POP GODDESS Shalini

Following a breakup, a brilliant
EP and a relocation to Chicago,
the distaff rocker is gradually getting her groove back.

 

BY FRED
MILLS

 

It’s
risky to presume autobiography on the part of songwriters who routinely employ
metaphor and character sketches. Still, listening to Shalini Chatterjee’s
fourth solo release, the 6-song EP Magnetic
North
(Paisley Pop), the inevitable conclusion is that someone’s gotten
their heart broken, what with such lines as “I sense a change,” “you don’t want
me around” and – most pointedly – “betrayal… desertion… heartache set in
motion.”

 

Point of
fact, someone did get their heart
broken; Magnetic North is a chronicle,
if at times more veiled than those lyrics just quoted would suggest, of the
dissolution of Shalini’s marriage to North Carolina producer-musician Mitch
Easter. Judging from her comments over the course of a couple of interviews, it
wasn’t an easy breakup; in addition to the domestic union, the two of them had
performed with each other onstage for years, and the musical union apparently got
severed with an abrupt degree of finality. She ultimately decided to cut her losses:
in a followup email recently, Shalini wrote, “I moved to Chicago a few months ago. Things got even
weirder and worse. I had to get out of the South.”

 

The indictment
laid down in the  first paragraph, above,
comes from the tune “Walking Ghost of Death,” a rip-snorting slice of power pop
that sounds like a sweaty collision between the Breeders and the Plimsouls, and
it’s emblematic of how exposed-nerve emotion can elevate a song from just
“good” to “great.” Elsewhere the Shalini band conjures distaff images of
classic Dream Syndicate (“One of One”) and psychedelic Cheap Trick (“Echo”).
Translation: kickass music – or music to kick someone’s ass with.

 

Meanwhile,
Shalini seems to be adjusting to life in the Windy City,
where she’s already begun performing solo (the photo above was taken at a
recent Red Line Tap gig) and recording new material. “Things have kind of
slowed down again,” she noted. “I am working on new songs for a new full length
I want to call Cake + Flames. Just
have one demo recorded so far, but it is a start.” Pop fans, you have been
notified.

 

***

 

BLURT: It’s been over three years since your last record The Surface
and the Shine
– and I know that there has been a lot going on in your
personal life as well…

SHALINI CHATTERJEE: A lot! Three things in
particular. I started a non-profit called Revolve Film + Music Festival. It was
a tremendous amount of work, to start a non-profit and festival. It came
together really well, and of course I had some help. Unfortunately, we received
official non-profit 501 (c) (3) status from the IRS just as the economy
toppled. So Revolve can’t be my official job. Maybe one day. 

        Second one: I was trying to deal with the
death of my father in law, my friend and advocate Ken Easter. He died on May 8,
2007. I got to be with him at hospice when he passed away. He knew he was
dying, I could tell, and knew what was going on around him, although he was
checking out. It was a particularly slow death. He was kind of hanging on but I
felt like I was really with him. During the week he was dying, we opted to
go play a show in Richmond.
We just knew he wasn’t going to die quite then. 

        Then
my marriage with Mitch fell apart as he became disinterested but would not talk
to me – only act out. The sadness and frustration, and anger, fueled the songs
for Magnetic North.

 

Magnetic North has a decidedly tougher edge than much of your previous stuff, both
musically and lyrically, with some pretty raw emotions on display – including
some very pointed lyrics.

Maybe I have taken a turn and am writing more
autobiographically. A lot of my songs before this were fiction, even written
from different points of views that would come into my head through dreams or
whatever. This EP reflects the fact that some people wrecked my life and had
fun doing it, showing off for each other and using the studio as a stage for
their machinations. “Walking Ghost” tells the story of how deeply painful
betrayal is. The lyrics are pretty plain. It refers to life being physically
painful and hardly bearable so that I didn’t feel alive exactly. 

 

It appears you whipped the record together pretty swiftly – true?

Yes! Thanks to Chris Garges, who really should
have been credited as the producer. He brought some items with him from Old
House, in Charlotte,
and got things rolling really fast. We cut basic tracks to all the songs in a
few hours. We three played live. Jane Francis hadn’t joined yet [so] Shawn
Lynch was on bass and did guitar overdubs – he did all the lead guitar except
for Tim Lee’s excellent guest guitar on “Echo.” What a guitar player Tim is.
Unbelievable. The Tim Lee 3 were on tour, and he just stopped by while Mitch was
mixing, got out his red Telecaster, and put that part down. It makes the song!

        Anyway,
no reviewer yet has pointed out there is no Mitch lead guitar on this record.
Mitch played no guitar. That is
significant. He wasn’t on the recording session and I had no idea if he’d have
anything to do with the record at that time, October of ‘09. He has said he
would record it on analog 8-track, but when I booked time, he would have his
assistant Sidney Dixon call to cancel. It happened so many times, I asked Chris
and Shawn if they wouldn’t mind going to another studio, and they were
agreeable. 

 

To backtrack a moment, following
the release of The Surface and the Shine as
well as Mitch’s Dynamico the two of you did a good bit of touring, often
as each other’s opening act. How did that arrangement work out and evolve?

That arrangement worked fine because we kept a
few things straight. Mainly, I knew he was the main draw. I almost always
opened for the M.E. combo and I would intentionally keep my set short, 6-9
songs. People seemed to enjoy these shows. There was some magic and momentum in
the fact we had completed records in the same year, 2007. Both records had been
worked on for years. I started mine in 2005 and Mitch included songs he wrote
and recorded in 1991 at the Drive-In. I was aware his record was much more
anticipated, but I still appreciated the fact that there were still some people
who were interested in my music and songwriting. One day I got an email from
Jamie Hoover [producer, and member of NC
band The Spongetones
] congratulating
me on my songwriting and harmonies on the record. I wrote most of the backing
singing parts so a compliment like
that from Jamie made me feel like less of an amateur and more of a pro. 

        When
the EP came out, there was less playing together as Mitch had kicked me out of
the band on Jan. 23, 2010 via text message, three days before a Tuesday night
show at the Garage [Winston-Salem]
on Jan. 26. I thought it was so preposterous that after 10+ years I was
dismissed for no good reason, I went to the show and saw them play as a 3-piece.
It took the drama and the heaviness out of the situation.

 

How about the Shalini band? I assume Mitch is not involved…

Mitch is not in the touring band. Last summer
after the EP, it was mainly me, Chris, Shawn and the Fabulous Jane Francis on
bass. I really liked Shawn’s lead guitar playing. That was my favorite version
of any band I ever had. They sounded so pro and were so much fun to hang out
with, all of them. We had a couple guests on the July Athens/Atlanta shows:
Chris’s intern, Daniel Grimmett on lead guitar who was great, and Scott Craggs
from Boston on
bass, also Chris’ friend. Scott mastered the EP and liked the songs so much, he
learned them. I was flattered he liked my music so much! Daniel was in his
twenties but not annoying. Quite the opposite, and a good traveler and live
player. I am going to post some DVDs of us playing that Erock Drewes took, and
you can see both Daniel’s and Scott’s natural stage presences. And Chris is
always a top-notch pro. That was a good band. 

 

 

Crystal ball question: what does the future hold for you? Touring and
recording plans?

I wish I had a crystal ball! Do
you have one? [For my next record] I am playing everything but drums,
and have yet to get a new touring band together. I plan to go out and play as
much as I can, as always.

 

You’re on the Paisley Pop label, out of Portland, now – by my way of thinking, one of
the pre-eminent indiepop labels on the planet.

As with all my releases, I asked
Jim Huie if he’d be interested and he was. I really like everything Jim has
out, and we have the same sensibilities. If I lived in Portland, we would be bar buddies swapping
Big Star bootlegs. 

 

On a different note: you’re approaching your 20th anniversary as a recording artist, and you’ve been playing since the mid ‘80s.
Has the motivation, songwriting, etc., changed for you over the years?

My college band Kissyfish in Madison, Wisconsin,
did some worthwhile recordings on 4-track from 1987-1990 which were sold on
cassette in the ‘80s, but we didn’t try to get reviews or have a real career or
anything. My commercial career would have started with Vinyl Devotion in 1992.
So you are right, it is almost 20 years.  I wanted to play rock music
since the age of three. I really didn’t have an interest in anything but music.

        Writing songs comes easily only
occasionally. It is so hard right now with all the upheaval and disorientation,
post-divorce and moving to a huge new
city in a different part of the country, negotiating
dog visitation, etc. It was always hard work for me. I write a lot of really
bad songs no one hears, to get a few good ones that have something to them. I
don’t put any “filler” out. 

 

What do you do when you’re not making music? What kind of advice would
you give someone just starting up a band?

I have a background in business writing,
project management, that sort of thing. I sometimes work as a technical
marketing writer on the side. I think it is just as hard to be a working
musician as when I started out because I have remained largely unknown. If I
had a breakthrough of any kind, it would be easier now. The climate has always
been tough. I get booked now because I have been at it for so long, and at
least have critical, if not commercial, success. People seem to like the
songs. 

        If someone were just starting a band, I
would tell them to stay focused on what they want to achieve and not listen to
everyone else. Also to not get too embroiled in people who generate drama,
because then there will be no music. Keep your mind on your songs and
practicing, and it will be easy and fun when you play out. Do not waste time on
internet lists or made up charts. That has nothing to do with music.

        Know that you are not going to make
money at this. If you want to make money, go be an investment banker. 

 

[Photo Credit: Daniel Locke]

 

 

Leave a Reply