A soul-searching Sunday morning with rain aplenty. This week I chatted with Deepka Ratra, a dear friend and wonderful artist - as we recently worked together recording a song by Peter Macnamara for the upcoming album release of Sideband, in a cool trio with marimba (Brad Gill) , voice (Deepka) and alto flute (myself!).
If you're a fan of Chai tea, or want to know more about the intersection between music and acting, or simply curious about the lives of singers at the Sydney Con, read on...
Describe your work.
I’m an Australian born Indian living in Sydney, and I work as a singer. I began studying classical singing around the age of 14, and went on to study art song and opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. After finishing my degree, I branched out into other genres, and now work on a range of projects such as live concerts, opera workshops and TVC recordings.
Rant for a bit about your style, and describe the sound worlds you love to create.
My style has always been rather flexible. At about age 5, my world was based around that of Bollywood films, so naturally, I danced around the house copying the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Alka Yagnik. Once I got to high school, I started strumming a guitar and singing sad pop songs (I’ve always had an affinity for sad, emotional, over-the-top sort of music). I joined the choir where I started to learn what choral music was all about. At age 14, I got a new singing teacher, who was incredibly influential and helped pave the way to where I am now. I started learning classical technique, which was then later consolidated at university. I stuck to a classical style for about 6 years, which in turn improved my ability to sing in other styles, which is what I do today. Throughout all these years, however, my passion for dancing and singing Bollywood songs never left. I’ve even started working on improving my Indian singing style.
What’s in a typical day?
I have a few different projects going on in my working world, so the day is generally split between making as many connections as possible in the singing world, applying for as many projects as I can in regards to acting and singing, and running and promoting my small chai business. My days are never consistent, as contract jobs come and go, so the amount of time I spend practising or working on projects depends on these jobs. Honestly, this changeability is exactly how I want my life to be right now!
Where could I find you practising/rehearsing and do you have a particular routine?
It depends on how nice I want to be to the neighbours! I try my best to practise at the Conservatorium as this never bothers anybody, but if it is simply not practical to head into the city, I end up practising in my tiny studio apartment at home. I shut all the windows, even cover the gap under my door, and sing as loud as I want! This will most likely happen when I might be called in last minute for a project, or if I’m warming up for something. I don’t have a very consistent routine. I used to when I was at university, but these days I find that I don’t necessarily need it. At first, I was worried that this would deteriorate the quality of my art, but to be honest, it seems as though my instrument has actually improved. Perhaps it is the lack of perfection, or the lack of pressure of a routine; the freedom allows me to explore naturally, which in turn helps me discover things I might not have before!
Is your work influenced by larger global issues and if so, how is this expressed?
Honestly, I would have to say no. I sing mainly because I enjoy it, and because I understand the effect that it has on an audience. I wouldn’t say that I’m influenced by a larger global issue, however, I would say that I’m inspired by the ability to change a person’s feelings, thoughts, and therefore, actions. Like Bernstein said:
“The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed... because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events... by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”
Tell us about a recent collaboration/project you’re proud of.
I recently did some work with a couple recording studios for TV commercials. Whilst the work was not the most challenging I have ever done, I was so excited and proud to have done something in the TV industry. Getting a foot in the door is the beginning, and I believe this work allowed for that. The joy I felt whilst working on these projects is what further encouraged my desire to branch out with my singing styles. I don’t just want be an operatic singer, I also want to do other styles too!
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
It’s that feeling you get when a group of talented musicians come together and make something, really make something. It could be anything, but you know it’s good when it moves you, and you just know it in your bones that the listener is moved, too. That’s what’s most enjoyable about creating music for me - the way it can make people feel something whether it’s with, or without words.
Do you have any musical or life advice you would give to yourself this time five years ago, and that you would also like to share with young musicians?
I would tell myself that I should stand up for myself more, and really believe in my talent. I would also tell myself to forget about having an image, or forget about what singing ‘says’ about me. I would tell myself that the way I perform as a musician has nothing to do with my value as a human, and I would hope that, that would help my anxieties as a musician and person.
Other advice that I would give myself and other young musicians, is that you’ve got to work hard, and you’ve got to get lost in all of that hard work in order to find the right work ethic for you. That’s how you find that work-life balance. You have to also figure out what it is that you want out of being a musician - whether that’s being a music enthusiast, an educator, an orchestral or choral performer, a soloist, or a famous musician that tours the world. Once you figure that out, then don’t let anybody tell you that you ‘should’ have done something else, or that your path ‘should’ have been another one. This industry is already hard enough, so you stick to your truth!
Who are your big 3 influences right now (musicians and/or non-musicians)?
Gina Rodriguez is an American Latina actress who stars in ‘Jane The Virgin’. I’ve been watching her for a few years now, and I am simply baffled by her incredible talent, her kindness towards her co-stars and crew, the fact that she represents Latina women on screen, and just the way she embraces things with positivity. Her hard work makes me want to work hard, and she makes me believe that I can do it, too!
Benedict Cumberbatch is another one. His work is not even close to the kind of work that I would do in the future, however his exquisite skill is something I’m always referring back to when I’m trying to work on something. The fact that he also doesn’t have a presence on social media really inspires me. It shows me that it’s possible to get work just through talent, and not fame.
The last would have to be a collective of film music composers (Bollywood and Hollywood); Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Nicholas Hooper and James Newton Howard just to name a few. Whenever I’m listening to music written by these composers, I am continuously inspired by the feelings they invoke in me. I’m encouraged to keep going along in my journey, and to believe that I can really get that job I think is out of reach. I keep on the path whether I get there or not, and try to remind myself that the journey is the thing that makes you happy, not necessarily the destination.
What are you continuing to learn as you develop as an artist?
In the last year or so the biggest things I have been learning are the things that you don’t necessarily get taught at university. How to conduct yourself as a business, for example. I’m working quite hard on this one at the moment, as your talent isn’t noticed unless you know how to approach opportunities! Another is taking my self worth to work with me. What that means is forgiving myself if I miss a note, or can’t sing well one day. It’s being able to separate the work from myself. The last thing I’ve been concentrating on, which ties in a little with the self worth, is making sure that I am treated well, and paid well for my services. There is an unfortunate culture in the music industry of people either being treated badly, underpaid or not paid at all. This is quite a difficult hump to get over as there isn’t much work and people are grabbing at anything they can get, so, I try my best to put myself in situations where I am respected, and it usually calls for better opportunities in the future!
Do you think about your practice as continuing to preserve a certain aspect of culture/tradition, or modernising or adding twists into new forms?
Yes, and no. Because I am so happy to work on almost any style, this means that I branch out and do new styles that are hardly known, which would definitely err on the side of creating new music and changing traditions. The reason I would also say yes, is because I completely appreciate the beauty of music the way it has been; art song, opera, and ghazals (old Indian classical music). Being able to perform these is a lovely way of preserving that culture, whether it be Schubert’s art songs, or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs.
When you’re having a bad day/week/month, do you have any strategies you like to use personally, or people you like to turn to?
The first thing I try to do is to be kind to myself. This doesn’t always come easily, but it certainly helps a lot. I sometimes try to imagine that I am talking to a friend who is in my position; what would I say? It makes it so much easier when you project those questions on to someone you care about. Reminding myself of my worth always makes me feel better as well, and over time it gets me out of any dip that I might be in. Talking to close friends and family is another constant; it gives me perspective I might not have had otherwise, and the amazing support that I might need during these times of struggle.
What other hats during the week do you wear, if any?
Apart from singing, I’m working towards becoming a professional actor. I also have a small Indian masala chai business on the side, and I work casually as an usher/box office staff. I also have a couple of singing students that I teach as well. Together, it’s a pretty awesome combination, and it gets me through financially! (Just!)
How have you used social media in the past to invite audiences to explore your work?
This is something that I’ve only really gotten on to in the past year. I had to think about whether social media was important, and whether it could really help me achieve my goal. The answer was yes, but it wasn’t at the top of the priority list. I have a professional Facebook page as well as a professional Instagram page. I post about almost all of my projects as a way of documenting the great opportunities I have been a part of, and also as a way for anybody out there to see the kind of work I am capable of. Maybe if this someone can see that I am right for the work they have, they would contact me - you just never know.
How can we hear more about your work?
I just finished a couple commercials, a voice over project, and recording my singing reel. Since the nature of this business is that everything comes at once, this has been my ‘busy’ month, and so i'll be getting a little rest for the next month! My singing reel is not up on the internet yet, but stay tuned - it'll be up soon. You can find posts about my projects and chai on my professional IG pages: @deepka.ratra @deepka.chai.
All photos provided by Deepka.