Singer/songwriter Rupa Marya grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but her childhood included long stints far away from the U.S. That multi-cultural upbringing is reflected in the music she creates with her band, Rupa and the April Fishes. Rupa prefers to use just her first name in interviews, in part to separate her music from her other profession: practicing medicine at U.C. San Francisco. She stopped by recently to talk with The California Report's Scott Shafer.
SCOTT SHAFER: I want to begin by asking you about your upbringing. You were born here in California and spent some time here but then you went back to India to live with your grandparents at the age of four. Tell me what kind of music you were listening to as a little girl.
RUPA MARYA: I was surrounded by a bunch of different styles of music. My father was a fan of Willie Nelson and Roger Miller and old 1930's Bollywood soundtracks and classical Hindu music. And my mother, who was going to be a concert pianist, she was a fan of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Bach and the Beatles, so I was sort of immersed in this soup until the age of 10 when we moved to France.
SHAFER: And your first album was primarily in French I believe, and your second one mostly in Spanish and this new one, "Build," is primarily English with a little bit of Mayan dialect in there. Talk about that process of writing in a different language.
RUPA: That palette of languages is so beautiful to me -- the rhythm and the inherent lyricism in a particular language. I say our first album is for the bedroom, the second album is for the kitchen and the third album now is for the garden. And on this latest album, "Build," I've been playing more with putting more than the same language in the same song, which is something I started doing on the last album. And it feels exciting to be able to pull from this gumbo to create kind of a pastiche and collage sound of languages.
SHAFER: That's a great segue way into one of the tracks on the new album, called "Electric Gumbo Radio." Anything you want to say about it?
Rupa Marya joins California report host Scott Shafer at KQED studios.
RUPA: It's a wake up call. It's time to wake up and hear it's not just an Arab Spring, it's not just an Occupy movement, it's not just those crazy Greeks, it's something that's happening world over. And it's been a real privilege for the last four years to be on the road, travelling as a musician, because I see my role as a mendicant, like someone who's travelling old-style from town to town, from area to area, and we end up in all these places where the dialogue is incredible.
SHAFER: How do you think about politics, and how do your politics fuse into your music?
RUPA: Well, I see as an artist, that my job is to be a witness to life and to recount it in a way that not only describes what I'm seeing, but elevates the discussion. And it greatly influences my music to witness who's disenfranchised, who's voice is invisible, what kind of suffering is created because of that invisibility, and that is not only influenced by my work as an artist, but also as a doctor.
SHAFER: You are a physician and a professor of medicine at U.C. San Francisco. How do you balance those things? They seem so different, the demands are so different.
RUPA: For the last eight to nine years, I've been working part-time at UCSF, so six months in my duties as a physician and then six months on the road. This last year has been an interesting period because I am purposefully trying to practice medicine for free, so when I'm in the San Francisco area or even on the road, to see my work in medicine, as a gift is creating an interesting dialogue in my own mind about what does it means to be a physician? What is the role of a physician?
SHAFER: Are there ways in which the patients influence your music or your songwriting?
RUPA: Oh for sure. Sometimes it's very specific and detailed. The song "Metamorphosis" is about those changes that we can't stop, that we actually have to go through where we'll never ever be the same.
SHAFER: Some of the music on "Build" is very personal, like the title track, but I'm wondering if there's one song in particular that you like, that you're proud of that you really like listening to or playing?
RUPA: I would say the title track, "Build." For me that song came out of a sense of disillusionment of our political process in the United States. How representational democracy doesn't really represent the people - people who are making decisions are very often representing their own interests or the interests of the corporations that keep them in power, so how can we mobilize our own creative force, our own creative edge to creative what we want in our society.