Mona Lisa Chanda under her electro-pop moniker, Chanda M, is releasing her second EP, Oracle, this October. The vocalist has performed with a wide range of local performers including Patrick Watson and Tony Ezzy, and moonlights as a scientist (she has a Ph.D. in Psychology!). As an introduction to her work, she talked to me about her journey into music, the way her music changed, how she crafts her songs, as well as what it’s like to perform as a vocalist.
“So my journey into music, it’s interesting,” she affirms. “My mom was a jazz head and she had jazz recordings. My sister was listening to various kinds of classic rock to punk to 80s post punk. I had a lot of music playing around the house. I became interested in singing and picked up some guitar.”
Her multicultural background allowed familiarity w to different types of music. Her parents are Indian and German and she grew up in Northern Quebec. “I was exposed to a lot of Indian music and Indian classical and pop, and middle eastern music. My mom, she had me listen to German and European classical music, Berlin cabaret, very interesting and inspiring. Growing up on Sept Iles, I was exposed to French Canadian culture and French Canadian music. All those influences found their way into my songwriting.”
However, her passion for music collided into her other passion, sciences. “I got absorbed in sciences and the art took a bit of a back seat,” she says. Fortunately, as she was doing her work, she began to work with Daniel Levetin (This is Your Brain on Music), and began working on the neurochemistry of music and what happens in the brain when people are listening to music. She still has papers coming out in academic journals like Nature.
At the moment, though, the pendulum has swung again and she is focusing on music again. “Oracle is a follow up from my prior EP, released around the same time last year,” she says. She says that last year, her EP focused on connection, either romantic connection or spiritual connection. “This EP is really more about the individual in relation to greater society. It looks at the forces of history and forces of nature. The song Gaia is about man’s relation to nature. Another piece is about dealing with the macrocosm of how we function as a society.”
She’s also tried to draw more upon her multicultural background. “The last one was very heavy on the ballads and more introspective. This one is more rhythmic and has eastern influence, with tribal drum rhythms and ethnic flavors.”
She explains how she writes her music by discussing how Gaia came about. “That song was a process and it took the longest to put together,” she says. She usually begins by writing the song by doing an acapella demo with the melody, the harmonies, and counter melodies. “Just because that’s the purest interpretation, so we can hear the song what it is in its purest sense.”
When it came to Gaia, initially her producers wanted to go in a more power-pop or electronic dancey direction. “We did it, but it didn’t feel right, so we stripped it bare. Simple piano instead, simple chords. Something more organic. It’s about nature, so something earthy.”
They worked in the studio, adding different percussive sounds, including hand claps and foot stomps. We’re in this basement studio and we were doing the ahnd claps, using various percussion instruments. Then her producer, Raphael Rosenwald tweaked those sounds to combine the earthy and electronic feels together. “It was exciting and gave it the right feel,” she says.
Vocalists are very much about their performance, and at the launch, there will only be two people on stage — Mona and Raphael. “He’ll be playing synth and doing the backing vocals. We’ll have beats on backing tracks. Sometimes I’ll play some keyboard so there will be two keyboards on stage.” She’s contemplating adding more instruments, but at this point is keeping it minimal. “Principally, I just want to connect with the audience,” she says.
The songs to her are storytelling. “For some songs, I picture that there’s a character or another version of myself, some other character that I get into. It’s very much about telling that story and approaching it in that way. It is theatrical, a bit where that musical theatre, Berlin cabaret comes in.”