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Symphony On Screen: an interview with Ishita Sinha

Anyone who has experienced their favorite recordings being played live knows how much more alive songs can become through the energy and charisma of the musicians performing. A master behind the boards, composer and vocalist Ishita Sinha has been able to amplify her musical talents to new heights both in the studio and on stage, cultivating expression and emotion with audiences worldwide. From filming music videos, to performing a filmed, sold-out concert at Boston Symphony Hall, to orchestrating musical arrangements for popular television shows such as The 100, Sinha has transcended the traditional career of a musician and has learned to compose for a wide range of media. We had the opportunity to ask Sinha about her accomplishments as well as her approach in the studio, on stage, and behind the camera. 

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At this stage in your career, you have already performed on an international level, and have collaborated with numerous other established vocalists and musicians, including working closely with Emmy-winning composer Nathan Wang. How are you able to successfully create songs and videos with other artists from various musical and cultural backgrounds?

Ishita: Feeling confident about what you can do and what you know is crucial. Every artist brings something new to the table and it’s important to respect that and have an open mind. I love to collaborate with other artists and make sure that I justify what they’ve asked me to do and at the same time not compromise on my musicality, which is possible when you communicate well.

Your performance in 2014 as part of the A. R. Rahman Meets Berklee concert at Boston Symphony Hall garnered viral recognition across the internet, with over 15 million views on YouTube so far. Even though you were performing in front of a sold-out audience, did you ever think this show would attract such attention worldwide?

Ishita: I knew that we were doing something special there, although it was hard for us to imagine at the time that we would get appreciation of that magnitude. It really hit me after the release and success of our cover of Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The response for that video was overwhelming and encouraging. Soon after that we found that the concert was sold out and it was still weeks before the show! After that the team and I just made sure that we worked as hard as we could to make sure we put up a great show. That has always been the focus, even for the shows that we did after the Rahman concert.

After performing as the lead vocalist for many of the songs, including the concert’s opener Chhaiya Chhaiya , you earned your share of screen time. Did you personally receive an increase of fanfare and positive feedback either in person or via the web due to your major role in the concert and its accompanying music videos?

Ishita: Oh, yes! It has been an incredibly humbling experience so far. I’ve had a number of people send me messages through my YouTube and Facebook pages about how the music has touched their lives. It’s heart-warming to get that kind of feedback, and also reassuring that I should keep doing what I am doing. I also often receive messages from parents and young musicians to get advice on career options in the field of music. Since I didn’t have someone within the industry who I knew and could guide me, I know how valuable it can be to have that kind of support, and I try to get back to as many of the messages as I can. It is also an interesting experience to be recognised in person. One of the times was when the ensemble and I were travelling for Bengaluru Ganesh Utsava. A gentleman who was travelling in the same flight recognized me and requested to get a picture. During that time all I could think was how bad I look when I travel!

Internationally renowned director Han Jie’s recently released film Namiya features you working as the orchestrator for the film’s background music. How are you able to achieve the difficult goal of portraying and enhancing emotion within a film when arranging music, especially given that you don’t get to see the finished scenes beforehand?

Ishita: I discussed the movie and its story arc with composer Nathan Wang, who I worked with on this film. And then, of course, I was writing the music to picture, which means that I got to watch the scenes while writing music for them, which is very helpful. The bigger challenge here was not knowing Chinese. Since the movie was in Chinese, and there weren’t subtitles in the picture cut that we got, it was difficult to know what the exact dialogues were in the scenes. But it quickly became easier as I was able to understand the dramatic content of the scene based on the characters’ actions and expressions.

How long does the process of orchestrating and recording the background music for a film like Namiya take?

Ishita: It totally depends on the timeline that you get from the director and producers of the film. Composers can get anywhere from a month to a couple of months to write the music. For this film we had just a little over a month to do everything from start to finish. We had to write all the music, record it, mix it, and send it over within that time frame.

The promotion of a song plays an invaluable role in determining its popularity, and these days the means of promotion largely include music videos. Do you enjoy acting and creating other forms of media in order to promote your music?

Ishita: Yes, that’s something I will be exploring more this year. I’ve gotten more practice now at being in front of the camera since back in 2011 with The Indian Odyssey. By the time we did the video for Jiya Jale I was feeling more comfortable and understood better how to carry myself in front of the camera. I learned that a lot by watching Annette Philip, too. She has a great camera presence and watching her really helped me understand how to be more expressive on camera. This was also essential for me to work on, as all the concerts we’ve done since are recorded. I also love animation and I’m currently planning a project with that.

Working within cutthroat industries like the music and movie business, are there any habits or skills that you think aid in distinguishing yourself from other vocalists and composers?

Ishita: My knowledge on how to compose and work with Indian music has helped me to show that I have something unique to offer. Being versatile as a composer is important and I feel Indian music has given me the ability to understand music from the eastern part of the world. I really like to experiment within different genres and even mashing some together to try new collections of sounds.

What contributions and creations are you most proud of since you began working at Treehouse Music given that Treehouse makes an increasingly wide spectrum of musical arrangements for multiple cable television shows such as Californication, The 100, and NCIS: New Orleans?

Ishita: Working at the Treehouse has been a very rewarding experience. I am really happy that I get to exercise all my skills as a composer. Music arranging, score preparation and audio editing for the background music of these shows are some of the things that I tackle on a daily basis. These tasks, that are a part of a composer’s daily routine, help me stay aware of the latest advancements in music technology and music production. I’m extremely proud to be pushing the boundaries of music composition with each one of these pieces of music we work with at the studio. An episode can have anywhere from 30 to 40 pieces of music and the team and I are equally detail-oriented with each of these compositions. It’s an honor to work on these incredible shows that are loved by millions of people from around the world.

I’m delighted that I also got to contribute as a vocal improviser for The 100. As a composer, I want to let my music evolve naturally and making use of my skills as a vocalist enables me to do that.

When arranging and composing music for a movie or TV show, do you find yourself having any preferences in regard to using either live instruments or virtual ones?

Ishita: This actually relies a lot on the budget and time. Using virtual instruments definitely cuts the cost by quite a lot, but at the same time you compromise on each instrument’s expressiveness by not using live players. Often we’ll do a combination of both. Solo virtual instruments don’t always sound good, so many times, the entire composition is written using virtual orchestral instruments and then we’ll record just a solo instrument over it to make the composition sound more organic. Personally, I think live instruments is the way to go, and if budgets and time permit, I try to get live players.

Looking forward, are there any specific career goals or aspiring projects you have planned over the next couple years?

Ishita: Yes, some of these wonderful collaborations are going to continue for a while, which includes working with the Treehouse, Nathan Wang, Lili Haydn. At the same time I’m also starting on some new projects. I’ll be working with an incredible Santa Fe poet, Nolan Eskeets, on his poetry album, where I’ll be composing music for his poems, some of which will also be presented as videos. I’ll be starting another composition project with a talented dancer and videographer here in LA. Apart from all this I’m also working on my album which will be a collage of orchestral, electronic and Indian music. I want to break some boundaries with this album and really merge these three styles that I’ve come to know and love. Since writing for picture is my primary focus, all tracks from the album will have videos. Furthermore, I’m planning on starting my own company a few years down the line.

Watch The 100 to hear compositions by Ishita Sinha, and be on the lookout on YouTube for more music and performances.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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