Narayana and Kalyani of Willow Beats spoke to Liz Ansley about their roots, the national electronic music scene, and guilty listening pleasures.
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Sitting on a futon covered by brightly coloured cloth, on a verandah in Brisbane’s West End, Narayana Johnson and Kalyani Mumtaz ponder their earlier years, before they became the seemingly unstoppable electronic duo that is Willow Beats.
“We grew up on this farm, on a huge 1000 acre property, so we spent a lot of time playing and just kind of having free reign – being able to run where we want, swim in creeks and climb trees. It was really awesome, having that nature in our lives,” Narayana reminisces. “The area we grew up in is so amazing and beautiful… we try to incorporate that into our music. The obvious way to do that is to use actual samples from nature. Bird calls and river sounds.”
The influence of the Australian bushland is incredibly prominent in the music Willow Beats makes – in more ways than one. Lyricist Kalyani draws upon her hometown of Murwillumbah when it’s time to put pen to paper and write a new song. “[I’m] just trying to capture the feeling I get from the place where I live. I have so much emotional attachment to it. I try to convey how I feel when I’m there.” For her, making music is a way of worshipping the things that are so close to her heart. “It’s kind of like praising the land and mother earth.”
Narayana and Kalyani were born into a Hare Krishna community, and it’s clear that this upbringing has cemented spirituality and mysticism as being integral to their lives. “I think, as far as the religion goes, it has a lot of beautiful stories and tales of different demons and magical arrows,” Narayana says, and he admits that these stories have had a profound impact on why he creates music. “With Willow Beats I’m trying to create these fantasy landscapes, these interesting otherworldly places, so I can bring a listener on a journey. Kind of a bit of an adventure, something that’s otherworldly. I’m trying to put someone in another realm.” Kalyani credits the artistic nature of her upbringing with starting her on her current path, and with shaping her desire to tell her own stories through music. “The religion is super creative and musical – they were always putting on plays in the temple and everyone dances and sings together, so you just feel like you can [create music]… There’s a lot of ancient texts that I grew up reading and listening to. The Mahabharata is this epic, massive book, this story about these brothers who get exiled in the forest. When I was young I’d just listen to those [stories] when I was going to sleep. So I’ve always been very enchanted by epic, magical stories.”
Electronic music has been having a bit of a moment in Australia recently, with acts like Flume, Chet Faker and Peking Duk becoming household names – and even smaller acts, such as Paces and Golden Features, frequently draw huge crowds at their various festival sets. Narayana attributes this to music-making and sharing tools accessed through the internet. “I think we’re going through a bit of a golden age for electronic music in Australia. Partly, I think it’s because of the internet – people can make whatever music they want to, be creative however they choose to. They can just put it up on the internet and people will find it and listen to it. I think anyone can spend a couple of hundred dollars and make music, so everyone’s doing it, and then there’s these gems that pop up all over the place.” Kalyani agrees, adding “It’s accessible, we’ve grown up with technology and so we’re all just using it creatively.” But in her eyes, music is a way to take a step back. “For me, a lot of Willow Beats is about getting back to your roots as a human. Cos we’re in such a technological age, and growing up in the country just seemed like the natural thing to do [for us], and then you go to the city and you realise that so many people are living this life that’s probably not so natural for humans.”
Bands that are formed by members of the same family are certainly nothing new – but the uncle/niece dynamic that is Willow Beats is somewhat rarer. There isn’t a giant age difference between Kalyani and Narayana, but is there a power imbalance that affects the way they collaborate? Not particularly, according to Kalyani. “I don’t know, I’d say we’re pretty chill with each other. We’ve always made stuff together, so it’s kind of the same as it’s always been.” Narayana adds, “I think we know where each other’s strengths are, so we kind of just let each other do our thing and then bring it together. We have a lot of the same ideas musically as well, and a lot of the same ideas about how music should sound or what’s pleasing. It’s easy when we work together because we both like the same stuff.”
Both musicians are champions of fellow Aussie artists – neo-soul outfit Hiatus Kaiyote in particular. They’ve now had their remix of Hiatus Kaiyote’s track Ocelot included on the compilation album Tawk Takeout. “When I first moved to Melbourne, they [Hiatus Kaiyote] were just starting out, and instead of having a support act, they would have people do beat battles. Basically, they’d choose a song, everyone remixes it, and then different producers would get up and play their beat battle. I think I was in like three of those. That’s when they were just coming up, so it was pretty cool,” Narayana recalls. Kalyani discovered the band during her formative years. “They were the first band I ever saw in Melbourne – when I was probably 15, I just snuck in. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the standard, this is Melbourne music!’ And now they’re like the best musos in the world, practically!”
But Narayana and Kalyani have some surprisingly diverse tastes, too. “I really like The Cranberries! Their No Need To Argue album was played so much when I was travelling around a lot and while a lot of big stuff was happening in my life. So when I listen to it now, it brings me back” Narayana says. “Mount Kimbie’s Crooks and Lovers is a big one for me [as well]. That made me realise that electronic music didn’t have to be all these big sounds or really in your face. It’s a really humble album, it’s quite like, ‘Hey, come in and listen if you want, but you don’t have to’. Whereas most electronic music is just like, BAM! So that for me was a beautiful awakening, and that’s kind of partly what started me making beats. It had a pretty big impact on my life.” And is there an album that had a similar impact on Kalyani? “Probably Bjork – Medulla is a pretty special album to me. Mum always played it around the house late at night. It’s really transportational. I never realised how honest music could be. She’s not at all guising herself when she presents herself to an audience, she’s just purely her. Even just the way she sings is super raw. It’s so honest, and that’s really heartwrenching.” But like everyone, she has a few unexpected tastes – mostly carried over from when she was younger. “Paramore and Muse were definitely me coming out as an angsty teen – and feeling real rebellious while doing it. Actually, Avril Lavigne takes the cake. But I don’t know, we listen to a lot of music. I like a lot of Indian music, I like Loreena McKennitt, Celtic music, Arabian music…” If there’s anything to be said about the musical tastes of Willow Beats, it’s that they’re certainly not boxing themselves in.
It’s an overcast and incredibly humid afternoon. Tonight [at the time of this interview] is the duo’s Brisbane date of their Water EP tour – and there are some changes that’ve been made to their set since their last visit. “We’ve amped it up, visually,” Kalyani enthuses. “[I] just made completely synced visuals for our whole set, which is cool,” Narayana chimes in, “So that’s new. We’ve also reworked a lot of our old songs to make dancier versions that are more fun in a live setting. And I guess it’s a bit of a wave – we have some chill stuff, then it builds up and then chills out again. It’s a bit of a journey.”
The tour is a relatively short one, already wrapped up, in fact – and with two EPs under their belt, the inevitable question is: what’s next for Willow Beats? Kalyani and Narayana exchange knowing looks and smile. “Album!”