Words by:
Photography: Ricky Weaver

“I have never met someone who doesn’t have a beautiful voice,” Ganavya says, softly, over a video call from her friend’s house in Los Angeles. “Nobody! I also feel that way about god. I haven’t met a quarter of this world where god wasn’t there, in the root of everything. If I look hard enough, I always find love.”

Like her faith in the divine, the California-based Tamil vocalist and composer has become a trusted voice for her spellbinding take on spiritual jazz and soul, filtered through tradition. Pensive yet arresting, Ganavya’s singing ability is that of a virtuoso who has been patiently refining their god-given gift, leaving no stone unturned. During our call, however, Ganavya is casual, carefree and affable – “I’m going to have to talk to you as if I was talking to a friend!” – and, much like her music, tends to dance around straightforward narratives with poetic fluidity. Behind her, a double bass and yazh – an ancient harp typically used in Tamil music – are proudly propped up against the wall.

“My name means ‘one who was born to spread music’,” she explains of her birth name, which derives from the Tamil language. “For the longest time, I’d never met anybody else with my name. It feels like a strange paradox of the human condition in that we all so desperately want to be unique. Because, if we’re unique, then we’re special. And if we’re special, maybe someone will take care of us. But, at the same time, we don’t want to be alone. For so long, my friends would look at me and say, ‘You have this beautiful name that nobody else has.’ And I sat there thinking, ‘I feel lonely.’”

Ganavya has spent her life seeking moments of connection. She has used her voice to uplift people, to remind them of their power in the world. Spirituality is a constant presence in her music, working in tandem with her similarly ethereal vocals. Her 2018 album, Aikyam: Onnu, weaved South Asian musical traditions into dreamy jazz, and she has previously worked alongside giants like Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding. As a musical collaborator, she attempts to surround herself with those “who are oriented towards the thing that seems most precious in this world – love. But by the time language comes up, everything is fucked: it is a finite thing trying to manage infinity”.

It was this concept of never-ending vastness – and our earthly limitations – that inspired Ganavya’s new album, Like the Sky, I’ve Been Too Quiet. Across its 13 tracks, Ganavya’s hypnotic voice acts as the centrepiece. Over nimble, harp-led arrangements, her vocals constantly hovers above the instrumentation, cracking at certain pitches to convey melancholy and grief. Sung in English, Tamil, Spanish and Marathi, the record sounds cathartic, like a lifetime of frustrations being released in real time.

Like the Sky, I’ve Been Too Quiet was written during a period of personal and artistic discontent. Towards the end of 2022, Ganavya tested positive for Covid and was left struggling to breathe, but she had a long-awaited interview for a prestigious fellowship at Princeton to attend and was required to power through. She didn’t get the post. “It broke my heart,” she admits soberly. “So I did what I sometimes do when I’m sad: I called Shabaka [Hutchings]. He shrugged and said, ‘Come to London, let’s make an album.’ I remember bursting out laughing. But that’s exactly what happened.”

Two weeks later, Ganavya landed in London and immediately hopped into the studio. Hutchings called upon experimental UK producers Floating Points and Leafcutter John, as well as Senegalese kora player Kadialy Kouyate and American multi-instrumentalist Austin Williamson, to join them in the process. Like the Sky, I’ve Been Too Quiet was created in just three days. “I was singing non-stop,” Ganavya says, sounding almost surprised. “There is at least 15 to 20 hours of material that was recorded. Not a single thing was predetermined: the lyrics are either prayers or songs from my past, or melodies I hum to myself in the shower or when I’m doing laundry. Everything was improvised.”

All of the album’s track titles were taken from snippets of conversations Ganavya had with Hutchings and her collaborators during her time in London. Hutchings would write down phrases or sentences he found interesting, such as Call Her by Her Name, Enheduanna and I Walk Again, Eyes Towards the Sky. The album’s name, however, was taken from a passage in a poem written by Iranian-American author and poet, Kaveh Akbar. “[This album title] is me admitting that my first album felt like a trainwreck,” Ganavya admits. “I wanted out of the process. I went quiet for six or seven years until this musical family that had slowly been forming around me looked at me and said, ‘Are you going to do your job or not?’”

On album highlight El Kebda, Let It Go, her melodies flow like ribbons of smoke over a smouldering double bassline and flutes which dip, brush and dab. With a run time of nearly nine minutes, First Notebook of Songs features Ganavya’s voice slowly climbing the ambient, flute-featuring production. Seal and We Made It to the Underpass are arresting in their brevity, the latter actually recorded live in an underpass close to Hutchings’ house, where they “walked in silence” to Ganavya’s singing and Hutchings’ flutes. With its meditative use of Tamil lyrics and prayers, coupled with a few repetitive English phrases, Like the Sky, I’ve Been Too Quiet is an intimate snapshot of the memories that have filled Ganavya’s colourful life.

Ganavya was born in New York City to an artistic family. Her father’s mother was a renowned classical musician and teacher in Tamil Nadu. Eventually, Ganavya joined the musical matriarch of the family in Tamil Nadu in southern India, where she would spend most of her childhood and adolescence. “I could wave the ribbons in the story of pedigree,” she continues, “but really, that’s not what made me. What made me was what happened in the non-observed world. It was the silliness and love. It was the village, not the stage. Classical music was very much about proving something to somebody, but I did find something indescribable in the pilgrimage trails.”

"What made me was what happened in the non-observed world. It was the silliness and love. It was the village, not the stage"


Ganavya’s formative years unfolded along the Varkari pilgrimage route, where she became immersed in the rich tapestry of Harikathā – the art form of telling stories through song. “My family would walk for days at a time,” she explains. “We’d sing poems called abhangs, which literally means ‘that which without end’.” In Harikathā, traditional themes typically focus on the life of a saint, or a story from an Indian epic. The bearers of these narratives, who weave them through melody, are revered as Kirtankari. “There was no audience in those worlds, everyone sang together,” Ganavya smiles. “That was the point.”

When she returned to the U.S. at the age of 14, Ganavya found herself “a moody child who rebelled against my family of artists by doing a degree in psychology, which was scandalous”. Despite evading traditional schooling growing up, Ganavya has earned graduate degrees in contemporary performance, ethnomusicology and creative practice, and critical inquiry from Berklee College of Music, UCLA and Harvard, respectively. (Quincy Jones wrote one of her recommendation letters to the latter.) Both as an educator and student, she “wishes to bring liberative techniques into this world and study what empowers, who is disempowered, who heals, who is ailing – and how to wed the two”.

This expansive approach to life led Ganavya to explore a myriad of artistic disciplines. She has sung for and worked on films (such as This Body Is So Impermanent, The Marvels and The Cinema Travellers), created sound installations and even written music for an opera. But just as she was beginning to ride the crest of this creative wave, she found herself slipping into depression and writer’s block.

“I was living in the mountains [near Portland, Oregon]. I just had a pretty bad accident and wasn’t walking – literally and metaphorically,” Ganavya says wearily. “Truth is, I didn’t want to walk in life. I wanted to stop. I was profoundly tired. [Bassist and singer] Esperanza Spalding, who is somewhere between a sister, friend and teacher to me, lived nearby. I could hear her practising. There are some artists with such great discipline that when you speak to them, your back straightens up. I was beating myself up thinking, ‘Why am I not able to produce?’”

Spalding offered Ganavya some perspective-shifting wisdom: “Your gift doesn’t belong to just you.” It unlocked something within her. “That very beautiful reframing. We think of something as so precious, we grasp on to it too tightly,” she says. “It’s not about you, so let go of your fears, your insecurities.”

This creative unlocking opened her up to new possibilities. Most notably, the chance to play, quite recently, with the mysterious, revered band Sault at their first – and supposedly only ever – live show in London in December 2023. Ganavya had been recording an album in New York with the jazz saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on the same day the show was due to take place. When she was offered the show, Ganavya immediately said no, stating she had given her word to Wilkins. Yet something drew her to London.


After recording six songs with Wilkins in a session that started late, Ganavya managed to catch a last-minute flight from New York. She was rushed to the venue straight from the airport, where she took to the stage almost immediately. “There was no room for error,” she says of the performance. “I kept saying a prayer: ‘God, give me proof that it is possible to walk a tender life, give me proof that it is possible to walk a loving, non-self-oriented path and still be in the industry.’ And my god, what better example than Sault?”

Ganavya’s appearance surprised many. She walked out onto a darkened stage in a flowing white dress, before entrancing the crowd with her soaring vocals over soft piano chords; a high point in a show that had already raised the bar impossibly high. “It feels like I was meant to be there,” she said. “I needed to convince myself to keep going for another six months. Each time I’ve seen Inflo since, I keep learning that lesson.”

Ganavya, however, is aware that her musical practice does not follow a linear path. Instead, she is delighting in relinquishing control and seeing where the path will take her. “If god determines that I should stop singing next year, then I will follow that,” she says, her voice small but resolute. “For as long as I’m alive, I just hope to do the thing that I was meant to do. Then I’ll come back and try it all over again.”

Like the Sky, I’ve Been Too Quiet released on 15 March via Native Rebel