Still As You: Sharath Narayan on the new Black Letters album, navigating the ambiguities of mid-20s through music
Bengaluru-based quartet Black Letters frontman Sharath Narayan talks to Firstpost about the band's latest album Still As You, the composing process in the studio, and the overarching theme of ambiguity they are all experiencing in their life.
Bengaluru based band Black Letters released their new album Still As You on 22 November.
They have an entirely organic song-making process and no set agenda about the thematic or genre direction they are heading toward.
Even as Black Letters is finishing up their launch tour, they are already working on new music.
Vocalist, guitarist, lyricist, and producer Sharath Narayan maintains a library of recorded sounds, with snippets he finds “from nature, from our kitchen, from a toilet, from movies” and anywhere else. And when composing, it’s this library of sound bites to which he always returns, so he can “see what I was really observing in my life.” These inspired sounds are at the heart of much of the music made by Black Letters, the Bengaluru-based four-piece alt-rock band he fronts. With him are guitarist and lyricist Sarang Menon, drummer Akash Chacko, and bassist Arjun Radhakrishnan. Following their debut 2014 album Shapes on the Wall and 2015 EP Petrichor, Black Letters released their third record Still As You on 22 November.
“It’s mostly sound that inspires us,” says Narayan about the start of their compositional process for Still As You, alluding to his library. In the studio, he, sometimes accompanied by Menon, has a sound, and then “we start to ideate and pick up an instrument and the emotions start to come.” After this come the drums, synthesisers, and layering, with ideation and music from Chacko and Radhakrishnan. Narayan then starts humming, lyrics being the last part of the song. “Words come as a reflection of what we are making with the sounds,” he says.
Compared to going into a jam room, Narayan prefers the studio set-up when composing. “There’s a lot of patience and a lot of experimentation happening” in the studio, because there are no time constraints. “In my studio it’s just me and I can use up any amount of time that I want. It’s Sarang and my studio, we’re not paying for the studio hours, we’re just spending the whole night, the whole day there,” he explains. The challenge is knowing when to stop. “When you listen to the song, obviously the song talks to you, right? When you watch something or make something of your own, you realise, ‘okay I want to get close to this place’,” he explains. That’s the feeling he’s looking out for, the stopping point they’ve all learnt to recognise over the last years. “Or when you feel hungry for lunch, get up from your studio and just finish it,” he jokes.
With a song-making process so entirely organic, it follows that the band has no set agenda about the thematic or genre direction they are heading toward. “We honestly realised what the album is about once we finished it,” he says. It’s about ambiguity, and often the despair, that comes with being in one’s mid-20s, which all members of the band are. Three years in the making, Still As You reflects their growing up, and the several challenges that have come at them “like arrows.” They’re mindful of everything, “the politics in our country, the politics in music, the politics in our family. And then finance, your money, your relationships, your career – being an artist is not that easy.” Taken together, all this can often be deeply overwhelming. “So there’ll be some point where you’re stagnant, still, not reacting to it, merely observing things.” And that’s why, Still As You, “just as you are.”
Throughout, musically, the album teases optimism and despair, not fully bursting into either, the relatable ambiguity being the most prominent element of the sound.
And with the album artwork, artist Noopur Choksi further explores this narrative. “It’s not very hopeful and it’s not very pessimistic either,” says Choksi about the album. “It takes you to all extremes” and that’s what she has tapped into. Her process included a lot of confusion and fogginess, and “I realised that the album, and also Black Letters, their music, in general, has this very sunset-sunrise feel.” One cannot cleanly put their finger on what direction the music is leaning toward, and aided by organic, undefined elements, that’s what her design reflects.
The album has been produced, recorded and mixed by Narayan and mastered by Justin Colletti. It’s out on Overfeed Records, an independent record label set up by Menon and Chacko. It opens with the tense distortion of ‘In My Senses,’ introducing listeners to the album’s electronic, sensuous, textured landscape. It blends Narayan’s hazy vocals with assured guitar riffs, over immersive, rhythmic beats and a steady bassline. Lyrically, Narayan says, the song was “birthed out of my head” and talks of unhealthy overdependence. “I need my senses right? But more than that, I give importance to something or someone so that I can see how that person or how that thing is feeling even when I’m gone. So it’s like I’m sacrificing my own wellbeing for something,” he says about the lyrics. Black Letters has also released an official music video for ‘In My Senses’ which sees the band time travel to reunite a classic Bollywood couple, and is conceptualised and directed by Pranav Bhasin.
Next on the album is ‘Break Into,’ with a heavy electronica intro, which keeps up the atmospheric vibe throughout. It’s followed by ‘Noon,’ a broody track littered with experimental snippets of recorded sounds, white noise, shrill notes, and ends with a seeming structural breakdown. It’s “about power, politics, dominance, hierarchy,” says Narayan. Next is the transitional, instrumental ‘Not A Thing,’ offering ambient relief after ‘Noon.’ The transition leads to ‘Some Do Some Don’t,’ beat-heavy and electropop, the most upbeat track on the album yet, offering sonic elevation more than outright optimism. Following quickly on its heels is ‘Landscaper,’ the most lyrically, thematically distinct track. First released in 2017 as a single, the band decided to have it in the album because "it resonated with the themes in ‘Noon,’ in terms of people, selfishness” and the other concerns ‘Noon’ raises. “It’s probably watching all the news, I guess,” says Narayan.
It’s followed by ‘Other Side,’ most reminiscent of their alt-rock sound, still synth-dominated. Next on Still As You is ‘Still,’ opening with background distortion and a gentle piano, and maintaining a serene atmosphere through the track. ‘Still’ “is probably the song that can make my cry,” says Narayan. It reminds him of a time when his studio was heavily populated with friends. “On an emotional level, to me, it’s probably about loneliness. That song definitely reminds me of this time when I was feeling really lonely. For me, it’s kind of a healer. It’s like a temple for me,” he says. The album closes with ‘Dripping,’ which is “probably the most aggressive song in the album in terms of lyrics.” Its subtly edgy beat and confrontational electronica give way to a studied restrain. “You have this busy city life. And it’s just shit. There’s absolutely no life... no trees, no wind, no air. That itself is quite depressing. I think your body needs all of this to be a little happy. And there’s nothing,” he says. And ‘Dripping,’ while being about this frustration, is also about “learning how to control” that frustration, leaving listeners with a tense, high strung end.
Even as Black Letters is finishing up their launch tour, they’re already working on new music “because we have a new family member in our band,” says Narayan, referring to bassist, singer, and songwriter Jeevan Antony, who’s come on following Radhakrishnan’s departure. And they’re excited about composing new music now because “when you’re a family you want to make babies. So we want to make children, feel like a family.”
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