Turiya is a Sanskrit word, meaning a state of pure consciousness, and in subtler terms, the silence one experiences after sound. It forms the inspiration for TURYA's name. Born Nicki Wells in South London, her upbringing spanned several continents and cultures which deeply influenced her vocal and songwriting approach, and cultivated her resonant melodies with an immersive warmth and unique quality.
These influences and experiences have helped create Ocean, TURYA's elemental debut body of work, and Echo, her latest EP.
TURYA's musical passion has far-ranging roots; there was the influence of her Swiss French Mother and her English Father (who had travelled widely in his own youth, and whose best friend at university had been the folk icon Nick Drake). There was also an early awakening, when she and her siblings were sent to school in Northern India; this was an all encompassing, inclusive experience, far from any ex-pat bubble.
“I grew up in Himachal Pradesh between the ages of 6 and 10, and just absorbed the sound, colours and culture of the region,” she explains. “When you’re a kid, I think you have the ability to easily adapt to your environment. The school was academic, but in the mornings, we’d also wake up and meditate as part of the curriculum. It was all about kids climbing trees and scratching their knees, with an emphasis on self-expression and not being saturated with materialism in a highly consumerist society.”
“There was so much beautiful nature; it was at the foothills of the Himalayas, so there was vast jungle and these epic white mountains, and that’s what you’d wake to see every day. It was also very international – we were with kids from India, America, Australia, Austria, all different parts of the world. Growing up with so many different languages and accents, I became very open to different ways of communicating. That’s how my musical ear began to develop; listening to an array of different sounds and languages."
When TURYA moved back to Britain aged 10 – this time to join her family in the Cotswolds – she embraced 1990s pop culture and performing arts, as well as drawing from varied influences for her own songs. “I was always a melody junkie,” she laughs. “I’ve gravitated towards singers who expressed themselves from a deep place emotionally, whatever the language or style.”
At 16, TURYA’s creative talent had secured her a place at the prestigious BRIT School in Croydon. Like countless young performers, this had been her original ambition – yet fate actually took her much further, and she suddenly decided to accept a place across the world: at Sydney’s own performing arts hot bed, The McDonald College. Lodging with family friends who were Blues musicians and artists, she joined several band's and threw herself into the city’s rich gigging scene, including regular jam sessions. “It was such a big musical education for me, because you had to learn to improvise, be fearless and creatively express yourself on the spot.” She recalls.
During her time in Australia, TURYA developed her passion for photography (winning youth awards for her visuals) and listened to musicians across genres and generations: from Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley to Nitin Sawhney. The latter British Asian multi-instrumentalist/composer would eventually become entwined with her own work, but TURYA vividly remembers hearing Sawhney's track ‘Homelands’ for the first time: "When I listened to its orchestral strings and a Qawwali vocalist, all of a sudden, my own experiences of living in India and the West were married together so elegantly and I thought, who is making music like that?!”TURYA would return to India at 18, to study the fundamentals of Indian classical music. “I was in a rural music academy about three hours from Mumbai," she says. "You’d wake up and start your Riyaz (practice) and exercises at sunrise, and live this very simple, focused day, studying Sanskrit Shlokas (ancient Vedic hymns) and Bhajans (devotional songs). It created a kind of framework for me.”
All of these places and perspectives helped to shape TURYA's musical scope, as she settled back into London’s music scene. It was here that a producer friend coincidentally played TURYA s take on Indian classical singing to Sawhney, who immediately heard a kindred spirit:
“The whole concept of his album ‘Beyond Skin’ was about music transcending religion, nationality and race, and someone who invites this universal feeling without barriers,” says TURYA. Sawhney invited her to join his touring band as a key vocalist, leading to her much acclaimed performances around the globe, including the Sydney Opera House, Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage and London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, including collaborations with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Her range as an independent artist and composer also continued to flourish, as she composed music for contemporary dance, theatre productions like the acclaimed Drawing The Line, and films including the young feminist doc Girl Connected, at the same time honing the original songs for her own debut album, Ocean.
“I wanted my debut album to start with something quite vulnerable and real, rather than just dressed up with fashionable sounds,” she says. ‘Ocean’ has themes of youthful discovery and eventual reconciliation and surrendering; I had to delve into my own emotional experience to really feel it, and to write from that vulnerable space. The record has that feeling of an intimate whisper, not only lyrically but even in the vocal delivery has this idea of singing into a baby’s ear. Intimate and delicate.”
From the lucid spiritual soul of the title track Ocean (“I am merely a drop carried on the current of time”) to the reflective romance of ‘Snow’, and the ethereal debut track ‘Rain’ which has already featured in Ridley Scott’s ‘Life In The Day (India)’, the album brings out the bluesy sweetness of TURYA’s vocals, and the beauty within simplicity.
She sings primarily in English, with the exception of the piano-led French reverie ‘La Neige’, lacing its tender tones with an electronic edge. ‘Ocean’ is a body of work and debut material representing an artist who is vast in her range, and clear in her emotional appeal: absorbing and elemental.
As TURYA explains: “Some of these songs are about heartbreak; some are about acceptance – the idea that, at the end of the day, we have to accept ourselves, nourish ourselves, and having that liberation of not taking yourself too seriously and just letting your hair down.”