Podcast Transcript – Musician Soumik Datta

Conversations and advice


Sharing the lessons learnt during his first exploration into radio and podcasting, sarod player Soumik details how his music video series ‘Sounds of Silence’ explores the impact of lockdown on musicians across the UK.

Below is the transcript of the conversation.


Listen to Soumik


Soumik Datta, Fiona Morris (Creative Director of The Space) and Clare Freeman (Podcast Producer)


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 00:02

Radio, podcasts, sound, music. Sometimes there’s real snobbery over which is best, video or audio. But for those who have slightly smaller budgets for those wanting to play with longer form storytelling, could committing to an audio project be just what you’re looking for? From Zoom conversations with musicians to a five part series showcased on BBC Radio 3. On this episode, we find out what’s possible with musician Soumik Datta. So, welcome to The Space arts podcast. Hello, I’m Claire Freeman, an associate and freelance audio producer working with The Space and later my trusted sidekick Fiona Morris Chief Executive will join us. The Space is an agency which supports those working in the art sector. And just a note, our funding is open to anyone who works in that sector. So go ahead, have a look at the latest guidance on the website, www.thespace.org.

And when it comes to sound, we’re actually seeing more and more museums, artists, theatre companies and musicians applying for funding for audio series through these commissioning rounds than ever before. So let’s meet today’s case study, musician Soumik Datta. Soumik has played on stage with some big names – Jay Z and Beyonce to name a few. He’s presented on BBC television, and has several successful albums under his belt. But when it came to developing an audio series, hmmm, that was a box that was unticked until 2020. Last year, Soumik was successfully accepted as one of 25 artists awarded funding and support during the BBC Culture in Quarantine series, as a project supported by The Space. And that’s where Soumik and I met. We were matched as mentor and mentee to go on to produce five 15 minute radio programmes. They debuted on BBC Radio 3 over summer 2020 and later were made available as podcasts on the BBC Sounds app. The series captured the thoughts of five musicians across the UK, to really discover the sounds of silence during the global crisis. In a moment, you can listen to a conversation recorded with Soumik, Fiona and me, just before the year of 2020 was done. But first, let’s get a taster of some of the stories featured in ‘Sounds of Silence.’


Excerpt from Sounds of Silence 02:53

SPEAKER 1: The first thing I do is open the window up here. It’s like a whole symphony out there of bird song, bird call.

SPEAKER 2: I find bird song to be the most abundant celebration of whatever that life energy is. And so there are times when you just listen to it and you really feel like the place that this comes from feels like a very vibrant place.

SPEAKER 3: When I was a young singer, I had an experience where one of my first singing teachers said to me, you know, it sounds great, but you have a black quality to your voice that needs to be ironed out. I could have gone, ‘what do I do to change how I sound? Do I need to change how I sound? How should I sound?’ Or I could have gone, ‘well then I am black and therefore whatever you feel like this black quality to my voice is, is what makes me and makes my sound what it is.’


Soumik Datta 04:12

I had this year planned out with lots and lots of tours and concerts. I had this new album out and also a single that was sort of related to that album. And yeah, the plan was just to be on the road and go to different countries, go to different auditoriums, and play for audiences all over the world. And then none of that happened. And I found myself in my flat in North London staring out the window. And I can actually see one of the big motorways on the periphery of London from my living room and it was empty. You know, like usually there’d be vans and lorries and cars passing all the time, but like there were almost times when they were 30 second between a vehicle and the and the next one, which was really strange and eerie. And when, you know, when the sounds and the noise and the…just the the ambience of the world that you know and recognise dissolves into nothing, that’s quite a strange feeling. Yeah.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 05:21

I mean, you play an instrument called the sarod. Do you want to try and just explain what it is?


Soumik Datta 05:28

Yeah, I can try. The sarod is an Indian classical stringed instrument, which is fretless. So it has no frets like the guitar, and you slide along the string on the left hand. You slide along it to create this moving sort of cascade of sound and notes. It is about the microtones, about flowing from one to the other. I started playing when I was 12 years old? 12 or 13 years old, I think. And yeah, I love it, my home was always kind of filled with the sound of it.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 06:06

But what was really interesting when we first were matched together by The Space, one of the things that you said to me, which really I will never forget, was that you just kind of didn’t want to play for a little bit, you kind of just parked it. And it was really interesting, because this series, actually, it didn’t really feature your instrument, this was almost like a step away for you to just think about and do things a little bit differently. How did that come to be?


Soumik Datta 06:36

Well, it’s interesting, you know, like this sarod for me has always been something that takes me away from the sound and the noise of the world into a space of creativity, into a space of magic. And suddenly, when there wasn’t that world that needed me to be drawn away from it, the sarod felt very loud. So practising at home, in this sort of vacuum, where the sounds, not just of my home, but also everything outside and sort of mentally also, like knowing that all your concerts are cancelled, all the contracts are cancelled, everything is gone. The sarod felt very, very loud, and it was taking up that whole space. And so I had to very respectfully say, ‘dear friend, I’m going to put you in the box now and we’ll touch base soon. But I think this this time is pushing me towards exploring something else. And let me do that, and I’ll come back to you.’


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 07:37

So Fiona, you would have seen Soumik’s proposal come through the doors, right? I mean, um, how many proposals did you even receive for something like this? You say, ‘hey, guys, we know you will probably need something to do right now. There’s 25 slots here. Send us your thoughts.’ What was that process like? And what stood out about Soumik’s idea around this?


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 08:01

Well, so the commissioning opportunity went live in April, and it was a very short time to apply, because the whole driving force behind it was to say, yes, we know that there are many, many artists like Soumik sitting at home kind of cut off from what they do, because, you know, actually a huge amount of what creative artistry is, is somebody else appreciating it. And that’s just been cut away for so many people in one fell swoop. And people are very limited in, geographically, where they can be. So the idea was to put the commissioning offer out there to say, ‘okay, for all of those people in that situation, what do you want to say right now?’ This was about making a statement and making it quite quickly. We had no idea how many ideas we’d get. So we actually were delighted and also slightly scared by the fact that we got 1600, just over 1600 applications, which was a huge number to read through, process, and try and whittle down to 25, as I’m sure you can imagine. But there were certain projects that kind of spoke very clearly to the time. And I think that was where Soumik’s project and the other projects that were commissioned, they felt like they were that moment of insight into how an artist is feeling at this time, but in a way that reflects the universality of the world being in this lockdown, experiencing pandemic that none of us…so this was not an experience that anyone had had before, or could relate to something else really.

Although, of course, interestingly, the disabled artist community, I think we’re sitting there looking at the rest of us going, ‘hmm, that thing that you’re talking about being so exceptional and never experienced before – welcome to our world, much of the time.’ So also that was a great piece of insight as well, and we were very, very pleased with the three films that came from disabled artists as well. And a radio project that you worked on as well, Claire. But no, with Soumik’s idea, it was that thing, it was very personal, it was very specific to the time. What happens when the world goes silent, or when you realise quite how many other sounds there are that make up your day, that regulate your activities. So it felt very specific to the time very personal to Soumik, and completely and utterly shareable. Because everybody was in the same boat, you know, so it sort of felt like your relationship to the aural landscape, which isn’t one that – well a musician thinks about this a lot – but non-musicians probably don’t [think about it] until it’s missing. And then when it’s missing, then I think people go, ‘oh, something’s not quite right.’ You know, when people talk about the room falling silent, it’s like, yeah, when it’s there you maybe don’t notice it – the minute it goes, your senses go up and you’re [thinking], ‘what’s happening? Something’s gone wrong.’


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 11:06

Yeah, I mean, Soumik it was obviously a fast turnaround. And it was kind of very precise, strategic kind of timeline that we had to put together. When we first started speaking, you hadn’t actually even done the interviews, which form the backbone of the piece. How much does it change from the initial idea that you had, even before submission, to what went out? Like, what was the process of moulding, tweaking, adapting, growing, squashing, changing, that you saw or felt the project went through?


Soumik Datta 11:42

I mean, I still can’t believe that, you know, that it happened and that I got the commission and, you know, a massive thanks to you Fiona, and to The Space for this. Because literally, I kid you not, I was sitting right here when the idea sort of, you know, at this table, when the idea sort of came to me. It wasn’t even an idea. It was just like a really annoying sound somewhere. And I was like, ‘oh, shut up, like, what is that thing?’ And it’s basically like, the wooden thing that you twist, so the blinds go up and down. It was rattling against the window. And I was like, ‘it’s so loud!’ And from there, it just sparked the, you know, I started hunting for sounds in the flat that were annoying me. And that could have turned into some other crazy weird website project of like, annoying sounds in Soumik’s flat.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 12:38

That could be the baby… next year’s thing!


Soumik Datta 12:45

But yeah, and then I was talking to my brother who is a filmmaker. And we often, you know, certainly over lockdown, we were chatting a lot, and we talk about things that are inspiring us. And, he said, ‘okay, what what are you doing?’ And like, we’re just really irritated by all these sounds in my flat. And he was like, ‘that’s probably a project, you know.’ And then I started thinking, okay, well, if I am hearing all this stuff, what is everyone else hearing? And what are my fellow musicians hearing? So I reached out to some of them, and they were like, this is actually it’s true, it’s happening. And then I just wrote the application from that kernel of an idea. And Claire, what you managed to do was just hold on to that heart of where it all came from, throughout the time that we were working. And I’d never done a podcast before. I had no idea what I was getting into. I mean, of course, I was transparent about that in the application Fiona, you know that!


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 13:53

You were, you were. Absolutely.


Soumik Datta 13:55

But yeah, I was, you know, wading into uncharted waters. And when I got it, there was this sort of, like, blanket of fear that came over me. I was like, okay, I know how to edit audio, but a podcast with all these people saying all this stuff, how do you make a story? And then Radio 3 getting involved…yeah, it was quite a journey [laughs].


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 14:20

You say that at some point, you crapped your pants and were like, ‘how am I going to be able to pull this off?’ Actually, a lot of people…we’re hearing throughout the series, so many people just kind of jump into these things and say, ‘oh, here’s an idea!’ And then it gets commissioned and they’re like, ‘oh, how do I put this together?’ And not knowing the answers to everything kind of doesn’t really matter. I think the ethos that I understand, when I am booked by The Space to support artists like you as an associate, is that my role is not necessarily to tell you what to do. But my role is to support you and help fill in the holes of some of the skills and the training so that I, just like a little baby bird, I just let you fly off. And you can go and carry on and use these skills for future projects.

You’ve obviously had with this project, there was other support, not just necessarily from me, where we looked at…our work together was much more hands on. It changes actually, as an associate, I offer completely different roles to all the projects that I work with. With me and you, we worked a lot closer in looking at the structure, maybe moving things around, the listening, looking at the planning, the recording, maybe what do we do after it so that we maximise this opportunity for you as an artist, not just through the BBC, but on Soumik Datta Arts platform. But you also kind of signed up for some other webinar event support around this, didn’t you? So like distribution, any kind of marketing. There were other things that The Space supported you on too. Can you tell us about those?


Soumik Datta 16:10

I mean, I feel like what The Space offered, surprised and shook me in the most positive way, because I’ve never worked with a commissioner that supports you along the journey. The thing is, as an artist, from time to time, you know, if you’re lucky, something will fly in through the window and kind of go, ‘bing!’ There’s something there, you have a feeling of what the end product could be. You have absolutely no idea about the structure and the timeline, and the cash flow and just the organisation that will take you from where you are right now, till the end product. But you have an idea of that end product, you see a shadow, you see a light over there. And I felt like with The Space, allowing artists like myself to work with you, Claire, as an associate producer to be guided to also, you know, attend marketing seminars, distribution seminars, where people were presenting in-depth talks about how to tap into your own networks to amplify the reach of something, and it doesn’t take a lot, it just needs a little bit of organisation. And these are things that I never learned when I was studying music, I never learned anywhere, you know, it’s sort of the thing that if you joined a big company, they would train you and all these things. But as artists, you don’t do that you are always freelancers, you are always moving from one thing to another with different partners. To have a home, like The Space who understand the needs of artists, that feels so, so amazing. And I feel very lucky to have gone through that process.


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 17:52

That’s extremely lovely of you Soumik. Thank you very much for saying that. I think what’s really interesting, and it’s really just occurred to me listening to what you said, is that I think, because a lot of times when you have a project, and then you immediately go. ‘okay, so where can I go and get funding for this?’ And, it quite often is that the funding sources are within those slightly arm’s length organisations that you have to…so you’re walking up to their front door going, ‘I know I want to do this, and it’s a big square, and it’s pink in colour…’ and that’s the expectation when you apply – that you know what it is. And I think what’s interesting about the model that we’ve been…we’re extremely fortunate in that we’ve been funded by Arts Council England and other agencies, including the BBC, over the years to build a model that says it’s in the digital world, so there’s really no point if our support is all around one project and the project outcome.

It’s really important that we want to work with an artist or an organisation to go, where are you trying to go on the bigger journey? Where does this project sit in that? Where does it help you develop a profile for yourself as an artist and build that audience and build that kind of sense of advocates around you to help promote you. And you won’t have all of the skills that you need to do that because nobody does, because this is a world that’s changing very fast. And so there’ll always be need to keep in touch with experts in certain areas, there is skills transference that can happen and, as Claire’s talked about, being very generous tutoring people she works with. But it is that thing about seeing an artist as a whole being and seeing a digital project, or any project, but in our case digital projects, as just one facet of who you are. And so trying to see the bigger picture and support it. And I love that we’re able to do that. So it’s brilliant to get that feedback from you, thank you.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 20:03

One of the first projects that I ever interacted with, when I first started working with The Space, I did a workshop, which was ‘How to Start a Podcast.’ And actually I’ll share a link to an article that I co-wrote for The Space. But this project, it was funded by The Space two years ago, I reckon – The Empathy Museum – and the project was called ‘A Mile in My Shoes.’ And the Empathy Museum was all about taking art to real spaces to real places. And they had a shipping container with a series of shoes. And these shoes belonged to refugees who’d come from all over the world to the UK and each pair of shoes had a story. And they captured these stories of the people who these shoes belong to. But they wanted to find a way – rather than people having to come to the shipping container to experience these stories – they wanted to find a way to get the stories out to people with removing the barrier of physically being there, to get it to a worldwide audience. And so they set about the task of asking The Space for support, for funding; how can we turn this into a podcast? And so every week for a year they put out 52 stories over the year, of a different story of someone who belonged to those shoes. And it was incredible. And it’s something that got noticed by the British Podcast Awards, it was nominated in one of the categories there. And it really made me think about how, as theatres, as museums, as art galleries, as musicians, this work that we’re already doing, not just necessarily creating from scratch, which is what you did Soumik, but actually also repurposing.

We heard on an earlier episode about ‘Flight Paths’ and they had what was a live stage performance, which then was filmed, which was then repurposed to be a website. And what I’ve really kind of been excited about, as someone who’s worked in audio for 15 years, is actually there could be people listening to this who are sitting on so much archive that is on the shelf – music, or interviews, or just things that are just kind of sat there – which could be repurposed and reimagined in an audio series. And there is a growing demand for that as well, I think, people don’t always have time to read books, because we’re always on the move, right? We’ve all got our headphones on, we’re all on our phones all the time. So why not fill our ears with something that is just inspirational? And I listened to the series that you put together Soumik and it really was not just capturing a moment in time, as like a point of artistic reflection that we can come to in years and years and say, ‘what was lockdown like?’ Let’s step back into that time and listen to what people were saying then, not in a newsy way, but in a reflective artistic way. And I think that just makes such a huge difference to find a way to capture these moments.


Soumik Datta 23:20

Yeah, I mean, I hope in 20 years time or 50 years time someone looks back at the list of Culture in Quarantine commissions and repurposes them to make them into whatever the digital discipline is at that time. I have no idea…driving sort of drone machines or something, you know [laughter from Fiona]. But McDonald’s will still be there, so you can buy McDonald’s and sit in your drone and watch something and hear something. But you know, just coming back to stories, I feel like, if you look back at what connects us as human beings, before we had anything before we had electronics, or tools or anything, we had stories. And that’s the only thing that makes us human. It’s our capacity to create in our audiences this imagination, this imaginary world through words and through stories. That’s the seat of it all. That’s the source of all this stuff, for podcasts and audio projects to have that at the core of it feels like it’s connected to our universal understanding of what makes us human. And I think that’s why it’s so powerful.


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 24:40

I think they’re also very interactive. In a way that, for a lot of live performance artists who have been denied access to audiences this year, film feels like a medium beyond. I don’t think it is and I think the barriers are breaking down. But audio absolutely speaks to what any live artist wants – to get feedback sense, being able to put something out there and have an audience build on it, and make it ever bigger. And audio is a phenomenally good way of doing that online.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 25:14

Yeah, I mean, if we look at the variety of the projects of audio that The Space has worked in this year. We’ve got Soumik’s, which became a five part series for Radio 3, a different musician for each different episode. We’ve even got a bird song garden with Jeff Sample who had collected, for years and years, the sounds across four seasons in a garden in Northumberland. And then narrated and soundscaped a story around which became another five part series for Radio 3. ‘Shifts’ was something which Wayward Productions turned from a collection of interviews from frontline workers, who were deep in the centre working in the NHS at the time, early days of the pandemic, and given us an insight into what it was like. A reflective take on things which was then translated and given to a poet, who then wrote and performed aspects with a binaural soundscape, which became a project called ‘Shifts.’ You know, we’ve heard about ‘Hidden Horror Stories’ by David Rudkins, Place Prints, New Perspective Theatre, taking these hidden ghost stories, across 10 locations across the UK, that you hadn’t heard before and turning that into both a video and a podcast series.

So if that gives people an insight into what’s possible, whether it be a field recordist, whether it be a theatre director, or musician who was expected to tour but then suddenly wasn’t, I hope that tells people that audio is worth considering too. Because it does take people to that sense of place where you can escape. And I think if there’s been one thing that a lot of us have wanted to do this year, sometimes, is just to escape the anxiety, the worry, the ‘what if’ in life. And it seems to be, exactly what you said Soumik, an avenue which people are taking a bit more seriously. They’re like, ‘ah, I get this now.’ And hopefully, Fiona, we might see some more audio projects that get the green light come the next couple of rounds of commissioning. Definitely, I mean, yeah, our commissioning rounds have had increasing numbers of audio work coming through them and certainly Culture in Quarantine 2, the current open round for artists who identify as disabled – I’m sure there’ll be some fantastic audio projects coming through that. Brill. Well, look, Soumik I already know that you’re beavering away on your next project. Are you able to give us a little insight into what that might be? Or is it all still under wraps?


Soumik Datta 28:03

A little insight? Okay, I haven’t quite got…well, we’re working on it together…um…Fiona, Clare…and between us, we know that we haven’t quite got to like, you know, the public statements. But yeah, it’s a continuation of, I think, my fascination with silence which, I think someone said this on ‘Sounds of Silence,’ that as you go deeper into silence, you realise that silence is that horizon that you never reach, or you never attain. And there’s always something new to be discovered in your journey. That’s the journey that I am on, that we are on, with this new project called ‘Silent Spaces,’ which will be multi-output projects involving spaces all over the country. And I can’t wait to share it with you next year.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 29:00

One to keep an eye out for on your social feeds. Thank you very much. It’s always a joy to work with you. It’s very interesting as an associate, because sometimes, I think in the real world, we often think of almost a hierarchy. That you might think of Fiona as the absolute top dog, of me as someone kind of like here to mentor you as an artist. But actually, I think it’s a very flat structure, where we all learn and we all grow, and we all inspire each other. So, thank you for refilling my creative energy too and I learn a lot supporting you.


Soumik Datta 29:47

And vice versa. Thank you so much, Claire. Yeah, I can’t wait to see what happens next year.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 29:53

Right, well enough with the cheeseball-ness on this particular series. We promise to come back with a wider selection of cheese on another series of The Space Arts Podcast very soon. We hope you’ve enjoyed listening. Do make sure you follow, subscribe, tell a friend, share with a colleague, spam everybody that you know about this podcast. And we’ll be back very very soon. Take care.

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