An aching heart can take shape in several forms.
Bound by love and loss, it’s often instinctive to associate it with the relationships between ourselves and others. But what if there was more? What if we looked outside our own mere experiences, seeing the world as a whole?
Well, that was just what Lil Idli understood in their newest single “Allergic” — that the condition of our land, our one true home, deserved to be grieved just like everybody else. Because with grief came healing. The healing of our bodies, the healing of our relationships, and the healing of our soil. And from there came redemption.
Based out of Chicago, this experimental pop duo of vocalist Ranjani Prabhakar and producer/percussionist Deepak Gopinath use the influence of their shared cultural roots to ignite a powerful and original sound, chock full of insightful lyricism and fibrous landscapes, woven into a soulful stream of technicolored expressions.
Growing up, Prabhakar established her talents in Indian classical voice and Western violin. Her desire to blend and uplift the two worlds — and those beyond — spurred her progression into songwriting, where she took on a commercial dialect absorbed in melodic sentiments and stacked synths. Gopinath, on the other hand, first began his journey as a drummer in the small town of Kerala, India. He eventually found himself studying the art of electronics and robotics at Berklee College of Music and the Georgia Tech Music Technology program, which certainly came in handy in the making of Lil Idli’s multifaceted sound.
With their album Mitochondria coming out later this year, the pair have released their song “Allergic” almost like a preamble to their “exploration of awakening human consciousness amidst ecological turmoil and generational shifts.” (Couldn’t have said it any better myself.) And if you didn’t catch on in the first paragraph, yes, this track details the painful effects of climate change on, not only the physical environment, but also our spiritual and cultural identities, and how these heartaches coincide.
The video showcases Prabhakar singing with deep emotion, surrounded by nature and pleading to “Let the earth be”. With a pulsing drum beat, lush harmonies, and radiant keys, the song merges the destruction of a relationship with the destruction of Earth, as if the one could not go on without the other. It’s moving, it’s perceptive, and it’s an organic depiction of human empathy and love — something the world will never get enough of.
There’s so much that could be said about a song with this kind of message — the initial idea, the development, the personal objectives, the impact of using your voice — and I was grateful to get the chance to ask Lil Idli about it.
Let’s start off by how the two of you first connected. What was it about each other that musically drew you together?
We’ve known each other eight years now, and music was always an important throughline for us. It wasn’t until a few years ago that we decided to start a band together. What drew us to it was collaborating on each other’s solo work for years and always having fun jumping in on a live set, helping on arrangements, etc. Our musical backgrounds, tastes and approaches are really different, and it started to become clear that our differences are what made the band prospect an interesting one.
Can you describe the process that goes into your development of a song?
Deepak: There’s no set process. It really depends on the song, what it needs, and where it came from inside of us. Ranjani is an avid journal writer – that is her form of making sense of the world. She has a background as a vocalist, so strong vocals, emotion and lyricism are her priorities going in. I’m a percussionist, and I majored in composition back in the day. I tend to approach the art of arrangement and production through the lens of structures and soundscapes. Either Ranjani’s or my ideas take shape first, and we help each other fill in the rest. With “Allergic”, Ranjani wrote this song a decade ago, and it was always a piece really special to her. I had the privilege to re-imagine the song sonically and produce it. It was definitely a collaborative effort, but we tend to enjoy taking turns being in our studio space alone.
What type of overall feeling do you hope to convey in your sound?
Our music is contemplative and experimental, while still in the pop sphere. It feels relatable but not always familiar. We’re drawn to music that makes you sit on a particular musical or lyrical choice for more than a minute. It gives you an overall sense of curiosity – wanting to know more about something or asking questions, maybe of yourself. That’s what we strive for, and we keep learning as we go.
What about an overall message that you might try to convey in your lyricism?
What comes up often for us is finding harmony with our past, present and future. We’re asking the question, “what do we owe ourselves and one another?” We’ve released two singles from our upcoming album – “Little Girl” which seeks to look inward, and “Allergic” which is about love and loss in relationships, and how this is paralleled in our relationships to the Earth. Both of these tracks are part of a larger theme in our album Mitochondria, named for the DNA that is passed through mothers. We want to explore our inherited lore, and how it shapes the way we move about the world today.
I respect artists who tackle tough subjects in their work, and climate change is a widely known issue that several people have spoken out on in various ways — as now you have in “Allergic.” What influenced you to join those in using your voice, and how did it stem from your personal experience/background?
Ranjani: I wrote this song nearly 10 years ago about unrequited love, and at the time, the seasons were changing with this fickle attitude. Of course at the time, I thought the earth was speaking directly to me about my personal life, as opposed to sending warning signs of a fatal global phenomenon. Cut to years later, I became a climate advocate professionally and came into community with others who have dedicated so much to this movement and who taught me so much about the ethos of building a nourishing culture that is central to the climate effort. The more I played “Allergic” in my live sets, the more it became compelling to me for a different reason.
Whether we realize it or not, we decide upon an interpretation for every life event, big or small. Then we go about life collecting evidence to confirm or validate these interpretations. This is how our personal realities are shaped. I didn’t write “Allergic” contemplating my relationship to nature, or my responsibility to our warming planet. But I realized years later that in my own heartbreak, multiple realities existed.
Do you feel an obligation to address political/social — specifically ecological — issues in your music? And why do you believe (if you do) it’s important for not only you, but other artists to do so as well?
It’s not an obligation to address political and social issues as much as it is a reflection of who we are that we are bringing to our work. Our existence is inherently political. It is more important to us that we prioritize being honest and being open to ask questions, investigate, and bring forth perceptions of reality through our music. Artists have a platform to reflect the world back to us – it is an incredible privilege and a huge responsibility. We don’t think all artists should or can address every issue, but amplifying messages is simply what we do.
In the simplest of ideas, what is your solution to this relational crisis of the spiritual and environmental?
“Allergic” is about the complexity of hope and grief felt from witnessing the weathering of our planet and its people. It shares a crucial aspect of our global crisis that doesn’t get named: The climate has always been a project for colonial powers. At the core of our crisis is not simply that the earth is warming, but that spiritual and cultural identities have been devastated in the process.
A solution lies within our music video itself. We must remember that we as humans ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. The character in yellow reflects the grief and anguish of this separation, and the character in green embodies the lusciousness of nature, showing us a reality that could have been had this connection never been broken, or what can be if we start to heal this disconnection. We end the music video with a quote by the Lakota musician and speaker Tiokasin Ghosthorse: “We must realize this important distinction: we are not defending Mother Earth. We are Mother Earth protecting herself.” We hope “Allergic” helps us continue conversations about relationships, reciprocity, and what we owe each other in these times.
Can you discuss the making of the music video for “Allergic”? What was that experience like? Any challenges along the way?
Making the music video was a transformational experience for multiple reasons. First, it was really affirming to see a song written and conceptualized a decade ago come to life before our eyes, with a team of people we couldn’t have even dreamed up 10 years ago. It felt like many stars aligned to finally service this piece with intention and beauty. Secondly, it was really powerful to work with director Sanjana Sekhar again, this time in person. It was a skeletal crew – Ranjani from the band, Sanjana as our director and filmmaker, and our older sister Janani who was our production assistant, wardrobe, hair and makeup support, and occasional gaffer. We all shared a cabin together near the filming location, and there was something really profound and special about three brown women reclaiming space in the outdoors, bringing our entire selves to the project, and taking care of one another in the process.
The prep work for some of the more intense scenes was really an exercise in trust. We had many conversations with Sanjana beforehand that confirmed we share the same ethos and mindset around the concepts of reciprocity and our relationships to nature. Walking onto the set, there was already an inherent trust in each other to bring our best to this project in service of something bigger than ourselves, and that helped us accomplish some of the more emotional scenes. Sanjana’s leadership style as director comes from a place of deep empathy and collaboration. When that spirit radiates from the top, it becomes easier to let your heart, mind, and intuition guide you to bring your music to life.
Sanjana (filmmaker): Making this music video involved a weekend in a cabin in the mountains, dawn wake-up calls to catch first light, long conversations about our human place in this world, lots of chocolate, and endless laughs. In the midst of the joy of working together and the delight of shooting outdoors amid towering trees and long grasses and cold lake water, Ranjani found a way to harness the raw emotion of heartbreak as soon as cameras were rolling. To evoke relationship, we were always thinking of ways we could see Ranjani interacting with her setting instead of using the outdoors as simply a backdrop. We see her lying immersed in grasses, we see her nearly waist-deep in a chilly lake, we see her grabbing tree branches in desperation, running her hands down bark. The camera moves and dances with our character in yellow to create a sense of turmoil and entwinement. Our more stable, peaceful shots are reserved for when we see our character in green, Nature embodied, standing proud in her lusciousness.
What additional themes could we expect to be discussed in your upcoming album
Our upcoming album Mitochondria is a concept album that explores the inherited lore that travels through our mitochondrial DNA (passed down through mothers). In this album we are exploring the idea that our mothers and grandmothers hold the portal to versions of ourselves we are yet to unearth, and that DNA holds more than genetic code; it carries memory, aspiration, legacy, and stories of both joy and trauma. Therefore, the album is dedicated to the women before us, living inside us, and echoing their own voices. “Allergic” is the second single off Mitochondria, and we hope to release the full album early next year.
Other than the album, what else could we expect from Lil Idli to finish off the year and perhaps into next?
We’re dropping one last single from Mitochondria before we release the full album. So we will be spending the rest of the year gearing up for that, making time for family, and moving homes from Chicago to Washington, DC! Thanks for listening and following us, and stay tuned.
Featured photo by Ranjani Prabhakar