Ashraya Gupta is a voice out of another era – though exactly what era is up for debate. She most immediately recalls the sweet, delicate voices of 60s and 70s folk singers like Vashti Bunyan, but she sings with the wispiness and tight vibrato of Billie Holiday. At certain points she even sounds even older – in her precise intonation, she sounds something like an imagined popular singer from the 19th century. All of which is to say that Gutpa has an incredible voice that is immediately loved by most everyone who hears it; describing it is almost a waste of time. But, since one paragraph doesn’t really do her justice, let’s indulge a bit.
Gupta was born in India, raised in England and Cincinnati, and at last settled down in the most un-cosmopolitan of places (Long Island). She’s been playing for years in another band–the Kitchen Cabinet. That band, upbeat and carefree almost to a fault, provided a nice breezy compliment to Gupta’s light alto. But here we get a real treat: Gupta on her own, exploring original ideas with just a keyboard to boot. Though this barebones set-up could prove monotonous or boring in another’s hands, Gupta carries these two songs with her voice alone.
A-Side “Dogwood”, built around a simple and haunting melody, finds Gupta in a near-whisper at points. The deep calm that she conveys here perfectly evokes a mood that is at once lonely and hopeful: “Damp and dim on an empty street/morning light never looked so bleak…but on a clear day from my window/I see the palisades so green like the summer/ on a clear day from my window/I see the days when first you looked at me.” It’s not hard to imagine her writing this song at her window as a kind of self-medication for those lonely cold seasons, and with her warm tone and ethereal arrangements, she welcomes you in. You’re almost right there with her, looking out. I first heard these songs while walking one weekend in the dim, airless hallways of a local housing project. Gupta’s quiet but powerful music was the perfect anecdote to that downtrodden environment.
“Great Expectations” expands Gupta’s soundscape with a minimal drum track. She sounds a bit wounded here, drowned out by the keyboards and percussion around her (if I do have one complaint, it’s that I want to hear vocals, though I suspect this is more an issue of levels than arrangement). When her singing at last rises above the accompaniment at song’s end, it’s to deliver a real kicker: “The echo chambers of this heart/ four empty rooms to tear apart.”
Both songs on this 7-inch are modest efforts that hint at something even greater for Gupta. They’re little songs that pack a tight, quiet punch. Gupta’s modesty – in setup, in delivery, in scope – suits her minimalist aesthetic, and puts the focus of her music where it belongs: on her voice. Where many solo records disappoint, becoming mere shadows of the bands that the artist usually inhabits, these two songs are gems in their own right.