WILLOW And Jahnavi Harrison Release "R I S E"

WILLOW And Jahnavi Harrison Release "R I S E"

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WILLOW And Jahnavi Harrison Release "R I S E"

“R I S E” is a unique blend of Sanskrit and English, spirituality and pop sensibilities. 

“R I S E” is a unique blend of Sanskrit and English, spirituality and pop sensibilities. 

Text: Sophie Lee

There is something mystifying about a good song. The way it moves through you, the way it overpowers a room. It’s been a while since we’ve all been able to share a concert together, but surely you remember the thrill of dim lights and a collective swaying to and fro. 

On their latest EP, “R I S E,” WILLOW (Willow Smith) and Jahnavi Harrison hope to capture that spirit of communal song. With only six tracks, their gentle harmonies and lilting instrumentals urge the listener about as close as one can get while in the solitude of national quarantine.

Smith and Harrison met at a kirtan session, pre-COVID, where Smith was in attendance and Harrison was leading. 

“‘Kirtan’ is a word in the ancient Sanskrit language that means 'praise,'” explained Harrison, when I caught up with them on EP release day. “It's a collective, it's call and response, it's sort of like the energy of a gospel choir in church when people know the refrain, the leader sings and then the crowd sings back. [For] so many hundreds, millions of people around the world, this is like a primary form of their meditation and worship and a space in which they get really uplifted in the heart.”

Smith was invited to the small gathering by some friends. She wasn’t sure what type of experience to expect but found herself transformed.

“It felt like we were all, it sounds really cliché, but it did feel like we were all one,” said Smith. “I broke down into tears at one point...It's such an ancient tradition, it's like the roots of a tree. When it's done with intention, you can feel how deep it goes, in history and yourself. That's how I want all of my music to affect people.”

“I remember you said that Willow,” replied Harrison. “The philosophy behind kirtan is that all sound has a frequency, carries a specific vibration. Spiritual sound, sound that is clearing out impurities and unwanted things from the heart, [reveals] the true brilliance that is within. We always think about wanting to become something or attain something, but at least from the view of yoga, the soul is already brilliant. It is already completely pure, perfect, and beautiful. It's just that it gets covered over and it needs to be uncovered. Sometimes I think of it like a diamond that's covered in mud because it's just been rolling down a mountain or something. You just need to clean it and then you see the incredible jewel underneath the surface.”

Smith nodded deeply at this. The two seem to share, outside of impeccable music taste and great hair, the same exact wavelength. 

“For a very long time I didn't collaborate with anyone because I was afraid of just opening myself up in that way, to have other people give their opinions or to just meet me in that vulnerable space,” said Smith. 

It’s a surprising comment given that she has been on a collaborative roll over the past couple years. Smith ended last year on a joint tour with her brother, Jaden Smith. She began 2020 with the release of “The Anxiety,” an album made with bandmate Tyler Cole.

“Just recently I've started realizing like, wow, there is a lot of beauty and a lot to be learned [in] allowing the right people into that vulnerable space. With this project, that me and Jahnavi have made, I feel like we both kind of understood that vulnerable space in each of us and respected that and were like, 'Okay, we're going to move into this very slowly and very gracefully.’”

The two put their first single, “Surrender,” together last February in a mere six hours. They hoped to record more songs shortly thereafter, but were, like many of us, sidetracked by a global pandemic. With Harrison at home in England and Smith in LA, it would be some time before the two could get back in the studio. 

“By the time we actually got together in person, we'd both been on an emotional journey through this whole world situation, going through stages of fear and anxiety and resistance and all kinds of things,” said Harrison. “In a way it almost felt like a sort of spiritual, you know, uh, what do you call it?”

“Purge?” offered Smith.

“Like a purge going through all these difficult situations. You come to this point where you're like, wow, this is the power of sound, vibration, of music. We can actually heal through this process of creation and also share something, hopefully, that helps others to heal after what's been just an unbelievable year.”

In August, Harrison was finally able to travel to Canada, where she quarantined for two weeks, and then move on to LA, where they got into what Smith calls their “zen space.” While Harrison did the majority of the writing, Smith took over production. The result of this session was “R I S E,” a unique blend of Sanskrit and English, spirituality, and pop sensibilities. 

Harrison explained, “On one level, I personally feel excited for people to learn about the meaning [of Sanskrit] because I think it's a beautiful thing to understand and go deeper into something, but I'm also fascinated by the fact that when we hear a language we don't understand, sometimes we switch off [the brain], and we just experience it. For me, Sanskrit is something that I've grown up learning. It's the language that is very commonly used within the kirtan tradition.”

“Just piggybacking off of what Jahnavi said...we get caught up in this cerebral way of looking at things and looking at the world, or just listening to music as like a microcosm of that,” added Smith. “Humanity, in general, takes things to such a cerebral place all the time. Sometimes you just need to bring it here and be like, 'Okay, how do I feel about this? Am I opening or am I closing to this?' We just want to keep opening up, just keep having that light shine.”

Harrison grew up in a family that practiced Bhakti-yoga, and lived next to Bhaktivedanta Manor, a Hare Krishna temple. For her, the mantras and spiritual illumination found on “R I S E” were nothing new. Smith, however, decided to hit the books before joining Harrison in the studio.

“I think it's really important to do your own searching, because before I felt confident enough to be like, okay, I actually want to start making music with Jahnavi, I had to learn my stuff,” she said. “I had to just do some research...before I felt confident in stepping up to the plate and being like, ‘Okay, let's create something.’”

“Growing up, I never thought of it as an Eastern thing,” explained Harrison. “It was just, this is what we do, you know? It is my hope that people listening will be, for one, open-minded if they're not familiar, but also that it perhaps sparks an interest into going deeper into an understanding of oneself. I don't expect that everyone's going to be inspired to get absorbed in the kirtan tradition, but to have an awareness that I am not of this world. This body is not all that there is. There is a spirit within this body and there's a deeper meaning to life. We keep hearing about this mental health epidemic that's going around the world more and more, much more far-reaching and more severe than COVID. Why is that happening? I think it's because of a disconnection with spirit. So my hope is that the music plays a part in a larger movement of just raising of consciousness. That would be truly wonderful if it can do that.”

“Jahnavi you hit the nail on the head!” exclaimed Smith. “How about that. Hit the nail right on the head.”

“Amen,” responded Harrison.

Neither musician seems to have any intention of ending their collaboration just yet, a good sign for fans who have already taken to the pair’s new sound. 

“I feel like me and Jahnavi have developed a really special friendship and just creative relationship, that I'm hoping, hoping, hoping will last very, very long,” said Smith. “In my heart, I'm really hoping that we get to do more live performances, do more albums, do things that are in service outside of music. I just love Jahnavi and I hope that we can just work together forever.”

“I love you too Willow,” said Harrison. “When I think about if me and Willow are going to work more together, I just imagine us till we're old ladies. Of course, I'll be a little older than her, but that we'll be like, 'Yeah, that was a good life in service together.’”

Listen to Smith and Harrison’s new EP “R I S E,” available now.

Credits: Photos by Rasa Partin.

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