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Kiran Gandhi, dressed in an orange quilted athletic suit, is surrounded by women wearing yellow jump-suits. In this moment, at 1:25 p.m. for the first set of Pitchfork 2017, Kiran is more than Kiran. She’s become something bigger than herself: the orchestrater of an experience for the few hundred people gathered around this stage. She’s Madame Gandhi.
She introduces the next track on her setlist, “Yellow Sea,” the first track on her 2016 EP ‘Voices.’ The songs features a simple vocal hook that Gandhi originally recorded with her iPhone on a subway ride. Gandhi’s music is rife with this characteristic: moments of creative flow captured and stitched together to make very honest and pure pieces of art.
Gandhi breaks away from this track for a moment, and asks the audience to join her in singing. The right half of the stage covers one vocal hook, the left half covers another vocal hook, and Gandhi returns to the chorus. A palpable sense of togetherness passes through the crowd, and for a couple of minutes, under the mid-day sun, I’m living inside of this song.
Later in the afternoon, I meet Gandhi for an interview and portraits. She greets me with the warmth that her name implies (‘Kiran’ derives from a sanskrit word meaning ‘ray of light.’)
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As an artist, you release under the moniker Madame Gandhi. Why ‘Madame’?
Three reasons: I love the idea that it celebrates the idea of female leadership and gets us used to the idea of Madame President or or Madame Prime Minister. Second, as a kid I was kind of loud and kind of bold and living in Bombay, India. So almost to make fun of me, the would say ‘Okay, Madame. Whatever you want.’ I think women being assertive at a young age is actually not socialized. We’re socialized to be quiet and demure. And then it’s a personal reminder to own my voice. There have been a lot of times when I’ve felt quieted or disempowered in my life. Madame Gandhi owns her stage. She owns her voice.
Your tracks are very percussion and beat heavy. What is your writing process like – do you lay down a beat and write on top of it or do you start with lyrics and move forward?
It’s very much both things. A lot of times there’s a drum rhythm I love playing and then we’ll build the music concepts around that drum beat because I know I want the beat to be there. It’s been a lot of times that I’m contemplating something or I’m walking around my home and I just start singing. I turn my voice recorder on on my phone and just capture all my ideas. “Gandhi Blues” was written as a stream of consciousness, “Her” was written as a stream of consciousness. Some of the most pure artwork is made in those inspired moments.
What do you hope the audience experiences at a Madame Gandhi show? In listening to Madame Gandhi’s music?
I want each person who comes to a Madame Gandhi show to feel brave enough to overcome whatever barriers they’re experiencing in their own life. This idea of owning your voice can be applied to any person and any situation. So I want people to leave a Madame Gandhi show feeling like their best self and able to go make the world a better place. I want the music to be very soulful and very wholesome, to have a power that’s accessed in a place of authenticity. The music represents that, it’s my way of showing what I want for the world in an art form.
What makes you feel empowered?
What makes me feel empowered is when I have the support of women around me. That’s why we have such a strong team of women on the stage. When you’re working with only women, for each woman to be as good as she is at each of her respective parts (drums, DJing, dancing, vocals) she has to be so alpha to have even made it that far. To put six alphas on the stage it’s very extraordinary, it’s very radical. Each of these women is used to shining in her own rite, in her own community, so to have that solidarity is so profound. That’s what allows me to own my voice.
The women you shared the stage with today were all wearing yellow, and you have a track on the EP called ‘Yellow Sea.’ What is the color yellow to you?
Yellow is positive. It’s brightness. It’s the rays of the sun. It’s light giving. It makes me feel good. It’s unity. It’s a block color, you can see it from a mile away. We’re here and we’re owning our stage. There’s a multi-layered symbolism to it but at the very least we look fresh as fuck.
While the rest of your crew was in yellow today, you’re wearing orange. Can you speak to that choice?
I really wanted to partner with Pitchfork in solidarity with their efforts to combat gun violence and spread awareness. They asked us to wear orange today, and I wanted to honor that. [Pitchfork partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety and Mothers Against Senseless Killings, as well as the Wear Orange coalition in memory of Hadiya Pendleton. Hadiya was 15 years old when she lost her life to gun violence in 2013.]