Members: Magnus Mehta, Jimmy Le Messurier, Lilli Elina
Interviewee: Magnus Mehta
Occupations: Instrumentalists, producers, composers, performers
Current Release: Penya's Penya_Remixed EP is out via Liminal. The EP features remixes by Village Cuts, Lorenzo BITW, El Buho and Danalogue.
[Read our El Buho interview]
[Read our Danalogue interview]
Recommendations: “The Road to Wigan Pier” - George Orwell; “Infidel - My Life” Ayann Hirsi Ali
If you enjoyed this interview with Penya and would like to stay up to date on their music and creative activities, visit the official Penya website. Or drop by their profiles on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was a professional percussionist for about 20 years before dipping my toes into music production.
I became fascinated with the endless possibilities available from combining the different sounds from the percussion collection I’d amassed from years of travelling and studying with different percussionists from around the world.
The initial inspiration for this journey came from a 6 months period I spent living in Havana, Cuba, studying and enjoying the rich musical traditions out there - it resulted in me taking similar trips to places like Marrakesh, Kerala, and Istanbul.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I became interested in music production in my mid 30s.
I started out as a classically trained musician, studying Timpani and Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and initially embarked on a career playing in symphony orchestras. I then embarked on a period of expanding my musical knowledge through travel. I spent time studying and performing in Cuba, Turkey, Morocco and Tanzania as well as studying with many percussionists here in the UK.
I think all of these experiences have fused into what we are doing with the Penya project, and the production skills are something that I’ve come to recently as I realised I needed to learn this in order to be able to continue the artistic journey I was on.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’m a mixed race kid - my father is Ugandan Indian and my mother is from Fife in Scotland. If anything, the notion of positive cultural fusion has always been something that I’ve found attractive and interesting and I think my parents instilled that in me just by having me as their son.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I decided I wanted to produce music, I had absolutely zero technical knowledge, but had already been a professional musician for about 20 years. I was always busy with playing work, so my only option was to book studios and to go in and work with whoever the engineer was to try and create tracks as best as I could, and to learn in the process. I spent alot of money, often without success, but in the process learnt that there are no short cuts - If you have a sound in your head you want to make, you just have to work it all out for yourself.
So I pieced it together gradually, to the extent that now I have my own home studio which is a fully sound proofed, acoustically treated 30 metre square room where I can create music whenever I like, or, more accurately, whenever my 3 year old son allows me to!
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
By the time I started to get into production, I had been a percussionist by trade for about 20 years. My first studio grew out of my percussion store room in my old flat in Peckham, London. It was basically a small spare bedroom that was full of percussion instruments from around the world to the extent that it was almost impossible to get into the room!
Aside from the percussion I had one microphone (an AKG 414) one analogue synth (an Arturia Microbrute), a very cheap entry level audio interface made by Focusrite, and I used Ableton and Pro tools software to record. Penya’s first album “Superliminal” (2018) was recorded entirely in this room on 1 microphone!
During the first lockdown my family and I moved from Peckham to a new house in Beckenham. Our new house has a large (30 metres square!) double garage in the back garden, and we moved with the intention of converting this into a recording space. The studio build was massively delayed due to covid, but now it’s finished I have a beautiful, fully sound proofed and acoustically treated room. I now have the capacity to record bands live (16 tracks at once) and am gradually expanding the capacity of the space in terms of mics, synths, monitoring etc.
I am the type of percussionist who enjoys a wide a variety of sounds, and these instruments takes up ALOT of space. Living in London and finding affordable space to store instruments, let alone having the ability to get them out of cases, practise and maintain them has always been a bit of a nightmare, so this new space has solved so many of these problems in one go - I feel extremely lucky!
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
The ability to travel internationally relatively cheaply combined with my love for percussion has had a profound impact in the way I produce music.
The more I have travelled, the more percussion traditions and instruments I have been able to discover and learn from, and all of this has contributed to the percussion driven sound that you hear on the Penya records.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Penya is all about collaboration, artistic growth and discovery.
As a band we play and write together as much as possible in my studio, but during lock down this morphed quickly into file sharing, and many of the artists we collaborate with live in all corners of the globe. The three of us in the band have become close friends and we share similar, although at times different, tastes in music. Time spent on the road touring is a great place for us to discuss and refine our approach and creative direction.
Sometimes though I think artists can talk themselves into a corner, so for me I think the best thing is to be in the moment with the band in the room actually making stuff.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I am a free lance musician so everyday is completely different
If I am at home in the studio I can be working on some percussion tracks for someone elses project, or I can be setting the studio up to record Penya, or often we’ll being working on Lilli’s vocals. Or, I can be editing a track of my own, or editing a Penya track. Or I can be drowning under the pile of endless admin that generates itself from the small label that we run - I’ll often have to run to the post office to post a few vinyls.
Ideally, I’ll spend the first 2 hours of the day creating something completely new and I find this to be the best time for inspiration - however it often doesn’t work out this way!
Being a dad has forced me to be much more selective and efficient with how I spend my time. I tend to find myself turning down work offers that I would have other wise felt obliged to do if I’d had more time on my hands!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
“Probably Penya’s first album “Superliminal” - not because it is particularly technically great as a production - it really isn’t! And not because it was hugely commercially successful - it wasn’t !
It means alot to me as it acted as an artistic gateway into becoming a music producer - it was something that I had never imagined I could do up to that point, and the success it did have was very encouraging”
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
You just have to start - that may seem like a stupid thing to say, but when you first start trying to make stuff, there isn’t really an “ideal state of mind,” I don’t think. The creative mind is like a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly in order to develop it’s ability to deliver on demand, as it were. If that’s what you want to do with your life, you have to commit to that idea for a long time, and get into the habit of creating regularly. Even then, sometimes inspiration just deserts you !
One thing I would say is that regular exercise and fresh air can free you mind up tremendously, and taking regular and frequent breaks is very important. Also, check out Wim Hof breathing excercises for calmness and focus.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
My sense of the power in music tends to reveal itself at live shows where there can be an uplifting communal sense of “oneness” between the musicians and the audience.
In that sense the lockdown period has been distressing for many musicians who have not only lost their income but also their outlet for this sense of joy and awe.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
For me personally, as a mixed race kid, I’m not so interested in the supposed cultural/ social / gender speciality of art per se. I’ve always been interested in and inspired by the notion of encouraging cultural fusion in a positive sense.
However, it’s true to say that Penya’s music is deeply influenced by the music and culture of Cuba and our music makes many direct references to (for example) the Lucumi spiritual tradition. Penya’s Jim le Messurier has infact been so deeply influenced by this spiritual aspect of Cuban music that on one of his many trips to Cuba, he was initiated into the religion as a santería priest and is also a member of the fraternity of Aña drummers
So, as none of us are actually Cuban, the appropriation question does arise, and whenever such a question does come up, we will discuss this with Jim in depth, and between ourselves comes up with an approach that feels right.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
The connection between dance and percussion is very inspiring.
Most of the different percussion traditions I have come across on my travels are intrinsically linked and mirrored by dance traditions and so the visual aspect of rhythm becomes very cathartic and exciting in this way.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I’m interested in exploring the positive cultural fusion that seems (to me) to be inevitable as our world becomes more interconnected. Cultural fusion as a passage way to breaking down old tribal barriers and unhelpful notions of identity and tradition that may exist
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
It seems that rhythm in particular has the ability to connect and unify people in a very direct and immediate way.