Age of Limbo: In Conversation with Singer-Songwriter Maalavika Manoj
All around the world, humanity exists in a state of purgatory, a time of in-betweens with an uncertain future looming on the distant horizon. In this new world, the old rules vanish like voices on the wind, and the new ones exist in a temporary space, where nothing is concrete, and nothing is certain. We get talking with Spotify Worldwide’s emerging artist, singer-songwriter Maalavika Manoj, aka Mali in the hours before the release of her music video for her latest single, Age of Limbo, stitched together from hours and hours of fan-sourced footage of the world under lockdown in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Some people are inspired by love and breakups, but I have never written a love song in my life” Mali explains, “Contrary to what people think singer-songwriters do, Age of Limbo has no guitars, and no harmonies. To a lot of people who hear I’m a singer-songwriter, a lot of this might come as a shock.”
Growing up in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, Mali’s childhood was rife with parental ambition. Enrolled in a number of extracurricular activities, Mali soon found a deep connection with the piano, and with the art of penning poetry.
“Singing was something that always came naturally to me,” Maalavika explains, “At some point, I stopped writing poetry and started writing songs. It went from a hobby to an actual career, and now, here I am!”
Having lived in the metropolitan city of Mumbai for a number of years since, Mali’s South Indian heritage plays a huge role in her daily life. Elaborating on her family’s Malayali roots, Maalavika reveals that she is surrounded by echoes of long-held tradition, and generations upon generations of familiarity.
With family hailing from the baking-capital of Malabar in Kerala, Maalavika’s sweet tooth becomes quickly apparent. “Cakes are a part of everything, every occasion, every tea time tradition, cakes, biscuits, any baked stuff at all!” Maalavika explains, “The thing I crave most is freshly-baked sponge cake.”
While her tiny oven at home isn’t ideal to carry the torch for this tradition of baking, Maalavika keeps in close touch with her roots and South Indian heritage by more means than one. As we talk, Maalavika reveals one reminder of home she simply cannot live without: Filter Kaapi.
“Even when I’m having the craziest day, it’s pouring myself that cup of coffee that centers me.” The singer explains, “I close my eyes and I feel like I’m back in Chennai.”
°A Carpe Diem Kind of Thing
Mali’s earliest memory of performing dates back to her childhood, when, as a young girl in the 1st grade, her mother pushed her to compete in a school singing competition, where she would perform the much-beloved folk number, 500 Miles.
“I still remember the room with all the kids from my batch and the teachers, all sitting down, and one by one we had to go up and sing to the room,“ Maalavika recalls, “I think it was quite nerve-wracking as a child, but at the same time, I never really had crazy stage-fear. There was always a part of me that loved entertaining, even as far as doing a silly dance, or enacting a play, or dressing up. I think there was always a part of me that loved it.”
From that point forward, an entertainer was born. From her early years as a member of underground ensemble Bass-in-Bridge to her momentously successful years as a solo performing artist, Maalavika, or Mali, as she is known on stage has left her mark on the Indian musical landscape.
Drawing inspiration from themes of change and impermanence, Mali’s simple, straightforward songwriting style takes on the perspective of an outsider looking in, and is observational in nature, meant to highlight those aspects of the unvoiced, understated opinions that remain unheard and unspoken by most.
“I like taking a narrative of an outsider when it comes to writing. I very rarely write in first or second person,” Mali explains, “I’m not trying to present a solution, but more state it for what it is. I think a lot of my songs have that kind of tone.”
Besides her many years as a solo artist, Mali has lent her musical stylings to a number of South Indian films, being featured on such films as Iru Mugan and Singam 3, amongst many others. Greeting these opportunities as challenges that push her to explore other facets of her capabilities, Mali explains that every single one of these projects has been a learning experience.
“There are times when I feel like I don’t challenge myself enough, and so, when I do sessions work with composers, it’s a challenge to me to try something that someone else wants me to try.” Mali explains. From singing in foreign tongues the likes of Marathi or Telegu, to pitching her voice to sound higher or lower, or even on occasion “to sound like Rihanna,” Mali reveals with a chuckle, these trysts with the South Indian movie industry keep the artist on her toes.
When asked what advice she would give to those hoping to follow in her footsteps, Mali reveals an emphasis on acting on ideas, reminiscing back to a collaboration with her grandfather, for the song Play. A few years ago, Mali explains, she received a photograph from her grandmother, which captured her grandfather in his 20s, approximately the same age as her at the time. “I saw this man as a boy, and not as a grandfather,” Mali explains, “That made me think a little differently,”
A musician in his own time, Mali’s grandfather was known for his skill at the harmonica. Inspired by the photograph, Mali wrote a song about his golden days. “When the song was written, I asked him if he would be interested to collaborate on it,” Mali explains. After nearly a year of convincing, her grandfather reluctantly agreed. The music video for the song sees the two performing together, and is a memory the young artist holds in fond regard.
“That’s a perfect example of doing something at the right time, because I wanted to. If I think about doing something like that now, I can’t because his health has deteriorated quite a bit- it’s a carpe diem kind of thing” Mali explains.
Watch the music video for Mali’s song Play here!
°Age of Limbo
As we discuss her latest single, Mali explains that the birth of the idea came about a year ago, when she sat with a lunch tray, watching an episode of Conan Without Borders. This particular episode, which took place in Israel, was the same old fare of humour that Mali had hoped for when she plugged in, but was soon met with an unexpected, and rather grim realisation. Following Conan O’Brien through Israel in the age of ISIS, the camera crew arrived at the Syrian border to interview the troops.
“I remember, during that interview, you could hear machine guns and bombs going off in the distance. You could hear it over the wind- It made me think about how, just in those few minutes of recording, someone’s lost a family member, or someone’s house has come down,” Mali explains.
Inspired by the prospect of leading such a life of uncertainty, Mali began to delve into thoughts of the possibility of such a situation developing in India, not an unlikely scenario with communal tensions, mob lynching, and political and social unrest on the rise.
“I did not predict that a year later we would be living through this sort of pandemic.” Mali says, “It’s just sort of a coincidence that the song relates to what’s going on now,”
It was this state of flux, this trapped feeling of uncertainty, that was the foundation for Age of Limbo. With clear parallels in the world today, the track is a haunting look at the destitution of people who have been persecuted by circumstance.
“It’s similar to the way migrant workers are probably feeling right now.” Mali says, “They can’t go out and protest because that’s not allowed, they can’t complain because who’s going to listen? Where do they go for money? Where do they go for food? It’s kind of about being in that state, where you’ve been pushed into a corner and you have nothing to do but sit and wait it out. I think the closest term to that for me was limbo,”
The music video for the track is a haunting look at a world locked away. Shortly after the announcement of the lockdown, Mali reached out to friends and family, who would send her pictures and videos of their locales, abandoned of their people. Soon enough, Mali was left with a collection of images and footage that painted the world in the image of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. From here, an idea was born, and Mali decided to take her collection to a new level.
“It was a little bit of an experiment. I put out a story, just as a feeler. I could have received three videos, or a hundred at the same time- I had no idea how it was going to go.” Mali explains, “From there, friends re-shared it, screenshotted it and shared it on their stories, and through friends, friends of friends, followers, and family, by the end of 2 weeks, I had collected over 100-120 videos.”
A community-effort comprising of sourced footage from around the world, stitched together to tell a tale of a world that hangs in the balance of a time stopped still, Mali joined forces with longtime friend and collaborator, artist, songwriter and filmmaker Jishnu Guha, aka Short Round, for a remote collaboration that spanned continents and cultures.
Watch the music video for Age of Limbo here!
As our conversation draws to a close, Mali reveals the one piece of advice she has received that has always tided her through times of uncertainty and self-doubt.
“A lot of times, people are trying to pretend to be something else, or trying to sound superfluous or unoriginal,” she says, “the moment you try to ape someone else’s identity, or sound, or personality, it just does not come across as natural, and so I think the best advice is to always be the best version of yourself. If you have a quirky way of putting things, lean into that more, do that more, work on that. Don’t try to sound like someone else.”
We at TheVibe congratulate the talent and perseverance of the young artist, and eagerly await the next chapter of her bubbly, and unapologetically original life.
All images used in this article are courtesy of Maalavika Manoj, and belong rightfully to their original owners.
©️ 2020 Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.