Video directed by Angie Scarpa.
All photos by Larry Hirshowitz.

Asha Puthli: KCRW Live from HQ

Intimate performances, fresh sounds, and candid conversations with a view.

Asha Puthli is a relentless innovator. The Indian singer, songwriter, dancer, model, actress, and robust thinker has spent her life in pursuit of creative expression. Now, at age 79, she’s finding new ways to broaden her reach.

Having trained in Indian classical vocal technique and Western opera during primary school, Puthli found herself more interested in exploring the vocal jazz and soulful pop styles that she found via transmissions from outlets like Voice of America and Radio Ceylon. She began singing with local bands around the age of 13. By the late 1960s, she achieved her goal of traveling to the United States by landing a job as a flight attendant for British Airways, despite already being well established as a musician in India. The job got her to New York, where Puthli auditioned for modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and received a scholarship to study with the famed choreographer’s company. The move to New York further expanded Puthli’s creative reach, where her ethereal vocal style was sought by free jazz vanguard Ornette Coleman for his 1971 opus, Science Fiction


Asha Puthli’s singular shine appears to transcend all space + time.

Her most impactful contribution around this time, however, was her 1976 album The Devil is Loose. In a year where radio-ready disco pop hits were so ubiquitous that even the parody track “Disco Duck” became a No. 1 hit, Puthli’s LP took the cosmic-disco-funk template she’d established on her eponymous 1973 LP further into the stratosphere, particularly on the standout track, “Space Talk.” The jazz funk classic was ahead of its time, and the marketing limitations that Puthli was facing from her Western record label were becoming all too apparent. (The track later made it to outer space.)

As Puthli balanced the demands of parenthood by recording primarily for Bollywood, her earlier music found new life as a sample on tracks by The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, Redman, 50 Cent, Diplo, and more. “Space Talk,” in particular, morphed into a big ticket item for the crate-digging community of DJs, producers, and hip-hop beatmakers in the 1990s and 2000s. Eventually, her Millennial son would clue her into the high prices her records were fetching as collectibles, and she used this information as the impetus to sue (amicably) for royalties from “Space Talk,” especially from it’s most prominent sample in The Notorious B.I.G.’s “The World Is…”. Around the same time, she won her 14-year legal battle with CBS Records to regain the rights to many of her groundbreaking 1970s records.

All of this renewed interest in Puthli’s artistry has amplified her eagerness to engage with the younger generations of tastemakers who revere her — most recently as part of Naya Beat’s quintessential collection of Puthli remixes, Disco Mystic: Select Remixes Volume 1. Decades into her illustrious-yet-twisty career, Puthli has embarked on her first international tour with a full band — complete with the steady beat of Shawn Lee (the Silver Fox himself) on the drums. Lee, Puthli (lead vocals) and the rest of the band members — Terry Lewis (guitar), Carl Hudson (keys), Ernest McKone (bass), Steve Haney (percussion), Adryon de León (backing vocals), and Todd Simon (trumpet) — stopped by KCRW’s Annenberg Performance Studio where Puthli played her second full-band show in 40 years (the first being a few days prior at Zebulon). 

The cosmic performance captures the visionary diva commanding the crowd with the simple power of her facial expressions, hand gestures, and singular voice. Watch the video above for the group’s stellar delivery of classics like “Flying Fish,” “Lies,” and (of course) “Space Talk.” Plus, she goes deep in conversation with KCRW’s Novena Carmel: Puthli breaks down touring for the first time at 79, offers unvarnished thoughts on some of her most prominent samples, and reflects on her close friendship with pop art icon Andy Warhol. Peep that below (trust us, it’s worth it). 

And if you're bound for Glastonbury 2024, make sure to plan your experience around her 12:30 p.m. set on Friday, Jun. 28 at the West Holts Stage.



Credits:

KCRW Music Director: Anne Litt
Interviewer: Novena Carmel
Directors: Kylie Hazzard and Angie Scarpa
Editor / Colorist: Angie Scarpa
Camera Operators: Milana Burdette, Kylie Hazzard, Ali Ivosevich
Recording / Mix Engineer: Katie Gilchrest
Assistant Engineers: Nick Lampone (Front of House), Hope Brush
Executive Producer and Interview Editor: Ariana Morgenstern 
Producers: Anna Chang and Liv Surnow
Digital Producer: Marion Hodges
Digital Editorial Manager: Andrea Domanick
Lighting Design: Jason Groman
Art Director: Evan Solano

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