I have several acquaintances who have won Grammys in recent years in the New Age category. I wrote a music marketing piece about the February 2015 win of two of them on this blog, Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman. I am also friends with two local Seattle area musicians, Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, who received a Grammy for Best New Age Album in 2003. Although I myself am not a New Age musician, New Age music and its Grammy category intrigue me both as a listener and as a music marketer.
I discovered the band White Sun about a year ago when I received a private Facebook link to their debut self-titled album during the first round of the Grammy listening and voting process in fall 2015. Their album entry really stood out. I was very impressed with their music, most especially with their female lead vocalist and unusual lyrics. As a vocalist and lyricist myself I listen closely to vocals and lyrics. The lyrics of White Sun’s songs are all non-English yogic mantras set to addictive repetitive melodies. From a production perspective, Garujas’ vocals are both immaculately produced and prominently front and center, which I also appreciate. The instrumental music production is quite lush and complex, much like a modern movie score, with the organic twist of traditional East Indian instruments.
In addition, the visual marketing of White Sun’s second album is striking to me. I’ve included some of their images in this post. The story of the mandala on the cover of the album can be found on their website.
The New Age category interests me as a music marketer, since, along with the Children’s Music Album category, New Age usually has many fewer entries than Pop, Rock or American Roots. It also has virtually no big label artist winners, and most are extremely hard working indie musicians doing their own marketing and promotion both inside and outside the Grammy process.
After I heard their music last year, I knew White Sun would have a good chance at Grammy nomination this year, and indeed, they have been nominated this year in the Best New Age Album category. I was so certain they would be nominated, that, as I did with Ricky and Wouter, I asked for an interview before the nominations were announced.
In my study so far of the marketing process for indie artists, I have come to the conclusion that it takes four important elements for a relatively unknown indie artist like White Sun to receive a Grammy win:
- Submission in a narrow niche category like New Age, Children’s or Spoken Word
- Not just high quality production value, but music with something different and unique that makes it stand out, preferably including collaboration with other world class musicians
- Commercial success outside the Grammy process, meaning #1 Billboard and iTunes charting, and increasingly important, Spotify and Amazon music charting
- An organized and efficient (but not overly hyped) marketing campaign reaching out to voting NARAS members to make them aware of the music prior to first round voting
In September 2016, the White Sun II album hit No. 1 on Billboard’s New Age chart and No. 2 on Billboard’s World Music chart. [You can find a YouTube video of Garujas singing with the Ardas Choir at the end of this post.]
Here is my interview with White Sun’s lead vocalist and lyricist, Garujas Khalsa:
Q1: Many of the reviews of your new album, White Sun II, mention the emotions evoked by your music. The songs on this album are in a 600-year-old written language called Gurmukhio. Thus, for most of us, the meaning of the words is not immediately clear. How do you accomplish this conveyance of the emotion and understanding of the lyrics with your vocal performance?
A1: The lyrics are ancient songs of the yogis. They go back beyond time. And when I sing, I just try to align myself with the best parts of me. And I think that’s where we are finding the emotional resonance in the listener. I’m singing songs that elevate me, make me feel good, and take me on an adventure. I know the kind of immeasurable happiness that these songs have brought me, and my hope is to share that sense of wonder with the listener. The ancient mantras that are the lyrics of White Sun’s songs are capable of removing negative thoughts and emotions simply by listening to them. The music is so effective at making people feel better that the White Sun II album was recently added to the official 2016 curriculum of University of Southern California (USC), as part of a new health and wellness program to help students deal with increasing levels of stress on campus.
Q2: While you have many guest artists on your newest album (like Sengalese rhythm guitarist Mamadou Diop), your group, White Sun, is, at its core, three people: you, Garujas, the lead singer and songwriter, Adam Berry, an experienced (and two time Emmy-winning) Hollywood film and television composer (South Park, Penguins of Madagascar, etc.), and Harijiwan, a Kundalini yoga teacher, the gong player and the spiritual guide for your compositions. Your music is very cross-cultural (Eastern yogic spirituality meets orchestral cinematic Western music). Do your individual personal visions for a musical piece ever clash? How do the three of you deal with cross-cultural challenges?
A2: These melodies come from the deepest parts of me. And when I’m aligned with that inner source, I believe I’m connecting to something not from this planet. I hear wide, universal sounds, and out of the sounds comes the melody, and out of the melody comes the rhythm, and out of the rhythm comes the lyrics, that is when we create the harmonies. In the band, we are all very attentive to the flow of sound. It is like a magical wind that enters the studio—we all feel it. It has happened on so many occasions. It brings with it a sense of awe, a kind of mystical mystery really, and the balancing act is staying within the sound current as it comes through us. It is kind of like walking a tight rope. It’s exhilarating, it’s thrilling, and it’s difficult.
Q3: I love gospel music and I agree with one of the reviews of your album that the combination of mantra singing and gospel music in one of your songs on this new album is a natural fit as both are spiritual genres. Can you comment on the nature of the spiritual components of this song, Hummee Hum?
A3: With Hummee Hum, I wanted to work with gospel singers and enter into that sound stream that comes out of the Mississippi Delta, and sings brightly in places like Muscle Shoals. I wanted to feel the rhythm of the blues, and the deep spiritual connection all those legendary artists had, and I wanted to dance a little bit with that incredible musical legacy. So we had Julia Waters, Maxine Waters and Oren Waters join us, and other renowned singers that were featured in the movie 20 Feet from Stardom.
I remember the day they came into the studio. Adam said, “You know, we have some of the most famous backup singers in history of recorded music here today.” It was such an honor to be in the presence of artists with such depth and sensitivity to sound.
Q4: I find myself wanting to sing along, or at least vocalize, in harmony with some of your pieces. What role do harmonies play in your music? Do you use major vs minor harmonies purposefully, and if so, why?
A4: We spend a long, long time on the harmonies. We write, and rewrite, and rewrite until we find just what will work. There is not much thinking that goes on, just a feeling of the sound—which harmonies feel best, and where. And Adam, of course, has an absolutely incredible scholarly and historical mind when it comes to music. He is so insightful. He will often sit back in his chair and discuss the harmonies and melodies within a historical context. It’s amazing.
Q5: I think part of what makes your music so compelling is the music comes from the kundalini yoga practice, which is both physical and spiritual. Positive spiritual message is “baked into” the message and into the instrumental and vocal performances. There is also an effortless transparency of purpose in the music and the marketing communication around the band – the white theme, the mandala, the focus on pictures of your face and not the faces of the other band members, the sparsity of the website, the visual design. What do you feel is most important for other musicians to know about combining life purpose and authenticity?
A5: Our whole presentation of the band is that we are just trying to bring the music to the people. We want the focus to be on the songs—that is essentially our marketing strategy. We know that the music can help people enjoy their lives, because the songs have helped us so much.
Q6: What do you think of social media as a marketing tool for bands, and in general? Who does the social media for White Sun?
A6: We love social media, and we all do it for White Sun. Social media is the evolution of collective humanity and we want to participate in it.
Q7: You do live events (workshop/performances) in the LA area (eg. the Supermoon celebration on November 14 of this year and a Thanksgiving celebration). What role do you feel live performance plays in both your evolution as a composer and vocalist, as well as in your efforts to bring your music to a wider audience (fan building)?
A7: We plan to do a lot more live events, but my daughter was born 9 months ago, so it has been a little hard for me to play live as a new mom. But we’ll be playing many more live events very soon. Live events are opportunities for the audience and us to go deeper into the movement of the sound current through us all, we also use the best equipment from the guide by Music Critic for having the best live experience. The energy of the live performances is so wildly different than making the music in the studio. I love playing live shows.
Q8: There is a lot of of fantastic music out there, a lot of great female vocalists, and a lot of mantra music. Indian Bollywood music scores have also gained popularity in the US in recent years, although they are not yet mainstream here. I would venture to say that none of this music has reached such commercial success with Western audiences as quickly as yours has. To what do you attribute the rise of White Sun II to the number one spots on the New Age Charts and Amazon Charts (besides the obvious high quality production and creative qualities of the music itself)?
A8: It’s very nice of you to say that we’ve reached commercial success—we appreciate that. We just do the best we can, sing the best songs we can, and we put it out there. There are 36 million people in the world practicing yoga, and another 80 million saying they are going to try yoga this year. There is just a huge demand for this quality of music among that population, as well as the rest of the music listening population. There are so many opportunities for people to experience music, and we are just very grateful for those who listen to White Sun.
Q9: I saw on your Facebook page that you and Adam voted in the most recent election. It’s clear you feel passionately about bringing positivity to the world with your music. Do you feel a special calling or any more urgency in these difficult political days?
A9: We believe you have to participate in the world, so that’s why we participated in the election. We all live on this earth, and so we all need to be involved in making it a better place.
Q10: Can you explain the idea of the healing powers of the vibrations of mantra singing and how that guides and motivates your music and, in particular, your singing?
A10: The ancient yogis figured out that certain sounds changed energetic formations. Today we understand that the opera singer can hit a certain note and the glass will shatter. So it’s no different than thought forms in the mind being changed with the right sound current, the right projection, and the right rhythmic, melodic presentation.
These are ancient sounds that help people develop more of their own innate power and ability to live happy, fulfilled, successful, and enjoyable lives. And we know just listening to these sounds can have tremendous healing effects. And we are always very interested in any listener telling us what happened to them after they started listening to White Sun music.
We love hearing from the fans how that listening to the songs gave them a certain strength or removed a certain problem.
I’ll tell you one story. A woman had a 2 ½ to 3-year old son. And he couldn’t sleep at night because he was having nightmares of these black-shaped beings coming into his room; it scared the wits out of him.
So I told her to play the “Aap Sahaee Hoa Har Har Har” song, and said to play it softly in the bedroom at night when he sleeps. Because that particular mantra will remove negative forces. So the boy started playing the music and he slept fine. And he didn’t want to ever sleep without that song playing, which now always plays softly in his room.
And then the mother said to me, “You know when I was a small child, I had the same black-shaped beings in my nightmares. But no one knew how to stop them, so they gave me a lot of drugs and put me into the hospital. I didn’t have the advantage of having a song that I could play with that would to help protect me.”
So I know that these songs can make things better for others. But they have to be good songs, so that people will want to listen to them.
Q11: You recently gave birth to a daughter – congratulations! Am I correct in assuming that you and Adam are life partners in addition to being musical collaborators?
Thank you so much for doing this interview, Gurujas. Where can people listen to your music and learn more about White Sun?
Thank you! It was my pleasure, and I appreciate your insightful questions.
The 59th GRAMMY Award winners will be announced on Sunday, February 12, 2017.
More articles and interviews about White Sun:
White Sun II, Music and Media Focus by Michael Diamond
White Sun II Album Review on Mainly Piano by Kathy Parsons
White Sun and Fiona Joy, Spirituality in Sound, by Janice Kephart
Interview with Gurujas: The immaculate beauty of ‘White Sun II’ by Allen Foster
People can listen to White Sun II on
our website, http://www.whitesun.com/about-c19yc.