Raw Silk will pull you out of your head and into the moment.
Raw Silk released their self-titled first album June 1st, bringing together cello, sitar, and vocals to create their own layered sound.
Turning traditional music on its head, the Baltimore-based duo blends elements of Indian classical music and experimental electronics to create a playful, yet forceful, sound. Ami Dang, sitarist and vocalist, echoes and expands on the rich cello tones of her collaborator, Alexa Richardson.
Their sound, just like their name, is physical – the listener is transported underwater in “Argonaut I,” bounced between two forces in “Commie Baby,” and dug out from the earth in “Love Child.” Even the title invokes the soft touch of a mother’s sari.
“[Raw silk] is a traditional fabric, but it has rough and random aberrations,” Richardson told Kajal. “We definitely like that.”
This rough yet soft blend is an appropriate image for their unlikely pairing of strings: sitar and cello, a coupling that in this record appears as both harmonious and dissonant.
Dang, who grew up in Baltimore, studied in Western and Indian classical music traditions.
“My musical background has so much been influenced by my Sikh upbringing,” Dang said. “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that doesn’t reference [Indian music] in some way.”
The duo got their start jamming together for fun, quickly realizing that they had something special. Their work as Raw Silk snowballed from there, as interest from the Baltimore experimental music community led Dang to invite Richardson, who played classical cello but had branched out into more experimental forms, to play a show with her. One show led to more shows, which finally led to a representative from Baltimore-based label Ehse Records offering them an opportunity to put out Raw Silk.
This path mirrors their sound – one melody leads to another, one phrase feeds into a sometimes-unexpected next. Nothing is meticulously planned, but that’s how these two like it.
“It’s very intentional to keep space always for whatever is happening in that moment to come through, so [the songs]are always shifting and changing,” said Richardson. Their work is an experiment in structured improvisation, with certain rules dictating the space where they tinker with melody, beat, and especially mood.
Their choices regarding language and naming are also based on feeling rather than intentional choice. While much of their work is entirely instrumental, the first two tracks of their album, Argonaut I and II, use vocal syllables that are familiar in Indian classical music. The song “Commie Baby” uses Punjabi lyrics from a shabad from Sikh scripture that speaks to how caste distinctions shouldn’t exist.
“We really just started calling it Commie Baby as a joke, and then it stuck,” Dang laughed. They said they never discussed the decision to name songs in English versus Punjabi. “A lot of bands will write a song about love or politics or something very specific, but for us the titles kind of feed out of visceral feelings.”
But it’s not all random. The third song on the album, “Malpresentations,” feels like a building conversation between cello and sitar. The sitar jerks around and drops off at times, with the cello responding in quick, biting phrases, sometimes taking control. They named the song, according to Richardson, after something she encounters in her work as a midwife.
“A malpresentation is when a baby is coming down a little funky and it’s hard for the baby to make its way through,” she said. “‘Malpresentations’ is a piece in seven, so the rhythm of it is always a little bit off from what you think it’s going to be.”
Their unexpected sound has received support from their local Baltimore community.
“We can perform for a room full of sixty-year-old South Asian folks and they’ll love it, and we can perform for a DIY warehouse venue in Baltimore with a bunch of queer 20-somethings who are doing their thing, and they’ll love it,” Richardson said. “We might get more experimental and break the rules and rhythmically go wild when we’re at a DIY warehouse venue versus a more classical setting, but it translates.”
These musicians may take cues from their audiences, but they also push their listeners. The album is at once a respite and a challenge. The strings and repetitive melodies at times can have a lulling effect, but it doesn’t last long. Then comes the dramatic flourish, the animated conversation, the call to action.
Raw Silk contains multiple dualities: improvisation and composition, electronic and acoustic, east and west, ethereal and down-to-earth. Ultimately, they find the right meld.
“A lot of raw silk is a weave of two fabrics. Especially in Indian raw silk, it’s two colors that are woven together to create a dual-tone effect,” said Dang. “I think that works really nicely for what we’re doing together as a duo.”