In 2016, Phoebe Hunt found herself winding through the backroads of India, headed to a 10-day silent retreat in Kolhapur with her then-fiance, now-husband bandmate Dominick Leslie. Back in Texas, her grandmother was on her deathbed, and Hunt was conflicted about being so far from home. When they arrived at the retreat center and were told that all of their belongings would be stored behind what Hunt describes as a “rickety door with a really questionable lock,” she broke into tears.
“I was looking for sympathy from the people who run the center,” she says. “But one guy said, ‘If you check in right now, you’re here for 10 days. You’re leaving your passport, you’re leaving your computer, you’re taking off your engagement ring and putting it in a manila folder, your violin. Do you want to do this or not? No one else can tell you.’”
Hunt eventually did turn over her belongings—in exchange for a wool blanket—and stay. She did so largely because Leslie came up to her, after handing over his own belongings, with what Hunt describes as “the brightest smile, and his eyes the lightest I’d ever seen.”
Hunt’s grandmother passed away during her stay, but Hunt didn’t learn of her death until afterward. During the retreat, the quiet and solitude inspired the lyrics to her song “Pink and Blue.” She wasn’t allowed to have anything to write with, or on, but once the retreat ended, Hunt “grabbed her journal” and quickly wrote the lyrics down.
From the silent retreat, Hunt and Leslie went directly to another ashram outside of the Indian city of Pune to study classical Indian music with seventh-generation master violinist Kala Ramnath. The idea was to break the silence of the retreat with music—to have “the first input into our brains be music.”
Students there would spend up to 10 hours a day practicing. On an off day, when other students went into town, Hunt stayed at the ashram and wrote the music for “Pink and Blue.” The tune, a sweeping and personal glimpse into Hunt’s unique spiritual perspective, is the product of her silent meditation and the emotional experience of the trip, combined with her studies of Indian musical traditions.
“That song is my song about that journey,” she says. “It holds the essence of that trip.”
A skilled and inventive violinist with a clear, engaging voice and a warmth like that of an old friend, Hunt got an early start as a musician and a spiritual seeker. Her parents met at a yoga ashram in Manhattan in the seventies, and spent seven years as disciples of Guru Swami Satchidananda. Hunt was fitted for her first violin when she was six years old—a 1/16th size instrument. Her musical foundation is in jazz and swing, but her nontraditional upbringing informs her life, spirituality and music.
“I was raised with the principles of yogis in our household, which always led me to question my reality,” she says. “I also went to the Austin Montessori school, which encouraged out-of-the-box thinking and questioning society and humans. That’s all fed into my music.”
Hunt says she was excited to study gypsy jazz in her early years, but that her own songwriting has moved to the forefront of her music. Her songs have “become more and more about the introspection of the soul.”
Hunt’s new album, Shanti’s Shadow, is a captivating blend of Americana, classical Indian rhythms and influences, spiritual seeking and what has been described as Texas-tinged swing. The album is seamless and grand—likely due to the fact that several of the band members were also at the ashram outside of Pune. Shanti’s Shadow is a nuanced and elegant string-driven exploration of love, spirit and being human, without being restricted to one genre or style.
“I wanted to make an album that the public loves and that captivates everybody, but the only way I’m going to get to anybody’s heart is if I’m opening mine,” she says. “I decided that no matter what anyone tells me, I’m going to play the music in my head as close to the way I hear it. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, I’m not going to try to change it to please anybody.”