When Boston-based artist Tanya Palit aka Saraswathi Jones picks up her Fender Stratocaster and expertly rocks out in a sari, it’s easy to forget that she only started performing publicly two years ago. Her debut EP, Lingua Franca, which released in April, features a seamless, soulful blend of songs in English, Bengali and Hindi. Jones is currently preparing to film her first music video for a yet unreleased song she wrote about matrimonial website Shaadi.com. She graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to speak to me about her career to date and how the character of Saraswathi Jones was created.
When was Saraswathi Jones born?
She was born several years ago — a character born in my mind. A friend of mine who is a dancer and performance artist asked me and other Bengali Americans to join a radical queer cabaret night. At that point, my only performances consisted of playing songs on friends’ porches. Saraswathi Jones became a character in the play who was working out his/her gender issues.
So you weren’t always a musician?
Like many an Asian American child I was forced to play the violin. I’ve always really loved music. I grew up singing and I taught myself a little bit of guitar — but I actually learned what I knew when I was in Bangladesh in 2004. There were so many strikes, bombs and other crazy shit going on that I bought a guitar and taught myself two chords.
I still to this day have trouble considering myself a musician. But I know everyone feels like a phony. Everyone has this feeling like “at some point my cover will be blown.” I began by playing with an indie-rock acoustic pop group called the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library in 2011. We dressed like librarians — cat-eye glasses and pearls. I had the opportunity to tour with them and I got more comfortable onstage.
What instruments do you play?
I do have my violin — I bust it out from time to time. I learned how to play guitar. Later in 2010, I took up the ukelele. It’s a simple instrument. It’s become all the rage. With these glasses and the ukelele I’m an uber-brown hipster. But it’s okay, I’m owning it. I’ve also been transitioning from acoustic to electric guitar. And I just learned to play drums.
You also volunteer with Girls Rock Boston.
I have been with them since 2011 — the inaugural class of ladies rock camp. It’s a feminist organization that puts their money where their mouth is. Nobody is allowed to say the words “I’m sorry.” The point is to show girls that what you think, what you do, what you say is just as important if not more important than how you look. And we try really hard. I hang out. Help them unload instruments. Bring food. We help empower shy girls — we let them live in this imaginary world we have created for them where everyone’s equal.
You made up your own genre called “postcolonial pop rock.” Tell me about it.
It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek. What does anything mean? Postcolonial pop rock doesn’t mean anything specifically — but more the place that I’m coming from — I feel like a truly postcolonial subject. When I was growing up, I didn’t see South Asian American people making art. Now I feel like there’s an up and coming Desi Renaissance happening. It’s exciting to think that we’re not alone. Whether you’re Mandeep Sethi and rapping about being an immigrant — or The Kominas and doing Islamic punk — so much great art comes from a place , a feeling of not belonging. I think about the British empire a lot. And the deep reaching effects of slavery or colonialism — you see it every day.
Tell me about the Kitschenettes, the fast all-girl doo-wop inspired grunge band “with a wink.”
It came out of Girl and Ladies Rock Camp — we are all instructors together at camp. It’s a way for us to stay connected and try new things. For example, I’m a guitar player, but I’m playing drums.
You also rock out with Awaaz Do, a band whose name literally translates to “Make some noise.”
My original thought was, “Wouldn’t it knock people’s socks off if we rounded up a bunch of desi woman and rocked out?” I love Bollywood music, particular from the 90s. And rock generally doesn’t have a lot of women of color. I sent out a bunch of casting calls and eventually ended up with two dudes, the coolest desi guys around and a Filipina-American drummer.
Your voice is so distinctive. Who have people said you sound like?
In terms of influences, I’ve heard from people that some of my songs take them back to the South. I sing a capella, and my songs can be hymn-like. I thought that was so interesting, because it hadn’t occurred to me. It says more about them than me. To me, my songs are a conversation. A breathy conversation.
Who or what inspires your music?
Classic country. I grew up listening to a lot of George Jones. Patsy Cline. Elvis. Southern gospel music. You don’t have to have an insanely complicated chord structure. Almost everything Bob Dylan wrote was four chords. It’s not how you’re singing, it’s what you’re singing.
Tell me the story behind your song “Mother Tongue.”
“Mother Tongue” is a song that was supposed to be a dissertation. I had a total foreign policy career track. So I’m always thinking about the women who fought during the war for Bangladesh’s independence. I spent the year in Dhaka on a Fulbright Grant and I met a lot of people who saw their family literally murdered by Pakistani soldiers. There was something about the images of skinny, teenaged girls wearing white salwar kameezes that always stuck with me. We always forget about female soldiers of that war. We always forget about the women.
Is there anything else you want to talk about?
If anyone out there is interested in doing a show swap Boston/NY/DC/Philly or even SF/LA, contact me!