A mantra that sits above Anita's piano
Last winter, bedbugs and a moderately insane landlord convinced me to sleep on the couch in my cousin Anita’s music room. Weeks of cohabitation helped me bridge the gap between the woman who is my cousin, and the sublimely talented singer/songwriter whose first album I played on loop while living across the country. Her new song, "Tourist in Every Town," explores the common ground she has found with her parents in the midst of sometimes-chasmic generational and cultural division.
What follows here is a slice of those conversations between cousins, about music, writing, and the family we share.
Priyanka: What are your conversations about career like?
Anita: When I talked to my mother about why she wanted to be a doctor, I asked her if it was something she was passionate about, that she always knew she wanted to do. She didn’t understand the premise of the question.
P: What do you mean?
A: I think in our family medicine or engineering is seen as having a sort of…
P: Intrinsic value?
A: Yes. She didn’t think about passion, she wanted to do it because it was a difficult achievement. She grew up in a family that was more focused on prestige and image than the day-to-day life that she would have as a doctor.
P: I've heard it put it another way -- that it's something they were just supposed to do. Like getting married to the person their parents carefully chose, with the assumption that they’d just grow to love them. You just grow to like the job I guess.
A: My dad pretty much refers to music as a hobby. But once I was on my way to audition for a band and I was really nervous, and my mother said, “music is in your veins, this is what you were born to do.” And for a moment it was like she understood how I felt about this passion that I have. And then other times she’ll say something that makes me think she doesn't understand at all, and it’s really hard to cope with.
P: I completely understand that. When I was in high school my mother would be overwhelmingly supportive and say the perfect thing to pull me out of any kind of crisis. And then when I talked about writing or acting she’d say something in passing, like while chopping vegetables or something, that would leave me crushed. It was really unpredictable.
A: But she’s supportive now.
P: Yes, it’s actually really cute. She’s a bad liar, so I can tell when I’m talking about something that freaks her out, like writing, because she always sounds really nervous and pauses before eventually saying something supportive. And then there are days where she’ll say something outrageous with total sincerity, like telling me I should audition for SNL, which is so flattering and impossible. There are hints of conservatism in her behavior but it’s not extreme in any sense. She just doesn’t want me to struggle.
A: I went on a radio show and played a few songs, and my parents tuned in. And afterwards they confronted me about this romantic song, and were really terrified because they didn’t understand what it meant. My mom thinks that if a song is not about God than it has to be sinful, but it’s also fear of the unknown. And I just wanted to tell her that I didn’t owe her an explanation-I shouldn't have to justify the emotions behind my music.
P: I think that’s what its like for anyone who puts a piece of art, or a piece of themselves out there. It’s inevitably going to be about something personal, or draw from your life in some way, and a lot of it is going to come from a place of pain, and that can upset the people who consume it. My mom read something I wrote last year and confronted me about it afterward because she was upset about some of the emotions that came through.
A: All this conflict is still really puzzling. I discovered my love for music because my parents love it. It’s because I sang at religious centers and played by ear that I’m not chained to a sheet of music when I write and play rock, pop, and jazz. My family had so many happy moments when we were singing together. And what about all the millions of piano and vocal lessons my mother paid for and drove me to?
P: I’m curious then where the real divide is. My mother loves literature, and read to me every night as a child. Storytelling was a huge part of my childhood. And I think it’s why I love to write, in whatever form. They clearly value it enough to spend all that time on it. Nurturing talent or passion is hard to do without some kind of parental support.
A: Yes, I think that traditionally in India even when there is a great talent, most people put it away when the time comes and do something more practical. I think that is the divide—doing otherwise is something they don’t understand because it’s not a path that other people have followed.
P: There is something fundamental about your love for music that they understand. It’s ironic; they planted the seed, but worried when it grew in to something you wanted to hold on to.
A: And I think that’s what 'Tourist' is about: we really do understand each other at the core. I can have heart to hearts with my mom that are so personal and so spiritual beyond this cultural divide, and at the end of the day those are the best conversations I’ve ever had with her.
Priyanka's cousin Anita Aysola is a singer/songwriter based in Houston, Texas. Visit http://www.anitaaysola.com for her music and tour dates.