Born in South London to a South Indian immigrant family, Sheila Chandra discovered her voice at the age of twelve and whilst at Theatre Arts school. From this moment her chosen path was to be a singer. Lacking any real contacts or access to the music business, she nevertheless honed her vocal skills as a labour of love, spending up to two hours a night throwing her voice into the tall, draughty and uncarpeted stairwell of the family home: "I didn't know how to manufacture an opportunity, but I was determined that when a chance came my way I would be ready."
A chance did come her way, perhaps drawn by the weight of such unshakable belief. Steve Coe, a writer and record producer, was about to form a band as an outlet for his increasingly Indian influenced material. He came across Chandra's voice on an old audition tape, lying in a box at Hansa Records and knew that he had found his singer: "The richness, fluidity and quality of her voice struck me immediately. And then when I requested a photo from the file and found that Sheila was Asian, everything else seemed to fall into place."
'Monsoon' put out an EP on Steve Coe's newly formed 'Indipop' label and were signed by the far sighted Dave Bates at Phonogram. The band's first single 'Ever So Lonely' took a song written around a raga and, utilising the new production techniques available, came up with an irresistible but radical modern pop fusion sound. It was a top ten hit and notched up a quarter of a million sales worldwide.
Following singles did not manage to dent the top twenty and six months later Chandra walked away from it all, frustrated by the increasing lack of communication between Phonogram and Monsoon over artistic direction. She went back to the Indipop label to learn her craft as a writer and musician. Free from business constraints and in complete control of her creative life, there followed a remarkable and prolific two-year period. Her first four solo albums for the label chronicle a profound transformation in the quality and depth of her work, both as a singer and increasingly as a writer, in her then chosen field of Asian fusion - learning from the very structures she had ignored throughout her childhood.
Her new found ability to cross continents in a single vocal line and weave seamlessly the vocal styles of the Arab world, Andalucia, Ireland, Scotland, India and more ancient structures such as that of Gregorian plainsong made for a true fusion within one mind and one voice. 'Weaving My Ancestor's Voices' established Chandra as a spiritual heir to a 'whole world' vocal tradition, whilst Coe's sensitive and painstaking production enhanced this further and acted as an integral part of the recording, particularly on the virtuoso vocal percussion pieces 'Speaking In Tongues' I and II. The album spent several weeks in the Billboard World Music top ten and outsold everything else on the label in the USA.
After touring the USA with Peter Gabriel's 1993 WOMAD tour, there followed 'The Zen Kiss' and 'ABoneCroneDrone'. The latter was a daring minimalist strategy to lure the listener out of long accustomed passivity to hear, as Chandra does, the living symphony of harmonics within the simplest of drones.
Chandra has sold over a quarter of a million albums in the last five years, which has vindicated the riskiness of her approach, and is currently deep in the writing of her ninth solo album. 'Moonsung - A Real World Retrospective' features some of the best of her work on Real World, including two new and previously unreleased tracks, and is a fine introduction to the world of this unique and innovative artist.
Other Albums Featuring Sheila Chandra
Double CD released December 3rd. Thirty tracks follow the intrepid bikers on their journey south from John O'Groats to South Africa.
Find out more about the artists whose music was specially chosen to feature on the Long Way Down television series, DVD and CD. Read the background to the musicians and buy digital downloads of tracks heard on the series.
Catch up with what is happening to Ewan and Charley episode by episode and trace the music you can hear as the journey unfolds week by week.