By Yasi Salek for Setlist
Kiran Gandhi isn’t a woman who is into limitations. In fact, the bleach blonde bad ass might very well be vying for the position of “most interesting person in the world” (move over, Dos Equis guy) – to date, she has racked up enough titles to have her own section at the public library. Gandhi is an activist, a writer, a feminist, a poet, a musician (and former drummer for MIA, no less), and a Harvard MBA-holder, all of which she synthesizes into Madame Gandhi, her multi-dimensional music project. Her debut EP, Voices, was released just last year, and the outspoken artist quickly landed gigs at iconic LA venue The Smell, Lighting In A Bottle festival, and last weekend’s Pitchfork Music Fest, no small feat for a brand new act.
We caught up with Gandhi after her epic performance in Chicago:
You’ve put out one EP so far, and it features only five (very awesome) songs. Does that make putting together a set list for a show, let alone a festival like Pitchfork, difficult? How do you approach it?
That is a great question. I think one of the toughest parts about designing a set list is designing the energy. And for me, I talk about a three dimensional femininity, which is the idea that we as women and we as people are able to exhibit both our power, like with the songs that are super focused on combatting inequality and combatting social injustice and fighting for our rights, and also the songs that are more emotional and more focused on love and vulnerability, or maybe missing somebody or wanting to be a better person.
So in the set list I design what’s called a “U shaped” set, where the top and the end of the shows are very high energy and high power. And the middle of the show is very introspective and very peaceful and very vulnerable…That’s how I think about a set list. I think about it in two ways. One, explorations of three-dimensional constructions of femininity, as well as designing for high energetic moments and lower, more introspective moments.
You studied at Harvard Business School. Do you ever think about applying economic theory to set lists? Like supply and demand?
Damn, that’s f**king genius. I never thought about that. I guess one thing that it could mean in my mind is like putting things in the set list that aren’t out yet. People get really stoked on [the song] and then go and find it. One thing that I did learn from my time at business school was really thinking about always contributing to your audience, and always contributing to the joy of somebody else. You will always be relevant as an artist, as a person, as a worker, when you are thinking about how to contribute to the joy of somebody else. And a lot of times as artists we can be narcissistic, you know, we can say, “I want them to love me”, but that’s not really the point.
The point is actually to make somebody else feel joyful and elevated and inspired when they leave your show. And I think designing a set list that has high energy at the start and finish, with the introspective vulnerability in the middle, is really responsible because it shows everybody that it’s okay. It’s okay to have both moments and it’s okay to not feel your best at times and that all of us do, and here’s me showing you what that looks like on a stage…in the most honest way I can.
You’ve toured the world with M.I.A, as her drummer. What did you learn about live shows and performing from that experience?
Oh my god, I learned so much. First of all, I had played with M.I.A at Pitchfork Fest four years ago, so that was a full circle homecoming which felt really, really good. And I learned about tour management…I learned about covering all of your bases. I also learned that the best teams are able to be flexible with the inspiration of the artist at the moment.
In the daytime M.I.A would get an idea to break a coconut on stage or to bring Indian prayer bells on stage or to reverse the set list because this audience was seeking a dance party as opposed to something moody, and when I learned that, that inspired me deeply. Because my emotions and ideas are always changing and I also love to adapt the set list to the audience. [M.I.A] would make us like go out and buy Indian prayer bells in the middle of downtown Montreal, right before the show, or she would tell her team to flip the set list on its head, because for example, she didn’t want to play “Born Free” because the audience just wanted to turn up, they didn’t want to be hip to political issues at the time.
So that kind of goes back to the theme I talked about earlier, which is always be giving to your audience. What is it they want to do, and how can you be your best self? Even a month ago, I was doing a show in London and no one knew my work at all. It was in the venue room of a hotel. About 4 or 5 songs in, after I performed my own music and I noticed the audience losing focus over my work, just talking to each other. I realized they’re just here to meet each other and hang out and to turn up, and so I decided to just switch over to a DJ set and I honored the audience and thanked them for letting me perform my original music. It really worked and it made them love my work even more, because I was dialed into their needs as an entertainer.
So my advice to anyone listening, is be flexible with your set list, and be flexible with your performance for that day. The artists that are the most dialed into the needs of their audience members are the ones who really thrive, and the set list makes or breaks that.
What’s in the pipeline for you as an artist?
I definitely am excited to put out a full-length album. I want to think about how I can weave my spoken word and activism into my music, in one musical body of work, and then also I am really excited about merchandise to be honest. That’s another thing in my pipeline that’s going to be really good.
Keep up with Madame Gandhi’s bright future, and her upcoming shows, on her website.