In Session: Reeya Banerjee

CAMBRIDGE – Reeya Banerjee, on January 27th, released her debut album, The Way Up, establishing herself as a songwriting performing artist. Shifting gears from what she is accustomed to – Reeya spent many years downstate performing as a cover artist in a wide variety of outfits – Banerjee has created something very unique. With a blend of indie rock, alternative, progressive rock, and eastern modalities, The Way Up sonically stands in its own field.

Reeya Banerjee, photo credit: Tony Cenicola.

The album began with “The Magic Word,” which served as a perfect example of how the record blends genres. Until now, this listener had not heard quarter-tone vocal shifts – a common feature in Indian music – mixed in with indie-rock aesthetics of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Working with Luke Folger in New York City, Banerjee created an album whose lyrical content folded well into the cleverly arranged and mixed tracks. Two great examples of arrangement and mixing techniques are found on “Through the Haze,” and “Rag Doll,” tracks two and three, respectively.

“The Way Up,” the fourth and title track of the record, started bringing out more prevalent progressive rock sensibilities, which were only brought up further by the following track, “Don’t Look Down.” In the latter tune, the rhythm is heavily propelled forward by the guitar part. That being said, the vocals in this song, as well as “Need You There,” seemed much more subdued than in the rest of the album.

With “Need You There,” this particular listener was brought back in a strong way to the post-punk sound of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. A song that featured instrumentation akin to that heard in later songs of The Cars and The Cure, Reeya presented a relaxed vocal that floated in and around the mix. One of the more accessible tunes on the record, but by no means does that diminish the other songs heard in The Way Up.

Any kind of ease perceived in the vocal was forgone in the last two tracks, “Deep Water,” and “Bright Lights.” While the album as a whole consisted of a panoply of polyrhythmic musical moments, this was especially true in “Deep Water,” from the guitar and bass parts, to the vocal. “Bright Lights,” consisting of sub-bass instrumentation, seemed to drive along with Reeya’s vocals powering the track. The choruses opened up the track a lot and there were very nice chromatic lines heard on the guitar during the interlude, as well.

This album was an extremely unique amalgamation of sounds not typically heard within the same context. While that may draw others away from it, that same fact has the potential to engage a lot of listeners from a variety of genres. I recently had the chance to sit down with Reeya. What follows is our conversation discussing the inception of the album, as well as delving into the album’s topics, and more. A deeply personal and honest conversation, continue reading to learn more about this artist!

Reeya Banerjee’s The Way Up, cover art, designed by Yuiko Sugino.

Lucas Garrett: Hey, Reeya! How are you doing?

Reeya Banerjee: I’m good! I’m good, I’m hunkering down for the snow.

LG: I think we’re all doing that tonight – in New York, at least. I heard the new album; there’s a lot going on, isn’t there?

RB: Yeah!

LG: Tell us a bit about it.

RB: For many years I played in cover bands – I’m actually a recent transplant to the Saratoga/Capital District area. We moved up here in June of last year. Back when we lived down in the Hudson Valley I played in a lot of bar bands in Beacon, New York; a little over an hour north of New York City. I did a lot of classic rock – which I love. It was a lot of The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, U2… I did a Talking Heads cover band once; Creedence Clearwater Revival. We did the Pogues, too!

I did that for about five years before the pandemic hit. I had friends who always were asking me, “Are you ever going to do something original?” I wanted to, but I had no idea how, you know? I grew up as child with piano lessons; I got a very solid foundation in music theory that way. As an adult, I took up bass guitar and I’ve always been a singer. I had the fundamental pieces to make music, but I never created anything originally. The idea of doing so intimidated me. So, a friend of mine put me in touch with Luke Folger – he’s based in New York City. He’s got his own band and sits in with other bands. He’s a composer, a drummer. He’s a multi-instrumentalist – he can play pretty much anything. We started talking about him helping me create an album of original material.

Luke created a bunch of demos of music, and then we talked about what vibe we were getting from each piece of music he’d started. Then we thought what an appropriate theme or story that we could build with that music. Once we had an idea of what each piece of music represented, he said, “Don’t worry about making anything rhyme; don’t worry about meter; don’t worry about melody. Just write down whatever you have in your head on this theme or that topic and send it to me.” He would then take what I wrote and translate it into lyrics, and send it back to me. It was incredible because he’d send me back lyrics that said exactly what I was feeling in my free verse, but they were a song!

LG: Oh, nice.

RB: Right before the pandemic hit, 2018 and 2019 were not great years for me – in terms of mental health issues. Anxiety. I’d also been recently diagnosed with complex PTSD – my mother died of cancer when I was 12 … she was battling it off and on for eight years. There was a lot of stuff that I had to witness…

LG: Yeah.

RB: … through her illness.

LG: Right…

RB: Losing her at such a young age, hindsight is 20-20, but I never processed any of that. It all just started… my mother didn’t want [my dad] and I to wallow… We took her too literally; it’s come back to bite us in the last few years. At the end of 2019, I was in a very bad way.

I was referred to an intensive outpatient treatment program in Connecticut. That was eight weeks of dialectical behavioral therapy… it was completely transformative. It changed my life for the better in so many ways. Then, everything got shut down! I was corresponding with Luke through all of this. Themes of struggle; battling mental illness, overcoming mental illness. Taking a look at bad patterns in my life and how to own them and know you need to work on them. These are what came up as we were creating the songs; that’s very much a big part of the record.

LG: Is that where the album title came from; The Way Up?

RB: Yes! The song, “The Way Up,” is the most explicit one about mental health. It’s basically about my time in the psychiatric facility and going in there not really knowing what to expect. Honestly, I was referred there and desperate but I had very low expectations going in there. That’s where the song comes from and we decided to call the album that as well.

Banerjee’s live band. From left-to-right: James Rubino (guitar), Reeya Banerjee (vocals), Daria Grace (bass), Tony Cenicola (drums), photo credit: Tony Cenicola.

LG: Let’s talk about the music aspect of the album.

RB: So, Luke did all of the arrangements and played all of the instruments on the record. He came up with some really interesting guitar parts; really interesting bass hooks. His melodies are crazy – they were so much fun to learn.

LG: There’s also a lot of Eastern influence.

RB: Yeah! I don’t know if that was intentionally on his mind as he did it or if it permeated the album subconsciously. I was born in Washington D.C.. My parents both were born in India – they came here in 1978, I believe. My father studied classical violin when he was young. My mother was vocally trained in the Indian Classical tradition. Ravi Shankar was a family friend of my mother’s family. These bits and bobs – especially my mother’s vocal education and who her family – that was all information Luke had on me, biographically. I think subconsciously that started to work its way into the record – which I love. I’m a first-generation child of immigrants.

LG: It was very interesting to hear an indie-rock, alternative album. Then, all of a sudden, I’m hearing these quarter tones and I’m thinking, “What the hell is going on there?”

RB: Yeah! He wrote the record during the pandemic and we recorded it in February of 2021. We tracked all of the vocals in two eight-hour marathon days in the Bronx about a week or two weeks apart. We had no idea when the world was going to open up to gigging again.

LG: Right.

RB: Everyone I know who’s a musician was trying to figure out how to keep making music. But, also just suffering from lack of exposure; lack of income.

LG: I hear you there!

RB: Ha! For sure. It’s been hard. It’s been super hard. That’s like the understatement of the world. I know you know! So, we wrote this never really intending for it to be performed live; it’s a lot of alternate tunings; a lot of crazy time signatures; a lot of interesting stuff going on with the bass.

LG: Let’s talk about live performances. What do you have planned in terms of backing up your release?

RB: The band that I’ve got, we have three release shows planned. We did one on Record Release Day, which was January 27th at Argyle Brewing Company in Cambridge. They’re my local hangout spot. That went really well. We had a show this Saturday in Beacon, which is where most of my music community is, as I haven’t been up here long. It was at a bar called Dogwood and was kind of a homecoming for me. We have a third show on February 25th at Bar Freda in Queens. It’ll be me and two other bands on the bill: Cinemartyr and Wake the Sun. My guitar player, James Rubino, is the lead guitarist for Wake the Sun.

LG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

RB: As the record evolved, it became clear this was a record talking about recovery from mental illness. The stigma of mental illness is decreasing over the years and in light of the pandemic; it’s in the conversation a lot more. Having this record come out now is important. If you’re struggling, that’s ok. And, if you’re struggling, it’s ok to ask for help. There is a way up; there is a way out. It’s timely and I didn’t necessarily intend to write a timely, political record. But, I think it’s coming out at a time when this stuff is in the dialogue. I’m hoping that anybody that listens to it will enjoy it and anybody that is struggling or struggled will find something hopeful in there.

LG: Thanks again for sitting down!

RB: Thank you!

LG: Have a good one!

RB: For sure! Stay warm!


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