Manisha Shahane

Alt-world songstress Manisha Shahane unwittingly launched her career as a performing songwriter when she hung posters around Central Square and invited friends to hear some of her original songs at the Cezanne CafĂ© & Bakery in Cambridge, MA on November 21, 1999. The coffee shop ran out of bread for sandwiches during what turned out to be a standing-room-only show. Afterwards, she sat on the piano bench and sheepishly passed around a mailing list “just in case I perform my songs again sometime.”

With dedication and consistency, Manisha has since made over 175 appearances as a performing songwriter and countless more as a guest or band member of other groups. Following the 2004 release of her debut album, "Peace in Progress," her shows garnered audiences in numerous cities in the US, as well as in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and London. Combining a coming-of-age in southern Virginia with her Maharashtrian heritage, Manisha’s performances are a musical collage of folk, jazz, and Indian traditions, featuring her original songs & compositions, as well as covers and special arrangements. She is especially drawn to the sound of the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, which her father plays.

After shoveling more than 40 inches of snow following a Boston blizzard, Manisha (wisely) relocated to sunny Los Angeles at the end of 2005. Established clubs at which she has appeared in the Los Angeles area include The Coffee Gallery Back Stage, Genghis Cohen, The Mint, and Temple Bar, among others. She is equally comfortable performing in family-friendly environments such as schools, nursing homes, religious halls, & community centers, including LA’s Grammy Museum at which she performed twice in 2009. Manisha has also performed on college campuses, such as that of Wellesley College, Brandeis University, and Brown University.

Examples of notable invitations have included:
Women in Jazz Festival, UMass Amherst/Vermont Jazz Center (2005)
Local Colors International Festival, Roanoke, VA (2006)
Brihan Maharashtra Mandal Convention, Seattle, WA (2007)
UCLA Semel Institute Concert Series, Los Angeles, CA (2007)

With experience in genres ranging from Jazz to Classical to Rock to Indian music to Reggae to Afro-Cuban Armenian Salsa – and her original music - she has worked with musicians such as pianist Vince Evans (Luther Vandross, Dianne Reeves), percussionist Jerry Leake (Ali Akbar Khan, Natraj), bassist Eli Magen (Israeli Philharmonic), drummer Alison Miller (Sheila Jordan, Norah Jones), plus guitarists Kevin Barry (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paula Cole) & Prasanna (Joe Lovano, Hari Prasad Chaurasia), and multi-instrumentalist Akili Jamal Haynes (Lenny Kravitz, Roberta Flack). One of her most memorable experiences was singing at Carnegie Hall as a member of Boston’s Chorus pro Musica.

As a child, Manisha was encouraged & taught by her mother to sing in both Indian and Western styles. She later began her formal musical training by singing in choirs and taking private classical piano lessons throughout her teens. Over the years, Manisha continued to engage in periodic instruction in voice, guitar, piano, and dance. She also sought out training in Indian classical music. Before moving to Los Angeles, she studied in the Boston area with Charlie Banacos, a master of jazz theory & improvisation.

A four-year recipient of the ASCAPlus Award in the Jazz and Popular Division, Manisha has been writing songs & music for nearly 30 years. In 2009, she released a single titled "Speak, Memory Speak", through which she hopes to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease, and she just released her second album, "When Parallel Lines Meet," in 2010.

How do you describe your music to people? 
Folk-jazz with a global twist. Although I am inspired by a variety of musical traditions, my songs essentially draw on my roots in southern Virginia and my Indian heritage. The resulting sound is a kaleidoscope of Norah Jones, Susheela Raman, Loreena McKennitt, and Kate Bush.

Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
When I see a stage, I feel an urge to perform. I have felt this urge for as long as I can remember. This urge is largely what motivated me to study and practice, combined with the encouragement my family offered.

When I first began writing lyrics and composing music, initially around the age of 11, I did it because I loved to play with the ideas that came to me. Maybe the idea would turn into a song or composition, or maybe it would find its home months or years later. Or maybe it was never meant to become anything more.  Rather than trying to drive a new idea to a particular destination, I would initially climb aboard and see where the idea would take me.

There is a composition that I remember as my first. I began writing it when I was 11. When I was 16 or 17, I titled it "Dawn" and my teacher let me present a version of it during one of my recitals. Yet, to this day, I feel that it is still traveling, as if it has not yet reached its destination. And I wonder sometimes if I leave it "as is" on purpose, as if to hold on to the anticipation of what it might still become. Maybe someday I will return to it and develop it further.

In the meanwhile, there are new ideas calling for attention. In fact, I just posted an entry on my blog about the "birth" of a new song: There is an indescribable feeling of excitement when you have a song in your head on its way somewhere and you can't get it out of your head and you are so curious to know where it is going to take you, but you have to wait for it. And then, when you are done, you often long to share it with others. Moreover, not only are you connecting to people through this creation, but also people may feel connected to each other through your music. Unbeknownst to me when I was younger, I’ll bet that cycle of creating and sharing and connecting is probably what drew me into songwriting and composition.

What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
If you ask my friends & elementary school teachers (and my husband), they'll probably tell you that I love to talk. In fact, just a moment ago, my husband pointed the remote control at me and pressed "mute". Of course, you didn't ask them. You asked me. Well, outside of music-related activities, I love cooking, hiking, people watching, and window shopping.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
As an artist and musipreneur, I wear a lot of hats. I have to decide which hat to wear...and when. When my schedule is very full, it is usually easier for me to prioritize activities and switch hats as needed. That's because I am guided by short-term goal(s) towards which I'm working and I don't have to think as much about my next move. Yet, at other times, when I'm looking at the big picture and deciding on my next set of goals, a question that often comes to mind is: What is the best use of the next minute, hour, day, week? I have to take a guess, choose the hat accordingly, and move forward.

Most of the time I don't have all the information I would like to have, so I must move forward only with what I know. I have had to learn to avoid second-guessing myself. I am certain to fail if I just stay right where I am and continue weighing the pros and cons, all the while losing precious time. When I make a decision and move forward, I feel that at the very least I am bound to learn something in the process. So the biggest challenge for me in recent years has been to learn to trust myself in this regard.

When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Have I grown up already? But, seriously, to do some justice to your question, I suppose I could share some fantasies that I recall having as a kid. Sometimes I longed to be a world traveler. Once I imagined myself to be a champion tennis player (my dad use to play & follow tennis). I even remember envisioning myself as a fashion model (evidently I expected to keep growing taller). When I was 11 years old, someone asked me what I wanted to be. That's the first time I remember articulating that I wanted to be a musician. I never could have imagined the personal journey by which I got to where I am at this moment, and that's why I find myself, almost like a kid, wondering what's around the bend.

In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
My parents had a collection of vinyl records and cassette tapes that spanned Bollywood music from the 60s, 70s and 80s, North Indian Classical music, and bhajans. Contemporary American artists, such as The Carpenters and Captain and Tennille, plus some musicals and Western classical composers, also made it into my parents' library. My father's side of the family embraces the Indian classical arts, whereas my mother has what seems to me to be an encyclopedic knowledge of popular Indian songs of her time. She also grew to appreciate American pop music and encouraged me to sing in both Indian and Western styles from the time I was 5 or 6 years old. As a result, I felt a freedom of sorts when it came to musical expression, and I had many opportunities to perform in a variety of contexts as I was growing up.

With this kind of experience as my starting point, I was open to exploring myriad genres and musical traditions. While singing with the Virginia Belles in college, I was introduced to and captivated by jazz, which inspired me to take my writing in a new direction. Following college, I became a lead singer and co-writer of songs with Distraction, a rock band of which I was a founding member in Washington, D.C. I picked up the guitar in order to communicate better with my fellow musicians in this style of music. Feeling limited by my classical piano background and choral experience, I became more interested in improvisation and transitioned to the study of jazz piano and, eventually, Indian classical music. By participating in projects that were influenced by Afro-Cuban, Latin Jazz, and Reggae music, I grew increasingly fascinated by different grooves and rhythms.

What other artists out there do you love?
Brad Mehldau (Largo, 2002), Susheela Raman (Salt Rain, 2001), Souad Massi (Deb, 2003), and Idan Raichel (Idan Raichel Project, 2002) are some of the artists whose work has captivated me. I discovered Largo almost immediately upon its release, but only after I released my debut album (Peace in Progress, 2004) was I introduced to the work of the others by fans and friends who perceived a kinship between their projects and mine. What I admire most about these four artists is that they seem to have a genuine desire to take risks, cross boundaries, and bring together multiple influences. Their exploration through these projects came across to me as authentic and I loved the resulting overall sound. I am grateful for the introduction to their music, although so far I have only been able to see Brad Mehldau and Idan Raichel perform live.

What does your future hold?
I figure that the future holds moments of sanity and insanity, coupled with joy and melancholy. Oh, and I'm pretty sure you are going to publish this interview at some point in the near future!