Making Americayana (Part I)

Inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, Song Exploder, I’ve decided to do a series of blog posts about the making of my new album, Americayana.

One of the questions that I’ve gotten a lot over the last few years when it came up in conversation that I was working on a alternative country album about Hindu mythology(no, seriously, it did actually come up in conversation) was: how did you get interested in all this?

The truth is that I’ve been interested in “mythology” – which we’ll define for the sake of expediency as “shared narrative traditions concerning the heroic or divine” – since I was a small child. In first grade, when each of us had to bring a book to read to the class, I chose a child’s adaptation of the story of Demeter and Persephone. From Greek mythology, I moved on to Arthurian legend and Celtic myth, and designed my own major in Comparative Mythology at Oberlin College.

It was at Oberlin that I first found out about the story of Rama and Sita, in a class on Hindu Mythology taught by one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, Paula Richman. Through her classes and her books (I can’t recommend the edited volumes Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas highly enough) she made me see not only what great stories were contained in this diverse narrative tradition, but also how compelling they had been – and still are – to millions of people across thousands of years. I learned about not only the historical epic, first written down in Sanskrit between 300 BCE and 300 CE, but about how these tales still provided models for how people could and should live their lives in media as diverse as 1980s state-run Indian television and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. I learned about the ways these stories were still vibrant in everything from art-house LGBT cinema to fundamentalist politics and everything in between.

I was, in short, hooked. One of the subjects of my honors thesis was the relationship of Rama and Sita, and I went on to do a master’s degree and several years toward a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, studying (among other things) the way that tellings in different media changed the story of the Sita’s trial by fire and uses of the Rama story in anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist activism. I spent a summer in Jaipur, Rajasthan, studying Hindi. And while I never did finish that Ph.D., I also never lost my love for these characters, or for the storytellers who have brought them to life over and over in so many different forms for so many centuries. Americayana is my own humble contribution to that tradition, and over the rest of the posts in this series I’ll share some of the stories behind the songs.

Of course, if there’s anything specific you’d like to know about, leave a comment and I’ll be sure to address your question. Thanks for listening!

Announcing “Americayana”

I’m very pleased to announce the completion of a project that I’ve been working on for more than five years now, a solo album called “Americayana.” I’ve been describing it as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger meets the Ramayana: each of the ten songs on the album reimagines part of the ancient South Asian epic in 20th-century America, using the idioms of country, blues, and early rock. I spent years studying the narrative traditions surrounding Rama and Sita, from Sanskrit texts to Bollywood retellings, so I’m excited to add my own humble contribution to this particular sea of stories.

The album is currently available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp.com, with other streaming and download services available soon, and a limited number of physical copies (CDs! How quaint!) will be available on cdbaby.com in the near future.

2016 Mixtape: Elegy for a Dumpsterfire

It’s that time again… time for the end-of-the-year mixtape. While I usually just choose my favorite tracks from the year, it felt like this disaster of a year needed to be reflected in the song choices, so you might notice a little more of a narrative embedded in this year’s selections. Here’s to a better year ahead.

My 2015 Mixtape

I started making yearly mixtapes back in high school, when a family friend offered to trade me a subscription to Rolling Stone each Christmas in exchange for keeping her up to date on what the kids were listening to in those days. While I now have not the slightest idea what the kids are listening to today, the wonders of the internet allow me to share that annual mixtape with many more friends, plus a few random strangers. I hope you enjoy, and have great 2016.

Recording: Church Service in Fiji

Back in October, my wife and I were fortunate to be able to take a trip to Fiji, and during the part of our stay when we were in the Yasawa chain of islands, were able to attend a church service in the village of Soso on the island of Naviti.

Music is everywhere in Fiji, and churches are no exception. I recorded some of the songs (and a bit of the preaching) before and during the service. A big vinaka to the church members for allowing us to attend, and for welcoming us so whole-heartedly to their village.

My 2014 Mixtape

Another New Year’s Eve has come and gone, but I’m only slightly past due for the posting of my 2014 mixtape. It probably won’t help your hangover, but maybe give it a listen anyway.

This year’s mix was tougher to put together than last year’s, since while I bought or was gifted over 50 albums this year, only a handful actually came out in 2014—I bought a lot of back-catalog stuff and classic country (Dolly Parton, Pee-Wee King, Buck Owens, etc.). As a result, I threw in a couple of tunes released in 2013 by bands I saw live in 2014 to fill it out (there were also a couple bands I would have added in if they were on Spotify, so you should definitely check out the Jumbo Shrimp Jazz Band and Sarah McCoy if you’re ever down in New Orleans).

Turns out there’s a heavy New Orleans influence in this mix, even without the two artists just mentioned—it includes two acts out of the Crescent City (Big Freedia and Hurray for the Riff-Raff), as well as several tunes that mention NOLA. It wasn’t on purpose, but seems fitting given that the city seems to have become our go-to vacation spot.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and here’s to another year of great music.

A 2013 Mixtape

Yes, friends, it’s that time once again, the time where everyone and their mothers list their year’s favorite everything. As usual, here is a playlist of some of my favorite songs of the past year.

The YouTube playlist below includes at least portions of each of the songs on my list, though some of them are fragments of live performances; you can also check out the Spotify playlist below that, which includes studio recordings but is missing four of the tunes included in the Youtube list (this modern media economy is confusing, innit?).

Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy and let me know what you think of my selections in the comments. Have a great 2014!

My 2012 Mixtape

From the “Better Late Than Never” file comes my annual best of the year mixtape. I made a conscious effort in 2012 to only buy music that came out that year, so I had a bit of an embarrassment of riches to choose from; as a result, I didn’t include tunes from several just-ok albums here. Did I leave of your favorite song of the year? Probably. Let me know what I missed in the comments.

  • Jack White, “I’m Shakin'” from Blunderbuss

  • The Coup, “My Murder, My Love” from Sorry to Bother You

  • The Avett Brothers, “I Never Knew You” from The Carpenter

  • David Wax Museum, “Harder Before It Gets Easier” from Knock Knock Get Up

  • Best Coast, “Why I Cry” from The Only Place

  • Amadou & Mariam, “Wily Kataso” (feat. Tunde & Kyp of TV on the Radio) from Folila

  • Justin Townes Earle, “Movin’ On” from Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

  • Japandroids, “Fire’s Highway” from Celebration Rock

  • Kelly Hogan, “We Can’t Have Nice Things” from I Like to Keep Myself in Pain

  • Alabama Shakes, “Hold On” from Boys & Girls

  • Rhett Miller, “Marina” from The Dreamer

  • Norah Jones, “Say Goodbye” from Little Broken Hearts

  • Dr. John, “Big Shot” from Locked Down

  • Heartless Bastards, “Parted Ways” from Arrow

  • Cowboy Junkies, “Unanswered Letter” from The Wilderness

This One Time, on Bandcamp…

I have finally gotten around to creating a Bandcamp site for my music, which will allow me to sell individual tracks or albums for download. I’ve been toying with the idea for a while, and now that I’ve finally done it I can’t believe I waited so long. It has a fairly intuitive interface for artists to upload their work, and a simple (allowing little customization) but elegant end result that also allows me to embed tunes on the music page of my website. At the moment, I have only two songs posted (two tunes I recorded as promos for an upccoming production of Assassins, including a brand-new one, “McKinley’s Gone“), but I intend to add some of my older songs as well as tunes from a new solo project I have in the works.