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Coffee Talk with Piya Malik

Interview by Jamison Harvey

Photo: Hinted Studio

Name, Location, and a little bit about yourself and what you do:

My name is Piya Malik.  I'm a New York based/ London raised singer songwriter/ music maker.

We think vinyl records & coffee go hand in hand.  

I couldn't agree more. They are life enhancers.

What’s your relationship with coffee?  

Being British and Indian origin - I was raised to believe that the answer to all the world's problems is a cup of tea.  I mainly started going against the grain and drinking coffee when I was living in Paris.  I had no money and lived in a tiny 15 squared meter, roach infested apartment that you couldn't swing a cat in!  So, I'd spend all day outside exploring the cafe culture on the left bank of the Seine. Places like Cafe des Flores and La Palette where Simone de Beauvoir used to hang out with Camus and Sartre debating their existential treatise. I would basically sit and sip coffee all day with my fellow students and by lunch time we'd be fueled into some sort of heated debate about how we were going to put the world to rights! Not sure we really achieved much but I felt the life force.  Probably part idealism, part magic coffee beans!

How do you prepare it?  Where do you get it?  Do you go to a coffee shop and roast?  Do you often just drink coffee and listen to records/ music?

I only really started to appreciate the ritual of the roast when I moved to NYC. Something pretty integral to my mornings now.  Before the lockdown I would go every morning to the black-owned Hatian Cafe Erzulie for my coffee.  It has a little flower shop in the front that they saved from closing - and a garden in the back that's a haven from the bustle under the bridge on Myrtle-Broadway.

Nowadays, you will find me scooping eithipoian or peruvian arabica beans from mason jars that align my kitchen walls. I use a little electric grinder and an old school italian stovetop percolator.  When the rumble of the coffee starts bubbling up into the upper cavity I usually put a record on while I scour the corners of the internet for my morning press review. Call me ridiculou, but I love to drink out of bone china and have collected a random hodgepodge of coffee cups from stoop sales, trinket and thrift stores around Brooklyn. I don't care what you say - the vessel is just as important to the experience.

Tell us a bit about your musical background and how you got into music/ singing/ being in bands and touring?

My great uncle Jaidev was a music producer in Bollywood during the 50’s and 60’s and his music was a source of great pride in our house and an enormous inspiration to me.  I was lucky my parents were very encouraging and during the long summer holidays spent in India visiting family.  I would listen to all the old playback singers he had written songs for: like Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Boshle. Their voices are insane; the level of technique is astounding .  They remained so pure and full range even well into their 70’s. And his melodies were simple and charming.  I've dreamed of honouring his work somehow my whole life so this project with El Michels Affair was a dream come true in many ways. 

In my 20’s I’d frequent jazz clubs like Ronnie Scotts.   I'd watch  people like Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth and I knew I wanted to perform.   Eventually, they'd let me sit in for a song or two in the late night jams at Ronnie Scotts.  I started singing with my friend Emyrs and The Soul Immigrants. That was a real education for me. I'd stay till 2 or 3 am in the morning sometimes just to sing one song! 

The first band I joined when I moved to New York was an improv band called 178 Product - led by Sal P ( Liquid Liquid). It was kind of a collective made up of some incredible musicians who had been playing in the city for years.  We cut a live improv record at Red Bull music studios and soon after I joined 79.5. That's when I started really touring.  At first, we were opening for Chicano Batman produced by Leon [Michels] and then later I was on the road as their backing singer. We toured around the US with Khruangbin, and opened for Portugal the Man and Jack White.  It was a blast and I learned so much musically from being around all those guys. I loved being on the road and getting to see America for the first time that way. And you can find time to write on long journeys in the back of the van if you’re focused. 

Who are your influences musically and otherwise?  

Ah! Always hard to narrow it down, but I guess some key ones for me are women like Asha Puthli, Gulcan Opel, Selda, Rupa and Cesaria Evora.  Writers like Michel de Montaigne or poets like Rumi certainly inspired me, but I’m not sure I could stake any claim to have actually absorbed any of their influence! 

You’ve collaborated with El Michels Affair on the brilliant record Unathi/ Zaharila with the latter (featured on The Outsider soundtrack on HBO show and the song even had its own reddit thread) and now on the new single “Duhaan” (featured this month in the Rabble & Lion coffee/ vinyl subscription).  How did you come to work with Leon and El Michels Affair?

Haha! I had no idea about the Reddit thread.  But yes, it was cool to get a sync in for the Outsider.  I feel like it was released just as the pandemic hit so made for extra terrifying TV! 

I first began the project with Leon when one of the songs I sang for 79.5 had an indian riff and we started exploring developing more ideas. It's always been the most incredible time working with him in the studio. He's a maverick music maker. Very culturally open and a feminist. He allows you to develop ideas creatively; extremely encouraging in his approach, but he hears things I would never hear and gets me out of my comfort zone.  I've never screamed so much into a microphone haha! It's somewhere between the realm of making work and therapy for me.  I can't think of a happier time in my life then when I get to record at Diamond Mine with the sun coming in through the windows and all the beautiful old microphones to play with! 

You’ve also made a splash in the highly applauded 79.5 and Say She She, both who have made beautiful music for the people.  Can you talk about those projects a little bit and your process of writing and performing?

Well thank you so much - you are too kind.  I met most of the 79.5 crew through my buddy Bene who was in the midst of opening The Record Shop down in Redhook. ( Forgive the cheeky plug but honestly please support local record shops! Check out their IG daily selection online)  Most of us ended up living down there and there is a super supportive music culture.  Once the project got signed to Big Crown, we went into the studio pretty quickly down at Diamond Mine and cut the record to tape. It was so warm and my first time recording live to tape. 

Nya and I were friends and I just love her voice and ear so much, so when I got invited to join Kate’s project she was open to bringing Nya in immediately. Kate’s doing more of a solo endeavour now and her latest rendition of Sunny Ozuna’s ‘My Dream’ is really sultry and sweet- check it out!   I've always loved singing with other women - harmonies are everything, so Say She She has been a beautiful journey singing with my two best friends Sabrina and Nya. 

Sabrina was my neighbour in the Lower East Side.  She lived in the apartment below me  and we used to hear each other sing through the rafters! We ended up song writing one night after a bad bad break up and then formed Say She She together in a very natural way. Nya joined us not long after and we are back to singing 3 part harmonies. We are currently working on our upcoming record with a wonderful roster of musicians. 

What are your interests outside of music?  What are you passionate about?

I've always been engaged in politics.  I worked in social justice and climate change policy back in the UK at first for The Labour Party and later was a political advisor  for the Leader of the Green Party in Parliament. I got pretty burned out and disillusioned when the Tories got in for a second term and thats when I moved to NYC to work for a homelessness advocacy and then started playing music more seriously. I felt like it was time to try and use my voice in a different way. 

For me, writing songs is the purest expression and a personal but communitarian way of using your voice in this life. I used to worry if songs were not political that they didnt meant as much.  But a friend, a deep music head and collector,  taught me that you have to see yourself as a beautician. That sometimes a love song is just as important because you are reminding people of beauty in this world. And that is just as important as politics. 

Since we've been housebound over the last few months, my partner has been cultivating a new love of film in me. We’ve been on a Criterion Collection binge as of late.  I finally got around to watching Wim Wenders Wings of Desire and am slowly working my way through his body of work now. He's such a humble and talented soul and I have been loving watching the movies over with his commentary afterwards. The internal dialogues, the black and white aesthetic so subtle, classic, emotional.  Sort of like the difference between tape and digital recordings. The analog leaves you with so much warmth.  Its hard to go back.. (or do I mean forwards?) from that.

What music have you been listening to lately? 

Morning records with coffee include: laraaji’s Ambient 3 / Day of Radiance (1980) , Ethiopiques piano music from - Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Kim Jung Mi’s - Now and Actually, a Charlie Megira Numero Group comp - Tomorrow's Gone has been on a recent morning feature.  I believe in raag philosophy: there are songs for the morning and songs for the evening; so often I”ll play calming repetitive rhythms or something I know well to relax me first thing ‘til the coffee kicks in! 

Other Staples on the record player during quarantine: SE Rogie, Turkish Psych Rock comp called Freakout 2  on Bouzouki Joe.  Also, Nick Drake’s Family Tree which features songs with his sister and his mother. Nick Drake and his mother were actually born in Burma and I hadn't realised before getting into this record that his mother was such an incredible song writer in her own right and heavily influenced his style.  I have also been listening to Beverly Glenn Copeland, Joanna Brouk, Minako Yoshida and Shinataro Sakamoto. And I’m always checking out Chances with Wolves, Maison Dufrene and Blazer Sound System’ mixes!

Last words, anything you want!

Illegitimus non carborundum est! [ Dont let the bastards grind you down!]  Black Lives Matter! Don’t take yourself too seriously but take others as seriously as they warrant. Even the baddies need to be taken seriously 😒 otherwise they might just creep in an take over while you're not watching. Make sure you encourage young people to vote. Okay I sound like my mum so I’ll stop there haha!   Oh and thank you Jamison … for the hustle and the tastemaking. Kudos for all DJs like you and Akalepse do in the city and beyond! 

Bless up/ 🙏🏾 namaste.