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Credit: Zara Saraon [@zarasaraon]

Arushi Jain’s studies in delight

Delhi-born, Brooklyn-based synthesist, composer and singer Arushi Jain’s modular explorations are guided by boundless curiosity, and a researcher’s sense of wonder. On her new album for Leaving Records, ‘Delight’, she weaves enchanting vocals, organic instrumentation and elements of Indian classical music into her unique electronic framework, reflecting on love, longing and the nature of beauty. Tara Joshi learns more

“I read this quote the other day that really resonated,” Arushi Jain recounts over a video call. “It was this idea that, without a practice, life is just a series of consecutive events. Without a question, without a research desire — like a thing that you’re working on figuring out and inspecting continuously over your lifetime — it is just a series of random events.”

This philosophy of zealous curiosity is something that feels core to the Delhi-born, Brooklyn-based synthesist, composer and singer’s artistry. Working primarily with modular synthesisers, she creates vivid, arresting soundscapes that pull from different times and geographies, but feel in a realm of their own. Her debut album under her own name, 2021’s ‘Under The Lilac Sky’, was a stunning testament to discovery, utilising and deconstructing Indian classical structures to weave soothing, dusky electronic melodies. Its follow up, ‘Delight’, out now on Leaving Records, builds on that, leaning further into her desire for exploration and learning by trying out new approaches.

“My music is research on audio, on Indian classical, on my own self in my emotional paradigm, on combining cultures that weren’t meant to be put together,” she says. “And then from a technical perspective, it’s research on: how do you execute certain types of sounds that an instrument might not be able to do?”

Jain is speaking from her home studio in New York. She's surrounded by big, verdant plants, and colourful prints hang on the wall behind her. Then, of course, there’s her musical set-up: the myriad kaleidoscopic wires, the synths, the MIDI controllers, the dark wooden tanpura — an Indian classical drone instrument made partly from gourds or pumpkins — leaned against the wall. In conversation, Jain’s inquisitive nature shines through, giving the impression that she is learning and realising new things about her work in real time. She speaks in thoughtful, generous tangents, surprising herself as things come up that she had not previously considered. She exudes the gleaming kind of wonder that is manifest throughout ‘Delight’.

Photo of Arushi Jain wearing a beige dress with glove details against a brown background
Credit: Zara Saraon [@zarasaraon]

“My music is research on audio, on Indian classical, on my own self in my emotional paradigm, on combining cultures that weren’t meant to be put together.”

Though there has been a tendency since her emergence to frame Jain as some kind of fusion artist, or someone primarily making an electronic version of Indian classical music, she is understandably reticent about being pigeonholed. As she puts it: “Indian classical is just one of the things on my mood board”.

Listen to her NTS show, GHUNGHRU, and this quickly becomes evident; she touches on a vast range of sonic references. Over the course of our conversation, she talks about everything from jungle to folk to experimental to orchestral to Céline Dion, alongside her lifelong love of Indian classical. “I have photographs of me as a kid with the harmonium, sitting next to my mom, singing, and I’m five years old or something,” she laughs, recalling her extended family household in Delhi. “But it was all just casual. It was never meant to be like, ‘This is what you’re going to do with your life.’”

Still, music was a huge part of her existence. Jain joined her school choir, competing nationally, and was a member of the Mozart Choir of India at the Ravi Shankar Institute in Delhi, through which she performed in Austria. This was all alongside her home lessons, where different teachers came over the years to teach her ghazals, Sufi, and other classical song styles. But when Jain moved to the States to study Computer Science at Stanford, she struggled to find a music community. Because she had grown up in choirs, singing all kinds of different music, she didn’t just want to sing Indian classical, but she didn’t want to abandon it entirely either. Ultimately, she decided to switch her focus, directing her energy into her studies and the intellectual community around her.

It was a challenging juncture to arrive at from such a musical upbringing, but the experience would prove rewarding in its own right. She says being surrounded by entrepreneurs and self-starters was “pivotal” to what she’s achieved with her music today. “The people around me showed me, by example, that you can make things happen for yourself, there was natural confidence in my peers that I drew a lot from observing,” she says. “A beauty of programming is that you experience in action the power you have to bring what you see into the world, and that helped me find the confidence to start releasing music, on my own, via GHUNGHRU, once I started writing.”

In 2016, her senior year, Jain happened upon sound synthesis, taking a class via Stanford’s renowned Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics’ Laptop Orchestra (AI electronic music auteur Holly Herndon is also an alumna). And so, Jain began to experiment with modular synths, and was soon awash with a new feeling. “When I first started working with my synthesisers, I had this moment where I was just staring in disbelief at my instrument,” she gushes. “Making music is something that I’ve discovered for me in my lifetime that I will never give up on.” It was a moment she describes now as her one experience of “pure, unadulterated delight”.

Photo of Arushi Jain performing live under a sparkling purple and yellow light
Credit: Jordan Munns [@jordankmunns]

Eight years later, Jain is still trying to get back to what she calls “that ‘aha!’, that feeling of connection not just to the thing you’re working on, but to the wider world”. It’s part of what drives her persistent curiosity and openness to discovery.

Thus, we arrive at her gorgeous second album. Having grown up as a vocalist, 2021's ‘Under The Lilac Sky’ was intentionally about Jain finding her feet through her new instrument. “It felt almost like it would have been a cheat to just sing something beautiful on that album,” she explains. “I wanted to figure out how to make the synthesiser sound beautiful.” To that effect, her voice served a soft, almost decorative purpose, in gossamer fragments that felt just out of reach.

This time around, signalling her growth in confidence with the synth, she’s bringing her voice more into the foreground; now it paints over her gentle drone landscapes and percussive terrains like effervescent watercolour. Again, she brings it back to that research mentality. “I had new questions with my voice that were important to explore. I’m still exploring my style, but I generally think of the voice as a part of an orchestra, as an instrument in this ensemble.” For Jain, coming from a musical foundation of community — of singing with family or else in choirs — this approach makes sense. “From the beginning, I’ve always been part of groups; my voice has always been one of many, not the lead.”

Hence, her love of orchestral sound design. On Jain’s previous album, she had treated her modular like a “mini orchestra”. This time, she wanted to see if playing with acoustic instruments and inserting them into her electronic world would bring new life to her sound. On the aptly titled ‘Imagine An Orchestra’, for instance, we hear vibrant cascades of flute. But also, she says, the album holds unrecognisable manipulations of instruments like saxophone and cello. It adds to a sense of hazy sumptuousness that permeates from opening track ‘Still Dreaming’ onwards, with its airy distortions and dappled flecks of strings.

There’s a burgeoning glow and gentle, fluttering euphoria to the record. It feels like a small nod to dance music, most notably on the glitchy, building ecstasy of ‘Play In The Void’, and final track ‘You Are Irresistible’, which crescendos as she sings in delicate coils about being drawn to an alluring beauty. But, while she doesn’t rule out making a dance record later in her career, especially as someone who loves dancing in New York’s underground clubs, for Jain there’s a distinction between “euphoria” as a collective experience, and “delight” as something quite intimate, quiet and personal. This album is about the latter.

Photo of Arushi Jain wearing a beige dress with glove details against a brown background
Credit: Zara Saraon [@zarasaraon]

“I had new questions with my voice that were important to explore. I’m still exploring my style, but I generally think of the voice as a part of an orchestra, as an instrument in this ensemble.”

Jain weaves Raga Bageshri — a melodic Hindustani framework — as a thread through it all. Through songs such as the siren-like ‘I Surrender’ and the rippling ‘Our Touching Tongues’, swathes of electronics and acoustics meld with her liquid voice to create a lush, twinkling intensity that sits in your chest. ‘Delight’ speaks of longing, desire and, in its undercurrent, of the bittersweet despair that maybe you will never feel that bliss again. For Jain, Bageshri evokes epic kinds of love, and the grief that inevitably sits hand in hand with that kind of elation. “You might only get that a few times, maybe even just once,” she concedes. “You might spend your whole life searching for it again, and not find it. So there’s a sadness to that.”

The album’s artwork depicts her staring out behind a sheet of water, in reference, she says, to the element’s cleansing and cathartic properties. Jain recorded ‘Delight’ in a makeshift studio in Long Island, close to a beach, but gazing out into a forest. Perhaps that’s why you can hear a sense of yearning on the record — this persistent quest for delight, and her unique experiments in modular synth, can be solitary processes, a far cry from the communal music that filled her youth.

Despite this, and although Jain's creative practice exists entirely in its own lane, she is far from alone. She relishes in bouncing ideas around with her tech peers, and in dancing amid the collective euphoria of the club. Her music is resonating with audiences the world over, beguiled by her expansive sound. ‘Delight’ is an album of ambition, stepping things up creatively, and fulfilling that earnest desire in Jain to keep actively pursuing her practice. “It’s this idea that you have to have invested time and energy consciously and have the discipline to follow through on your question — that you have to kind of become an expert at the thing before you’re able to see all the beauty that might come out of it.” It’s an inquisition, she says, asking things of her practice like: “‘How do I do this? Where do I go from here?’”

Arushi Jain is committing herself to the discipline of these questions for the rest of her life, pursuing beauty and delight in new ways. “I’m going to view myself as a researcher and follow my curiosity, both from a technical perspective but also from a compositional, music theory perspective of things that I want to know,” she says, ever-restless and exuberant. “I’m going to learn how to do them and I’m going to get to a state where I’m able to see all of the beauty and all of its fullness... because I don’t think I’m there yet.”

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s interview with Anetha on her debut album celebrating feminine energy here

Tara Joshi is a freelance music writer. Follow her on X @tara_dwmd

Pics: Zara Saraon (@zarasaraon)
Jordan Munns (@jordankmunns)