We’ve said as much on these pages before, but we’re lucky to have crossed paths and kept up with a lot of wonderful, creative people over the years. One such person is Ravi Krishnaswami, whom we first knew as the guitarist + song-writer in the excellent pop band, Charming. And yes, that is an illustration Katie posed for on the art for band’s final album in 2006.
Since Charming, Ravi’s gone on to work with many other artists and start his own company, COPILOT, which writes music for the media, video, and gaming worlds. He also started a kick-ass Morrissey/Smiths tribute band. After years of writing music for others, Ravi’s recently started writing and putting out his own music again under the moniker Hybird.
We took a few minutes to catch up with Ravi to talk over his new project, the nuts + bolts of re-starting a musical career, the boons of slowing life down, and the eye-opening experience of playing Barbie’s guitar. We’ve also got video premier for Hybird’s new song, “Half Life.”
(Photo cred: Fernando Da Silva)
raven + crow: Alright, let’s talk Hybird—this is the first original work you’ve done since Charming, right?
Ravi Krishnaswami: Yes, that’s right! After Charming’s third album in 2006, we were all in different cities and called it quits. I was spending most of my energy writing music for ads, TV, and eventually games. I missed performing but filled that void by starting a Smiths tribute band called The Sons & Heirs. We’re pretty legit now—we’re playing the Bowery Ballroom on April 1st!.
Over that time I had some interesting experiences as a producer and engineer. I worked with The Magnetic Fields on songs for I and Pieces of April. I produced and played guitar on an album for my friend’s shoe-gazey band called Black Swan Green. I even worked on a couple of advertising projects with Sharon Jones. I wrote songs here and there for other projects, but I really hadn’t put much time into material that was purely my vision.
Man, to this day, I have Black Swan Green songs that remain mainstays on playlists—I loved that album.
But—not to make this about me—I feel like I’ve always had in mind that I’d do something musically again on my own, but that thought’s been there and remained on the fringes for years now, constantly getting knocked down on the priority list. For you, what sparked this project or pushed you from the theoretical into the actual?
Well first, I should say, dude, you should get back to it! We’re not getting younger!
To answer your question, a few things dovetailed at the right time for me. I’d been teaching composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts for a few years and tried to give a lecture on songwriting. I felt it was unteachable, but putting together that talk got me thinking about what I loved about my favorite songs. I was left with this feeling like, I wonder if I could do that myself?
Around that time my wife was diagnosed with multiple myeloma—a blood cancer—and had a stem cell transplant. It was obviously a gut punch and an immediate perspective-shift. I slowed down and halted work trips for a while. I also cut out beer/wine with dinner on weeknights, mostly so I wouldn’t let the stress get that out of hand. Sounds silly, but all of a sudden I had alot of time at home and I was wide awake at night, for the first time in years. There were two albums that I’d recently come across that really hit me hard… Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell and Grimes’ Art Angels. They’re very different records, but both are hyper-creative DIY productions. All of that stuff swirling around, plus a general mid-life sense that I’d spent a chunk of my life writing for other people, got me messing around again. And I really went at it with no sense it was going anywhere, just as a sort of break from making music on a deadline. It felt like my high school, just holed up in my room running on instinct with a four track and a notebook.
How does someone who holds down a full-time gig and has a family make time for something like that?
I think when you get to this stage of your life, the key word is “make.” As in, I don’t really “have” the time to do this, but I’m making it a priority. I’m watching less TV. I’m spending less time at night mindlessly on the computer. You just get to an age where you realize you can’t put it off any longer. Luckily my family and my business partner recognize this is something I should be doing and give me some leeway! It’s happened in fits and starts, and I’ve just tried to keep momentum going without it feeling like another obligation.
Do you feel like living in smaller, slower community than, say, New York, helps with that?
Yeah, absolutely. I really love New Haven. I’ve been here five years now. It’s a creative place and it’s easy to get a handle on what’s happening here and easy to get to know people with similar tastes. When I lived there, I always felt NYC was overwhelming as a music scene. Each genre was its own world, and that bred a more competitive atmosphere. Plus, there’s a million other things to do every night. New Haven reminds me of Charlottesville in the 90’s.
I can’t say that New Haven really knows about Hybird yet, outside of my social circle, but I was lucky enough to become friends with Jonny Rodgers (Cindertalk), and his brother Steve, who were in a pretty well known band from the 90’s called Mighty Purple. Steve runs a great venue here called The Space. Jonny’s label Off Atlas is releasing my album, and I’ll be previewing it on local radio, WNHH, next week, with Brian Slattery, a friend and a real staple of the music scene, both as a musician and writer. So far I’ve felt welcomed and proud to talk up this underrated town.
That’s great to hear. And inspiring, honestly. But, I mean, even if you live in the middle of nowhere these days, you can still remain so plugged in and spread thin in a way with the way we’ve structured our virtual lives. I feel like that’s kind of what your song “Distracted” is speaking to, right?
Yeah, for sure. It’s great. It’s totally changed the business of music for media. I’ve been able to move to Vermont and now Connecticut while remaining in close contact with clients and collaborators.
“Distracted” is more about the downside of this technological immediacy, though. The pull of the smart phone, and the addictiveness of social media. Ten years ago, you just walked down the street and looked straight ahead. Now you pull your phone out one minute and feel connected to people. The next minute, you’ve posted something and gotten no feedback so you feel rejected. It’s like a constant battle to slow yourself down enough to think clearly and not just be driven day to night by the stream of information. The song seems even more relevant now that the Trump presidency has all our news notifications maxed out on a daily basis. I think when I was trying to lecture on songwriting I realized I really valued a song if it somehow found something new to say. Smart phone addiction doesn’t have centuries of songs written about it yet, but I think it’s something a lot of folks are dealing with every day.
Can you talk about how Hybird relates creatively to what you do with Copilot? Do you feel like those come from two different parts of your brain or creative force?
I feel like Hybird is a spiritual rebuttal to my work at Copilot. At Copilot, I’m often telling someone else’s story and deferring to someone else’s final opinion on what’s good. It felt really important to me all of a sudden to regain my own voice, to be able to trust my own gut again about when something was done or needed more work. Poor Jason (my partner at Copilot)… he’s the most diplomatic person you could ever get feedback from, but my first conversation about Hybird involved me telling him he’d have no input on any of this material.
It’s interesting though, because the actual name, Hybird, and to some extent the whole aesthetic framework, really started on a pro-bono project for World Wildlife Fund. I’d had scored a beautiful iPad app, and the developers encouraged me to turn the score into a full song and release it, given the interest. That song “Together” is really where I started to discover my sound as a solo artist. And when I put it out, I thought it was important to give myself an identity outside of the “jack of all trades” composer that I’ve been over the years.
Makes sense. Talk about “Half Life” if you don’t mind—what’s the song about?
Middle age, which is scary, but brings a whole lot of wisdom. Becoming a parent gives you a completely new perspective on your own parents and your childhood, and all the things like birth order, or how your parents communicated (or didn’t communicate) that turned you into what you are now. But the flip side is that you can get to this point in your life and have all the same insecurities and fears that you had as a kid. Writing and singing my own songs without a band, in secret, was where I started, in middle and high school. Before I even had a four track cassette studio, I was overdubbing on a double cassette boombox. Returning to this kind of writing, I felt like I was having a conversation with that kid, checking in, seeing what had changed and what had stayed the same. And it’s interesting because the lyrics came after the music, and were somewhat inspired by how I put that track together. My daughter Willa had gotten this toy Barbie guitar that played chords and riffs depending on which button you hit. I was sitting in her room one morning just playing a little sequence of chords and I was like… wait…that’s a song. So I went upstairs and recorded the chords, pitched them correctly (they were a little flat for some reason), chopped them up and resampled them. I eventually got Willa to add some children’s chorus at the very end. I just wanted the song to really feel like this conversation between adult and kid versions of me.
Does that theme or similar themes weave through your other new work—growing older, reflecting on self and family and these bigger life changes?
Yeah. I have a song called “Gemini,” which is the title of the record, and that’s also about being a parent, and about having two conflicting things going on, feeling sort of trapped inside this very responsible routine of raising your kid, while daydreaming about being a twenty-something criss-crossing the country in a van on tour. It’s the feeling of playing to 500 screaming people at the Bell House and then dropping your kid off at school the next morning, and feeling like you’re totally undercover as a rock star, if the other parents only knew! And there’s a song called “Portland” which is about the dream of moving to a new city so you can rewrite your story and move on from old narratives. It’s a really personal record at times, and a lot of it is about accepting certain things and rejecting certain things, but sort of arriving at a moment of clarity that allows for that kind of resolution to take place finally. The beauty of songs is that they don’t have to always work purely literally. They can work on an emotional level with just the scaffolding of storytelling, which is what happens on a number of these songs.
What did you want the video for “Half Life” to communicate, in addition to the song’s weight itself?
It’s funny. I’m learning about making videos as part of this project. I feel like it’s hard to get attention for your music without some video material these days. I’ve been playing with different DIY approaches. For the ‘Half Life’ video, since it’s very much about returning to the bedroom studio of high school, I wanted to somehow communicate what it feels like and looks like to be in the moment, recording every part on a new song, when you can kind of hear all the parts at once as you’re working. It seemed natural to include the Yamaha four-track to communicate that I’m still an insecure high school kid inside, writing these songs. I mean in reality, I record to Digital Performer now.
With a, like, Yamaha four-track filter, I assume. That’s awesome. Do you envision performing as Hybird live at any point or is that something you don’t really have an interest in? Or is it more a matter of not yet knowing what that’d look like?
I think I’ve got a several hurdles to performing. It’s a different time commitment than just recording, and I’m still active performing with The Sons & Heirs. I’ve found my voice in the studio, but can I find it on stage? And yeah, I haven’t really figured out what kind of ensemble, if any, would be most compelling. I’d want to do it right. I don’t want to be the whiney singer/songwriter guy that’s hopefully only got another song or two in his set. I recognize there’s a point at which I have to back up these songs with performances if I care about them, but I’m procrastinating. I did perform one song at Vermont College with a couple students adding guitars. That wasn’t a complete disaster, so maybe I’ll get it together.
Cool, man. As always, great to speak with you. And let’s hang out when you’re back on the west coast again.
I’m so grateful. We’ve known each other a long time and I’ve always been such a fan of your work here on the blog and you know I’ve loved your design work for years. I’m really honored to be here!
You’re too kind!