Backlit by the cool grey of a dusky sky, smoke rises from the pot Josephine Shetty’s just put on the stove. “I hope you don’t mind,” the singer smiles, getting up to stir her lentils periodically throughout our conversation. She makes tea, giving us our pick from her extensive collection, and we sit down around her dinner table in her Berkeley home to talk through her first year as the fully-fledged pop star “Kohinoorgasm.”
“I love dancing,” her smile is wide and sweet, her voice dreamy. “That’s what I love about pop. You can dance super hard to so many different kinds of stories or situations and feelings. I love how you can get the same rhythms from so many different stories.”
Kohinoorgasm, Josephine’s alter ego for her experimental pop music project, was born a few years ago, rooted in Josephine’s desire for a solo project. Entirely written, sung, and produced by herself in her bedroom (“I love having control over my projects”) her debut album, Titalee, was released by the artist last May on Soundcloud. Over the eleven songs on the EP, a twinkling beat loops under the singer’s haunting voice, rich as a whisper.
That summer, Kohinoorgasm began playing shows. It was at one of these early shows, outside Empress Vintage in Oakland, that I first saw her perform. The show, set up as a small block party, had the singer standing on the sidewalk lit by the warm light of the store’s window. The performance was striking; she seemed not quite absorbed in her own world, but more like she was absorbing herself into your world, the audience’s world, pulling everyone together into the buoyant beat for a trance-like dance party. “I just —” she describes her intimate approach to live performance. “Well, imagine you’re in a big room, and suddenly everyone looks at you and decide you, you must have something great to show us. That’s pretty nuts!”
Josephine is quick to take the conversation in a million different directions, always, Here, she moves immediately from the physical stage through our phone screens. “Like, even on Instagram. Even if an Instagram story is 15 seconds, imagine if you were in a crowd of thousands of people. That’s what I always imagine — if I were in a crowd of thousands of people, and everyone just turned their eyes on my for 15 seconds, what would I do? And if you have that time in a moment in history, why would you waste it?”
It seems every little thing Kohinoorgasm does has an intentionality weighted by this sense of story and historical weight. The name itself is a combination of two deeply storied words: Kohinoor and orgasm.
A massive diamond, stolen from South Asia during British Colonization, the Kohinoor is now drastically whittled down to sit in the crown of the Queen of England. “It’s a pretty big ‘fuck you’ to every colonized country… which is like every country,” Josephine tells the story. Recently, there’s been conversations about repatriating it, but it’s complicated because borders in that region have been drawn and redrawn over and over again. While present-day India is where it was stolen from, it had been in the hands of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. It’s hard to repatriate an object whose homeland doesn’t really exist.”
“And the orgasm part was just kind of tacked on there for a while,” she laughs, before launching into a thoughtful take on the journey of an orgasm. “There’s so much pressure around them — to orgasm, to orgasm a certain way, to make someone orgasm, to want to orgasm, and by the time you’ve figured out what your feelings are about that, you’ve probably endured a pretty confusing and painful and weird awkward journey.”
Josephine, who has spent the past year transforming into a full-blown pop star who now gets flown out to play shows all over the country (this summer, she performed at SXSW in Texas and Nochella in L.A.), gets up to let her cat outside, stir her lentils, and turn the lights on as the early-summer sunset quickens. She settles back into her chair, and we get to talking about where she comes from, what it means to know yourself, and her place in the middle of a colorful, creative, vast historical matrix.
Where do you feel you come from?
It depends on the time of day; I might be coming from a certain emotion, I could be drawing on a certain part of my history. I’d say ultimately I’m trying to come from myself, like a place of honesty. [It’s] like knowing what feels good to me, and what feeling good looks like. Like, does this feel good because it’s serving a part of me that’s hungry in a ferocious way, like jealousy, or is it feeding a part of me that wanted to learn more information or wanted to make a new friend, or wanted to feel love?
I just feel really singular— like I am the center of my world, ultimately, but it’s me with an ever-growing understanding of what’s around me and what I get to live in.
Do you feel like that plays into your art?
One thing I think about is that it is so wild that I don’t have to do anything but be my identity to get to wear this beautiful kurta that my ancestors invented. Like they had style, they were innovators. Because I get to wear these things, I want to do my ancestors justice and continue their work. What can I do to evolve that culture? I see all this work that’s been done behind me and this future that I envision, and I’m in the middle of a matrix of things that make up who I am and I’m just there like pinging off it.
In a more literal way, some of my songs are in Hindi, [so] they’re in a language that has a history, but they’re also serving a really immediate emotional need. Mera Shareer is about owning your body, but that’s a really storied issue redefined within our current experience. How we experience owning our body, it’s so different [from] the way our womyn ancestors did, but they would maybe still enjoy hearing a song about owning their body [laughs].
Do you think that question would be answered any differently as Kohinoorgasm?
Well, I think Kohinoorgasm is definitely her own person. Sometimes I wonder if she were a different person, if we’d even get along! I’d say she’s a little more mysterious, and ethereal. She’s definitely more serious. But I don’t think she’d answer it any differently than me. I don’t want people to read me and Kohinoorgasm too differently, like it’s not super serious.
I like having a little character though.Like one of my goals, and this is kind of an indulgent goal, but I love how Erykah Badu has different [characters], like [how] Low Down Loretta Brown is the DJ Erykah. I’d love to have that, because I do a lot of different things — like I DJ with the Chulita Vinyl Club. When I DJ I go by Kohinoorgasm, because I feel like if I did that now… it’d be a little extra right now. But I’d love to have differ ent personas, because I do have a lot of fantasies about making punk music, or indie pop, but that doesn’t feel like Kohinoorgasm.
What’s it like when you put together an album?
When I’m writing I’ll usually make a beat, or the bass of a beat, and then I’ll just jam over it with my microphone for forever until I find a melody and a topic that is sounding good to me, and then I’ll really write the lyrics.
I feel really accomplished having put out one album, that’s all I ever really wanted to do. So much came out in it. I’ve been writing more songs, and I’m hoping to put out another album later this year. But so many things came up [in Titalee] and I just worked so much out. I was jamming the other day and I was like, wow I can’t believe how much I just sang about that onething! It really took over my creative process for a second but now I’m over it. But now, I’m excited for the new traumas in the next album! What will come out? What have I not realized has been bothering me for so long?
What place do you see your art having in the world?
When people are immigrants or are taken from their cultural roots, you have to make a new culture for yourself. Making [that] new culture is definitely a dialogue I want to be involved in.
Like, for me, how does a queer, mixed South Asian celebrate herself in the West, with a very particular culture and a very particular art making and celebratory ritual practice? We have had to make these things for ourselves as children of immigrants. And I think a huge part of that is advocating for yourself, advocating for your art. Advocating for queer people, advocating for trans people, advocating for black folx, and imagining a world where everyone’s cultural needs are met.
You also perform in a lot of benefit shows; what role does activism play in your art?
I think visibility plays into it. If people are going to be giving me a platform, I’m not going to waste these people’s time! I’m going to be talking about things that are important, things that are urgent, things that need to be taking up space on the internet.
I think one thing that’s interesting about the internet is that it’s so spacious — like on Earth you don’t have infinite space, and there’s only so much you can cover in a daily news story, there’s only so much you can talk about in a day, there’s only so much you can learn at school. But on the internet, you can see so many things.
Like you talk about a page in real life and it’s like 8 ½ x 11, but the home page of Tumblr could go on forever! So taking up space is weird on the internet because you can see people and these communities making space for themselves.
Written by Athena Scott
Photography by Janel Kajisa