Sometimes, during a performance with her band Jaggery, Singer Mali (aka Mali Sastri) will emerge from behind her black-lace-draped keyboard and creep into the crowd. Clad in a floor-length white gown—or a flowing black garment, depending on the day—she lurches and spits, tossing her long, inky hair and gesticulating with fluid abandon. As the band vamps, she slides effortlessly through several octaves, sneering in the lower registers and shrieking with startling precision in the upper. A combination of seductiveness and menace, she resembles something otherworldly, like a spirit called back from the afterlife, though perhaps one none too happy to be here.
At her apartment in the Cloud Club, a pair of dilapidated South Boston townhouses where a loosely-affiliated gaggle of artists live and perform, Mali has a more earthbound quality. She still strikes an elegant figure in a long black skirt and a plum top, though the Teva sandals (black, of course) lend endearing eccentricity to the look. Her enormous brown eyes are even bigger in person, and she speaks with carefully-articulated New England deliberateness.
“I don’t feel like what I’m doing is sinister, like I don’t have any desire to create something evil or sinister,” says the Lexington native, perched among piles of discarded lumber and coiled garden hoses in the Cloud Club’s lush, overgrown backyard. “It’s more like kind of just acknowledging that there’s dark. For whatever reason, I’m compelled towards things that are dark, up to a point. And for some reason those things inspire and motivate me.”
Jaggery (photo at top by Matt Samolis), which will be recording a live album at Oberon in Cambridge on June 12, has existed in some form since 2004. Back then, Mali was living in New York City and playing primarily with her brother Raky Sastri, now a drummer in the Boston-based duo You Won’t. She relocated to Boston in large part because of the band’s affiliation with punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, whose lead singer, Amanda Palmer, was her classmate at Lexington High School and is a former Cloud Club resident. Jaggery has since coalesced into a five-piece ensemble comprised of Mali on keyboard and lead vocals, double bassist Tony Leva, drummer Daniel Schubmehl, violist Rachel Jayson, and Petaluma Vale on harp and backing vocals.
The music they create is at once sparse and intense. Bass and drums hold down a loose, jazz-inflected foundation while piano, viola, and harp fill the space with vivid, well-placed remarks. Mali has a proclivity for minor keys, odd time signatures, and ominous lyrics; the title of Jaggery’s most recent EP, “Private Violence,” hints at the dark interiority of its frontwoman’s songs.
“For me, music and writing music has very much been a way of processing emotion. And feeling emotion. And I think for sure that’s been a huge pull for me with music,” Mali remarks. “And actually it’s funny, the name of the first band that I started with my brother, with Raky, when he was playing drums with us long ago, was called The Throes. T-h-r-o-e-s. And actually I still miss that name, I love that name. Because I feel like that really sums up what I want to be creating. What is compelling me to do music is the emotional spasms. Emotional ‘being in the grips of.’”
Jaggery’s sound does not fall neatly into any musical tradition. They are sometimes described as avant-chamber pop or darkwave jazz. In fact, Mali has no jazz training—that element is brought by Leva and Schubmehl—and spent her childhood taking classical piano lessons and listening to Top 40 radio. She points to Cyndi Lauper as an early influence, citing her expansive vocal range and dazzling accuracy. Jeff Buckley, Bjork, Tori Amos, and Cat Power also make the list. But as Mali grew older and honed her songwriting skills, she found herself drawn to more obscure sounds.
“I felt really liberated by songs where it was like, oh, you’re allowed to do that?” she remembers. “And I had been writing pop songs since I was a kid, and for whatever reason the more experimental stuff just really got into my psyche where, as a songwriter, I often feel bored if something is too simple. Now, on the same hand, a lot of our songs have two chords in them. So there’s sort of a mixture, between very simple bare-bones, and what we do to it.”
When Mali moved back to Boston and into the Cloud Club, she fell in with a loosely-connected group of musicians who shared the same experimental tendencies, if not necessarily the same aesthetic—the “more artsy bands,” as she describes them. These include the Balkan prog-rock band Bury Me Standing, indie composer/singer Mary Bichner, baroque-soul-pop outfit What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?, and steampunk carnival-rockers Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys.
Over the past six years, Mali has tapped many of the aforementioned “artsy” musicians to participate in her performance art series, ORG, in which artists of all kinds—dancers, comedians, storytellers, musicians—are invited to riff on a theme, like “censorship” or “prom.” At its best, the series inspired some of the strangest and most captivating performances from members of Boston’s fringe art and music scenes. In one memorable number, Jaggery recreated “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” to breathtaking effect. ORG is currently on hiatus while Mali takes time to focus on songwriting and touring with Jaggery.
Though their descriptors might be different, many of Jaggery’s musical cohorts share the band’s proclivity for elaborate outfits and dramatic flair. There also seems to be a common interest in the bizarre, the uncanny, even the grotesque—anything that pushes the boundaries of social comfort.
For Mali, the preoccupation with taboo thoughts and painful experiences arises, in part, from a long struggle with bulimia and anorexia as a young adult. There are flashes of that internalized battle, and the attendant self-loathing and melancholy, in her lyrics. In “Trouble,” the first track on “Private Violence,” she sings: “Bottleneck/ Choked up/ Sticky fingers down the throat/ Stranglehold/ Throwing up and out/ Unloading burdens while unloading bullets.”
Mali attended college briefly, where she studied dance, and later earned a certificate in voice movement therapy, a body-oriented psychotherapy grounded in vocal techniques. Both the dance and the therapeutic training inform her work: her performances are at once breathtaking feats of physical expression, and a form of psychic excavation.
“I have come from the perspective of expressing darker emotions. You know, I think some of that comes from having been in a lot of therapy, through doing the voice movement therapy work that I did,” she explains. “In voice movement therapy, there’s a whole facet of it that is taking into consideration a lot of Jung’s work, Carl Jung. Including his idea of the ‘shadow,’ meaning that the parts of ourselves that we kind of disown and hide and pretend aren’t there, that we do on an individual basis, that we do on a cultural basis, is the shadow of things good. All light casts shadow.”
It’s a gloriously sunny afternoon, one of the first real summer days. Bright new leaves throw dappled silhouettes on the crumbling patio stones. Storm clouds move lugubriously on the horizon.
Mali continues, “I’ve kind of worked from the place of, through creating art out of painful experiences, seeking to transform it into something beautiful.”
This article was originally published on June 09, 2014.