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'Don't Shoot The Messenger': Bishi talks to Miranda Sawyer about her Tony Visconti collaboration

Image credit: Bishi photographed by Frederic Aranda.

Writer and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer interviews Bishi, the '4-octave singer, electronic rock sitar musician and performance artist, and founder of WITCiH elevating Womxn in Tech' (phew!). But there's more! She's also known as the 'Intercultural Goddess' who on Friday 16 October is releasing a new single with the legendary producer Tony Visconti (Bowie, Bolan).

Bishi is a tour de force, a force of nature, a natural talent, a self-made star; an ever-moving, self-improving never-giver-upper. Never less than fabulous, she queens any stage she’s given: whether that’s a live show with full symphony orchestra or an online virtual reality performance that combines her playing sitar, singing and having computer visuals stream from her body. Aside from this, she creates, produces, curates, promotes.

Few artists are able to work across so many different areas. Few artists open their minds in such a way. Bishi, born Bishi Bhattacharya, has never been easy to categorise, because she was unable to fit in. She is of Bengali heritage, and studied Indian music as a child, but through meeting people like Patrick Wolf and Leigh Bowery’s Minty crew, she found herself in a queer club culture that allowed her to express herself and find her voice. She was born in Indian classical culture (her mum is an acclaimed Indian classical singer), but she was made in nightclubs, DJ-ing for and fronting the wonderful early 2000s underground club Kash Point.

She’s the artistic director and co-founder of WITCiH, which promotes women who work across music and creative technology; she’s worked with Julian Temple, Roisin Murphy, Jeff Cook, Neil Kaczor... Plus, pre-lockdown, she was always out. Rare was the interesting London event that you wouldn’t spot Bishi, resplendent in outfit and perfect makeup, talking up a storm with the most interesting people in the room.

Avant-garde, queer and utterly inspirational from her head-dresses to her toes, Bishi is art. We are lucky to have her.

Miranda: You worked with the legendary Tony Visconti on your new single Don’t Shoot The Messenger: how did you two meet and how was he to work with? What did he bring out in your sound that you liked?

Tony was amazing to work with, he’s completely encouraging, whilst simultaneously inspiring you to want to do your best. He has empowered me at every stage of this project. I wrote ‘Don’t Shoot The Messenger,’ by custom midi-mapping my Sitar to my Ableton Push, composing layers of Sitar and Voice into Ableton, primarily a dance music DAW, which hasn’t been done before. And Tony transformed this song into something epic and symphonic. Some of my original programming is still on the single!

I first worked with Tony as a session Sitar player and vocalist on one of Daphne Guiness’s albums in Ireland. We bonded over a love of Bulgarian Vocal music (I trained in a Bulgarian Choir for a bit). It also turns out that he recorded the legendary Bollywood music director and vocalist, Hemant Kumar who was my mother’s mentor (also a respected Singer). So, Tony and I bonded deeply over that.

You can hear Tony’s artistry in making music sound epic all over Bowie and Bolan’s output. I recently learned that Tony mixed The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown', another fine example of how he makes acoustic instruments sound gargantuan.

Miranda: For the launch of your single, you’re hosting a seven-part online experience, is that right? What are you doing?

Yes! On the eve of the release (October 16th 2020) I’m interviewing Tony Visconti via livestream about his life in music. The event is free to attend and tickets are available through my website (bishi.co.uk). I’ll also be interviewing key collaborators on this project including: remixers Ben Corrigan, Richard Norris & Hinako Omori; the mastering engineer, Katie Tavini; and photographer, Frederic Aranda who shot the cover. In addition to these conversations, there will be some other music performances and audiovisual treats! [Full details of this performance plus all the events are available via Bishi’s Instagram and all social media channels.]

Miranda: What or who are you hoping to highlight by being a guest editor of Run Riot?

I’m hoping to showcase and platform artists, events and collectives who are embracing technology and making projects happen under lockdown, especially. I’m amazed by the quality of ideas and radical approaches, given how much artists are struggling under limitation. [See Bishi's culture recommendations, here]

Miranda: You’re a great live performer, how are you managing to be creative without that outlet? Do you miss an audience? Have you been performing to your pets? (Do you even have pets?)

It has been such a difficult time for artists across the globe and everyone is struggling to adapt. I have really missed going to gigs and performing. I really despair at the state of the industry without any government assistance. However, I’ve embraced technology as a way to empower my position and try to make sense of the madness.

I’ve experimented a lot with livestreaming, performing for Self Esteem’s Instagram Live festival that raised £7k for Women’s Aid, and I performed for PRS for Music’s LGBTQ livestream with Big Joani and Right Said Fred. I’ve also interviewed the Guerrilla Girls for the Tate, which was a dream come true. There’s radical and progressive conversations happening online and available to the public for free, in a way I’ve never encountered before. I also performed for the Amazon Music Sessions on Twitch, livestreaming in VR with the VR company Volta, it was a complete trip, performing a Tony Visconti produced single, with custom midi-mapped Sitar soundscapes, completely in VR.

Miranda: How has lockdown been for you generally? Any new skills or have you been reduced to online scrolling?

Everyone has been struggling to adapt to their circumstances and it’s been collectively intense. Personally, I’ve been shielding family members, who are dependent on me, full time. I think a shared struggle has created an openness in communities, that there wasn’t time for, pre-Covid. I’ve finally learnt how to read and write Bengali fluently (I’ve always spoken fluently). It’s like having a super power! I’ve been volunteering for The Citizens on Dr. Meenal Viz’s fight for PPE for NHS front line workers. Meenal recently ended up on the cover of Vogue’s ‘Forces for Change,’ September Issue. Inspired by improv sessions with my friend, composer, Galya Bisengalieva, I’ve pushed myself as a composer/music producer in lockdown.

I have also scrolled LOADS. In amongst all the shouting online, there are some amazing nonstop clown shows on Instagram from the likes of Lady Bunny, Snoop Dogg, Jerry Saltz, Parker Kithill and Raven Smith. Honestly, people are so fuckin’ funny. I think we all need to have a bit of a laugh in the darkness.

Miranda: You always look fabulous: describe your loungin’ outfit ...

Thank you! I look like an off duty 60s Lucy Uhura meets Kate Bush rehearsing for the Hammersmith Apollo in the 70s. The face is always on, what with all of these Zoom calls. Staying glamorous is good for my soul. I was taught culturally that looking good for other people was a sign of respect, so I carry that with me.

Miranda: You’re known for being able to move between lots of different disciplines - music, tech, podcast, campaigning – what is it about this multi-tasking that you enjoy?

I enjoy creating and making music above all things. When I started my career, I was told I was a hard sell to white audiences, whilst the Asian audience saw me as too avant-garde. I have transformed the discrimination I’ve faced, and the lack of traditional industry support, by embracing a multidisciplinary approach for sustaining my musical output. Instead of touring cities and countries, I tour different artistic disciplines. South Asian Women make up about 2-3% of the entire of the UK music industry, so it’s this approach that many women, queer and POC artists take in developing their careers to combat being margionalised by our industry. I embrace my outsider story and want to encourage others to do the same.

Miranda: What can artists and performers do in the new normal to promote their work? (No live stuff, music press dying...)

We now have technology available to us that no previous generation had access to. I disagree that the music press is dying, it needs to value its relevance and reinvent its vital force, in a similar way that many musicians and performers have. Look at what’s happening on Patreon, Bandcamp, even OnlyFans (LOL). Even with all the problems of online culture, there are tonnes of tutorials on YouTube and free online workshops and courses all over the internet, to help people build a future for themselves. It’s not easy, but what is?

Miranda: Can you explain Festival 2022: I can't imagine that it’s the Festival of Brexit if you’re involved...

Festival 2022 will platform a range of the UK’s creative imaginations, combining 
Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths in 10 new works for people across the UK and around the world. They are aiming to reach over 60 million people and all four governments are signed up to this. I’m a creative advisor on one of the most diverse teams I’ve seen in 20 years of my career. That’s hardly Brexit is it? It’s so unfortunate how this is being reported on, and the abuse that’s been thrown online. There was even a Guardian article with a load of musicians about what the festival might look like! Why didn’t they reach out to the POC musicians on the advisory board? Was it that hard to click on the ‘About’ link on the website? This is why inclusivity matters.

Miranda: You’re a natural night bird but nightclubs are shut, have you been wandering around London in the early hours chatting to the foxes?

HAHAHA I am so busy talking to myself, I haven’t even entertained the foxes yet! I doubt they’d have me. I have missed peacocking on sweaty dance floors and soaking up beautiful people. You know, all the good stuff, like what you find in the lyrics of Roxy Music.

Miranda: What about WITCiH? How is that going?

WITCiH (the Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub) is my platform to elevate the voices of Women, trans and non-binary practitioners in tech. At the beginning of lockdown, I launched a new podcast with guests such as Hannah Peel, Abi Wade and Lula XYZ. The latest series features interviews from the likes of Anna Meredith and Nwando Ebizie. Go to Apple or Spotify to subscribe.

Miranda: Diversity and inclusion have become more central to the media narrative since the death of George Floyd: what do they mean to you?

Bishi: Diversity and inclusion mean everything to me. It took the barbaric death of an innocent man (and countless others) to get the world to wake up to deep systemic problems of racism and their resulting traumas.

As I wrote earlier, systemic racism has underpinned the direction of my career, but it does not define it. People are beginning to make systemic changes, but this needs to sustain and improve. I now have over 20 years of experience in music and the arts and can be of real service to individuals and institutions alike, advising and mentoring. I am an ambassador for several organisations, among them the FAC and The F-List who are actively raising the voices of music creators.

Miranda: When Run Riot interviewed you in 2018, you said: “We all face rejection of sorts. Mine was cultural rejection and it’s been the making of me.” Can you give us an example of how you overcame this?

There’s a double fold approach in that I have continued staying creative, whilst watching the public discourse ‘catch-up’ and attempt to become more inclusive. However, I believe that you have to approve of yourself on a deep level to feel better about anything and this is a constant work in progress. I recently told shesaid.so ‘Concentrate on your creativity and be the change you want to see'. I firmly believe this.

Miranda: What’s the best party you’ve ever been to?

From basements in Dalston, raves in Berlin, Vogue Balls in Harlem to bounce clubs in New Orleans, I’ll always find a way to have a good time. However, there was one epic Attitude Awards ceremony, where I shared a dressing room with Ana Matronic, Gwendoline Christie, Vivienne Westwood and Yoko Ono. We were all cackling away like a coven of witches, Vivienne setting the world to rights through glasses of red wine. I got sat in between April Ashley & Paris Lees at dinner, which was the cherry on the cake.

Another Glastonbury experience included performing on the Park Stage, watching Amy Winehouse and Jay Z headline, judging a vogue ball in the NYC Downlow, falling off my judges chair from laughing so hard, limping over to Steve Mackey from Pulp’s stag do, headbanging with Florence Welch on a dancefloor and playing volleyball with Gavin Turk at 5am. Not bad, eh?

Miranda: What’s your secret talent?

Bishi: Enduring the long haul & making it look effortless, ha ha.


Fri, 16 Oct 2020, 19:00 BST
BISHI + legendary producer Tony Visconti live in conversation plus Q&A



Image credit: Single artwork, 'Don't Shoot The Messenger'. Photograph by Frederic Aranda.


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