Madame Gandhi talks "Waiting for Me," optimism in dark times, and babies
"It's radical to remain positive, radical to remain loving."
Kiran Gandhi isn't content to be good at just one thing.
The artist, activist, percussionist, and producer — who performs as Madame Gandhi — has toured as a drummer for M.I.A, Thievery Corporation, and even Oprah. She sparked important discussions about period stigmas in 2015, when she ran the London Marathon while bleeding freely. Her 2018 TED Talk about making music accessible to the hard of hearing has drawn more than 230,000 views. She's currently working on her third EP, Vibrations, and will take part in TED2020 in late July.
While it feels distinctly of the moment, the "Waiting For Me" video was filmed in India months ago, before Covid-19 and the widespread social justice protests. Gandhi's lyrics take an unflinching look at institutionalized bias and power, yet remain resolutely optimistic.
"A lot of different things happen when we experience things like sexism or racism or oppression. Usually, we become angry because we feel disempowered. I think it's radical to remain positive, radical to remain loving. It's a testament to our own strength," Gandhi tells Inverse. "I'd like to think that my optimism and my desire to uplift is rooted in a place of being analytical, while also seeing that being positive requires an enormous amount of strength.
The official video for "Waiting For Me," released June 29.
What kind of kid were you?
I was very free, very joyful. I was always trying to build robots and Legos and dance, and be the best at the talent show and run the fastest in gym class. I was really energetic. I loved matching my outfits, I loved clothing. I used to put color in my hair. They used to have these things called hair mascara, like blue and silver and purple. I was really into Pokémon cards. I did a lot of volunteer work.
There's so much freedom in being a child, before you know about how the world constricts us. But I feel very much the same person. I also want to remember the freedom of my child self, who didn't have as many moments of self-doubt and could just be in the moment.
What was your favorite band when you were 15?
It was TV on the Radio. I know the two guys who wrote the songs, you know, they became my friends almost 10 years later. They're both Pisces, like I am. And I do think there's something there, the same way they write really heavy lyrics, with choruses that are very simple, emotional, loving, and passionate.
That's definitely how I write my music. My verses tend to be very verbose, but the choruses are very straightforward and soulful, so the song can be accessible while still delivering information and art. I never thought I would ever be writing my own music. But I definitely connected with their music because of how it made me feel, and because it felt like an expression of how I would do it also.
What piece of clothing did you wear too often in high school?
I went through this phase when I was 16, where I brought back a bunch of shoes and clothing and jewelry from India. I went to a school where you're supposed to wear a uniform, so I would always try to incorporate whatever I was allowed to within the limits of the uniform.
In the video for "Waiting For Me," you see the kids wearing a uniform but trying to break through with little pops of neon here and there. I did the same thing. I used to look like I was using the uniform to style my outfit, as opposed to the other way around.
What’s your first memory of the internet?
I was an early user of the internet. I remember being nine years old in India and setting up my email for myself. It was Kiran 59 at yahoo dot com, because five was my favorite number and because I was nine years old.
I remember finding pornography on the internet. Like, I knew exactly what it was but pretended to my parents that I didn't. I would order things from Amazon because my dad would travel to the States a lot when I was living in Mumbai. I ordered the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack and asked him to bring it back overseas. All I knew was it was a cool American show that had a cool soundtrack. So those are some of the ways I used the internet as a nine-year-old: music, pornography, and email.
What’s a truth about love you believed when you were 15?
I would watch all these movies, like The Notebook or whatever, and be so moved by the love. But I'd be way more attracted to the way the male's role was portrayed, like I always saw myself in more of the active role as the pursuer of love, rather than the object of somebody else's love.
I just didn't connect with that. I never saw myself as someone who boys would be looking for, but also I wasn't interested in that. Anytime a guy would be interested in me, I'd instantly find it disgusting. It just didn't feel right, or I felt like I was performing gender. There were a few times where I let guys take me to the prom, etcetera. But I always found it cheesy because I was the one with the better car, the better access, the better outfit. Happy to perform gender for you, man. That's not the honest truth of the situation. Like, I can get myself to the prom and back.
I think that's why it felt very easy and almost mind-blowing to step into my queerness when I did graduate [college] and actually start dating women, and find both emotional intimacy and physical intimacy with women in a way that I wasn't able to find with men, nor was I interested in finding with men. As I get older, I definitely feel like my queerness kind of spans the full spectrum. But I would still maintain that I find it way easier to be emotionally intimate with women.
What high-school teacher did you like the most and why?
I'm still in touch with her. Her name is Miss Olson and she was my seventh-grade science teacher and ended up just being a mentor of mine, through high school and into college. To this day, I love how honest she was with us as kids. I loved how fearless she was. I loved that she was young and cool. We'd make each other mix CDs. She once put a CD in my locker — it was like the sweetest thing anyone's ever done for me. It made me feel so good and so seen. It's fun to reflect on that, because that kind of person is hard to find the older we get.
What do you consider your first professional big break and why?
When I was working at the Eighteenth Street Lounge and interning at the record label. I was a senior at Georgetown and I discovered that ESL Music was in DC. I felt so inspired by the fact that my favorite record label and band was in this stereotypically non-musical town. So my biggest break was getting this gig drumming every Sunday at Eighteenth Street Lounge alongside my favorite musicians. Because of that, I got the opportunity to be their sit-in percussionist at Bonnaroo, one of the biggest music festivals in the world, in 2010.
What was your first professional failure?
It's hard to say failure, because I do genuinely believe in the universe, that we're on a path. But yeah, just seeing the career as a solo, independent musician be much more of a slow and steady growth than the quick wins I've had in the past, like getting a job at Interscope, like drumming for MIA, like drumming for Oprah, like going to Harvard, like the menstrual marathon going viral. These are all quick things that happened that were so huge, but building a musical career has been a far more slow and steady pace.
What’s your can’t-miss prediction for 2030 and why?
I definitely want babies! Like, I'm so hyped for that, to raise two little ones in this world. I'm hyped for love. I just really want to be so in love, so romantically in love like crazy. I really want that. I want to be a better producer. I want to be healthy and fit.
What would your 15-year-old self say about your latest project?
She would be like, this is so cool. And this is so us — trying to break the rules of the uniform, trying to drum with an all-female squad in the forest. She would love it.
I did take a metaphysics class when I was at Georgetown, and in metaphysics you learn the study of past selves, but you see them as individual people. So maybe that's subconsciously where I separate myself and see my 15-year-old self as like my buddy. It would be her and me, sitting side by side, like chilling.
Awkward Phase is an Inverse series with interesting people talking about the most relatable period in their life. The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.