I am one of the lucky ones. One of the first to hear Krishna Das’ soon-to-be-released new studio recording, Kirtan Wallah.
Coming off of a Grammy nomination and performace (the first ever for a kirtan artist) and a critically acclaimed documentary, One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das, by filmmaker Jeremy Frindel, the career of Krishna Das continues to blossom. The new CD is spectacular, personal, and on sale to the public on April 15, 2014.
It’s always a joy to hang with KD (as he’s affectionately called). Yesterday was no exception, as we shared cup of tea and some laughs via Skype and discussed his new release:
ZK: This album feels different to me. There is the practice…solid Sanskrit mantra…but the musical vernacular is a little different. Can you tell me about the moment of inspiration for this album?
KD: Well, I don’t think there was one moment of inspiration for this album. The chants just come through one at a time, essentially. You know, you can’t give me too much credit. I never think, “Oh, this album is going to sound this way.” It’s moment-by-moment, chant-by-chant.
ZK: You cover Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Tell me about that.
KD: I was just playing those chords. I didn’t think about where they came from. I was just singing the daily puja with it. And then I just started singing that song, ’cause it turns out those are the same chords. I didn’t go in realizing that. That’s asking too much of me. And then I thought, “Ugh, that’s too fucking corny. I can’t do that.” Then I sent it to Dave [David Nichtern, his producer and guitarist] and he liked it, and I said, “If a grumpy Buddhist likes it, then it must be okay!”
ZK: The production on the album is beautiful.
KD: David is the greatest. I work with him whenever he’s free. And Jay Messina, one of the greatest recording engineers in the world. He used to record John Lennon and Aerosmith. He does all this jazz stuff. He knows how to get the instruments to sound really great. He’s a close friend. It’s just a joy to work with him. He and David have completely opposite ways of working. And I was in the middle, so it was verrrry cool.
ZK: How has the recording process evolved over the years?
KD: On Pilgrim Heart, when we went to mix, we discovered that there was not enough volume recorded on the tape. A very skilled engineer, Jeffrey Lesser managed to save that whole recording. The control room was in the same room as the actual studio, so it was basic. What did I know? It was the first CD I was recording myself. One Track Heart was produced by Jai Uttal, who had already had a lot of experience in music production. This one I was doing myself and as a result we almost lost everything.
Over the years, working with Rick Rubin and Jeffrey Lesser, and others, I have gained more confidence. One of the real challenges in the studio is my voice. There are days I sound like Joe Cocker, and other days I sound like Tom Waits. Every once in a while, I sound like myself. When we book the studio time, I’m always wondering, “Uhhh…what’s it going to be like this time.” But we got lucky, the voice was working pretty well.
The other thing I’ve learned in the studio over the years is that it’s okay to pay attention to the technology. You have to balance the feeling with the reality of the technology. Maybe I was feeling like shit and I had a headache, but I had to record that chant at that time. And nobody ever notices. Nobody EVER notices. They feel the bhav. So that takes some of the pressure off. The first recording I did, which was even before One Track Heart, I was trying to make sure I had the feeling. And as a result, it was kind of yucky. So it’s a balance of technology and feeling.
ZK: I have heard you say several times that at one point, it became clear to you that you would need to sing with groups of people.
KD: Yeah. In 1994, which is 21 years after Maharaji left his body. He had sent me home from India and I had been going through terrible, terrible things for a long time. In 1984, I had a deep experience and I returned to the planet; it was okay to be alive. However, the 10 years after that were still challenging. I was in a particularly depressed state and I was standing in my living room. And I was completely struck with understanding that if I did not sing with people—and it was very much with people, it wasn’t to sing alone, it wasn’t to go to a meditation retreat—if I did not start singing with people, I would never be able to clean out the dark corners of my own heart. This was the only thing I could do that the universe was offering to me. This was now what I needed to do for myself. This was not just simply kirtan singing. This was now survival.
ZK: As one of the beneficiaries of that decision, I know what it does for me to participate in your practice. But what do we do for you? What does the presence and participation of the audience afford you?
KD: This is the way Maharaji arranged it. He knows who I am. He knows what I need. And he knows how to get me to do what is in my own best interest, and this is what’s happened. Really, it’s all his business. I can’t say that enough. I’m just singing to save my ass. Everyone is getting off because I am just trying to save my ass, and everyone has a moment where they can save their own ass, and that’s a great thing. But the idea that I am doing something for someone else…that doesn’t work for me. It’s too big a thing. What can I do? I can’t even get the food into my own mouth, how can I teach somebody else? At the same time, I say I am singing to save my own ass. Well the definition of “my own ass” might have widened a little bit.
ZK: Along with your ass…
KD: (Laughter) Along with my ass.
ZK: We hold you accountable, in a way.
ZK: You’ve got to sing the next line.
ZK: You’ve got to make the next album.
KD: Yeah. Yeah.
ZK: Stay the course.
KD: Yeah. My job is to stay healthy enough to keep singing. I am 99 years old. I can’t travel the way I used to. I don’t seem to be able to slow down yet.
ZK: I’m going to ask you the famous Bernard Pivot Questionnaire from his French show, Bouillon de Culture. You ready?
KD: Yeah. Go.
ZK: What is your favorite word?
ZK: What is your least favorite word?
ZK: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
ZK: What turns you off?
ZK: What is your favorite curse word?
KD: Fuck. Pig fucker.
ZK: What sound or noise do you love?
ZK: What sound or noise do you hate?
KD: Gas passing through my intestines.
ZK: Out your ass or in your intestines?
KD: Well it starts there. Farts are actually kind of pleasant. But it’s that gurgling sound, you know?
ZK: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
KD: I love medical stuff. I would have loved to be a doctor.
ZK: What profession would you not like to do?
KD: Really any job that is frustrating, where you cannot get over the obstacles to having your needs met. That’s just a horrible situation.
ZK: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
KD: Heaven exists. And God has said everything she has to say. “K.D., we’ve been waiting for you. Come have some chai.”
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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: Courtesy of Matt Thomas and elephant archives (smaller photo)