Art Culture

A Q&A with Kohinoorgasm: Chalo EP, Learning Your Art, and Time Travel

"At this point, I don’t believe in uncreative moments.”

Josephine Shetty, 25, also known as Kohinoorgasm, has quickly emerged as the azaadi pop fairy delivering the exact sound you need to daydream through your day, and fall deep into at night. Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA she is giving you cosmic, synth, goth (yet extremely angelic) vibes, but maintains a very down to earth aura as she continues to grow and learn as an artist. On January 25th, she released her new Chalo EP which was born out of an exhaustion with so many things – from misogynist night scenes to people with closed off imaginations.

We got a chance to talk with her about her creative process for this project, all she has learned on her journey, and how her art and activism intersect.

How did you get into music?

I guess it’s something that I had an affinity for since I was born. I was always dancing, always singing, I think rhythm is something that I was born with, and that I think most people are born with. We all connect with it in different ways. My mom is Catholic and I went to church most Sundays and sang in choir. I loved singing in the choir when I was little. Both my parents really like music but they’re not musicians themselves. My dad loves Bollywood, hiphop, oldies, and my mom likes folk music, American rock, and some pop. I grew up in a musically appreciative environment. I also did dance – ballet, jazz, tap, and I took salsa at one point. I was very rhythmic with dance. A lot of different hobbies in my youth informed my sense of rhythm and melody and what was enchanting for me and my body.

I feel like when I was younger these things were framed as hobbies, like dancing is my hobby but it won’t become my career, and I should be focusing on school and thinking about rational career paths. But it wasn’t until college at UC Berkeley where I witnessed so much DIY culture than I had before… I definitely was a punk in high school and went to shows and stuff but there’s only so much you can do. When I was in college exploring myself on my own terms, I realized that the Bay Area is inspirational and I witnessed a lot of DIY art being created totally outside of the creative hegemony. It was amazing to see people doing so much with what they have. So, I taught myself GarageBand and how to produce at home from Youtube videos basically. I got a synth and one of my friends gave me his old mic and amp, and I collected a bunch of tools and started writing music. It just poured out. It took 6 months of playing around and I readied myself to one day make my own story into music.

You talked about how when you were younger you saw the arts as a hobby, and now you’re really doing this shit. What did it look like realizing that, and coming to terms with your talent?

It’s a journey and I wonder if I’ll ever fully believe it because as an independent artist in a really changing industry culture it’s hard to feel like there will ever be a stable career, and a lot of people want that. It feels like that’s the purpose of a career, to have financial stability and the things you need to survive like housing, food, and health care. When I graduated, I started working in a nonprofit and it was a really great office environment and my coworkers were really nice and they were doing great work, but I was like, I am not meant to be in this office. It’s not for me.

My passion was happening outside of work – making music, booking shows, and scheming for tours. It was really obvious that that was where I wished I could dedicate more of my time and energy and where I wanted to get more resources from. Because that was the problem, I wasn’t making a living off of doing music. So I kept my day job and tried to do as much as I could. Then, I was asked to play SXSW and I was planning a Europe tour with a friend, so in the summer of 2017 I quit my job and tried to be a most-of-the-time musician and that worked for a while, and then it stopped working. I got another full time job that I am currently in, but trying to transition out of.

It’s just another example of how I am still trying to figure out things because as much as I know I can fill my time with making music, collaborating, teaching myself, booking shows, making merchandise, and playing shows… I am still not making a living. So it’s a matter of sustaining my finances while doing those things because I do have a full curriculum of music related things to do. It’s just a matter of getting paid.

Photos taken by Andrea Granera (@dregranera) and edited by Jasdeep Kang (@jpedestrian).

What’s one of the lessons you’ve learned so far in your musical career?

One of the things I have learned is that I have to see myself as a freelance musician or independent contractor, and when people ask me to play I’m responsible for my contracts. One of my biggest lessons was when I played a college last year and got $1,000 and i was like wow that’s the most I’ve ever gotten by far! I told the person who booked me that I really appreciated them paying me this much because I had been in NYC playing all these shows for $50 and this $1,000 was awesome – it could pay for my flight home and some food. And they said they had booked another artist a few years earlier for $10,000. Don’t quote me on that number, but it was something similar. I was like, if they are getting $10,000 – I should for sure get $1,000.

If I’m playing two gigs a month and making marginal amounts from streaming and merchandise, these college gigs are really lucrative. I have to tell whoever is booking me that I’m going to demand a fair wage for that situation, because I know they have funds and I know I deserve to be paid. It’s about being confident in my work and strategizing all the ways an artist gets income. 

Tell me about your creative process for Chalo EP. How do you feel you’ve grown since the last project you put out?

There’s people who have followed my music for a few years and they think I have been doing this for so long, but really I only started making my own original songs a year before I released my first album. I have so much to learn and I stay humble in my practice – I am not a master of any of the tools I use. I am self taught and if I aspire to be a genius in any of these tools, it’ll take a long time.

For recording myself, I do it through trial and error, and Youtube videos and asking friends who use similar programs – so it’s a very grassroots, resourced education. I have a lot to learn about my synth, voice, recording tools, and performing live and I think I did such a small amount of that learning between when I started making music and released my first album. And between then and now, I’ve learned a lot and I hope a lot of growth shows. At the time I made my first album, I just knew so little and there’s still a lot I don’t know.

My baby cousin was over and she was playing with my synth and I was showing her how to use it, and she asked me what this one button was and I honestly didn’t know. She was like “That’s okay.” I was like thank you, I’m just figuring it out and that is okay. A lot of people who wonder, “How do I start making music?” and they think they need a certain skill level before they can, I feel like I could provide an example of that not being the case. You really don’t need a skill level to start, you’ll learn as you go and it’s okay to make and put out music even if you don’t know everything about your instrument and craft. Making it and putting it out is all part of that experience… just experimenting I’ve learned what I need to and it propels me on this process.

Front cover, Kohinoorgasm’s Chalo EP, by Somnath Bhatt (@m0jenjodaro).

So, your music literally makes me feel like I’m on a warm beach, surrounded by mermaids, and they’re serenading me… how did you find your sound?

It’s hard to say, a lot of it just is what comes out. I know musicians who, like photographers, make mood-board of songs that they like. At this point I don’t work like that and I think that’s also a product of not knowing a lot about my instrument. For me, I’ll just sit down with it and go with it until it becomes a song.

I think that with this EP a lot of the songs feel like they are born out of exhaustion… I experienced a lot while I wrote this EP. Like Chalo is supposed to be this imagination of a misogynist free night space movement where night spaces are collectively agreeing to rid misogyny out of their space. That was born out of my personal experience dealing with misogyny at night spaces, I was so tired of going to these places and feeling like I can’t be myself in a space that’s supposed to be freeing and enjoyable. Instead I feel tense and on guard.

And Another Day is about people who don’t like visions of the future that they don’t understand… like when someone says, “There shouldn’t be anymore prisons because they are inhumane and fucked up.” and someone says, “Well if we don’t have prisons, then what are we gonna have?” They don’t understand having the vision if there’s not an answer, so they believe there must not be one. The song is just about how unproductive that process of being so closed to imagining the future is. I feel like I became exhausted of talking with those people so this song felt cathartic to sing about the experience of talking to people who are so limited to their imagination… and because of that they are so committed to existing structures even if they don’t work or if they are unethical or inhumane.

It seems that your music-making is intertwined with your activism – what does that relationship mean to you?

I feel like all the different art forms are different types of storytelling and like everyone, I have a story to tell and there’s things I care about representing in a communicable or condensed form. For me that’s what music is, it’s my favorite storytelling and it’s one I have a talent for so. And artists have a responsibility to the collective storytelling, just like journalists have a responsibility to the stories they tell. I feel like artists have a responsibility to make things communicable in different ways so people who have different stories and different accessibilities can all understand. There are people who tell the same migration story well through song but someone can do it in a book, or graphic poster, and these are all ways to uplift certain migration narratives that may appeal to different people or contexts.img_3725

I’ve only ever lived on the east coast – how is it being a creative in the LA scene?

I mean it’s hard to compare cities. I grew up in LA and spent a critical time in the Bay Area, and I did spend time in NYC playing shows and connecting with other similar queer artists of color. I kind of feel like we are one extended network. I’ve seen a lot of people move between those cities and hold it down in their cities and… I love LA. It’s hard to say why – probably because I’m from here. I feel like the sunshine has a huge impact on LA, like it was raining all last week and gloomy and now it’s like 75 degrees and I feel like there’s a lot of that energy in LA, warm energy. I feel like warmth represents comfort, abundance, and care and I see a lot of care in the creative community in LA. People really care about each other’s work and trajectories. I’m releasing this EP and people are saying, “This is going to be great for you.” and it’s awesome to hear other artists do that because it’s so subversive of the competitiveness the industry wants.

I also feel like people show out when others need support. There’s been artists who needed funds and people show up for them. A couple of my friends had been on the ground in Tijuana and I raised funds to support their work. They were distributing materials, being on the ground, and communicating with youth, and I used my unique skills to organize shows and they used their unique skills to organize on the ground. I see a lot of people caring for each other and I can’t say that’s not a thing in other cities, but I love that we have that in LA.

How does your heritage impact your art?

I think that for me I’ve had to grow up holding a lot of space for different stories. I was adaptable and emotionally flexible. I grew up poor and my mom is Irish-American and my dad is Indian-American, I’m queer, my dad’s a migrant, my mom’s great grandparents are migrants. There’s a lot of hybridity and a lot of facets to my identity. To advocate for and explain myself as a kid was really hard, and it still is, so I feel like I was just conditioned to hold space for all of that. Having that sensitivity to a complex heritage has helped me see the complications in other’s narratives and be sensitive to their stories, and link mine to theirs. Especially today in light of the Civil Rights Movement, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for black activists advocating for immigrants rights so that’s one way in which I have looked into my story and seen how it connects to others and I’ve learned how all the different immigration stories are connected. It is an emotional issue, identity is emotional, and to hold space for it and understand mine has required a lot of emotional work.

Back cover, Kohinoorgasm’s Chalo EP, by Somnath Bhatt (@m0jenjodaro).

When you’re not feeling generative or creative… how do you work through that?

At this point, I don’t believe in uncreative moments. I feel like even if I am working on music all day and nothing concrete comes out of it… it’s okay. I have many days where I sit down at my synth and come up with all kinds of random stuff and nothing sticks. I’ll wonder why I made it, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like me, and no matter what happens, even if nothing happens, that is an absolutely necessary part of your entire journey through all the things you’re going to make. I just don’t believe in writer’s block. I know it’s real and I’ve had it, but I don’t see it as a block. You just gotta’ do it.

Like if you’re driving somewhere you’ll just be on an empty road for hours but then all of a sudden you’re there you know. For as many songs as I’ve put out, there’s twice as many songs that I just threw away because I worked on them and they weren’t it. Like today I was off and worked a lot and sang over a bunch of beats all day, and nothing stuck… but it was valuable time to explore and practice.

I’ve had to teach myself to enjoy the journey. Even when I was writing Chalo I made the beat and had to sit on it for a long time, and then one time it just came out. That never would have happened if i wasn’t patient with that process – trying things out, taking space from it, then one day I was just so one with that beat that we birthed the song together.

If you could tell one thing to your younger self, what would you let her know?

I do have to say – my little cousin, I love her so much and sometimes she comes over and plays with my synth. She just turned five and she told me that sometimes she feels like she’s five and sometimes she feels like she’s 10, and sometimes she feels like she’s zero. And I was just like, I feel the same way. Sometimes I feel like I am my younger self and I tell myself those things I wish she knew.

I feel like if I could, I would tell my younger self something like… I remember wanting so badly to do music but not feeling like I was legitimate enough or something. Like I wasn’t cool enough to do that. I think I would tell myself that I am worth it, worth the investment and fabulousness and I’m valuable, I can do it. Don’t doubt your worth. Just do it.

It is hard to say though, because I really like this path that I’m on and I feel good about it and I don’t want to regret anything. I might even realistically tell my younger self nothing, because where would I be if she knew? I don’t know. But I wonder if there is something someone told me that I really valued.

Listen to Kohinoorgasm’s Chalo EP below: