A poet and an artist collaborated through the pandemic years to produce an album that reflects on a dark, personal and collective period of isolation
Jeet Thayil and Yashas Shetty met once every fortnight for a year at Shetty’s house, which has a studio, to record Speak, Amnesia. PIC COURTESY/PRATYAY RAHA
The tracks are atmospheric because they were all recorded pretty late at night in a space of solitude,” poet, novelist and musician Jeet Thayil tells us about Speak, Amnesia, an album he has collaborated for with contemporary artist Yashas Shetty. Thayil met Shetty at the end of 2021 at an event at the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency. Interested in creating an album together, and having discovered that they lived across the street from each other, the duo met once every fortnight for a year at Shetty’s house, which Thayil tells us is a kind of studio with all kinds of exotic string, percussion and wind instruments. “The space lent itself to the atmospheric sound that we put together.”
Some of the music in the album is instrumental. “I’d play the guitar, or Yashas would come up with a riff or melodic figure, and that’s how it would begin,” says Thayil. “There are bits in there that are wholly improvised and in-the-moment. It felt like we were working subconsciously, without the usual controls, until later during editing and production.”
After over a year of these sessions, they began assessing all the material they had accumulated and separated six tracks, which will be released over the next few weeks. “Because they were made over an isolated period during the pandemic years, I think they share a mood, a sense that things are dark and getting darker,” Thayil shares.
Shetty agrees that much of the album’s content is personal and dark, and is reflective of the time period in which it was produced. “The whole album deals with this idea of loss and memory, and that time when we were locked up in our houses.”
For Shetty, who has been involved with experimental sound research work at the Indian Sonic Research Organisation, the idea behind the album was to “put the poet at the forefront of the work”. The poet’s ability to improvise with words is something he finds impressive. “It was interesting also because it is the original job of a poet. Written text came later; the poet was originally a performer. So [Jeet] would come and perform his poetry. Mostly we would talk about this or that and sometimes I would hit record when he would say something.”
The album has been released with Bengaluru-based record label ISSAI, created by Shetty, which, he explains, was meant to be a place where people who are traditionally outside the mainstream world of music—folk artists, poets or activists—can work with musicians. “We intend to work with people who have an opportunity to use sound and music as an additional way of expressing themselves,” he says.
Shetty, whose practice explores working between various disciplines like installation, sound, software and biotechnology, adds that while he has worked with scientists in his career, this was his first collaboration with a poet. According to him, poets are the best to start off with. And does he have a favourite track from the album? “No, we can’t do that,” he laughs. “They are like your kids. Some of them misbehave but you still have to love them.”
WHAT: Speak, Amnesia
WHERE: Bandcamp; issai.world