In 2020, when live musical performance in New York was outlawed, singer-songwriters made a big comeback. And a lot of band people joined that crowd. After all, drums and loud guitar amps could be problematic in a back garden, or on a front lawn: forget about a clandestine indoor space. But you could bring an acoustic guitar just about anywhere.
It’s not known if Kalyani Singh was one of those many performers who helped keep live music going at a point in history when we didn’t know if it would ever be legal again. At a time when indoor live performances were legal, it was a joy to catch her playing her counterintuitively constructed songs, cutting loose with her subtle but sometimes dramatically soaring voice at a solo show at the American Folk Art Museum in the summer of 2019, after having been absolutely knocked out by another performance of hers there a couple of summers previously.
Her next gig is on Dec 22 at 6 PM at the small room at the Rockwood, an intimate space that’s well suited to her craftsmanship and vocals. She doesn’t follow standard verse-chorus patterns and writes hauntingly imagistic lyrics that invite the listener in to figure out the narrative. Escape, alienation and the search for home are recurrent themes in her work.
We have to go all the way back to 2017 for an album from her, and this one, Caught in a Blackout, is only three tracks. But they’re choice. Singh goes way up the scale into her powerful upper register in the first song, We Were Two Astronauts:
Like a girl down a rabbit hole
The pictures were forming in my head
I followed that rabbit to my death
There’s an unexpected outro and a punchline that packs a wallop
Escape Me is a showcase for her vocal harmonies. Worth, the final track, is another mighty potent one: stately Britfolk waltz for a verse, venomous anthemic chorus:
You fought me for the best seat in the house
Was it worth the view?
From where I’m standing
I can see the world for what it is
But can you?
Singh hasn’t put out any albums since then, but she does have a bunch of singles up at Bandcamp. Ellis, from right around the time of that first Folk Art Museum show, perfectly capsulizes Singh’s style: steady, purposeful acoustic guitar, powerful and dynamic vocals, and a ghostly, allusive narrative that could be about homeless immigrants in any number of eras.
This Is Where, from 2018, is a breathtaking and troubling look at how we give away our freedom all too easily, with hints of both dreampop and Indian carnatic music.
“Don’t want to be the girl you want when you’re bored,” Singh asserts with a calm understatement in New Camera, a ukulele waltz. Sleepless (Season 1), from earlier this fall, is an aptly drifting nocturne. The newest song, just out this month, is Lemon, a brooding, Pink Floyd-influenced electric ballad:
I’m terrified of getting behind the wheel again
One too many nightmares have ruined it for me
I packed the witch’s hat in the box by the stairs
I’ll savor wearing it in New York City
The lone cover up at Bandcamp is a dreamy take of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, awash in snowy reverb.