[Sounds of footsteps walking down echoey hallway]
SALEEM: What’s up y’all, and welcome to More Than A Feeling. I’m Saleem Reshamwala…
Voice: The Studio?
Will: Yeah the studio.
Voice: Oh, yeah. It’s there.
Will: This? Oh. Okay, thanks
SALEEM: …and that is our producer Will Coley. You probably remember Will from our last episode about jealousy. And today Will is doing something that is making me feel envious, not jealous, a distinction you may remember from that episode…
Will: Hello? [door creaking]
Leon: Hey. Come in.
Will: Hey. How are you? Are you Leon?
SALEEM: Will’s getting shown around The Diamond Mine. It’s this enormous, by New York standards, recording studio, tucked into an anonymous industrial building on a block with views of the Manhattan skyline. Meanwhile,I…I’m back in my recording shack in North Carolina, thanks to a canceled flight. But Will gets to be there to visit with two people who have played a huge part in making magic for this show.
[Piya talking and walking]
SALEEM: So, this doesn’t happen much on a podcast, but we have actually gotten notes from people asking about our theme song. And these two special people are the musicians behind our vibey Hindi vaguely nostalgic mystic banger of a theme song…
Leon: Okay, I'm Leon Michaels. Musician, producer, and band leader for El Michels Affair.
Piya: I am Piya Malik. I am a singer, lucky to be working with Leon and featured on a lot of El Michels Affair's songs from the latest record, “Yeti Season.”
[Theme music continues]
SALEEM: So, on today’s episode, we’re bringing you something a little different, and special. I talk with Leon and Piya, via Zoom, about their creative process in making our theme, and about the relationship their emotions have to their music. We have to ask about their relationship to that most legendary of hip hop acts, Wu-Tang Clan…and exactly what makes a perfect theme song, what emotions does that have to evoke…and more. That’s coming up, after a quick break.
SALEEM: Welcome back.
Today, I’m talking with musician and producer Leon Michels of El Michels Affair, and singer, songwriter Piya Malik, a longtime collaborator of Leon’s. They’re the team behind the music and lyrics of our theme song, and a lot of the music you hear on this show.
I gotta tell you, syncing up with Leon and Piya was pretty magical. I’ve been a fan of El Michels Affair for a long time. And a couple months ago I was listening to their latest album, and there was this amazing Hindi singer, and I sent it to my brother and my sister, being like, “Hey! Check this out — there’s a singer singing in Hindi with this band I’ve been listening to for a minute. I love this track, what do y’all think?” And my sister texts me back and is like “Oh, that’s Piya. You briefly met her in Brooklyn.” Which threw me off, like “Wait, what?”
So, when we started thinking about what we wanted for the sound of this show, I figured, maybe we should try working with them. But it was a little bit of a moon shot. I mean, Leon’s worked with Adele, Lana Del Ray, multiple members of Wu-Tang Clan, Beyoncé, Jay-Z…But, I went ahead and sent the email, and lucky for me, they were in!
SALEEM: I would love to know what y’all thought when you got asked to make a theme song for a podcast about emotions.
PIYA: [laughing] Well, I was so excited just from the get-go and any chance to get in the studio with this one is always, yes, the answer is yes. And so it was a no brainer for me. And Leon’s just so quick, making music, you know. He can spend a day in the studio and for sure come out with one, if not two songs. Yeah. It's just, it's cool to work with a producer who has that level of creativity and just kind of like very chill attitude, gets on with everybody, and just makes it easy to, to create.
LEON: Yeah, I was, I was nervous because it was like a show about emotions. So the theme song, like what emotion are you going to choose?
LEON: You know? And then also it's a theme song. So you got to have like that kind of like theme song, hook. Like theme songs that should be able to be recognizable in like, you know, three seconds. It feels like good theme songs like it's this kind of quick instant thing and you associate the song with the show. But yeah, in choosing the emotion, I think that was too hard so we just ended up like making a song that we liked.
SALEEM: [laughing] Yeah…
PIYA: It covered all the emotions then…
LEON: Um, and you know, and I was, yeah, I was thinking about that before we did this interview too, about like emotions and music and, and the song we did is sort of like it's has a slightly sad…
PIYA: Yeah, for sure.
LEON: Slightly like melancholic overtone.
SALEEM: Yeah. I'd say that's in there, yeah. But it’s not low energy, which is an interesting combination.
LEON: Well, that's what I was thinking about. And it's like making sad music is, is sort of the easiest place to go. When you make music, I feel like it's an emotion that you can access that most people can access really easily. Like making happy music's like, nearly it’s impossible to just make happy…
SALEEM: Oh, that's so interesting. Tell me a bit more about that.
LEON: Making happy music. I mean, you really have to be happy. Sadness, you can, you can, you know, when I, if I sit down at the piano, like seven times out of ten, I'm just like hitting the minor chord. Because it's easy to go there, I think for most people, you know, you live in sadness, maybe like a little more than happiness. I don't know, especially nowadays. But, but like you said, it's tempo. Tempo changes everything. So if you have a slow song, that's minor, it's just like a lot of times it's just like, pure sadness. But if you have a minor song that's like fast, that can completely change.
PIYA: Yeah. It creates this tension, doesn't it?
LEON: Yeah. And it creates energy.
LEON: You know, tempo is like kind of energy.
PIYA: To propel you into sadness! [laughing]
LEON: Yeah, exactly. Get there quicker.
PIYA: Just kidding…
LEON: No. So yeah…
SALEEM: So it's such an interesting distinction. I mean, I love this idea that sadness being somewhat easier to access when creating music, and happy music being something that you can only make well, when you're actually happy. That's really interesting.
LEON: I mean, there's obviously some songwriters who are kind of like treat it like a job who can just get in there and be like, boom, let me make a happy song. That's a hit. But, but if you're trying to access the emotion…you know, how easy is it to make yourself happy? It's like very hard.
PIYA: Without sounding corny with those major chords too.
LEON: Yeah. I mean, it's pretty easy to get yourself sad. I mean, you just think about something sad and boom. Thinking about something happy can sometimes make you feel sad because it's like nostalgia, it's like this, you know, usually you're like accesses memory, that's happy. And then that makes you sad.
SALEEM: I'm going to be thinking about this for days that they get about like, oh, how's this apply to other creative stuff. It's really interesting. You know, this thing that you just mentioned of making yourself happy. I mean, obviously it's not easy. Otherwise there wouldn't be so much work of people trying to figure out how to be happy, you know, if it was something that you could do instantaneously, then yeah. We'd all be there all the time, I suppose.
LEON: I think, you know, being around people that obviously can speed up the process of happiness. That's why music is great. That's why being in a studio is great because if you're surrounded by a lot of people and it's this like collective art form where you're collaborating a lot of times, that's like very joyful.
[theme music interlude]
SALEEM: I would love to kind of break down the track for listeners, both on a musical side and a lyric side. So maybe we could start with the music. What's the literal first step towards making that track?
LEON: I think I was listening to what's that what's that composer’s name? Like the most famous Bollywood composer?
PIYA: Makesh or…
LEON: R.D. Burman. R.D. Burman. Sorry. Yeah, I was listening to R.D. Burman. That's what it was. And he had one little section in one of his songs that I thought like, “Oh, that's really cool. I want to do something like that.” It ended up becoming the intro of the song, you know, the, the first like ten seconds of the song.
So that was the first step. Getting inspired by another piece of music. And then the chords and the rhythm were me and a friend of mine, Marco Benevento, who's a piano player. And we were trying to do something that was like in a funny time signature. You know, not like 4/4. I think it's basically like seven?
SALEEM: What made you want to do that?
LEON: To entertain ourselves, basically. It sounded fun. No, you know, actually I remember, I remember…
SALEEM: The honest answer is always the most fun answer.
LEON: I remember what it was actually, I,I made a drum loop with a drum machine and I looped it wrong.
SALEEM: Oh, really?
LEON: And so it was a mistake. That's what it was. Yeah.
LEON: And it ended up being in seven.
PIYA: A happy accident.
LEON: Yeah. But I would like to give credit to the other musicians on the song, which is Marco Benevento on piano, and Nick Movshon playing the drums. And then I played all the other instruments
SALEEM: What are the other instruments?
LEON: It was bass, guitar, tambourine, flute. I think there’s flute on there? Maybe flute, maybe not, can’t remember.
SALEEM: For folks who are listening, like, so normally I'm saying normally in massive quotes, but in like Western pop, you're gonna be 4/4. Help people understand what you're saying, when you say that it's in seven.
LEON: It’s a time signature. Like, yeah. Like you said, most like Western music and pop music and everything, you know like Western radio is in 4/4, and that means there's four beats per measure. So 1, 2, 3, 4, and then it cycles back. But then there's, you know, types of music all over the world that don't use 4/4. So in this case, it's like there's seven beats to a measure. And then it cycles back.
[brief theme music interlude]
SALEEM: I was filming a meetup of a couple of beatmakers from the U.S. and a bunch of young beatmakers in Ethiopia, we were in Ethiopia. And they were using Ethiopian samples and the Ethiopian kids were just not into the music that the U.S. beatmakers were making. They were just not feeling it. And then one of them came over and like, just explained something quietly to the beat maker, and then he literally flipped some buttons and the time signature shifted of how the sample was being used, and everyone in the room was super hype and went in, you know. It’s so interesting how cultural some of that is…
PIYA: Oh wow. That’s cool. I love that story. Just being like, “Nah, you guys have the wrong time signature. Let me show you how to catch a vibe.”
[Piya, Saleem, and Leon laugh.]
SALEEM: So, on catching a vibe: Leon’s been at this a minute. He’s been making music since he was in high school. And he’s been involved in the music industry at all levels — from writing, to producing, to instrumentation. But he released his first solo full length record in 2005, under the name “El Michels Affair.”
LEON: When I was like, in my early 20’s, I had a friend who had a studio and I just essentially just lived at that studio. I would make music all the time. For different, for different artists and different projects. So El Michels affair was just the name I gave the stuff that I kind of wanted to keep for myself. It was really just like an outlet for, for my music.
SALEEM: You know, I mentioned when we first chatted, when we were first kind of approaching y'all about possibly working together. I mentioned and described to a friend that your music sounded like new music that's seen some shit.
SALEEM: Like, it had- had some kind of like, evoc- well, I'm- I'm glad you like it, I know it's weird to hear your music described by other people. But you know, it just has some kind of evocative something, where it doesn't feel like it's replicating older stuff, but it has this kind of like, "Uh, I've been through it." And I’m curious in thinking about the equipment that you use, how that affects and if that affects, kind of…I don't want to say nostalgia, but I kind of want to say nostalgia.
SALEEM: Like, there is definitely... You know, we were first discussing the possibility of interviewing y'all, nostalgia kept coming up just because it's such evocative music. And I'm curious how you think about that, and how that is tied to your process?
LEON: Yeah. I used to hate titles, like retro-nostalgia, because, you know, when I was making music, you're just making what you like. And what I liked was old sounding records. And for me, my favorite part about old music or old records is the sound and basically like the generations of, like you say, like it's seen shit. And in reality, like old music has seen shit. It's like it was recorded back in the day and then it was mastered for AM radio and then it was forgotten, and then a record was found and then it was re-issued through some program that like takes away crackles. Then it was put up on YouTube and someone took it down from YouTube. So really it has seen like all this stuff. And all that stuff adds to the audio quality and like the emotion you get off that music, like the hiss, all that stuff adds to it. And so I started to think like, well, I want to figure out how to do that, but like speed the process up.
LEON: So I started to mess around with that. But, yeah, that's one of the things for me as like a bit of a, like an audio nerd that I really get off on, like that part of the nostalgia, like the sound.
SALEEM: For an audio nerd, Leon had this wild opportunity to geek out when El Michels Affair released their second album. It’s called Enter the 37th Chamber - a full album cover of Wu-Tang, but created with these alternate universe throwback vintage equipment sounds.
LEON: The reason we did that in the first place was we were hired to backup Raekwon for this concert. So we had to learn all these Wu-Tang songs. And when we started to pick it apart and like take the horn line and, and isolate certain parts and play it live, some of the stuff to me sounded like, like some sixties Albert Ayler like avant-garde jazz. Cause you know, he takes horns that are in a completely different key and puts it over a sample that's like from some other record. So when you put it together, it has this like sort of dissonant, cool, almost like jazz quality. RZA you know, sometimes he doesn't even put drums on a track. It's the drums from the song he sampled that was made in 1968, but it's been sped up. He boosted the bass on a sampler.
SALEEM: That's a hell of a reason to start doing a Wu-Tang cover album, you know, backing up Raekwon is a pretty legit way to get into it.
LEON: To me that's my favorite part about hip hop is like sampling music. And what they do is the same thing I was talking about before. Like, you know, they take a record, they speed it up, they slow it down. They put it through an MPC. And so it has this like sound that's so special, but it's, it's just an old record that's been manipulated.
SALEEM: The record was a hit, and El Michels Affair blew up. Leon’s tracks were sampled by Eminem, Rick Ross, Ludacris, Kid Cudi… He continued song writing and producing for other people, and ended up starting his own record label in 2016, called Big Crown Records.
LEON: And once I started Big Crown, it was me and a friend of mine Danny. And I basically felt like I had to do another Wu-Tang record because I knew it was going to make money, you know, because people liked it and we had just started the record. So that was my third record for El Michels. But that one, like kind of blew the door open for me because I went into that much more like confident and really like an excuse to experiment with this stuff I was talking about earlier, like the, uh, playing with the sound quality and trying to replicate that part of Wu-Tang.
Like the first one. We were playing the songs and we were interpreting the songs. And the second one I made, I was gonna try and like interpret the production, like figure out if I could sort of reverse engineer what he was doing. You know what I mean? And then once I'd finished that second Wu-Tang record, then it was like, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted.
SALEEM: Coming up, a chance encounter in the studio gives Leon the inspiration to do, well, whatever he wants. That’s after the break.
SALEEM: Welcome back, y’all.
SALEEM: Today I’m talking with Leon Michels and Piya Malik, the two artists and musicians who wrote our dang beloved theme song, and much of the music that you’ve been hearing throughout this show. After two albums, a tour with Wu-Tang Clan, and a new record label, Leon was ready to do something entirely different than what he’d been making. So, along comes Piya…
PIYA: And what was that? Twenty…?
PIYA: Sixteen. It feels like yesterday in some ways. But, um, I was in another project called 79.5 and we were signed to Big Crown which was a super exciting time and we made this beautiful record with Leon. And just coming down to Diamond Mine Studios was just life-changing experience for me on a personal level. You know, I've always wanted to work in a studio like this, and I know you can't be with us listeners, but just to describe the room that we're in right now in the control room, it's just like the most amazing vintage preamps everywhere. And the board is so sweet. And you can look out to the window into the live room.
And when the sun comes in through that room, it is like magic hour. And I would just remember, we started recording just before sunset and the sun was streaming in and we, it was just such a joyous moment. We were so happy and I feel like all the emotions from that record just like have stayed with me today and I just have that memory of the first time that we recorded.
And, um, there was a little Hindi riff in one of the songs and he kind of just heard it and said, “Oh, hang on a minute. Do that again.” And he just kind of had me come into the room where we are now in the control room, and just kind of sing a little bit more in this style. And I dunno, something I guess, went off in your head and you and I both love Bollywood records and Turkish psych rock. And I have a shared love of that sort of style of music and always geeking out on records and sending each other shit. So I feel like it was just this natural thing that happened in his head and it, although it started in his head first, it was something that for years in my life, um, I'd always wanted to do was sing in Hindi. It just felt like the perfect fit.
LEON: Well, yeah, I mean, I can say that, you know, Piya is like the direct inspiration for the record because when I did hear her sing it was, for this split second, when she started singing Hindi, like her voice changed, like the notes changed. It was just such a departure from what we were doing that it kind of like took me back. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that would be so fun to just make a song that's like just in Hindi with Piya singing cause it's, it's such a beautiful sound.”
SALEEM: Piya, when you walk into a studio that has, you mentioned like stepping in and seeing vintage gear from the start. Does that affect your mindset? Like it being a place that is visually somewhat evocative of an earlier time?
PIYA: [laughing] You know, I never thought about that. I guess for me, I'm always excited when I see that. Cause I know that that means it will create the type of sound that I love.
SALEEM: How would you describe the type of sound you love?
PIYA: Just, I love old records, you know. I love all the old soul stuff that I've really only started collecting kind of more since I moved to America. I was like a little bit more geared towards the old Bollywood records that were in my house. You know, those were some of the first records and tapes, a lot of tapes, you know, my dad used to even sell tapes in his corner shop. We would just like take them from the shot without asking him and you know, just go through tapes and tapes and tapes, listening to old stuff from Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle and that was like the first, Leon talks about that kind of crackle on the old vinyl. And then on the tape you get these like hisses and you were saying something earlier about like taking the nostalgia from the Wu-Tang stuff and like listening to the fact that they cut records and like, you know, that those samples, they were modernizing them.
And so it's like this idea of like, not reinventing the reel or whatever instead of the wheel [laugh], but like taking kind of reference from that, but modernizing it, you know? Here I am today. I love this old stuff. And that's what I’ve liked about Leon as well. He's never been as far as I've, you've never, if anything, you say the opposite, you've never been stuck on like trying too hard to recreate something from the past.
You've always said, let's keep it fresh and like, It feels more honest. It feels like honest music. Whereas a lot of the other recording I had, I'd never done a recording to tape till I met Leon. Always wanted to, and always wished I could have something that sounded the way that it does.
SALEEM: Piya explain to me a bit about, like, at what point in this you kind of came in and where the y'all were having discussions beforehand, or if you came in, when, when the track had been, you know, moved along to a pretty far place and then jumped in with vocals. How did that work?
PIYA: So usually Leon will have an idea and the track will definitely, always evolve. It's very rarely like completely finished when he’d show it to me. And you know, he's, like I said so quick, so there's often like four or five different things and it's like, what’s speaking to us. Or sometimes you just be like, “I have this dope one” and you already know I'm going to love it. And so that's just like instant and…
LEON: I think we had two songs in the running, right?
LEON: And you chose this one.
SALEEM: Oh wow.
LEON: There was an alternate, yeah.
SALEEM: Secret alternate.
PIYA: That's for your next podcast.
LEON: It was even sadder.
PIYA: But, honestly, the intro on this, just to me felt instantly like a theme song. Coming in on either it's a strong hook or like coming in on the chorus or coming in on some sort of power melody is the difference for me. That makes a theme song. It was instant. I absolutely loved it. Um, I felt emotional when I heard it. I felt this rush of excitement, but also, you know, it's tinged with this sadness.
And originally we had talked about, “Well what kind of emotion?” And we were thinking, well, maybe we could get the broad range of emotions. Like maybe we could make the voice and the lyrics that you went through, all the different emotions by the end of the song. The piece of music overall, even though I think it does sit in that sort of nostalgic, more sadder sphere, the lyrics talk about a journey. So it’s:
[MTAF theme song “Kabhi” playing underneath in time]
Kabhi halké se jhalké
se avaaz aathi
Is “sometimes the softest touch can stir a vibration” then
Kabhi Kabhi saans
“Sometimes a deep inhale brings you the sweetest smell.”
So the idea was like, you know, like, how do you kind of get [sighs deeply]? When you sigh you feel something different after you sigh, don't you? You could sigh from exasperation, or you could sigh from pure joy and being in a blissed out state.
[theme song “khushboo, khushboo”]
I just wanted to kind of take the lyrics and make them show you that different parts of the song can lead you to different emotions. And then the last:
“My tears leave me exasperated.”
Tears can make you so tired after you've cried. You feel exhausted. And after you've screamed, you feel release and you feel calm. And the idea was to kind of show you how one emotion can lead you to another. And emotions don't exist in isolation. And they don't hold the monopoly either.
Even though an emotion like fear can be so strong and powerful. And we can't live without fear. It helps us make right decisions and it keeps us safe and it's…but it's not a reflex. Emotions are not reflexes in the sense that they don't lead us to another behavior. What I think they do is they pave this foundation for us to then think, okay, now I have more information. My emotions are telling me something. How do I use that and read that to make better decisions?
SALEEM: What was the process of you deciding to definitely do this song in Hindi?
PIYA: Well, firstly, the music. It felt like an extension or continuation of, of other music we've been making. And, um, I love it. I, any chance I can, you know, it's not just about having visibility, which is an important thing for me, you know, I want more second generation people to speak in Hindi and to sing in Hindi.
And I think that, you know, there wasn't that many opportunities for us growing up to even hear Hindi on the radio ever. And so any chance I get to sing as an Indian origin woman, who's proud of my identity and my ethnicity and my culture and my language. That's always the place I feel most in love with when I get to sing in Hindi.
And then also it does push me to do something outside of my comfort zone. My process is I write in Hindi and then I usually jump on a call with my dearest mother, Sheri. Hello! [everyone laughs] Who then just laughs and says, “Your grammar is terrible.” [Piya laughs]
SALEEM: I love the mom check. I love that you’re getting your mom to check the Hindi.
PIYA: Yeah, my mum's cool cause she's sometimes I'm like, well, “How can I say it like this?” And she tries to tell me to say it in a completely different way.
LEON: I was always like, “Oh, have you written that song?” She’s like, “I'm still waiting on my mom.”
PIYA: He's always shaking his head, laughing at me. “I love that you call your mom.” Listen, you’re never too old to call your mum. Everybody remember - call your mum. So, um, yeah, she really helps. And, um, Often, you know, she'll kind of just go to an obvious place with the lyrics. So it's this pull and push between the mother-daughter dynamic. Where I'm like, No, that is not what I want to say. I don't want to say something so obvious and you know, something that's like a typical lyric. And I, I want to use a lot more nature imagery and, and lean more into the poetry.
So, um, it takes a while. It's usually. Uh, at least four or five backs and forth between us. Some of the things, you know, the way that you say things and the way that you express yourself in, in Urdu is again, that's another one step removed from the Hindi that we spoke at home. So I'm usually I'm reading and I'm looking at old poetry, and then I'm looking at you know, different reference points for, for how the language was used and manipulated.
And then by the time we've ended up with the lyrics, I then usually run it past a couple of other ears of peers who are my age, other Indians working in the music business here who are the same age as me. And I feel like they're good sounding boards and they, you know one of them works, he works in hip hop. And he know, Leon as well. And so he he's a massive fan of Leon's music. So any chance he gets to help make sure that the Hindi sounds like cool and not like too much, like my mom's helping me. He helps. And he's changed a couple of words that she uses that are maybe old fashioned. And he's like, no, this is like the street, cool word here and there. And yeah, so he changed a couple of things. Like even the word “khushboo.'' He was like, “No you should use ‘khushboo’ instead,” which is a sweet aroma rather than, um, ‘miśrī’ or another word like that. So…
SALEEM: I love that you got the squad of consultants. You got both the correction consultant and the still reaching the youth consultant in your battery of folks you can call.
PIYA: [laughing] You’re making me sound really contrived now. But you asked. You asked. I'm just being honest.
SALEEM: No. I love it. I love it.
SALEEM: Well, Piya, I'm kind of curious about your relationship to singing in Hindi or hearing Hindi, like you've mentioned kind of like hearing Bollywood tracks and how that conjures something for you. I would love to know a bit about your personal story and your relationship to Hindi growing up and how that all came together.
PIYA: Yeah. So, um, Hindi is, even though I grew up with it from birth, it's really my fourth or fifth language. So I speak English, French, Spanish, and then Punjabi and Hindi is the kind of last language in our house. And though I grew up around it and listening to the music, you know, I haven't mastered it in the same way. You know, I lived in France for a long time. I was able to do degrees out there and that kind of level of language, I don't have that same level with Hindi. And sometimes my Hindi can be kind of family and childish words or things that you say in a much more colloquial sense. Definitely not academic. So, writing poetry, which also uses a lot of Urdu reference. We say Hindi, but actually some people can call this particular dialect Hindustani, which takes some Hindi words and some Urdu words. Which is what most poets would do in India and what they did for Bollywood as well. So for me, it was an interesting process, you know, I don't think people are used to hearing Hindi speakers who are not Indian.
And this is something that I've found a community since making this music with Leon, of lots of people reaching out to me who are second generation Indians who live around the world and who speak Hindi. And I was talking to this girl online who's also a musician who kind of raps as well in Hindi. And she's from Malaysia. And she was just saying she got so much hate. People, kind of like really criticizing her accent and her intonation. And I've had a few little things online with people saying like, “She's from the west, she's not even a real Indian singer.” And it's like, well, I am Indian. And you know, we, a second generation people, we deserve to have a voice and to be able to use our mother tongue. So I've had to kind of like overcome that sort of rejection from my own people, like sort of laughing about the way that I pronounce certain words.
SALEEM: There's a thing I was curious about. I've spent some time living abroad and, um, I remember being like a teenager and spending some time in Spain and realizing that I was saying much more dramatic stuff in Spanish. Partially, just because it was maybe a step removed from the social mores of the way that I normally would be expressing an emotion. I'm curious if you find something similar in writing in Hindi, like how does writing in Hindi affect what you choose to write or what you choose to say or how you choose to say or how you choose to say it?
PIYA: For sure that has definitely changed my writing. I feel like I lean more into nuance in English and French. Whereas in Hindi because it's not my first language, I tend to really look for more nature imagery and, and emotional imagery. And I take the drama and all the influence of the dramatism from Bollywood movies. Sometimes where channeling that through imitation of voice. And as if it was like a snippet of a sample from a movie in there. And in other songs it's just, you know, us playing the character of somebody dramatic. Whether it's through the music and the instrumentation or through the vocal lines and the lyrics. So yeah, definitely lean into the drama that is their ether of Bollywood when we think about the lyrics for, for anything to do with this project.
LEON: Yeah. I like to, I like to listen to, um, music that I don't understand the language. Sometimes like lyrics for me, especially can take me completely out of the emotion. You know, if it's like a silly set of lyrics or just, don't like what they're saying, then it'll take me out of it. Whereas like, if you're listening to a voice, like an instrument, you can kind of do whatever you want with, with that melody.
SALEEM: I find that so true.
SALEEM: You know, I think a lot about, uh, black and white photos, I think are nostalgic for two separate reasons. One is, they literally suggest the past, right? Like there was an era when that was the only kind of photo we have. But they're also more similar to memory to me because. You don't have all the information. And so a black and white photo, you have to fill in more, you know? And a blurry photo can often feel very evocative because your brain just fills in bits and pieces. And so I do sometimes find that what is an element of mystery to someone who doesn't understand a language can have a similar function.
LEON: Yeah. Absolutely. Now as the other day I was listening to this, uh, this Reggaeton song. And I was like loving it. It was this modern Raggaeton song. And my wife, she's from Mexico and speaks Spanish. And she, she came in while I was listening to it and was like, appalled. She was like, “Turn it off now.” But I guess what she was saying was pretty dirty. [ALL LAUGH] But it just sounded so cool, like the rhythm and her voice.
SALEEM: So, I’ve got this long-standing interest in the kind of emotions that feel tied to memory, and the different ways something can feel evocative, the deja vu vibe of something that feels almost like a memory. There’s this word in Japanese — natsukashii. It means “nostalgic” but it’s got this positive association with the feeling…a warmth. “Nostalgia” has this melancholy behind it. Literally in Greek it’s “pain for home”. Natsukashii is more of a joyous remembrance. There’s nothing sad about it. It’s the pleasant glow you feel when you hear a song you haven’t thought of in years, but reminds you of your high school friend. Or maybe you taste a random candy that you haven’t eaten since you were on a middle school playground.
So often when music evokes something in me, it can cause this interesting tension between the warmth of natsukashii and the melancholy of nostalgia. Like, for me, the album “808s & Heartbreak” means riding around Japan at night in my friend’s Acura. Or there’s like six different songs that take me back to 2am in a tiny college-town North Carolina apartment. And so much of the music this crew makes feels both fresh and circling around something that evokes all these different memories
LEON: You know, those first twelve years of your life, That's that part of your life, where like everything gets baked in so deep and music, especially. I mean, it's like my mom can sing every word of some Shangri-Las song because she listened to it over and over again when she was seven and the same with me. It's like, you know, that stuff sticks with you forever. And when you listen to it later in life, it usually brings back that time almost immediately.
PIYA: Can I do a Shangri-Las cover with your mum? [All laugh] For another time. I always kinda think of like searching for the palimpsest. You know, what's the trace that lies underneath that you can just hear a little reference of? And it's not like obvious, but it's there. And then when you can hear it, you can't unhear it. And that's like, for me, that lovely nostalgia when I hear like a riff or a melody or something that is reminiscent of something from the past.
SALEEM: There’s a TON to say when we think about music and emotions and that’s coming up later this season. But next time, in an attempt to investigate feelings of shame and joy, I’m gonna go all in on something I haven’t done since I was much, much younger
[sound of teenage girls screaming]
SALEEM: It’s not riding a roller coaster or trying tricks on a skateboard, But it might be just as thrilling.
YVE BLAKE: It was a profoundly euphoric experience. I was full of endorphins. My brain was like drenched in dopamine.
SALEEM: On the next episode of More Than a Feeling, we look at the bliss that happens when you just give into fandom.
SALEEM: Sam, Laww. We are gathered here today to prepare to experience about a week of BTS.
[sound of BTS Chanting]
SALEEM: We're taking a short break so we can all catch our breath. But we will see you in two weeks with our next episode.
If you have a specific question or story about an emotion you’ve been grappling with.
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More Than a Feeling is produced by Will Coley, Reva Goldberg, Mark Pagán, Palace Shaw, and Kim Buikema. Our managing producer is Kimmie Regler and executive producer is Jen Poyant. Scoring, mixing, and sound design provided by Ultraviolet Audio. Our theme music was composed by El Michels Affair. Thank you to Danny Akalepse at Big Crown Records. Music licensing help by Rebecca Grierson of Sixty Four Music. Fact checking for this episode provided by Jeanette Beebe. Special thanks to Jess Goldberg, Ben Rubin, Dan Harris, Matthew Hepburn, and Toni Magyar. This show could not have been created without you. We’ll see you next week!
Love our theme song as much as we do? Check out the full length single for “Kabhi” by El Michels Affair featuring Piya Malik on Spotify or wherever you listen to music.
Lyrics to “Kabhi”
Kabhi halké se jhalké
Kabhi halké se jhalké
se avaaz aathi
Sometimes the softest touch
can stir a vibration
Kabhi Kabhi saans
Sometimes a deep
...the sweetest smell
se atah hai
Se atah hai dar
Sometime a sound
scares (a noise can invite fear)
Dar se lagta
Dar se lagta hai josh
Fear can ignite
Fear can ignite vigor*
Josh* se lagta
Avaaz se atah hai dar
Excitement can lead to adrenaline
And sometimes a sound / a voice / a noise can bring / lead you to [the claws of] fear
Mujhe ek banao
Make me one / whole / the sum of all parts
NOTES ON TRANSLATION:
*JOSH / जोश:
- Josh (जोश; vigor) is an active strength of mind and body and capacity for exertion.
- A short term feeling of excitement or passion for anything that you want to accomplish is “Josh”.
**JOSHILA / जोशीला:
- Warm blooded
Thank you to Piya Malik for sharing these lyrics, translations, and notes!