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by Brian M. Owens

Combining elements of theater, performance art, jazz, pop and dance, the Boston based band, Jaggery, led by singer-songwriter Mali Sastri, is turning heads with their uniquely original sound.  Sastri’s life has been one of adventure and it shows in her music and the band’s stage shows.  We spoke one October day and Mali explained the origins of her music and how it continues to evolve.

Metronome:  Are you a native New Englander?

I grew up in Lexington, MA.  I moved about quite a bit until I came back here about two and a half years ago.  I went to New York a couple of times and I went to London.

Metronome:  Did music and performance art bring you to those places?

Yes.  I went to New York for a year for college and had a really rough year, hated New York and realized I had some mistakes in what I was trying to do.  At that point, I went to London to study something called Voice Movement Therapy which is an expressive a therapy that is focused on the voice.

I was in London for two years and basically my visa was up.  I loved London very much and was working with a band and had really developed my voice.  I had grown and learned a lot both as a singer and a songwriter and musician.  But if I wanted to stay in London, I would have had to enroll in more schooling and I was ready to leave.

I went to New York where my younger brother was going to NYU.  He’s an awesome musician and he was drumming quite a bit then.  He and I formed a band in New York which eventually morphed into Jaggery.  I decided to leave New York about two and a half years ago.  It was a reverse career move for a lot of people, but I felt like the band wasn’t getting anywhere in New York and we always had more success in Boston.  So part of the move was for the band and we were doing far better in Boston.

Metronome:  Did everyone who is in the band now move to Boston with you?

No.  The band is very spread out.  One person did.  My bass player, Tony Leva, originally lived in New York city but he moved to Western New York, quite a ways away from the city.  He recently moved to Boston, which has been a great boost for us.  Since moving to Boston, we’ve also started playing with a viola player, Rachel Jayson, who also lives here.  The other two members, drummer Daniel Schubmehl, still lives in New York city and the main harp player, Petaluma Vale, lives in New Jersey.  We recently started working with another harp player, Maeve Gilchrist, who is in this area.  It’s all over the place.  It’s a real juggling act.

Metronome:  How did you meet Maeve?

I found her through Facebook.  I found out, lo and behold, that she was from the Boston area.

Metronome:  Will you eventually work her into the band just for the sake of logistics with Petaluma?

It’s very possible.  We will see.

Metronome:  Did you grow up in a musical family?

Not particularly musical, but we definitely had our creativity nurtured by my mother.  Neither of my parents are professional musicians or artists, but my mother was very, very focused on the children and had a lot of radical notions about child rearing and was very serious about child development and home schooling.  The quote that she would always say was, “Where the child find enjoyment is where the child finds wisdom.”  She really allowed that.  We were very fortunate in that regard.

Metronome:  Do you have a lot of siblings?

I have a younger brother (like I said) and an older sister.

Metronome:  Is your older sister in the arts or music field?

No she’s not, but she was very into music and fine arts as a kid.  She eventually got into literature and she’s now an English Professor in the U.K.  She went the academic route.

Metronome:  What is the connection between your family and England?  Do you relatives there?

No.  It started with my sister, really.  When my sister was in college, she did a semester abroad in York, U.K.  My family was able to visit her there and fell in love with the country.  My sister kept going back.  She went to Oxford and a bunch of different places.  For me, I glamourized London in my mind as this amazing music capital of the world where so much amazing music had come out of.  It really lived up to my expectations, but it was really a matter of coincidence that this program that I was wanting to pursue, the Voice Movement Therapy, happened to be in London.

Metronome:  Did you attend a music college?

No.  When I went to college in New York, I majored in dance and biology, not studying music at all.  That was very misguided.

Metronome:  I understand that jaggery is a sugar derivative that comes from sugar cane.  Is that correct and where did you come up with the name?

An ex-boyfriend of mine suggested it when we were together.  It’s an Indian sugar.  A thick block of sugar and it has a very strong molasses taste.  It’s mainly used for cooking.  It’s not something people use on it’s own.  My boyfriend at the time was very, very interested in Ayurveda and Indian cooking.  He was very into that stuff and he knew about jaggery.

At the time, my band, which was me and my brother, were originally called The Throes.  We discovered there were a couple of other bands called The Throes and decided to change the name.  When deciding on a name, my boyfriend suggested Jaggery.  I loved the name, but my bandmates at the time did not like it, so we didn’t change the name to Jaggery.  So I kept it on the backburner and that band went on to become Quay.  When that band fizzled out, I decided to take the name Jaggery.

Metronome:  What musical vision did you have for Jaggery?

It’s interesting.  At the time that Jaggery actually formed, I was pretty devastated because Quay had broken up.  We had just finished recording an E.P.  It was really, really important to me.  Jaggery began as me saying, Alright, I don’t want to be defeated.  I want to keep going with this, but I want to make this more of a musical collective as opposed to a band with these particular members.  Now what’s happened is I have a band with particular members, which is great, but also there’s the feeling of people coming in and out as they’re available.

In terms of the vision, I feel like it’s an ongoing, evolving thing.  I was definitely very intrigued with performance art and dance and theater and stuff like that when I was in my late teens and early twenties.  The beginning of the band wasn’t very theatrical at all, but as time has gone on, it’s been a natural evolution of bringing more of that into it.  The music is very unique and strange to a lot of people which has been a discovery to me.  To me, it’s just what comes out.  I rarely try to make something strange and unique.

There are aspects that I enjoy.  I enjoy rhythmic complexity, but it’s not necessarily conscious.  More than anything, I like to create something that moves people on many levels.  I think the music is very theatrical and dramatic and we’ve learned to incorporate elements of that into our live show which we didn’t before.  We’ve learned to step it up to better serve the drama of the music.

Metronome:  When you perform live, are you sitting behind a piano, playing and singing, or are you out front, just singing?

We do a bit of both.  Generally, I’m behind a piano or keyboard, but Rachel, our viola player, is also a keyboardist.  She also knows how to play the piano very well.  In the last year, we’ve been sharing that quite a bit.  We actually just did a show where we brought in another keyboardist so Rachel could still play viola.  It was at a theater that had wireless mics, so I was able to run all around the audience and interact, which was just great.

Metronome:  It seems to me that you would prefer to do that more than be locked behind a piano, playing.

Definitely.  I can sing in a much more embodied way, not being at the keyboard.  However, the band is used to me playing the keyboard, and I am more or less the ringleader and the keyboard holds things together.  That’s an evolution as well.  I will probably always play some songs on the keyboard but more often not.

Metronome:  When you compose your songs, do you sit at the piano and flesh this stuff out?  Do lyrics come first or does the music come first?  How do you present it to the band?

There’s a little bit of a mix.  I would say a majority of the songs on our new CD, Upon A Penumbra, came from jams with most of the band.  The time in New York when we were new, every time we would get together, we would just improvise and I would record it.  I have a backlog of improvisational recordings.  Almost always we would develop a motif or repeating riff that I felt was good.  I said, I can make a song out of this.  I would then work with that jam and form a structure around it, write lyrics and make a song out of it, then present it back to the band who was already somewhat familiar with it.  That’s the majority of how those songs were written.  There are a couple of songs on there that are very old.  Songs that I wrote on my own.

Metronome:  Would you all just get together and play and whatever happens, happens?

Yeah.  Just improvisation.

Metronome:  Was there an artsy drive behind that or were you just getting together and having fun?

It was a mix of many things.  We were developing our sound as a band and getting to know each other.  It was a way to warm up, literally.  Your fingers and your voice.  But also, you can really go in to another state when you’re improvising and jamming.  It’s funny because I’ve been wanting to have improv parties.  I’m thinking of calling it Improv Therapy.  It’s getting your mind into this place where you’re just effortlessly creating.  You’re not thinking, Am I doing this right?  Just effortlessly listening to other people and adding and going on impulse.  It just feels it gets your brain in this other state.  It’s very relaxing and acts like a kind of therapy.

Metronome:  It seems to me that you’ve tapped into what guys like Miles Davis were doing in the jazz world.  They wanted to stretch out and not have musical boundaries.  Was that a conscious decision on your part?

It just developed.  I’m not a jazz fan.  There’s very little jazz that I like, but my drummer and bass player are both very into jazz.  I feel like they have brought that to the table.  My brother was into jazz.  They brought that concept in.

Definitely, the idea that there doesn’t have to be boundaries is very liberating to me.  I get very excited when I discover an artist that is doing whatever they want.  For example, there’s Joanna Newsom, who I love.  Her last two albums were so unorthodox, yet I loved them and they worked.  She had a seventeen minute song on her second album and I thought to myself, Look at this.  She doesn’t care.  People say, If you want to be popular you have to have a three minute pop song.  She just does what her muse tell her to do.  That’s very liberating to me.

Metronome:  How would you describe her music?

It’s eclectic, and a mix of a lot of things.

Metronome:  What artist has influenced you the most?

Specific bands that have influenced me range from totally poppy stuff to experimental avant garde stuff.  I do like music that pushes boundaries, but I totally appreciate pop music, as well.  Music that moved me in some way.

Metronome:  Do you like the blues?

Not particularly.  I haven’t listened to the blues much.  I have a very strange, haphazard musical knowledge as well.  I’ve been very influenced by the Cocteau Twins, and recently I was listening to Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians.  I was just a little kid when that first came out.  I was listening to that album and was very impressed because it’s very timeless.  It’s not dated.  It doesn’t have an 80s sound at all even though it came out in the 80s.  Also, she was doing a lot of stuff with very bizarre song structures.  Changing tempos and changing meters.  I realized how much that album had an effect on me within the pop realm.  I was still listening to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, but there was also this other stuff that was pop music and catchy, but kept you on your toes.

Metronome:  What made you come up with the title of the album, Upon A Penumbra?

It was a running personal joke between some of the members of the band.  Daniel had come across the word penumbra, which was something I had never even heard of.  It was part of this funny, rap that he would break out with every once in awhile over the years.  We are very close friends and joke and banter and are very sarcastic with each other.

He suggested that we call this album Upon A Penumbra which was a line from his rap.  A penumbra is this area that is both shadow and light.  We felt like that was very descriptive of the music in general and this album.  The dark and the light.  It resonated on a lot of levels.  You can’t have light without shadow.  You can’t have beauty without ugliness and you can’t have creativity without destruction and so on.

Metronome:  You played off of that theme for the album’s photographs as well?


Metronome:  I loved the song “Incestuous Tendencies.”  What’s that about?  Does it have personal meaning to you?

It’s definitely a personal song, but I think it can have universal applications.  To simplify it, it’s a song about repeating patterns.

Metronome:  “Sea of Sideways” is a cool song.  What’s that about?

That’s one of the older songs on the album.  That song is very specifically about the Voice Movement Therapy group that I was in, in London.  It was about the group’s leader.  It’s a personal song to him.  The course was very, very intense.  It was like tearing yourself apart in order to put yourself back together.  That song is me singing to the leader saying, I don’t know if I can do this.  This is impossible.  Why are you so cruel?  But also, you did just what I needed for you to do.

Metronome:  For the entire two years you were in London, were you taking that course?

The first year was much more intense than the second.  The first year was going nine to five and very structured.  The second year was much more self-designed.  I had supervision, but I was much more free.  At the time, you could either focus on performance or focus on becoming a Voice Movement therapist, in which case you would be seeing clients and learning to work with groups and one-on-one with people’s voices.  At that point, I felt like I was doing it for my singing, not to work with other people.  So I focused on performance.

One of my reasons for moving back to Boston was that this school disbanded in London, and has now opened up on Martha’s Vineyard.  For the last year and a half, I’ve been finishing up my qualification to be a Voice Movement Therapy practitioner, and work with people.  It’s been great.

Metronome:  Tell me about the song “Mama.”  Is that an ode to your mom?

Not specifically.  It’s more about the universal mother.  I was trying to get in touch with that feeling of wanting your mother.  Being a lost, scared child in an adult world and adult body, trying to make decisions and trying to make this world work.

Metronome:  “Rare Earth Element” is a very original tune.  What inspired that song?

Those are just made up words in that song.  It’s just free vocalization that came from a jam.  For me, generally, that song is just about singing out and putting out a lot energy.  Specifically, it’s just an expression.

Metronome:  What made you call it “Rare Earth Element”?

I’ll collect words or phrases that people say.  Things I haven’t heard before.  Things that I think have some sort of beauty to them.  When I found out about the rare earth elements, I just thought, those were three words that were so beautiful together.

Metronome:  Do you ever play solo?

Not frequently, but I did play one show in November.  It’s never been a regular thing.  The band does shows in all different configurations.  Rachel and I have done shows together.  I’ve done shows with just Tony, the bass player.  We’ve done shows as at rio.  All sorts of different formations which keeps things interesting.

Metronome:  Where can people find out more about you on the world wide web?

Our website is  You can find everything there.  We are also on Facebook which is, but the website is really the place to go.