On her debut album, SHILPA evokes her environment as she explores what it means to grow into our humanity.
A key component of a living organism’s survival is its ability to grow within its environment. But this isn’t always an obvious, or painless, transformation. SHILPA documents these metamorphoses, in all their beauty and aches, in her debut album ESSAR.
“There is a cusp, a turning point, when the quiet part of a song becomes something more. This whole album is dedicated to that moment,” she writes, exploring how her identity as a young, queer, Indian-American woman shapes these moments.
ESSAR does not provide easy epiphanies on what it means to become, instead dwelling in nuanced tones and layered harmonies. Subtle details—the scrapes of fingers against guitar strings, the creaks of her instrument as she adjusts it against her body, and the murmurs of passerbyers in the background—allow us to picture SHILPA playing on a city street or a park bench, familiarizing ourselves with her intimate musicianship. And while each song has a distinction, from the tender fingerpicking of “Starry Road (आप कहां हैं?)” to the sultry, dark grooves of “Anyway (प्रसुप्त),” they are aligned in how they capture a feeling as it comes into full fruition, unfiltered and organic.
SHILPA’s feelings are just as concerned with silences as they are with sound. In standout single “Nani (नानी),” she explores her relationship with her grandmother over harmonies that tense and relax like a breath exercise. “My relationship with my Nani was one of few words,” she described in an Instagram post. “We got by on body language, sparing English, the cooking of food and the refusal to let me clean up afterwards.” Within “Nani (नानी),” SHILPA preserves her grandmother’s memory by transforming their past silences, full of love and intention, into the song, an acceptance of her own grief.
“And if I wear your old shoes/ Will I keep the old you?/ Like you kept the dirt/ Alive, it could not live without you.”Nani (नानी)
While SHILPA sings of her individual experiences, the universality of her emotions speaks to a rooted community within ESSAR. To emphasize this togetherness, she colors her songs with the voices of friends and family. The album is bookended by audio of her grandmother, with opener “Strangers of Motion” serving as an instrumental montage of her friends laughing and speaking fervently on anything from rocks to the craziness of life. A group yells “I won’t grow up!” at the end of “If the Bounty Calls,” and she seamlessly converses with strangers in between an impressive vocal performance in “Headlights– wine drunk demo from Florence, Italy.” In these slice-of-life soundbites, ebullience is magnified and burdens are shared. SHILPA knows: we’re no good on our own. Though one must be vulnerable to be known, we cannot survive without loving others.
She extends this community to encompass the Earth itself in album closer “Grass Steps (बाहर).” “Can you feel it?” she asks her lover, “The fertile land, the agile stars?” SHILPA contextualizes herself, finding her smallness within Mother Nature’s ecosystem. It’s an expansive conclusion, one that ties humanity to something greater than itself.
In the final song, she asks to be held by her lover. To be small, but to be small together; to appreciate the beauty of a pink sunrise or a lush mountain with another person; to recognize the billions of factors that led to this moment of vivid presentness; this is what moves us beyond a quiet survival. This is how we become something more.