Tiana Khasi Interview

Tiana Khasi: Running for the Hills and Back

The genre elusive vocalist on taking her time, visions of patience, and the responsibilities of heritage.

Muhib Nabulsi

I remember reading some years ago the claim that personal genealogical research is the most conservative possible form of history, concerned as it is with the family unit. The writer mentioned it in passing; an over-extension of their theoretical circuitry rather than an honest attempt to assess why people may be compelled to immerse themselves in genealogical projects. As with any form of looking to the past, family history always bears with it the possibility of agitating the present.

For singer and musician Tiana Khasi, looking to lineage does exactly that, though agitation may not be the right word. Speaking about her debut EP, Meghalaya – named after the North-Eastern state of India from which her great-grandmother and grandmother come – the artist reflects on the way that identification with her part Khasi heritage in her music has brought with it new connections to Khasi people in Meghalaya: “It’s been a really cool way of connecting with people. And I’ve discovered family that share my great-grandmother’s maiden name, so over Instagram and music I’ve actually reconnected with family.” Yet for Khasi, any discussion of heritage, as I find during our interview, is bookended by concerns with responsibility.

Placing such focus on Khasi’s ethnicity, as important as it is to her identity and music, runs the risk of brushing over her classical musical training and long-running involvement in the Brisbane music scene, which, she tells me, have played both affirmative and oppositional roles in her music practice. I sat down with Khasi to talk about everything that went into her debut, and what it’s like on the other side of it.

You recently moved to Melbourne. How’s it been so far?

It’s been good. There was definitely the initial month or two, of just being in identity crisis. I’ve never lived in another city before. I’ve been in Brisbane my whole life, so I’m just starting fresh and being completely out of my comfort zone. It’s slightly distressing, but well worth it.

One of my favourite things about moving to a new city is that it gives you an opportunity to restructure your priorities.

Totally. I’ve found that it’s made me reassess my identity a bit, having to introduce myself to new people all the time. It’s not like here (Brisbane) where you can just sit at a coffee shop and bump into three people you know. So I’ve found that being in Melbourne, I might say “I’m a musician,” and everyone’s like, “yeah, so are we all.” I have to think about what makes me different.

And there’s always the fatigue that comes when you’re meeting new people so often. Because you’re saying the same things about yourself over and over again to different people, it starts to feel like you’re reading off a script. It’s easy to develop an inauthenticity complex.

Yeah, meeting new people in music, at gigs, and then doing normal day-to-day stuff like a job interview: “so what brings you here?” And it’s like, “okay, let me just get out my spiel.” It’s been really good for my growth, to start fresh somewhere, as well as a way of marking the end of a release cycle. It just worked out, the timing. Finally having something come out, completing that project and then also writing, but in a new environment.

“So I think having that sense of responsibility to tell a story, and to do it well, and not just rush it was what kept me persistent.”

A “release cycle” sounds very neat and self-contained, how was the actual process of writing, recording, and producing the EP?

Sampology and I started working on the record two or three years ago. Some of the stuff we had both already written, or produced or whatever, before we’d even met, and it was kind of like a meeting of puzzle pieces. Sometimes they’re ideas you’ve had for years, so to finally see it through to the end and have it on a physical thing that you can hold and listen to, it’s so trippy. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from this EP. I know better now, and, having more experience in a studio, it’s given me way more ideas for future projects.

How did you stay motivated throughout the course of making the EP?

I think it really comes back down to, in terms of staying motivated, knowing your intention and vision for the music; a lot of the songs and the project in general having ties to my family, identity, heritage, for me that’s not a fleeting thing. It’s not something I can just quickly get over. So I think having that sense of responsibility to tell a story, and to do it well, and not just rush it was what kept me persistent. As well as the patience of Sampology, and all the guys in the band. It was such a learning process. Some songs we tried recording a couple of different ways, so even though not all the recordings were used, the knowledge we got from taking our time was so invaluable.

Your EP, Meghalaya, is named after the North-Eastern state of India your great-grandmother is from. Why did you decide to name your record Meghalaya?

Firstly, the actual geographic place: nature is an endless source of inspiration, and it’s such a lush, beautiful, mystical kind of place. That in itself was inspiration. Also, honouring my heritage was really important, and Meghalaya became the place I would go to in my head, almost like a little meditative or creative zone.

In the title track you sing, “up into the hills I run.” With the name of the record in mind, and knowing a little of your family history, I read that as you expressing heritage as a region of the mind, one in which you find respite.

Yeah, it’s that idea of having a sacred space within you where your identity, your creativity, and your sense of belonging and value is really untouchable, and quite infinite. It’s a place that you can resort to for infinite inspiration and creativity.

“Going back to this idea of responsibility, I had some fear in using the title, and also in my name Tiana Khasi. Khasi is the tribe that my great-grandmother comes from, and I feel a sense of custodianship, but also the responsibility to make sure that I’m doing it justice and educating myself as much as I can.”

Another thing about the record’s name, Meghalaya, is that it’s a place completely unencumbered by symbolic baggage in the Western imaginary.

It’s kind of like an education thing as well. There’s a lot going on environmentally there in terms of mining, and locals trying to prevent large companies from buying such beautiful, untouched land. The more people know about these places, the more invested they are and willing to speak up for it, should the time come. So that was an important part of it, bringing awareness to Meghalaya’s natural beauty so that people feel protective of it.

It’s nice to be able to introduce this largely unknown place to Western audiences free from pre-determined interpretative schema. For example, I’m part Palestinian, if I called an album Palestine, the associated imagery, whether it be of a culture of resistance or something else, would frame all interpretation, whereas with Meghalaya, you can gently introduce this place to your listeners while maintaining a certain creative freedom.

Definitely, but going back to this idea of responsibility, I had some fear in using the title, and also in my name Tiana Khasi. Khasi is the tribe that my great-grandmother comes from, and I feel a sense of custodianship, but also the responsibility to make sure that I’m doing it justice and educating myself as much as I can. I definitely had a fear of rejection by people from Meghalaya, because I’ve had people message me asking “are you actually Khasi?” “Where is your family from?” But I really admire that protectiveness from their end. And it feels beautiful to have people message and say that they are from Shillong in Meghalaya where my grandmother and my great-grandmother come from saying how beautiful the track “Meghalaya” is.

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