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Finding purpose and herself: A conversation with Tiana Khasi

28 October 2016 | 10:24 am | Emma Jones

You may not be familiar with Tiana Khasi just yet, but that is set to change with the news she has linked up with Soul Has No Tempo and has found herself.

You may not be familiar with Tiana Khasi just yet, but you've probably heard her glorious voice on some of the most loved tracks to come out of Australia in recent years.

When she's not studying at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, she's splitting her time between her 7-piece jazz/hip-hop band Astro Travellers (who picked up a Queensland Music Award earlier this year), collaborating with some of Brisbane's finest, and honing her own solo material, ready for an official release soon.

Having already linked up with The Kite String TangleGolden Vessel, and Sampology, she's getting her voice out there but never losing sight of what is important to her - her family, her culture, and her purpose. Now she's officially joined the legendary label and crew, Soul Has No Tempo, which means even bigger things are to come for her. To get to know her a little better before she blows up onto the national, and international stage, we asked her a few questions to find out what she's all about!

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Let’s start at the start, can you tell me a bit about how you got into music?

I’ve been exposed to all kinds of music thanks to my family. One side of my family is Samoan, so growing up there was always RnB/soul, gospel and Samoan music playing. Most of the Islander family events would result in a guitar being whipped out and people singing in beautiful harmonies - they have such natural musicality and phenomenal voices. The other side of my family is Anglo-Indian but instead of listening to traditional North Indian music, my Grandma introduced me to jazz through her impressive vinyl collection and always let me play her piano.

I was self taught as a child and just used my ear to learn and play instruments until I went through formal music lessons. I’d always been kind of shy about singing and secretly sang when no one was around but my senior years in high school pushed me out of my shell, and I settled into myself and my voice.

Getting accepted into The QLD Conservatorium was unexpected and plunged me into the deep end. It all started happening at once - I was studying music, learning jazz, performing in various formats and putting myself out there as a serious vocalist. Within a year of living life as a full time musician I had met the Astro crew and started collaborating with other artists which lead to The Kite String Tangle's track “Stone Cold” and all the touring and publicity that came with that. Music was always a part of my life - I just changed gears when I realised that it was such a big part of my identity and something I could do for a living.

You’re now about to finish studying music, what has changed about your perception of music since you studied it academically?

I’ve gained a lot from the academic approach to music as well as performing and recording on the side but I’m coming out the other side knowing that the most valuable lessons are in experiencing life and participating in the music and community around you. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about music, and now I’m ready to wholeheartedly “do” music. During my degree, I directed a lot of my studies towards researching the gender gap in music, which is something I’m really passionate about and am trying to incorporate into my music and platform as an artist. Academics aside, being in a music institution was a great way to meet other musicians from all sorts of backgrounds and offered me the greatest gift of meeting my best friends who now play in my live show and studio recordings.

Do you feel you’ve found where you belong in the greater scheme of things music wise?

I don’t think I’ve found where I belong in the greater scheme of things seeing as music will constantly evolve... but I do have a strong sense of purpose in what I’m doing right now.

You’ve collaborated in some electronic songs, but you also perform in a jazz/hip-hop band - what can we expect from your solo material? Somewhere in the middle of that?

I’ve had my toes dipped in different worlds of music and been able to have a ‘fly on the wall’ experience learning about all kinds of approaches to writing, recording and performing. The whole writing/recording process for the EP to date has been a mixture of live band takes, beat making, vocal loops and traditional song writing. I’d like to think my music has tastefully curated elements from my experiences so far.

What do you get out of your own music that you don’t get out of collaborating/being in a band? Do you find you have greater self expression, or is it daunting having it all on you?

There are always parameters that you work within, even if you’re collaborating with your musical soul mate/s. Working with other people on their projects were valuable experiences but they also had their limitations. I never wanted to have a career riding off someone else’s tail coat and just being “that feature chick”. Having my own outlet has been empowering above anything else! It is daunting at times. I’ve had to be vulnerable and tell my story for the first time and take complete ownership of the sound and momentum of the project.

Slowly but surely, a scene developing around hip-hop, soul, RnB and more is emerging in Brisbane - do you feel that from where you are right now in your career?

I think its always been there but I’m just part of a generation that’s growing into it now. There is definitely some momentum in the Brisbane community. I’m not too fussed about “scenes” anyway, as long as there is good music!

You’ve got an interesting perspective being in multiple projects, what are some (if any) differences you’ve noticed in your experiences with Astro Travellers compared to Tiana Khasi experiences?

I think its really cool that I can play in different projects with the exact same players and still achieve unique sounds. The dynamic in Astro can be quite masculine at times (being the only female perspective out of six) and the writing/recording process is different because we operate as a team of six individuals. I get to call all the shots when it comes to my music. I find some hip-hop can have an ego element to it that I’m not really a fan of. So its nice to make music and perform in a context where I don’t need to prove myself or hype a crowd like an MC would.

What is important to you? Do you feel like you will express this through your music?

My family and heritage is super important to me and is a constant muse for my art. I find it hard to write anything with integrity and soul if it doesn’t have any truth to it. You can’t deny your bloodlines, so when I feel stuck with creative ideas I usually turn to my family heritage for inspiration. My journey rediscovering my family history lead me to my great Grandmother’s North Indian Tribe, the Khasi tribe, which is one of the few matriarchal societies that remain in the world. The Khasi’s are a bit of a social phenomenon so I’m proud to come from a lineage of strong, mystic women. Most of the tracks on the upcoming EP that have some direct or implicit references to my family and cultural values.

Congratulations on teaming up with Soul Has No Tempo - what can we expect from you from here?

Thank you! Over the last couple of years, I’ve been unofficially mentored by Soul Has No Tempo as they’ve been great friends and supporters of my music since I got started. Its nice to make it all official. Already they’re kind of responsible for my collaboration with Sampology (who is producing my upcoming EP) because I met him at one of their events for Jordan Rakei and got to have a sing which sparked my initial conversation with Sam. It's exciting and reassuring to work with people who know music, are incredible at what they do and most importantly, don’t compromise musical integrity. They’re really pushing me to be my best musically and personally.

Photo: Todd O'Rourke

Tiana Khasi is playing at Brisbane's OPEN HOUSE

November 19th at The Foundry

Intro by Emma Jones