Micropixie is the musical alter ego of Neshma Friend, an Indian-born, British-raised singer and songwriter currently based in San Francisco. Her sound is nearly impossible to categorize; although there are clearly discernible electronic and South Asian influences in her work, she seems to use these musical schools of thought as tools, instead of constraints, to create a sound unlike anything else.
Her latest album, Dark Sight of the Moon, is the third installation in the Micropixie trilogy — a trilogy that tells the story of an “alien with extraordinary abilities” (the description is a reference to a category of green card that immigrants — aliens — can apply for) who comes to Earth and is baffled by racism, sexism, and other social injustices. The lead single from this album, “New Year’s Day,” was chosen as a top-10 pick by the New York Times and highlights Micropixie’s ethereal, sometimes discordant, but always intriguing sound.
Following the release of Dark Sight of the Moon, I had a chance to ask Micropixie about her influences, inspirations, and aspirations. The following interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
The otherworldly narrative of “Dark Sight of the Moon” and its preceding albums is fascinating; how did you decide that this “alien” perspective was how you would approach your music? Do any of your personal experiences influence your voice as a artist?
The whole idea of using an alien persona to express myself artistically solidified when I heard the phrase “Alien with Extraordinary Abilities,” which is a U.S. green card category. From there, I created a website called “Micropixie, Alien with Extra ]ORDINARY[ Abilities.” And by that I meant I was an alien who had ordinary — as in human — abilities, except that I had an extra set of them. Soon after that a friend, Jeff Crerie, suggested we make an album! I was astonished as I had never even thought to make music before then, but I responded with, “OK, and I already have the album cover.” I was referring to the “alien-looking” photo of myself, the main picture I had used on my website. This led to my first album Alice in Stevie Wonderland, through which a narrative, based on my own life experiences, slowly unfolded.
Your sound seems to straddle musical genres and styles; what would you consider your major influences when it comes to composing music?
The title of my first album might give you a clue to one of the artists I admire, however I listen to many different genres and styles of music. The list would be insanely long so I won’t go there! I tend to listen to albums, and I usually get lost in the story arc of an album. If there is anything such records have in common, it would be that the artist has a distinct and strong voice that I find easy to connect to. I’m sure that has influenced me more than anything, the idea that I should be true to myself, to my own voice. In terms of composing, I don’t know the rules of writing music and songs, and I usually go with what sounds good or interesting. I am self-taught and experimental. I edit, edit and edit … a lot. Each of my three album collaborators has influenced my song-writing in different ways, and I have learned so much from each one.
In a similar vein: what is your approach to writing albums? Do you come up with a narrative or concept for the entire thing and then break it down into songs, or do you write songs as they come to you and then stitch them together?
In all three cases, the individual songs came first and then a narrative was stitched together, often with the help of interludes to connect the dots. At the beginning of each project, I had no idea where the story would go but it has always worked out (and it always turns out to mirror the arc of my own life … ha, weird that!). With this final chapter to the trilogy, I knew from as soon as the full lyrics were written, that the very last song would be the title track, by virtue of the closing lyrics. I have always made it so that each album can be played on a loop, so that the end of the album merges almost seamlessly with the very beginning.
Although your sound is certainly your own, there is certainly some perceptible South Asian musical influence in some of your work (inclusion of deep tabla-like percussion, use of scales with distinctly South Asian classical music-like tonal systems and patterns, etc.) What is your relationship with South Asian music, if any? How do you draw on that relationship as a professional musician now?
I’m of Indian origin so as a child, I of course listened to Hindustani classical music, Bollywood and bhajans (musical prayers) that my parents played. Also, when I was 8 or 9, I took Hindustani vocal lessons. As for tabla, that was inspired by a deep conversation with a fellow Gujarati musician Robin Sukhadia back in 2003, soon after I first arrived in San Francisco. After we met, I decided that tabla should feature in my first album, and so we recorded him for three songs and he also taught me some tabla bols (spoken beats), which formed the track “A Lesson.” His percussion was deliberately woven into the story arc, with the sound of tabla intending to mean that Micropixie was “receiving transmissions from the Mothership.”
What has been your experience as a South-Asian born, globally raised artist in the indie/electronic/trip-hop music realm? Have you found that your journey as a musician has differed in any way from other artists in this genre? What sort of impact or influence do you hope to have in your field for future generations of musicians?
First and foremost, it is tricky to place my music in any one genre. With my first album, I tended to get labeled as “World” by virtue of my ethnicity/colour of my skin, and the fact that tablas appeared on three of the songs, but “World” as a genre is inherently silly, if not downright racist. I am influenced by so many genres, sounds and artists that to call my music “World” or “South Asian” is a bit ridiculous. Indie/electronic/trip-hop is more accurate (thank you for being accurate!).
I think in addition to being brown (or a “Darker Shade of Beige” as I like to say), being a woman, and a solo female artist at that, is what underlines my experience. Misogyny is sadly omnipresent within the music biz. However, I always strive to forge on and do my work regardless. I know that representation matters so if a brown female artist, or any female artist, or any person of color, or anybody who feels like an alien in this dehumanizing world, is inspired by me to do their work then that would make me happy. Over the years, I actually have been told by quite a few people that they find me, and/or my work, inspiring, and that always feels good.
The single “New Year’s Day” from Dark Sight of the Moon was chosen as a top 10 pick by the New York Times. What was this experience like? Did it influence the way you assembled the remainder of your album?
It was an incredible experience to learn, three days after the single “New Year’s Day” was released (um, naturally I released it on New Year’s Day), that it was picked for the first New York Times playlist of 2019 by Jon Pareles, their top music critic, and that I shared that honour with D’Angelo, Paul McCartney, & Post Malone! My friends and I still talk about that! The album was already finished by then so it did not influence the rest of the album in any way.
If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, what would be your dream collaboration?
I have been described as the “Indian Bjork” (what a compliment!) by some, and there are quite a few albums of hers that make me swoon, so probably I would love to collaborate with a fellow alien artist (could somebody send her Dark Sight of the Moon?! I think she might dig it!). Other artists: Bill Withers, Dan the Automator, Andrew Bird, James Blake, and of course my main man, Stevie Wonder.
Rashmi Venkatesh is a pharmacologist who now works behind a desk and lives in the Metro D.C. area. Her interests include feminism, pop science, South Asian diasporic culture and media, and biryani. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @rashmiv11.