the imagination it unearthed in me. This process would often help to remind me that what might be feeling like a road block, or what might be bringing me down, has little to do with why I make music in the first place.
We often lose sight of our initial mission, as it gets tainted by voices and alternate agendas within the industry. It’s a reminder to me that true success is when my heart says what I have made is true and honest …. everything else like record sales, tickets sales, awards etc. is besides the point, and we often let those things dictate how we feel about what we do.
Today, if I write a piece of music and I get a letter or meet someone who tells me that my music saved them or helped them through a rough time … it means a thousand times more than any industry standard of success.
Going back to the original pool from which you drank is always a good way to find your way back from the tornado that the industry often presents to an artist.
During Karsh Kale’s early years, his struggles of trying to fit in led him to try to become someone that he’s not. It seems to us that it was only when he accepted himself for who he was, that he was able to achieve success,, which reminds us of Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true”. When Karsh accepted who he was, it freed him to incorporate other elements that he enjoyed into his music to create something unique, and ultimately, he created a career based upon that foundation. So looking at this story in hindsight, we can see that what might be perceived to be adversity during Karsh’s early years.ended up creating success for him later on.
If we can look at adversity as an opportunity to see things in a different way, and to take what might seem like a detour, it more often than not, can lead us in the right direction.
What are your thoughts on Karsh’s journey? Please share with us below.