“I'm in London, of course,” cackles Maya Arulpragasam. The Sri Lankan by way of the UK rapper/chatter/singer, who records under the nom de plume M.I.A., is being cynical. Arulpragasam (shortened to “Arul” for the benefit of Westerners) has no choice but to be in London. The 30-year-old is repeatedly run through mountains of paperwork every time she applies for a work visa to enter the U.S. Currently going through the same rigmarole, it's getting intense as her second album, Kala (Interscope, 2007), the follow-up to her splashy debut, Arular (Interscope, 2005), is on the verge of release. There is a good chance Arul's honest statements about her family's background — particularly her father's ongoing involvement in the Tamil Tigers' mission for separation from the rest of Sri Lanka — is working against her entry. That hasn't stopped Arul from going to numerous other spots around the globe — namely India, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, England and, when she was allowed, the U.S. — to record Kala.
The initial ideas for Kala started unintentionally in India when Arul went for a family visit and ended up with a wealth of source material. Arul's sounds have always been a combination of her Eastern roots and upbringing, as well as her Western residence and influences since adolescence.
“I made [Arular] in my bedroom in London under the umbrella of Britain: We're going to go back to caveman thinking and split everything into good and evil,” she says. “It scared the hell out of me. Talking out of my bedroom was a reaction, telling people I didn't feel like I fit in anymore. [With Kala,] I am able to answer when people ask, ‘Why are you talking about politics? Why are you talking about Sri Lanka? Why are you talking about mangos?’ I went to those places to say: ‘I'm not crazy. It does exist. It's not coming completely out of nowhere.’”
BEATS FROM THE STREETS
Arul's proximity to authentic indigenous sounds in India sparked her latent knowledge about her native temple drums. Accompanied by her brother, she started meeting people and developing a network of musicians. Not restricting herself to professionals, the enthusiastic Arul corralled any person off the street who had something to contribute sonically.
Working out of what was essentially a closet, Arul collected individuals with no set ideas about what she wanted to do with them. Unfortunately, even when she had some direction, she discovered that none of the musicians would listen until the orders came from her brother. Furthermore, Indian musicians' sense of rhythm is so complicated that Arul's simple instructions for a boom-boom-chak were met with blank stares. But she worked around that using her ever-present Roland TR-505 drum machine to create the basic rhythm she wanted the musicians to follow.
A second trip to India, this time accompanied by the main producer for Kala, Switch, was approached more professionally. Where Arul's tendency is toward a proliferation of organic sounds from unlikely sources, Switch's affinity — due to his background in house production — is toward stripped-down synthetic noises.
With Switch's arrival, camp was set up at noted Bollywood songwriter and composer A.R. Rahman's famed studio in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. With nine tea boys catering to their every need, a technician for each part of every instrument…and no shoes, the serene atmosphere was a healthy juxtaposition to Arul's exuberance.
Not shedding her propensity to drag people off the street for their contributions, Arul procured the talents of some children from four doors down — getting permission from their parents, who dressed them in their best outfits — for the handclaps on “BirdFlu.” From there, Switch and Arul created a track that trembles with African-sounding tribal chants, bursting with the intensity and ferociousness of a burning desert.
A string specialist also arrived with a plethora of string instruments, including one that he fashioned himself using coconuts, bamboo sticks and string (heard on “Jimmy”). Originally a Bollywood classic, “Jimmy,” interpreted by Arul, gurgles with the guilty pleasure of '70s variety dance television shows. A 2,000-year-old Tamil folk drum — the main sound Arul went to southern India for — is the instigator behind the singular bottom-heavy bass sounds heard on “BirdFlu” and “Boyz,” the latter of which jackknifes you in the chest while the whistles and whoops of a street fair ring out mockingly.
“Sometimes there would be a school of drummers called The Tapes; sometimes there would be one guy,” Switch says. “We would have the drummers split off on seven or eight dynamic microphones, which would be fed dry through the desk into Pro Tools. The engineers were top-notch. To get the sound we managed to get with that many drummers in the same room was really incredible.”
Once the raw drum sounds were recorded, Arul and Switch would go through each track individually to find roughly half a dozen loops to single out. Following that, the drums were layered on top of each other so they could interact in a different way than the way they were originally played, still keeping the live feel intact. From these raw tracks, Arul and Switch created their new rhythms, paying particular attention to the bottom end, which comes from drum sounds rather than bass instruments/synths. Other than some occasional synth plug-ins, the duo used Apple Logic Audio 7.2's host plug-ins for processing, tuning, compressing and EQing the drums.
When drawing inspiration for her vocals, it's the bottom end that's most alluring to Arul, most noticeable on the Baltimore-house style of “Boyz.” With the naked nature of the B-more sound and its rolling shuffle, there's a lot of much-needed space leftover for tambourines, horns, drums and harmonies.
“The bass sound on ‘Boyz’ is a Roland TR-909, which we ran through a sampler, messing with the attack and the tuning of it to mold it in with the actual bass-drum samples from the drummers in India,” Switch says. “A lot of the drums are multilayered, sampled, dropped into another and re-EQ'd. That's where the more electronic feel, like a speed-garage/UK-garage vibe, comes from. It has a similar processing applied to it.”
Switch confirms the best performances from Arul are when she feels the bone-shatteringly loud bass. That ties in with her affinity for the gaudy jangle of street sounds. The noisy blare of horns and the rings, trills and shouts of third-world cities' claustrophobic bustle are at the heart of every track on Kala. More often than not, Arul has to be pulled out of the street where she has run screaming: “I really need to, like, get the sound,” she says. “I'm like, ‘Can we just record in the street? What's wrong with you? Come on, let's go. Let's go now!’” But she got her way some of the time. Switch, armed with a laptop, a microphone and a MOTU soundcard, was better able to approach the sounds heard outside and capture them. Other times, they used a simple portable recorder in search of “the dirt and the accidents,” Switch says.
IN SEARCH OF CHUTNEY SOCA
Arul made the trip to Trinidad to explore the chutney soca sound that has become so prevalent in the area. Initially a mixture of soul and calypso, the chutney element entered with the inclusion of Indian vocals and melodies. Much like the Baltimore sound, Arul and Switch explored the flavor for vibe. And Switch was able to cater to Arul's love for the outside by recording her vocals in the open air, monitoring herself on a big sound system set up outdoors. She then overdubbed over the outdoor guide vocal with layers of vocals recorded inside.
Keeping with his method of recording dry without any processing or preamps, Switch recorded Arul in close proximity to either a RØde or an AKG mic, without a pop shield. When Switch was satisfied with a take, he worked some magic with EQ, compression and modulation and resampled and layered the parts with Arul's other vocals.
“She sounds so fantastic when she doubles up on herself after it has been processed, and she can hear how she sounds once it's been mixed and embedded into the record,” he says. “That was the blueprint for all of the songs. Once I got my RØde to sound good with her voice, I tended to make her voice sound different with each track from within the mix. As soon as I had a clean string of her — a lot of the vocals were recorded outside, hotel rooms, terraces — and once we had that thread running through it to make it sound really raw, it was then more about getting a really good take of her voice.”
Album opener “Bamboo Banga” got its start from the back end of a beat loop that Switch was working on for a remix that was never finished. After Arul dropped the first verse, Switch presented the vocal to her with loads of over-the-top, crackly and distorted echo. That spurred Arul to come up with a bunch of off-the-cuff ad-libs underneath.
“Each time that I recorded her down, I would run her through the same chain of processors and effects I'd used on the first bits,” Switch says. “She was getting something from that. We'd been so careful to avoid using deliberate delays on a lot of the tracks on the album, keeping it dry and close. It was refreshing for her to hear her voice effected in that way.”
PROCESS, SAMPLE, REPEAT
The final exotic stop in Arul and Switch's recording tour was at Bequia Island. There, Switch and Arul, joined by producer Diplo, focused on putting together all the pieces they'd been collecting. The trio worked to process, sample, reprocess and resample the musicians' parts. Noticeable samples stemmed from The Clash and classic Bollywood films of Arul's childhood, but even those were entirely transformed.
Alternatively, Switch used hardware synths such as the Korg Triton to enhance the organic elements, but sometimes other reinforcements were also needed. “Hussel” is an example of a track that was missing the driving kick drum so prevalent on Kala, so to make up the difference, Switch used Logic's ES1 virtual synth to create another drum sound to beef up the low end.
Switch is quick to give Arul generous credit on her contributions to Kala. He cites how hard she works, how informed she is on lesser-known styles of music, how many new sounds she brings to him, how specific her ideas are, how creatively challenging she is, how inspirational she is and how far she has come from Arular.
“On [Arular], I wasn't confident as a musician,” Arul admits. “[For Kala], I was coming out of a relationship. I was heartbroken. I was trying to be strong. I needed loads of support, and I didn't get it. I felt really alone. I wanted to represent being a woman. I was scrambling for role models, and there aren't any. I was desperate to grow into a well-balanced, well-rounded human being. [Kala] has all that in it: how to grow up and deal with who you are.”
DIPLO ON KALA
One of M.I.A.'s collaborators, Diplo, worked on a handful of tracks for Kala. Here's what the DJ and producer has to say about those tracks.
The message of The Clash song [“Straight to Hell”] was in tune with Maya's. Toying with the loop, I made a good beat, and it got her attention. We replayed all the parts [from the original Clash song]. Later, Switch and I did a mad job just making it all sound like a proper snap beat. He's sick with it.
Originally, I sampled this horn note from Propeller-head Reason and chopped it manually. Then I put it into Ableton Sampler, and I started to use old cheap SoundFonts: rock guitars, brass, fiddles. I use filters on it to even out the sound, at least a little. Rave was the concept for the song.
“Mango Pickle Down River”
Morganics recorded the vocals. This was recorded cheaply, probably somewhere in the Australian outback, in a town called Wilcannia. All you can do is pull out $30 dollar Sony mics, help the kids hold them and pray that they can keep a beat. The work comes later to try and make it manageable. Morganics caught a crazy vibe with the kids' vocals, the attitude and the rhythm of the song.
The bass was already nasty. It kept the same vibe from the demo — African drums, African whistle from Uganda or Rwanda, deep in the song. It sounds whistle-y, flute-y, gave it a spooky effect. That was the idea because hustling is spooky.