The music on Gnani, the new album by Sis, is ambient, cinematic and spiritual, while retaining the pop elements that have always marked her work. The Sanskrit word of the title loosely translates as “the state of self-knowledge one may attain with meditation.” Jenny Gillespie Mason, the woman who records as Sis, said her music has always had a spiritual slant, so this deep dive into the female aspects of devotion is a continuation of her creative journey.
“As a woman, I feel like I’m healing from years of being in the patriarchy, and not just in our lifetime,” Mason said from her Berkeley home. “Our female ancestors paid a lot for being part of that system. I found a free space inside of the music to explore my devotion to God, which I don’t think our culture affords us. I know the word ‘God’ can trigger people, but whatever you want to call it—spirit, life force or the essence of love. I don’t only mean romantic love, but also the love of a child, the love of a pet, the love of a flower, the love of all. I was driven by this need to express a devotion towards life and living fully in the moment.”
Mason’s previous Sis albums, Gas Station Roses and Euphorbia, were full-band projects. This time, she did almost everything herself. “I was doing a solo folk thing when I began playing music,” Mason said. “After my second child was born, I was in a band, collaborating and co-producing with the other players. It’s been a weird, circuitous route to recording solo again. Gnani has a more internal, intimate sound. I didn’t feel like I needed to hold back on experimenting with music and singing. Since I didn’t have to bounce things off of other people, it gave me more freedom to be who I am, musically.”
Gnani draws on diverse aspects of modern music, ranging freely through genres and styles. The songs are rooted in the verse/chorus structure of pop, but the pulsating rhythms, dub effects, dance beats, ambient washes of cinematic sound and her understated, kaleidoscopic lyrics contribute to a unique aural experience. “Double Rapture” opens with a recurring synthesizer pulse, highlighted by high-pitched fills that create an expansive sonic space. Mason’s soft vocal expresses the desire to dissolve the boundaries between self and other, heaven and earth. A warm, staccato hook with an R&B feel played on an electric piano introduces “Flower In Space.” Asides that suggest a vessel moving through the galaxy at warp nine play off of disembodied voices that arise between verses that explore the idea of enlightenment. “Embodiment” speaks about the limits of consciousness with a forgiving heart. Mason’s vocal shimmers with love and compassion as it drifts through a track suggesting the surges of gospel music and the cadences of Latin jazz.
“I wanted to write an ecstatic centerpiece for the album, with free-flowing extravagant energy, like the energy of a gospel service,” Mason said. “My friend, Brijean Murphy, added the Latin touches with her congas and bongos. She sent me the tracks, and I edited them to retain the beauty of what she’d played, while weaving it into my own sound.”
Mason said the music’s transcendental aspects were inspired by a wide range of influences. She mentioned the Polish poet, Anna Swir, and Alice Coltraine as being particularly influential. “I discovered Swir through Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel-winning poet, writer and translator,” she said. “I read a book of poems he’d translated before I started writing the music. Swir’s work got me into the right headspace for making something deep and personal. She’s honest and raw, and candid about being female, but the poems are presented in quiet hues, a blend of restraint and the intense truth about being a woman.
“Coltrane is a juggernaut of intense spirituality and genius,” she added. “I wanted to do a lot with keyboards, so I went to her albums while I was writing and listened to her for inspiration. She plays a lot of Rhodes and ARP Odyssey synthesizers. I was writing electronic music, but I didn’t want it to sound inorganic. I wanted something earthy.”
The album was recorded in Mason’s home studio, during the course of several months. The process was lonely at times.
“I missed the camaraderie of a band working together,” she said. “I always think things could be better, but you have to let go after a time and let it be what it is. It took me about four months to write and record, and a month for the other people who collaborated long distance to record, and two months to mix it. I started after we were out of lockdown, but there was still a sense of isolation and disconnection.”
Mason has no plans to tour or play live to support the album at this time. “I’m a mother of two small children,” she said. “I did some pretty intense touring with the bands I was in during previous stages of my musical journey. I’m not sure I’m interested in touring anymore. The pandemic drove me inward. I’m more interested in working at home, in my studio, making stuff for people to listen to.”