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Meet Athena Desai in Cambridge

Today we’d like to introduce you to  Athena Desai.

Athena, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My favorite image for how I started came up in a Soul Retrieval I did this winter – that of a scrappy little girl, holding a sword that is way too big for her. I started playing piano when I was three years old to keep up with my big sister. My parents were immigrants from India and the Philippines, both doctors and very focused on excellence, success, hard work, high expectations. And there was always a tussle between that old world way, and my new world wandering.

The drive my parents instilled got me to play classical music and learn technique, to practice a lot, play three instruments, join every ensemble/orchestra/chorus there was… and my quiet inner voice pushed me to fill journals with poetry and rambling, experiment with jazz and mind-altering drugs, dive deep into psychedelic rock and soul. And it’s made for a super-rich journey of weaving seemingly divergent influences into a one-size-fits-me tapestry of the core threads that really matter: soul, speaking your truth, bridging worlds.

And while music was always my soundtrack, I’ve had a lot of other odysseys: leaving my hometown for prep school, studying anthropology and living in Cuba in college, working in a prison, infiltrating National Public Radio, becoming a reporter, then a healer in Chinese medicine … it’s been a serpentine path for sure. What brought me to taking music on professionally was a cosmic accident of sorts (I don’t believe in accidents) — just time that opened up in my life, living overseas, when I started playing again. And I got how I didn’t just feel different, I was different. All the parts of me came alive, and I couldn’t say no to that anymore. So I came back to the States, and made a record called “Alchemy of Ashes” that I released this winter. That’s the short of it.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
What’s an odyssey without obstacles right — there are always trials along the way. When I’m lucky I remember that they are our teachers, and un-ironically give artists an s*&t ton of material. I do forget this.

Hands down, the biggest obstacles are in my own mind and heart. Doubting my capability that I have anything special to offer or say or sound like. Fearing I’ll always have to do it alone, that I won’t be good enough, that it won’t mean anything to anybody. Also, it’s so uncomfortable for me to really share my feelings, particularly through song, and performance. The writer part of me would rather sit behind closed doors and dive in with a pencil all day, and the performer part of me knows I have to stand up and strike the airwaves, whether on a stage or a radio or screen – and open up the experience. I get super nervous and ungrounded, so every time I play there’s a threshold to cross.

Also I’m a bit slash-backwards on my renaissance integration of music into a patchwork professional life. I’m not a natural entrepreneur, and I struggle to put that energy into my healing work and my music – and I decided to go into singing/songwriting professionally in my 40s. Most people have that hubris in their teens, when they can forgo sleep + reason. Making my debut record took time and money and sacrifice and wrestling all my demons every day, and it was a truly transformational process.

The way I meet my challenges now is through spiritual guidance and radical honesty with myself and my soul. They used to just stop me from playing entirely. Now they’re almost like companions in every situation – from branding and the business end, to each gig, to my vision-setting for the future. I try to give them some voice but remind them I’m driving. And each time they get really loud, it’s an opportunity for healing and evolving that I meet head on.

Athena Desai – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
My business is really just me at this point – I do have a publishing company named Bright Eyes Live Publishing that serves as the home base for my rights as a performer and writer. I call my style of music soul grass – it’s somewhere between vintage soul and progressive Americana. And I’d say my “speciality” as a writer, especially in a co-writing situation, is that I can really help plumb the depths of someone else’s feelings, motivation, experience – to hear what’s not being said, and bring that out somehow. Some of that is just me, but also I had a lot of training as a journalist, and now also as a Chinese medical practitioner, to listen on many levels and to follow the journey of the moment to see what we can discover about our own landscapes.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Jaw-dropping/pinch-me/blessing/pride — my first professional co-write that I did with one of my oldest and dearest friends ended up on his band’s album, and that album won a Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year this year. I barely have words for this – but you must check out the album, it’s called “Laws of Gravity” by the Infamous String dusters… they really are the best of the best. As humans and musicians. And the dobro player, Andy Hall, and I wrote “Vertigo”, the fourth track on the record.

Contact Info:

 Image Credit:
Scarlet Roots/Julianne Lesinski.
Karin Daley.

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