Between 1992 and 1996, Sheila Chandra released the results of a series of musical experiments centered around the singularly intimate instrument of her human voice on Real World Records. Throughout three albums, Chandra plunged headfirst into her craft, layering techniques and inspirations from styles around the world in songs poetic not only in lyrical content but in pure sonic feel. Now, the Steve Coe-produced trilogy—1992’s Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, 1994’s The Zen Kiss, and 1996’s ABoneCroneDrone—gets a well-deserved collective reissue, bringing new listeners into the light of some of Chandra’s most irresistible work some 13 years after her medically necessary retirement.
Weaving and Zen come together almost as mosaics, the individual elements of each piece often clear as Chandra tessellates them into cohesive tracks. Four a cappella songs titled “Speaking in Tongues” are spread across these first two records exemplifying their patchwork qualities. On the first, Weaving’s opening track, Chandra takes her listeners through a recitation of konnakol, the Carnatic vocal syllables for tala rhythmic patterns. The second, later in the same album, breaks form as Chandra’s breath echoes around her whispered phonemes, her voice reverberating from left to right and back again as she picks up speed, falls silent, and eventually comes to a sharp stop. The third part, early in Zen, picks up where the second leaves off, then moves toward something akin to multilingual beatboxing, building heat that only builds on the final installment, a ferociously unpredictable array of sounds acoustic and electric that fits nowhere and everywhere, proto-ASMR with genre-bending beats.
Between these unique vocal milestones, Chandra is unbound by conventions. She sculpts Irish tradition into modern melismatic art on tracks like exquisitely sensuous “Dhyana and Donalogue” and a piercing rendition of “Love It Is a Killing Thing”. Paying homage to her early days as the lead vocalist for the short-lived group Monsoon (in which she also worked closely with Steve Coe ahead of his production on these solo albums), Chandra weaves two of their tracks into a medley of drones, raag, and airy voice on “Ever So Lonely / Eyes / Ocean”.
On the other end of a spectrum of force, “La Sagesse” bolsters a message of female empowerment with vivid R&B-influenced vocal runs. A haunting cover of the flamenco piece “En Mireal Del Penal” moves between gentility and fervor with no instrumental adornment, in sharp contrast to the albums’ other Spanish cover, “The Dreaming”, to which Chandra and Coe add a ground of Indian classical drone. Chandra evokes the sacred in the chants of “Om Namaha Shiva” and “Abbess Hildegard”. So it goes, Chandra everywhere at once and rapturously so, her incandescent voice always the centerpiece in Coe’s sparing productions.
Third album ABoneCroneDrone stands essentially alone in this trilogy. More than the first two, this is a blending of styles, a seamless sphere of travel and atmosphere not so easily broken into its contributing elements. Over six pieces, Chandra’s voice is used as a drone, melody, and rhythm. She harmonizes with herself, creating and breaking her patterns with and without accompaniment. Every track shimmers in its way, with Chandra’s inner light made external and aural in an ongoing gradient of all the places and experiences that have inspired her music. This is ambience of the sort that often ends up perhaps unfairly tagged as new age but which, in the context of the whole trilogy, might be better understood for how deeply personal it is as a project of Chandra’s musical mind.
Ultimately, Sheila Chandra’s Real World albums stand as acts of devotion, both to the art of production and, more intentionally, to the potential of the human voice. Today, Chandra cannot sing without pain, a tragedy. At her most triumphant, though, she pushed her voice into physical and affective spaces, nothing short of wondrous, exceeding boundaries of pop and art music and finding new means of embodying and expressing meaning in musical ways. From the first bouncing “Ta-ka-din” of the Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices through spoken poetic narratives of motherhood on “Woman and Child” on The Zen Kiss and the final wordless breaths of ABoneCroneDrone, Chandra commits to her sonic explorations. This archive, a testament to her steadfastness and skill, canonizes her as a genuine vocal luminary.