Kiran Gandhi has a story or two to tell. She’s toured the world drumming with MIA, graduated from Harvard with an MBA, and just released her debut EP under her solo moniker, Madame Gandhi. Get ready for a fascinating discussion about gender roles in families and society, growing up between two cultures, and the power of living in the now.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
Definitely. I was 22. It was March 2011 and I was about to graduate from Georgetown but I had no job. I remember thinking, “Why am I going to check out LA? I can’t drive. I don’t know anybody there, but maybe it will be amazing.”
My first week in LA was so fun. I would go to job interviews by day and then hang out downtown or in Silver Lake at night. It was so fun that I immediately came back two weeks later.
Growing up in New York, did you have any preconceived notions about LA?
I really didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. As a creative, I like being in places that have a lot of space because the mind automatically starts filling in that space with ideas. When I come home at night sometimes I just start singing. Then I record the idea on my phone. It’s just a moment of inspiration.
In New York, you’re overstimulated. Every wall is filled with an advertisement or shopfront. On the flipside I like that, too, because I can see someone in a cool outfit and I’ll be inspired and think, “Oh, cool! I love how they’ve matched that hat with their shoes. I want to try that.”
But anything that I do in LA has a purity to it because I’m not influence by others. I’m just seeing whatever I feel in that moment.
When I have a rare moment of nothing to do, it’s so hard not to just flip through my phone—I have to force myself to do something like write or draw instead.
That’s a really good point. I should force myself to do that. In the morning I go online to see what’s going on. As a content creator I’m grateful that people are seeing my work, and like to make sure our following online is growing. But, at the same time, you’re absolutely right—finding the balance between just being with your own thoughts, versus engaging with everybody else, should be done intentionally.
Let’s go back to when you started playing the drums when you were 12.
I always loved music. I was always dancing when I was a kid. I was always singing. I loved the Spice Girls. I learned how to play piano. The piano was so rigorous, I hated the way it was taught. It was always like, “Have you done your homework?” I was set up to fail as a pianist.
But the drums are cool because you really can’t be wrong. That’s what I loved about it. First of all, you’re already winning because you’re playing the drums and you’re a female. The cool factor is high. Then I realized the majority of the top songs are all the same beat; even in rap music today it’s all the same beat, just different personalities rapping over it.
I don’t think I’ve ever played a song the exact same way twice, because of the ways I’ll do the fills or add some color on the hi-hat or output the bass-drum pattern. I just picked up on that as a kid. It felt rebellious. It’s liberated. It’s free. You can bring your own personality to it, while still learning the art of playing the drums. When you love something and you’re good at it, that’s the dream scenario.
What did your parents think of you playing?
They were so supportive. I have to give them credit, especially dad. If there are any dads reading this interview, know that you have such a big role in your daughters’ lives. A lot of men don’t really understand that. Mothers love you no matter what. “You’re good at the drums? Great. You don’t like the drums? I love you, let’s just make sure you’re healthy and happy.” That’s what the mother’s energy is like from the moment that they feed their baby. Your job is to keep them alive. [Laughs] It’s such a beautiful thing that empowers so many kids to go out into the world and just exist and take risks because they know they have their mother’s love helping them out.
But with a father it’s completely different. They can push you towards success because that male energy comes in like, “You go be the best baseball player! You’re worried about the boys in the soccer field? You just put your jersey on and kick ass!” Or, “You want to play the drums? All right! Well, let’s go and find the best drum teacher in New York City.”
My father used to take me to this really shady studio in Times Square because that just happened to be where my drum teacher taught lessons. Everyone outside was smoking weed on the doorstep and my dad was so annoyed that this was the only place that he could find for me to learn the drums. But he would faithfully sit in the Starbucks right next door for an hour and do his emails or whatever and wait for me to finish my lesson. I would come back down and he would take me home.
So that energy of, “I’m going to protect you so you can go and do your thing and I’m going to encourage you.” It’s so powerful. It’s so profound.
I think part of the socialization of our culture makes it manly to not participate in the upbringing of your own child. It’s kind of a badge of honor to be so busy and earning the bread out in the world. But I really wish we would shift that narrative, because what men bring to the table as direct influences in their kids’ lives is so deeply powerful.
Do you think the dynamic has shifted nowadays? I’m just thinking of my guy friends who say they’d love to be stay-at-home dads.
Well, my dad was an investment banker, which means he was always traveling. So I’m telling a positive story where I have really fun memories of him. He was very much out of our lives and he was also the disciplinarian. We were a little scared of him, too.
I think men these days say hypothetically that they want to spend more time with their kids, but I don’t know if that’s real. I don’t know if it’s a true badge of honor to be able to be with your kid and get work done, as well. All the tech industries are now moving towards mobile working, working from home with your laptop. I like that. Maybe it’s “cool” now for men to have a good work-life balance. I hope that will translate to their kids, but I haven’t seen it yet.
In my song “The Future Is Female,” I wrote these lines: “The system was made to make room for all that we do. We’ve been bleeding each month until we gave birth to you.” That line is directly about a corporate world, because a corporate world is set up so that a man goes to a job and has a wife at home taking care of the domestic responsibilities, laundry, food, etc. So what happens, then, when women are in the workplace? They don’t have a wife and only the top one percent of society can afford childcare or someone else to do the laundry at home. That’s really unfair.
And so, tech is helping both men and women with that work-life balance. What if there were tech tools designed to make you able to do the best of both family and work? I’d like to think it would open up your brain to focus more on the job that you have to do.
Do you feel inherent pressure to succeed because of your parents?
My dad puts on the pressure and then my mom kind of removes the pressure. [Laughs]
My dad is always like, “This kid will be so successful.” And that mentality is always about the end, not the journey. My mom is extremely spiritual and believes that the goal is not the end, because once you reach it there will always be the next thing, anyway.
It’s kind of this beautiful push-pull. I think I’m lucky in that way to have both, because if I had parents pushing towards a traditional notion of success then maybe I wouldn’t be a musician at all. Maybe I would be working at one of those tech companies.
Sounds like your mom’s mindset ties into your concept of “atomic living”—the notion that you can harness spontaneity, or being in each moment, to foster creativity.
Completely. She’s a classic case of atomic living and she’s also the OG Madame Gandhi. She is Madame Gandhi. [Laughs]
When I was watching your TEDx talk, I was thinking that there were moments in my life that happened purely through a love of something, without a goal in mind, and I saw the amazing things that resulted from that one moment or decision. So then when you find yourself in a new environment with new constraints, how do you apply the idea of atomic living to those constraints?
I see constraints as positive, because all of us have constraints no matter what. And so, operating within those constraints actually makes for excellent atomic living. I like to imagine a pinball machine. In pinball, there are these little islands, for lack of a better word, within the machine and the ball is bouncing around those things.
I went to Harvard, the most rigid place on the face of the earth, a breeding ground of patriarchy. If you’re even one minute late you’re not allowed in class. For someone like myself this was a nightmare. So, if you’re late at 9:01, the door is closed. You can’t go in. So I would always be stressed. I had to be there at 8:50 to make sure I got a seat.
Those constraints help a lot, because Harvard was a constraint that I actively chose. To live atomically at Harvard is enriching, because I’m doing that in an environment with people who are shaping culture and moving the world forward. I’m going to learn from these people purely by being on campus.
No matter what the constraints, each of us has time in our day to live atomically. Each of us has that moment after 5 o’clock, after 6 o’clock, until the evening or whenever in the morning, during our lunch break—there are all these moments when we can live atomically. You can live atomically even in the office place by leaving your desk, walking around, running into someone, giving them positive energy, seeing what they give back. There are so many little ways that atomic living can be done within constraints.
Speaking of constraints, I often wonder whether I actually want to pursue something different in my career or if my generation is just conditioned to need to keep moving, keep changing.
I think about the lack of communication 20 years ago. No one had Facebook, the Internet, the ease of picking up a cell phone and calling someone. So once you got a job, you were so grateful that you just stayed.
But now we have so much stimulation. Everything can show us what’s out there. So we feel like we know better than to stay somewhere for three years because we know what else is out there and we want to drive towards it. So atomic living is really appropriate for this Millennial generation and the kind of people that we are, the kind of way we’re living now.
I actually just told my manager Steven last night that I fear my own destruction, because of my own desire for change. Look at my track record: I majored in math and political science, and then I went into the record business for two years, and then I went back to get my MBA for two years, and now I’m working on [music project] Madame Gandhi for two years. And to somebody outside looking in, they would think that’s crazy that I keep changing. For me it makes so much sense—music, feminism and business have always been intertwined for me.
Working on Madame Gandhi 100 percent, I fear that I’ll get bored after a while and not want to be onstage and not want to keep doing this. But in a way, that works to my advantage because that very need for change is what pushes the project forward and helps it to continue to evolve.
While it’s true that being in the same job for a long time can be boring, you can use that feeling to help yourself to evolve. It’s also nice to stay in the same place, to have this constant base that you can keep building upon—that, at least, is going to help your connection with people and the way you understand things.
What aspects of Indian culture do you try to incorporate into your life?
Indian warmth. People in India are so warm. There is a genuine desire to help each other. This may be because the population is so big and the sense of karma is very real, the idea that we’re all connected no matter what. The idea that you have to help somebody else out because it’s going to vibrate and come right back to you. I find that so profound.
Some of my close friends make fun of me because I put on a bit of an Indian accent when I’m either trying to explain something that’s complicated or when I’m being genuinely kind to someone. I realize my mom does that when she wants to be loving to someone or make them feel welcome—she kind of steps more into her Indian self than her American self.
I really think my parents do a good job of mixing the best of both Indian and American cultures. I think it’s the reason why I can pursue my music career, the reason why I can speak so actively and openly about women’s equality. It’s because they grew up very educated, with parents who were also in touch with the rest of the world. So I really think my parents take the best of both cultures.
I think it’s really unfair when parents force the kids to behave more Indian but in an American context. Being Indian in a culture that’s associated with being Indian is designed to make you fit in. There are tools to make you feel at ease if you live in India—you know to speak the language, you know how to bargain, all these little day-to-day skills that you would never do in America. And vice versa is also true. You learn social norms in America to be able to participate in the American culture. And if you’re trying to force it, it’s like different puzzle, a “square peg, round hole” thing.
As a kid you don’t realize what your parents are going through when they come to a new country and are adapting to this new culture.
Totally, you have no idea. It’s pretty badass.
I feel like that story is so rare for our generation. I don’t know anyone who just picked up and move to some other country with a suitcase and without knowing the language.
You’re so right. Not a single person that I know. There’s so much privilege in the circles that I know. It’s also something people love to criticize in my own work. “Oh, you come from such a privileged background. What’s it to you?” Most people who come from a position of privilege very rarely actively use their position for something radical because a) they don’t need to, and b) there are already so many social pressures on them, either to marry a certain kind of person or make a certain amount of money or go to a certain elite school, that they don’t want to take risks and break out of those norms.
Was there a moment during the process of making your EP, Voices, that really stood out for you?
I mean there are so many, so many. Every moment, every song was made atomically. I think meeting my producer, Anthony, was instrumental to the record. He mentored me through the whole process. It’s so powerful when men understand the message and the need for an album made for the female voice. He was really good at just being like, “Everything is fine.” He prevented me from letting my own insecurities get in the way.
That’s amazing. It makes me think about the positives of masculine energy.
Completely. Although that confidence may be less about an inherent masculine quality than about the socialization of women. I’m always saying, “I’m really sorry but blah, blah, blah… Is it ok if I pass by here?”
Notice the body language of women versus the body language of men when they occupy space—it’s so different. Just yesterday I was driving in my car and this guy just walked right in front of me. Then I drove a little more and a girl was like, “Oh, is it okay if I cross?” And I was like, “Of course, go.” She ran across, to be out of my way. While the guy walked straight by calmly at his own pace.
It’s a perfect example of the socialization of women—we apologize, we overthink things, we think we are the ones in the way. If something makes us feel uncomfortable, we think it’s our fault. Which is why the majority of sexual assault cases work against us, because we genuinely doubt ourselves. Like, “That made me feel really gross, it didn’t feel right, he definitely pushed me, but maybe I was the one who was wrong?”
I have that self-doubt with my voice, I have that with my drumming. But if you look at my credentials, you’d be like, “This girl has no reason to be insecure about anything.”
Also being an artist, I go through such an extreme pendulum swing of insecurity and confidence. Confidence like, “Ah, the record sounds great, the marathon went so well, everything’s great.” And then like, “Am I singing off key? Was the record release party okay? Not enough press has covered it, no one’s listening.” You know? You just keep swinging back and forth.
But I think the pendulum is the very thing that keeps you going. Because if you didn’t have the fear, you wouldn’t put out better work. And if you didn’t have the confidence, you would just wallow in self pity, not putting anything out. So you need both.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
Own your voice. Don’t be afraid. That’s it. That’s the message of my record, that’s what we just talked about right now. It’s completely connected.
If you have an intuition about something, if you feel something, you have to say it. Because it’s likely that everyone else is thinking the same thing you are, but they don’t have the courage to say it.
What does LA mean to you?
Home, joy, eating well, sleeping, not drinking, writing, getting inspired, seeing good people, not seeing that many people, good music, being happy. The list goes on and on. I love it. I really love it.