David Hennessy talks to singer-songwriter Sara Mitra about growing up with a cultural mix of Irish and Bengali and her forthcoming album
Born to an Irish mother and Bengali Hindu father, Sara Mitra has a diverse heritage and range of influences. Combining folk, jazz and country, Sara saw her 2010 debut album April Song critically acclaimed and gain the support of major radio outlets, including BBC Radio 2 where Jamie Cullum is a massive fan. The music has also been successful internationally with responses in Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and USA to name a few. The album included Sara’s version of Black is the Colour and Sara tells us the follow-up which is set to be released next month, Losing You that includes her take on She Moves Through the Fair, has an Irish flavour running through it.
“If you listen with that ear, you’ll hear it running through the entire thing,” Sara begins.
“If I can drop in each album, like Black is the Colour on my first album, a little drop of Irish folk.
“On the first album, there was a few movements towards it but I think on this one, you can hear Irish folk, you can hear Americana Appalachian folk, it’s not something that I’m trying to mimic or ape, it’s just something that really moved me.
“It’s funny. Not being African-American, not being English, not growing up in Ireland, not growing up in India, I have zero kind of permission for any of these musics. At the same time, if you sit there waiting for permission, you’ll never do anything. We just have to see what people think about it.”
Sara credits her mother and the music she played in the home with giving her a love of music early on: “When you’re mixed, the side that is physically more obvious, you get judged by and is what you get seen as. I’ve always been presented to the world as an Asian woman with an Irish mother but as I get older, I definitely understand that it’s the Irish side of me which is totally dominant.
“I really respect Indian music but it hasn’t called to me in the same way as the recordings my mother used to play to me when I was a kid, like Luke Kelly and the Dubliners and the Fureys and things that I’m very influenced by in my own writing. There’s no frills and artificiality, it’s just real and it gets you.”
Sara’s father came from India via Malaysia and met Sara’s mother while they were both studying in Liverpool. Their union was not easily accepted even by their own respective families and cultures: “My mother’s auntie, she was quite a character and she disowned my mother for marrying my father because he was not a nice Irish boy. She wouldn’t speak to my mother for 30 years. It was really difficult but in the end, she wrote this lovely letter apologising, she was coming to the end of her life so before she died, they had a rapprochement and I got to meet her.
“It was that generation. My mother was the first person to marry out, not marry a local boy. Not only was he not local, he was Indian. Not only was he Indian, he was Hindu so it was extremely complicated but I did get to meet her and it was very special. I think every family has got these stories and skeletons, don’t they?
“The night before they were getting married, the priest refused to marry them. They were getting married in Liverpool Cathedral and my mother’s uncle, he was a priest, so he sat down and they drank whiskey and he realised that he would marry them after all because she was a girl from a good family.”
Being from different religions and not accepted by either, Sara’s parents raised her with no specific faith: “I think my mother really never ever forgave the idea that the church was putting so many obstacles to her being with somebody that she loved and then on my father’s side, the tradition was that the mother of the groom picks her daughter-in-law so my father, by picking his own wife, it was just utterly not the done thing. Nowadays it’s not such a big deal but at the time it was just a big scandal on both sides.
“Because of the experiences they had both had, I was not raised Catholic, I was not raised Hindu. It’s been just a personal journey to explore things and come to some sort of compromise. I go to Baptist church now. For me it’s a good middle ground. Faith and life is a very developing path so who knows what’s going to happen in a few years? I certainly don’t want to raise our children faithless, I’d rather just show them what I can and hopefully they can make their own decisions when it’s the right time.”
Sara’s mother was brought up in Dugannon although the family spent time in Northern Ireland, “She is one of five children and they were Catholic growing in quite a Protestant area and I think her experiences meant that she wanted to leave.”
Sara also has family in Clare and Monaghan.
Sara was born in Essex, studied in Cambridge and is now based in London. Asked about growing up mixed race, she says: “It was a very white Anglo-Saxon school in Essex so we were very odd. Not only were we very odd because of the racial mix but also just because of the time in the 80’s and all the things that were going on.”
Did her family find they were marginalised for being both Irish and Indian? “Being Irish in the 80’s was not a particular plus point. Indian, it’s up front. The experiences I had, little boys sitting next to me at school and being like, ‘my dad says..’,
“I think it opened my eyes that children are taught to hate. Children are taught racism and xenophobia and all of these things because they don’t learn it unless you tell them. The school that my daughter goes to now is extremely mixed and I think one of the reasons why I needed to come to London was to live in a place where being odd is normal. There’s no one great majority that you’re fighting against.
“I think on the scale of things, we had it very easy but we had bottles thrown through the window, we had people shouting at us as they were driving along late at night but I think that’s the experience of a lot of people in a minority in the 80’s and 70’s.
“I did really feel a big change in the 90’s, things started to open up in a slight way and nowadays it’s a whole other set of challenges.
“I do notice that when things get difficult in the world, because I look quite Middle Eastern, because I’m between the two, I get a lot of Islam-ophobia. If I wear a scarf, I get identified as Muslim and I don’t really want to wear a big sign around my neck saying what my faith is because I don’t think that’s really the point. There’s so much hatred out there based on what people look like as opposed to knowing what’s going on in their hearts and that’s something that’s not changed. Humanity is still as weary of strangers as ever. You’ve just got to hope and pray we can turn it around. I hope my daughters can grow up connected to their roots but also feeling that they have a place, that they have as much right to be here as any of the children.
“London’s the great leveller, isn’t it? If you’re here, you’re here. I do notice when I leave London, you start to get that sense of being looked at funny again. Even when I go back to visit where I grew up, because I work there sometimes, there’s a sense sometimes of ‘you’re not from round here’.”
Of her time spent in Ireland, Sara says: “It was really important (to my mother) to keep the connection. My grandmother was alive through my childhood, she’s passed away now sadly but we would always go back and visit.
“This is before air travel being the thing that it is. We used to drive all the way up to Stranraer and then get the ferry across. It was a crazy journey but I’ve got so many happy memories of visiting when I was a child and going to see things like the Giant’s Causeway and things that at the time you just think is usual but now I look back.
“My daughter studied the Giant’s Causeway in school and she was telling me how amazing it was and I was like, ‘yes, it is and that’s part of your heritage. We’ll go and visit some day’. We’ve got so much to explore with the children and let them know that they’ve got Irish roots. It’s the same on the other side for their Indian background, they’ve met their Indian family who are in the UK but we haven’t got it together yet to go over there but as they get a bit older, we’ll make those connections.”
Sara mentions she has young children. She actually recorded the tracks on her debut April Song while pregnant with her first daughter and a new mother. Funnily enough, it was the same for Losing You and her second child.
To further break away from the soulless modern recording set-up, Losing You was also recorded using analogue equipment: “It’s got a real organic feel to the recording. You can probably hear my daughter breathing because I was expecting for some of the recordings and some of them we delayed until after the baby was born and so some of them, I’m holding her. You can feel the humanity in the room. It’s the opposite of a sterile, clean pop recording. There’s a lot of jumble. It’s a warts and all kind of recording. I hope the people like it.”
Acknowledging how music and how people receive it have changed since April Song, Sara and her record company have decided to release bespoke vinyl for those “who appreciate listening to music and like to have a physical object” while downloads are also available.
Losing You by Sara Mitra is out on May 11 and launched at the Vortex Jazz Club on Sunday May 10. Sara plays pre-launch shows at Spice of Life, Soho and The Rabbit Hole, NW3 on April 15 and 24 respectively. For more information, go to http://www.saramitra.com/.