While Kiran Gandhi's philosophies on art, femininity and menstrual blood are nuanced, her essential nature can be summed up in a single anecdote. It was May 2013, and Gandhi was sprinting through Boston's Logan Airport, attempting to make a Friday-afternoon flight to Toronto. She was late. Very. Gandhi had rushed to the airport after taking a midterm exam at Harvard, where she was pursuing her MBA. It was crucial she make it to the M.I.A. concert happening that night in Toronto, because she was the drummer in M.I.A.'s band.
The door of the plane was closing when Gandhi arrived breathlessly at the gate; she broke down crying in a fit of relief when the flight attendant let her on. She touched down in Canada, drummed her ass off at the show, then boarded a flight back to Boston so she could be in class Monday morning. She got a B+ on the midterm.
On this stormy Friday morning at the Springs, a vegan restaurant and wellness center in the downtown Arts District, Gandhi tells a life story characterized by the same ambition and lucky streak that delivered her into business school and onto that plane. That same willfulness inspired her to walk away from a corporate music job and transform into the singer, songwriter and feminist thought leader Madame Gandhi.
She couldn't have done it anywhere but her adopted hometown of L.A. “In Los Angeles I can hear myself think because of the physical space we have as individuals,” she says. Her kind eyes hold wisdom, while the half-inch of black roots at the base of her long, platinum curls imply a give-no-fucks streak. “I'm not intimidated by what everyone else's opinion is, because nobody else is around.”
Gandhi was raised in Manhattan and attended a private all-girls school, where her early inclinations toward feminism were catalyzed. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, she triple-majored in political science, women's studies and math while immersing herself in the D.C. music scene, once playing Bonnaroo as the drummer for Thievery Corporation. She was certain that New York and D.C. were the cultural centers of the universe, until Georgetown sponsored a trip for students to meet fellow alums in L.A.
“I was like, 'L.A.? I can't drive, I don't have a car, it's not a city, I don't want to go to the suburbs. No.' Then I came out here, and I was so inspired. The fact that everything in the industry is here like, it's not even a big deal; I just couldn't believe it.”
Gandhi parlayed a Georgetown connection into an internship at Interscope. A drummer since childhood, she found a room to rent in Silver Lake through a Facebook group for female drummers. The house was owned by Patty Schemel, the former drummer for Hole.
While it was a dream to live in Schemel's Silver Lake “mansion,” the Interscope office was in Santa Monica. Undaunted, Gandhi spent two hours on the bus every morning, listening to music as she made the stop-and-go crosstown schlep. She carved out a niche at Interscope, helping the company understand the mountains of data coming in via streaming and social media. Sensing a unique talent, Interscope exec Brooke Michael became a mentor to Gandhi, eventually helping her get a full-time gig.
“I was so fucking grateful,” Gandhi says. “I would stay so late.”
Interscope hooked her up with free concert tickets almost every night, and when she wasn't out, she was drumming and listening to music at the Echo Park studio complex Bedrock L.A. There, Gandhi met musicians touring the world with A-list artists. She wanted in.
M.I.A. was signed to Interscope at the time, and during a meeting Gandhi joked that the singer needed a drummer. (“Someone Indian, and female and young.”) She made an audition video and sent it up the proper channels.
She soon got an email from M.I.A. herself, saying that she would contact Gandhi when there was more info about the tour. Another email came shortly thereafter, officially hiring her for the gig.
A month later, Gandhi was accepted into Harvard Business School.
Gandhi wasted no time obsessing over which opportunity to take — she would do both. Weekends were spent flying to Japan and Chile to play shows. Eventually the tour ended, and Gandhi graduated from Harvard and got a job at Spotify. It wouldn't last.
“I had a microphone to talk about all of these issues that were important to me
In the summer of 2015, she became a viral sensation by running the London marathon with her period blood seeping through her pants. The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, People, NPR and others covered the story about her goal of ending “period shame.” A single menstrual cycle had given Gandhi a worldwide platform to express her feminist ideas — plus she finished the marathon in just under five hours.
“That was a huge moment for me, because I had a microphone to talk about all of these issues that were important to me, through the lens of the stigma and the misogyny surrounding women's periods,” she says. “In being able to speak so often to all of these different media outlets, it gave me the confidence to move from the drums to the mic.”
Her debut EP, Voices, was released last year. The five dreamy, deeply layered and electronically infused tracks demonstrate not only her gift of rhythm but also her feminist ideals, expressed on tracks including “Her” and “The Future Is Female.” On the latter, she raps, “The system must make room for all that we do/We've been bleeding each month 'til we gave birth to you.”
In her music and in conversation, Gandhi expresses these ideas with a clear, sober passion. In them, she sees a course correction for humanity itself.
“We have to look to the female archetype for our very survival. Instead of 'girly' being an insult … all the women I know are the ones moving culture. Michelle Obama. Beyoncé. Oprah. We are literally looking to these people for answers, for nourishment, for care, for survival.
“Toxic masculinity is a real thing,” she adds. “It's called Donald Trump. We're on this brute force–hyper-machismo–not-listening–unintelligent way of leadership, which is not going to work. You can't suck every bit of oil out of the earth to make money. The female energy is more collaborative; it's more emotionally intelligent.”
Gandhi says L.A. has given her the space and artistic nourishment to crystallize such thoughts. She finds the city's emphasis on holistic living to be innately feminine in the way that it nurtures people like her. A participant in the recent all-female Girlschool festival, Gandhi is holed up in her Arts District apartment making music.
This weekend, she'll play the Women Fuck Shit Up Fest at the Smell. In May, she plays Lightning in a Bottle. Given her trajectory, there's no reason to doubt she has many more festival dates in her future. For Gandhi, however, inspiring others to express themselves is more important than reaching the top of the L.A. food chain.
“A lot of people spend their time telling women how to think,” she says. “It's oppressive whether you tell them to be a feminist or if you don't. I want to be someone who, when someone thinks of me, it makes them want to express their voice and their idea, whatever that idea.”
Catch Madame Gandhi at Women Fuck Shit Up Fest this Saturday, March 4 at the Smell and Five Star Bar. More info at wfsufest.com.