Ami Dang on what it takes to carve a creative safe space

Jessica Kilbane

When talking about truth, travesty and all things tertiary to life, there are few stories which can’t be told through music. But that won’t stop Baltimore-based artist Ami Dang from trying to tell them all.

She’s an accomplished vocalist, producer, electronic musician, and sitar player. Her sublime sound stands out because of her poised, perfectly balanced offerings in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. But while her music brings certain wisdom, it asks endless questions. On stage, Dang is known to have a gravitational energy that leaves audiences short-winded. “[I love] that feeling of performing in a relaxed way where you feel connected with your audience. But a perfect show would also be if the next morning, everyone goes to a protest or lobbies for something they believe in, and actually makes positive change.”

Dang wants to tell her stories in an honest way, and lets her thoughts unfold through songwriting. We spoke to her about the processes and pains that led her to pursue a career in music. To learn more, read on:

Have you always been interested in music?

Yes, for as long as I can remember.

How would you describe your sound?

It’s always changing. The word choice of the week is that it has a “global-classical psychedelic” sound. I’ve also called my solo music Bollywave, which people in the US love.

Tell us about some of the projects you’re involved in.

I’m in a minimal folk duo called Silk/Slag that creates slow moving duets. We’re going to be touring a lot starting in September. It consists of bass guitar, sitar, and two voices. This project is with my husband; it’s equally romantic and frustrating to make music with someone you love deeply who also drives you crazy sometimes.

I also have a post-punk band called Indole with five of my closest girlfriends. Two years ago, six of us met at a happy hour and joked about being in a band where we play instruments that we’ve never played before. Simultaneously, my friend got an email asking if she wanted to play a show, so all of a sudden, we had a show before we had ever played music together. We met for practice about once or twice a week for almost two years, and it just felt like a kids’ playdate every week. It was so fun! We’ve all gotten really busy, and none of us is pushing things forward anymore so we haven’t played in a while.

Alexa Richardson and Amrita Dang of Raw Silk, by Liz Flyntz

I’m in a duo called Raw Silk – that’s the music that I’m referring to as “global-classical psychedelic,” and I perform with a cellist called Alexa Richardson. We perform long jams with the sitar, vocals, and cello over drone textures, electronic arpeggiations and global drum beats. Raw Silk’s debut album comes out on June 1!

How did your work with Grimes play into all this?

In a way, touring with Grimes was the best thing that has happened to my music career and also the worst thing.

I opened up for Grimes, and I sang back-up vocals in her set on tour in Asia in 2013, which was really at a time when music felt like work. I was going through a pretty hard time with a bandmate and being burned by a label. I got to see and experience a really ugly side of the music industry, but also, it was an amazing opportunity. And the actual part of opening up for Grimes and singing with her was absolutely fantastic. She’s awesome!

After that tour, I had a really rough time trying to release music and even play shows for a while. It was a whole new chapter for me, and I think that chapter just ended. I’m really looking forward to the next one.

How do you perceive your development as an artist over the last few years?

I was really focused on being a solo artist – or at least, being the creative director of my solo work – for a really long time. But over the last few years, I’ve been collaborating a lot more with other people, and it has felt more like “play.” Sometimes, it feels like I’m “working” music, but when I just get to jam with people, it really feels like playing music.

Before all of this, I had been feeling really run-down by music, touring, the scene, not being able to release a record in the way that I wanted to. But this change from feeling like music is work, to making it more playful has really changed how I approach music. It’s forced me to think more out of the box. It’s refreshing.

When you can’t describe your experience in a language that you’re comfortable with, that’s when you experience something breathtaking and groundbreaking – something like magic.

Describe your idea of a perfect show.

I love performing when it feels right, that is, when I’m not too stuck in my head over-analyzing my every move. When it’s just right like this, it’s meditative, and you share this energy with the audience, and their attention is placed on you, which creates a feedback cycle of energy. And you’re creating something no one has ever heard before, which creates a little community because they are all in on your secret.

When I’m on tour, I have the pleasure of doing this almost every night, which imposes a schedule and routine that you don’t otherwise have as an independent musician. You have to show up, load in, sound check, and perform day after day but in a different city and venue each time, so you still get some variety.

How do you work on your music?

For my solo work, it usually starts with playing around with samples or synths – anything that’s melodic and on a machine. Then I sing or find a melody with my voice and then add beats and sitar. But this process usually happens over months. I’m very slow!

It’s faster when I’m collaborating. We jam more and work off of one another, which is inspiring.

Do you think that borders are more open within the creative scene?

No and yes.

Ultimately, the “creative scene” is still an industry, and because the world is dominated by capitalism, a lot of it is commodified. Anything that is turned into a product needs to be categorized and marketed to be bought and sold. For these reasons, no, borders are not more open.

But I think I feel the opposite way when I experience art in real life – seeing a painting on a wall or immersing myself in an installation or a parade – you often can’t put the experience into words. And when you can’t describe your experience in a language that you’re comfortable with, that’s when you experience something breathtaking and groundbreaking – something like magic. People who experience creativity in this way would agree that borders are open, but they might have to deal with a lot more to reach that place.

What do you think attracts people to their roots, the way you were drawn to yours?

In the US, immigrants – and everyone, really – has to try to hold onto any culture that they have because the dominant culture is white, protestant, and masculine. My family is Sikh and I think I was forced to think about my culture and my roots as a child since I didn’t identify with the dominant culture where I live. Not to mention that many immigrant communities and families try really hard to celebrate the cultures and traditions of the places that they came from, or in my case, a minority religion as well.

For me, at a certain point in my childhood, I realized that it didn’t feel authentic to completely abandon my culture and traditions, and then, I realized that, by fusing my roots with technology and experimental music, I was actually creating new traditions and advancing culture in a way that wouldn’t exist otherwise. I think that the advancement of culture and genre are important – in the same way that redefining boundaries is important. We can take a little bit from the past and mix it with something happening in the present to move forward into the future.

Outside of your music, what do you do?

Read, cook, try to spend as much time in nature as I can, and I’m really trying to dance more. I was recently working full-time doing business development and marketing, and I still do that as a freelancer. But do you really want to hear about that?

Images by Andrew Strasser, unless otherwise indicated.
Words by Jessica Kilbane.

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