Melodies of the earth: Meet classical Indian artist Ila Paliwal who is all set to launch her second studio album ILA - The Earth Symphony
Ila Paliwal is a musical force of nature, who has been greatly inspired by traditional folk songs. She describes herself as an ‘Indian soul in a global body,’ and has collaborated with many talented musicians to constantly bring her vision for a better world to life.
In 2015, she released her debut album Navaratna which was executively produced by the legendary A R Rahman, and her concert was sold out at Carnegie Hall.
Released under her music label Padmasheel Productions, the 9-track album celebrated India’s secular and festive spirit, with songs based on the classical Indian raagas, and celebrated festivals such as Pongal, Holi, Baisakhi, Eid, Janamastami, Diwali amongst others.
It also received immense praise and was considered a bestseller on Amazon Asia for eight consecutive weeks. One of the songs in the album, ‘Holi’ was honoured with the Round Glass Award in the Best World Music category.
The song was also picked by the legendary music producer Quincy Jones for his list of '15 Best Songs from Around the World' for the leading world music magazine Songlines.
Most recently amidst the lockdown Ila has done it again and come out with her second studio album 'ILA - The Earth Symphony', which is a Grammy star-studded collection, co-produced by Grammy award winner Ricky Kej. It features three-time Grammy award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir and is all set to release this month.
One of her lead singles is ‘Vande Mataram’, which is a timely ode to the motherland, which she released this week to celebrate India’s 74th Independence Day. It was recorded at the Abbey Road Studio in London and features the 75 piece-Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choir of London UK.
Talking about her new album Ila says,
I have lived in 6 countries on 4 continents and was exposed to various cultures and music over time. As a result, diversity and inclusion are a way of life for me, and I was inspired to include sounds from different parts of the globe while still holding on to the soul of my music, which is very Indian.
My music is also inspired by the abundance of wisdom found in ancient Indian scriptures.
In an exclusive interview with YS Weekender, Singer Ila Paliwal talks about her musical influences, her personal style, her new album dedicated to mother earth ‘ILA - The Earth Symphony’, her message to citizens dealing with the ongoing pandemic, and the philanthropic organisations she is supporting through her Ila and Dinesh Paliwal Foundation along with her husband.
YSW: Growing up in Agra, tell us how your passion for singing began? Was this something you picked up at a young age?
IP: Both my parents were nature lovers and were also Hindi and Sanskrit scholars. Nature has been revered in the Vedic scriptures over millennia and all Indian festivals, as well as traditions, are closely linked to the earth.
I grew up celebrating those traditions and singing folk songs about rivers, trees, rain and nature.
Growing up in Agra my childhood memories are of waking up to the chirping of birds and beholding peacocks dancing in our courtyard during the monsoon. I would wake up to my mother turning on the radio and classical music floating through the household.
I would attend all-night musical festivals with my family as my parents encouraged me to watch these performances early in my childhood.
It was during these experiences that I witnessed some stellar stalwarts of Indian classical music grace the stage.
All these elements came together to start my tryst with art at a very young age and I learnt everything, from sitar to kathak to painting.
When I turned 12, I began vocal training with Pandit Sitaram Vyavhare of the Gwalior Gharana. Later on, I received my Master’s degree in music (Sangeet Praveen) from the Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad, with distinction.
Over the years, I’ve also learned classical music from noted names of Jaipur Gharana such as Padma Talwalkar, Aarti Anklikar and Pandit Raghunandan Panshikar and also got blessings from Kishori Amonkarji.
YSW: Can you tell us about an early musical memory or performance you look back most fondly on?
IP: My early childhood memories are filled with artistic performances and winning accolades in competitions in singing, kathak or playing the sitar.
I had a very musical and artistic childhood. Later in life, I had an opportunity to sing at the 1995 World Conference of Women organised by the United Nations in Beijing, China in front of Hillary Clinton and Jane Fonda.
YSW: You have been trained in your youth by renowned artists of Jaipur Gharana such as Padma Talwalkar, Aarti Anklikar and Pandit Raghunandan Panshikar. What are some key learnings you have taken with you?
IP: I have learnt from my gurus that you should try and carve a sound and voice of your own and create your own unique identity.
YSW: How would you define your musical style?
IP: My music embodies an Indian soul in a global body.
YSW: Who were some of your musical icons growing up? Who are they now?
IP: The ultimate musical icons who have influenced me the most are Lata Mangeshkar and A R Rahman. Growing up beside the gurus that I learnt from, I idolised Parween Sultana as she has added so many nuances to classical music and has an amazing stage presence.
YSW: Tell us about your upcoming new album ‘ILA - The Earth Symphony.’
IP: 'ILA - The Earth Symphony 'is a celebration of the universe as well as a global heralding of conscious action. Each song pays tribute to the abundance of nature and the diversity of humanity, while also reminding us of the climate issues that are now affecting the globe.
The songs are deeply rooted in ancient Indian traditions of co-existence and respect for all elements of nature. Layered with Indian and Western musical orchestrations, the album is infused with a world music approach while the soul of the album is very Indian.
The album features global collaboration by 150 artists, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from London, Grammy award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa and many Western and Indian classical musicians.
It has also been co-produced by environmentalist and Grammy award-winning composer Ricky Kej, as well as Grammy award-winning flautist Wouter Kellerman and Grammy nominated guitarist Lonnie Park.
I have lived in 6 countries on 4 continents and was exposed to various cultures and music over time. As a result, diversity and inclusion are a way of life for me, and I was inspired to include sounds from different parts of the globe while still holding on to the soul of my music which is very Indian.
My music is also inspired by the abundance of wisdom found in ancient Indian scriptures.
YSW: Tell us about a few of the songs in the new album, for example about the lead single 'Vande Mataram', and the other songs we will hear.
IP: 'Vande Mataram' is a song that embodies the beauty of India’s vast landscape and the planet earth. It speaks of the greatness of nature and how it sustains our country and the world. 'Vande Mataram' is my musical ode to Mother Nature and Mother India.
The song 'Shiva' represents the five elements that make life possible on this planet — wind, water, sky, fire and earth. The song 'Shanti' invokes the blessings of the gods upon the earth while 'Ta Dheem', 'Jhoolein', 'Badara', 'Vriksha' and 'Nadi' speak of the order of the universe and its daily manifestations and the elements we interact with and sustain life. 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam' is a call for unity among earth’s many beings.
As a whole, I hope 'ILA - The Earth Symphony' inspires people to be kind towards each other and the planet we inhabit.
YSW: What inspired/motivated you to launch it?
IP: When you have a project, which has over 150 musicians and many technical collaborators, then it is an obvious choice to launch it in the world for as many people to listen to it as possible.
Moreover, I felt that the album conveys an extremely relevant global message for the times we are living in.
YSW: The album has been co-produced by Grammy winner Ricki Kej and features the three-time Grammy award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir. What was it like to work with these incredibly talented individuals?
IP: It was great to collaborate with these outstanding musicians and you can feel their artistry and passion in the album.
YSW: Where can we purchase the album?
IP: You can stream and purchase the album on all leading platforms and digital stores such as Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, JioSaavn and Tidal.
YSW: How is this album different to your previous (2015) album 'Navaratna' which was executively produced by the legendary A.R Rahman?
IP: Both of these albums have a strong purpose and inspiration. My previous album 'Navaratna 'brought the message of ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam' (the world is one family) by amplifying the joy and celebration of multi-faith festivals of the Indian sub-continent.
I received accolades from various prominent people from around the world including President Obama who listened to it and sent me a letter of recognition. My latest album 'ILA - The Earth Symphony' reminds humanity to preserve our nature and respect Mother Earth.
Both albums are incredibly rich in lyrics and melodies.
YSW: You received the prestigious New York Round Glass award for your song 'Holi' and its music video for ‘Best World Music’, where renowned music Producer Quincy Jones, included your song in his list of best 15 songs from around the world for a premier World Music Magazine Songline, and 'Navaratna 'was the bestseller for eight consecutive weeks on Amazon Asia’s music charts. What was the feeling like to receive this appreciation from your audience and music lovers alike?
IP: For me, the ultimate gratification comes from music lovers’ feedback and I was humbled and proud of the 'Navaratna' album receiving such an outpouring of love and recognition from a wide group of people.
This feedback inspired me to create something with a purpose which will impact humanity globally.
My new album, 'ILA - The Earth Symphony' reinforces the message of sustainability and why humans must respect nature and Mother Earth.
YSW: Tell us about one of your personal favourite tracks on 'Navaratna' and the one on 'Earth Symphony'?
IP: I would say 'Holi' from Navaratna and 'Vande Mataram' from 'ILA the Earth Symphony'.
YSW: What is your songwriting/brainstorming process like?
IP: I like to be one with nature when I write. It’s usually when I’m taking a walk on the beach or a hike in the forest that I start writing the lyrics of a new song.
If I don’t have a piece of paper, I will record on my phone. If I don’t have my phone with me, then I keep repeating the new lyrics till I am back at home and can jot them down on paper. Then it’s just a matter of fine tuning and bringing the lyrics to life.
YSW: How did you manage to record and collaborate with artists amidst the lockdown, and what was this new experience of recording like?
IP: The Earth Symphony was conceived and recorded before the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, so thankfully, we didn’t face any virus-related setbacks. We were supposed to launch the album live at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on August 15th, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to change plans.
We have now recorded a virtual concert which we plan to stream soon on various streaming platforms. Modern-day technology has helped artists like us to record remotely in our homes and studios. This is a great thing as now more people worldwide can enjoy the concert and album.
Recording with over 150 artists was ambitious, but at the same time, also extremely fulfilling. Collaborating with some of the greatest names in music infuses your own sound with diverse influences and the result was an album that celebrates the universe.
In a way, 'ILA - The Earth Symphony' bridges the time between our world before and after the pandemic. We are called to coexist in peace and respect the boundaries of nature as we unite against the onslaught of the coronavirus.
YSW: What is your message to fans struggling to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
IP: The pandemic that we are facing today has affected the whole globe irrespective of economic status, gender and racial differences. It is affecting the wealthiest as much as it is affecting the poorest of nations and people.
The pandemic is also a sharp reminder that nature does not need humans — it will continue to go on and evolve — but we humans need it for our own survival.
We must thus respect nature. The ongoing pandemic is nature’s wake up call. 'ILA - The Earth Symphony is a shout out to my fellow humans to own their responsibility towards nature.
Mother Nature is abundant but not limitless. While I pay homage to people who have suffered and lost their loved ones, I hope that they will find strength to cope with their loss and will take care of their physical and mental health.
YSW: Your advice to aspiring singers and musicians?
IP: To produce good music, there are no shortcuts. Have a purpose for your song or album, research the lyrics and collaborate with musicians better than you.
Vision, when combined with hard work and passion, generally produces a great result!
YSW: You are an active philanthropist and advocate, tell us a little about the Ila and Dinesh Paliwal Foundation that you co-chair with your husband and some of the work you are currently doing.
IP: My husband and I think that education for the next generation is the key to their overall wellbeing. We are channeling our financial and personal resources towards various organisations in India and the US who support our vision which is, “Every child must be literate and must have access to clean water.”
Robin Hood Foundation (NY), Pratham, 1000 Dream Fund, Charity Water, Miami University, American India Foundation, South Asian Youth Action and Children’s Hope India are a few organisations that we are currently supporting.
YSW: What are your future plans in both philanthropy and music?
IP: My next project is focused on human emotions. This venture will demonstrate the power of sharing, understanding and respecting diverse cultures as well as varied artistic expressions. I have written the lyrics and constructed some of the compositions.
Our family foundation will continue to support education and clean water-related initiatives.
YSW: What do you enjoy doing most on the weekend during your free time when not singing or composing?
IP: I am an avid traveller and a foodie. My husband and I are also into health and fitness. We strongly believe that a healthy body results in a healthy mind and that your body is the only friend that stays with you forever, so take care of it always.
(Image Credits: Singer Ila Paliwal, and Wizspk Communication)
Edited by Asha Chowdary