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‘Returning to Chennai is like being taken out of a hot soup.’
Gems in this
The velvety lyricism of rising Tamil singer-songwriter Ranjani Ramadoss — better known as RANJ — is a collision of two worlds: old and new India. Her grounding in culture and time spent between Chennai and Bengaluru is what gives RANJ her high-octane creativity.
Born in Tiruchirappalli, RANJ grew up in Chennai listening to her parents’ Carnatic records. Then, following formative years watching the cultural rebellion that is gully rap, RANJ followed her music to Bengaluru in South India. It’s here she’s building her career as both a soloist and keen collaborator, and tapping into the country’s bubbling independent music scene. Yet, it’s still in Chennai that RANJ travels to find the warmth of home and the inspiration to pen lyrics — both in English and Tamil. We chat with RANJ about uncovering India’s independent music scene and her inside tips for exploring her Chennai Travel Playbook.
On where you grew up
I was born in Trichy [Tiruchirappalli], which is another town in Tamil Nadu, India, where my mom's side of the family is from. I lived there when I was a kid, but most of my childhood was in Chennai. That’s where I discovered my love for music and realized that music was what I wanted to do for a living. Chennai is where I got my education and met my best friends and is where my family is — it’s a city that I'm very close to.
On your love for music
I wanted to study music but couldn’t in high school, and for college, music schools are quite expensive. So I did a music, psychology and English course. That's where I met most of the musicians I'm working with today. I’m in a couple of bands — I love playing with people who are my good friends and discovering music together. During the lockdown, I started making music with who was around me, and it's been a journey into self. I've been discovering more skills acting solo. That's where I'm at right now. I'm an independent artist.
On the inspiration behind songwriting
Experiences of art have always been something that I've prioritized over everything. I was obsessed with books — I never wanted to sleep when I was a kid, just read books, because it felt like I was being transported somewhere else. My experience with music was very similar — the fact that the sound shapes time for you and takes you out of reality for a moment was amazing. I've always wanted to tell stories that give people a moment they can hold on to. That's always been my inspiration behind writing.
On the borderless nature of music
When I was a kid, I didn't get the opportunity to travel much, especially outside of the country, and I feel like music has always allowed me to travel. I can listen to somebody else's perception of culture and see how similar that is to where I'm from. I feel like songwriting has always been about specific things to your experience, and somehow connects people from different places.
On influences from around India
A R Rahman is a big part of why I make music, I was born right after he broke into the industry. My parents loved him and his new age music. For me that was super exciting and inspiring in a way that I wanted to be this person who creates the literal experiences around places for films. I felt transported into the story when listening to his music. The way he produces takes you to spots in the city, and it can give you feelings of what the temperature would be at that place or how the person's attire would make you feel.
‘Sound shapes time and takes you out of reality for a moment. I've always wanted to tell stories that give people a moment they can hold on to.’
On storytelling through music
My process so far has been about telling a story of how I'm living life, how I’m trying to cope with the fact that I’m an adult trying to make sense of these experiences, and then documenting these feelings. A big part of what I'm doing right now is learning to write in my mother tongue, Tamil. I was very into English novels when I was a child. Now I'm trying to get back into learning how to write in my mother tongue to express myself in Tamil.
On projects you’re excited about
I have a couple of songs with my producer — his name is CLIFR, and he's also my roommate — and we've worked on a few Tamil songs, expressing pride in being South Indian and focusing on brown skin and women in society. I have written music like that before in both English and Tamil, but I've never released it. What has come out has been mostly lighter songs about a person finding their way through life. I'm excited to see what it will be like when I release these songs. I'm taking the time to make sure it comes out the way it’s supposed to.
On uplifting other women within the industry
It's so important and exciting to see more people supporting women, especially other women. I've grown up in Chennai with a completely different cultural background — it's a globalization of the art form. Now so many girls are feeling inspired, especially through the lockdown, to put more weight behind their passions and hobbies. Everybody who supported me with constructive criticism and told me how to position and project myself were women. I owe so much to them.
On giving back and teaching
I've had really good teachers, and there was an affinity for music and a love for the craft. They knew exactly how to nurture my craft because they also loved it. It's incredibly important to see a kid who comes to class excited to learn this art form and do something new as a passion. It might end up being the one thing that loves them back and saves them throughout life. I take that very seriously because I had the privilege to experience that myself.
On performing during the pandemic
The pandemic has shut everything down, but on another side has opened up doors to collaborating with people across the country, who I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to meet, so that's cool. Online collaboration has started to flow a lot more smoothly and regularly, which is good. During those pockets in the middle, where things opened up and they were booking shows, I traveled to different cities, and it was very interesting to see how people wanted to feel the energy and pass it on. It's so warm and supportive.
‘Travel always ends up being an experience that allows you to discover yourself a lot more, thinking about how you deal with life and how you interact with art and music.’
On returning home for inspiration
Whenever I go back home, it's like temporarily being taken out of this hot soup that is working and constantly meeting people. Going back home is calming. I can get a lot more creative and interact with my family and people that give me so much inspiration to write.
On how travel inspires you creatively
Travel always ends up being an experience that allows you to discover yourself a lot more, thinking about how you deal with life and how you interact with art and music. When I travel, music is a huge part of it. I'm always listening to something and finding something new. I'm eating great food, and all these experiences add the color you need to make a painting. The places I've gone abroad so far are Hong Kong and Seoul. It was a completely new experience, and it felt amazing. I had such a blast.
On the next stop
I always wanted to go to Malaysia and do Southeast Asian countries. I've heard a lot of people have been discovering my music over there. I'd love to meet them and hang out. There's a lot of appreciation for Tamil artists there because of the Tamil diasporas. These countries are so beautiful and vibrant — it's almost like home.
On how Chennai influenced your creativity
A huge part of what I do — music, film, art, and Carnatic music [Indian classical music] — came from home. My parents loved music so much and were huge Carnatic music fans. My dad would take me to as many concerts as possible, and I loved watching the performances on stage. This had a huge impact on me wanting to be a performer. To me, they were rock stars, and they're technically brilliant and creative — it's a very lively art form. There's so much improvisation and creativity happening that it feels like firecrackers.
On where to see performances
I have great memories from watching performances at The Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha then going to the New Woodlands Hotel nearby to eat and talk about the performance. There are a lot of concert halls in Chennai. Still, they're not as widespread to rock and other Western forms of music as I’d like them to be — considering there are so many musicians who want to play music to an audience. There needs to be more venues to accommodate them.
‘Indian music is growing, and there's such a wide-open space in our culture for tastemakers to help shape youth culture from an independent perspective.’
On the contemporary creative scene in Chennai
Exciting things are happening now — there's a great music scene overall. Especially when it comes to Tamil independent music, there's such amazing, incredible work. The metal and rock scenes are still alive — that was the first of other forms of music to be appreciated live in Chennai. As well as great rock and indie-folk bands like Junkyard Groove and Kurungan. Indian music is growing, and there's such a wide-open space in our culture for tastemakers to help shape youth culture from an independent perspective. It's amazing because more people and communities will feel represented in the form of independent cinema and music.
On showing a friend around Chennai for the day
I have a bunch of spots that I'd go to. One of them is this movie theater called SPI Cinemas — they have movie theaters all across the city — and the buttered popcorn is the best thing that exists. They have spice dispensers that you can load up on how much flavoring you want. I'd also like to watch a Tamil blockbuster movie because it's really fun, not particularly good plotlines, but because of the atmosphere. The fans in the theater are dancing and whistling — it's absolutely amazing. I'd also take friends to where I studied music in Chennai, the KM Conservatory, A R Rahman's music school. The decor is pretty. There's a studio, wonderful people there and usually some performances happening. I also love being in the water — all the beaches in Chennai are amazing, including Besant Nagar. There's a lighthouse where you can go for the view with good spots nearby to eat what we call sundal — a mixture of beans or chickpeas with raw mango and carrots, rice, salt, pepper, and masala — which tastes amazing. There's a bunch of people walking by the beach selling sundal.
On favorite places to eat
There are great restaurants like Moonrakers Restaurant, where you can have great meat and rice. I don't eat meat, but my friends won’t stop talking about it. Sangeetha Veg serves the best giant ghee roast dosa — a miraculous food, like a crepe, extremely tasty with amazing fillings and condiments. I’d also take friends to an ice-cream shop called Amadora, where they use only local ingredients and have South Indian flavors, like filter coffee ice cream.
On where to go to see art
Each time I've been to DakshinaChitra was lovely. They have an amphitheater and they are reviving cultural performances with dance and different forms of art that are dying. They bring artisans in to keep the art alive. They perform and explain where it comes from and the history. There's also a flea market, where you can buy crafts — it's a lovely place for art.
‘SPI Cinemas’ buttered popcorn is the best thing that exists. They have spice dispensers that you can load up on how much flavoring you want. I'd also like to watch a Tamil blockbuster movie because it's really fun.’
On your relationship with Chennai
It's home for me. I understand the people from Chennai. Even if I don't know them, when I talk to them, they get me in ways that others cannot. It always feels very close to my heart — the way that the people behave, how the food tastes, and how I perceive art, music, and film. It’s very comforting.
On a window or an aisle seat
I’d prefer a window seat, I like the view.
On Chennai in one word
I feel like the city understands me, all of my moods, and it understands my music. It’s the most comforting feeling when I’m there. It feels like a hug.