Ginla Is Defying All Labels
Ginla’s music refuses to fit into any one genre. Consisting of best friends Jon and Joe, the duo is inspired by everything from house music to rap and classical Indian songs. The two met at Berklee College of Music after being assigned to the same ensemble, and haven’t stopped playing together since. Moving from a focus on production to a newfound love of songwriting, their latest releases, “Crown I”, “Crown II”, and now “Cub”, pair emotional lyrics with powerful sounds that live somewhere between synth and pop music. We sat down with Jon, one half of Ginla, to talk about the new record, songwriting, and his musical childhood in India. Take a listen to Ginla’s new song “Cub” below.
How did you guys meet?
Joe and I met at music school. At Berkeley they have this like ridiculous program where they test you and make you play, give you a number, and put you in these ensembles. Joe and I ended up in this ensemble called the World Jazz ensemble and met there. The school sent us aound to play gigs and jazz festivals.
The World Jazz ensemble? Do you play jazz?
Well I didn’t really come from a jazz background. Joe did—he grew up playing jazz and he was really, really good. I was born in India and grew up studying Indian music, so they were like we don’t know what to do with you and threw me in the World Jazz ensemble [laughing]. I grew up playing a lot of Latin music, Cuban music and Brazilian stuff. We met in that context and became friends. We practiced together, and then started playing music in a band together for two or three years.
You just had new music come out! How are you feeling?
I feel pretty good. It’s always nice to release new music. You work on something for so long and when it finally comes out there’s a sense of release and closure.
How do you think that it compares to some of your previous projects?
I would like to think it’s better because we both got a little more comfortable. Neither of us sang on the last EP, so that was a new endeavor. We never took writing seriously until after college, so we’ve spent a lot of time freaking out like “is this a song? What makes a song? We sound horrible singing! Oh my god!” This past round we started to get a little more comfortable with ourselves.
Where and when did you work on Crown I / Crown II?
Joe and I work on our own a lot and then we come together and have a bunch of ideas, totally done or half done. We did that for like six months and then we met up. I had a friend from college who had us dog sit for him in Chelsea, so I was able to sublet my apartment and quit my job. Joe and I were living in this one bedroom in Chelsea taking care of two Shih Tzus. We did that for five or six weeks, and then took a break for a week, and then I went to Toronto for two months. So I guess around a year.
How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never heard it?
I guess I’ve been using the word alternative because you can’t place it. I really don’t like being called synth-pop or indie rock. It’s fine because I realize that people have to label stuff some way. I’m really bad at answering this question. I’m like I don’t know! I make songs and I produce them on my computer and I use sounds that I think are cool and I use real instruments and technology.
I have to ask, why the name Ginla?
Honestly we tried for so long to find a name. We had both agreed that we wanted a word that wasn’t a word so that people could just think of our band when they heard it. We drew a bunch out of a hat, but that didn’t work very well. We tried that many times. There’s so much branding today, and it’s a bit of a doozy sometimes. At the end of the day I just hope that the music that we make speaks for itself, whether or not we’re wearing cool shoes.
What’s your favorite song that you’ve made so far?
It changes. I think my favorite songs on the record might be the ones we just put out. The duet that Joe did with our friend Naima was really beautiful, and recording that was so fun. We put microphones outside the studio window one night because the track just needed more noise. The song has this crescendo at the end and as it crescendoed a plane flew overhead and we both froze. We were like no way, that’s the most perfect ending. So we left that in.
How did you decide on the cover art for “Crown I” / “Crown II”?
We both have a really good friend in Toronto who does graphic design, and she was one of the first people we showed the album to when we were done, in like January or February. The next day she was like “I was really inspired” and she just sent us back like fifteen covers. It was like “Holy shit! We love all of them!” So we decided to run with it.
Tell me more about your background. You grew up in India?
My dad’s family is British and South African, and he was living in London in the 70’s and decided to quit his job and move to India. My mom was a modern dancer in New York and she was pretty successful, but she broke her foot and decided to take a break and move to India. They met there, got married, and I lived there until I was 6 or 7. I moved around a lot growing up. When it came time to start learning instruments in school everyone was like “Play the trombone!” or the piano or whatever, and I was like no…I want to learn the tabla, which are Indian drums. I got really into Indian classical music. When we lived in Saint Louis there was this amazing sitar player who taught at Washington University. I became close with him and would go to his house like three days a week and iron his clothes and cook dinner and practice for four hours. At school all my friends were listening to hip hop and Nelly was blowing up. I hid the fact that I played Indian music. I also started to make beats to try and be cool, and I also liked rap music a lot. So I think that’s how I started with music—I was really into Indian music and making beats, and as I got older I didn’t want to have two separate lives.
How did you transition from Indian classical music to making your own stuff?
I went to Berkeley for tabla. I just auditioned on tabla and they gave me a scholarship and I checked out from high school. But once I got there I realized pretty fast that I didn’t want to play tabla at all. All of the opportunities were like “hey bro, wanna come play with our didgeridoo band?” It’s just like oh, it would be so cool to have a weird instrument on board. So then I started playing drums because I wanted to be in the position of the drummer, not just some weird guy with a freak instrument [laughing]. So my first year I practiced drum set all day, and started playing drums in bands. Joe and I were playing in a bunch of bands, and through that I realized I wanted to start making my own music. It was sort of frustrating and really inspiring to play with all those people, but I started to see where I had my own ideas.
What musicians influence you the most?
I think my influences are constantly changing. Every six months I hopefully have new influences, and sometimes the people who influenced me two years ago I don’t like now. Or somebody I really hated, but in six months I’ll get it. On a musical level, I’m inspired by things that I hear that are hard to place, where you’re like “this isn’t hip hop or R&B or…” I get really inspired when you’re like wait what is this, and it doesn’t fall into a pattern.
What do you keep in mind when you’re producing your own songs? How does the production side influence your songwriting?
There’s a whole wave of electronic music that I love that is super hyper technical that I have sort of stepped back from. The past few years I’ve tried to make production take a little bit more of a backseat. I felt like having been a producer for a longer period of time, my weakness was songwriting and composition, so I’ve been figuring out how to write songs. It’s the push and pull, where I’m super inspired by so much electronic music. It’s really interesting now that everyone has a computer. With hip hop there are some smash hits that are the worst quality. You can tell that someone made it on Garage Band and it just doesn’t matter, which is kind of exciting because coming from music school you’re taught that it has to be recorded really well in a nice studio. I feel like anything is possible now. You can end up with a song on the radio that you recorded in your car.
It seems like you shift around a lot musically. What other things have you been working on outside of Ginla?
After we finished the album I went crazy and made a bunch of house music and electronic music. I finally got that out of my system. The past two months I’ve made a lot of camp-fire sounding acoustic guitar songs. And then I’ve been making really horrible pop songs. I’ve just been experimenting and trying different things. I think “Oh, what would it be like if I did this” and sometimes it turns out where you keep it and the rest of the time you throw it away and don’t show anybody.
What’s happening next for Ginla? Are you going on tour soon?
I think the goal for both of us is to be in a place where we’re making music all of the time, growing and exploring. We’re going on tour in the fall. I’m super excited. We might set up a tour in October right now, and we have November booked. We’re going with this band called Sports, out of LA, and we have the tour schedule on our Instagram. We’re going everywhere—New Orleans, Toronto, Montreal…I just really want to play. In our time off we’ve started writing, and then we’ll record a new album.
Is any tour merch on the way?
Yeah, I’ve been making these t-shirts the past six months. I have a friend who I grew up with in Saint Louis. We were best friends, and he got sent to jail when he was 18 so he’s been sending me his drawings from jail for the last 8 years. I had the idea this year to put them on t-shirts and give a portion of the proceeds to the women’s prison association. My friend owns a coffee shop in Bedstuy called Playground Coffee, so I made a run of the shirts and they sold out. We’re going to do tour merch with the designs, but I haven’t made them yet. My roommate is teaching me how to sew.
Images courtesy of Alana Derksen
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