“I thought I’d do something a little bit different and create a band kind of concept,” says the composer and multi-instrumentalist about his set for episode four of Coke Studio@MTV.
Clinton (Cerejo) turned around and told us he wanted a 30-piece choir; versus Nitin (Sawhney) who said he wanted to play a minimal set – ‘I don’t want to have 20 people on my set. There are six of us and we’ll make my music, we’re a band’ - Aditya Swami, EVP and Business Head, MTV India
British-Indian musician/producer/composer Nitin Sawhney (check out an earlier interview here) takes over the fourth episode of Coke Studio@MTV with his small band of musicians. On vocals, Sawhney has British-Hindustani classical/soul singer Nicki Wells, Canadian carnatic singer Samidha Joglekar, world reknowned gharana singer Prasad Khaparde, carnatic singer (and son of Grammy Award winner Vinnu Vinayakram) Mahesh Vinayakram, and Assamese singer Angaraag ‘Papon‘ Mahanta. His bandwagon features ol’ faithful Ashwin Srinivasan on flute (who also performs with Imogen Heap), Kolkata rising star Jivraj Singh (of PINKNOISE, Skinny Alley and Gandu Circus) on drums, 16-year-old prodigy Mohini Dey on bass (who also played Hitesh Sonik‘s set for episode two), and 20-year-old Londoner Vikaash Sankadecha on tabla. Sawhney plays guitar and keys for his set.
This year, Sawhney embarked on his first India tour in February, playing in New Delhi, Mumbai (pics here) and Sulafest in Nasik to promote his ninth album Last Days of Meaning which released in November 2011. He is most famous for his fourth album Beyond Skin that got him a Mercury Prize nomination in 2000. However, his musical remit spills over into DJing (he was the resident DJ of London’s Fabric), creating scores for film, TV , theatre, dance, video games, and his CV includes acting, writing, directing and commentating. Sawhney has also worked and performed with big names like Imogen Heap, Paul McCartney, Sting, and Anoushka Shankar just to name a few. His most famous scores were for Mira Nair’s Namesake, Cirque du Soleil, Hitchcock’s The Lodger and more recently the soundtrack for Deepa Mehta’s film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Watch ‘The Devil And Midnight’ featuring Yolanda Quartey from Sawhney’s latest album Last Days of Meaning, below.
Introducing some of his regular set favourites ‘Nadia’ and ‘Sunset’, Sawhney has also created brand new songs around his mother, Saroj Sawhney’s, lyrics. With his usual weave of jazz, soul, trip hop merged seamlessly with Indian textures, and he even throws in an electric guitar solo for good measure.
We had a chat with Nitin Sawhney to find out more about his tragic love-inspired tunes, and why he chose a close-knit set of musicians for his set.
NH7: What was your vision for your set at Coke Studio?
Nitin Sawhney: It was about creating a band. I was hearing that lots of people were actually working with large groups of people and doing all kinds of big choirs, which I think sounds amazing and I’m really excited to see those. I thought I’d do something a little bit different and create a band kind of concept which is what I like doing as well. And I’m really working with the space that we were in for rehearsals with great singers and with people who can express emotion really well. And finding people who really are open to possibilities.
Everyone involved had a very high level of musicality as well as a very great understanding. I also didn’t want to be too prescriptive, I didn’t really write everything until I was in the room. My idea was actually to create from the room, from the space. I guess they were probably panicking thinking, ‘When’s he going to send us everything?’ *laughs* I really wanted to create it mainly in the space, so I would just go, listen to people a little bit, and then I’d write all the stuff. My mum had already given me lyrics and I thought, ‘This one will work well with that group and this would work well with that singer.’ So, it was just responding and having a symbiotic relationship with a group of people who are in the room.
Check out Sawhney breaking out into a piano solo in the middle of rehearsal below.
This philosophy of people getting together over Coke; I remember talking about Nicki (Wells) to Chandru and Juggy (of MTV), that it is really important that I bring Nicki over because she has something really special. They said, ‘We only really do this for the Indian people,’ and I said, ‘Honestly, it would mean a lot bringing her in because it will fit in with your philosophy more. And now they’re saying, ‘Yeah, we are so glad you did.’ She’s somebody who’s had the experience of living in India as well and grew up here when she was younger.
I brought Vikaash (Sankadecha) over, who’s a really cool young guy from London, and Ashwin (Srinivasan), who I work with all the time. Jivraj (Singh) and Mohini (Dey) were such a revelation and provide an amazing rhythm section. They are incredibly musical, intelligent, emotionally aware and very sensitive about music and very open. They listen with humility which is quite something at that age. So, I was really quite touched by that.
Watch Jivraj Singh and Vikaash Sankadecha getting instructions from Sawhney at rehearsal below.
Samidha (Joglekar) was from Toronto and she’s an amazing singer. I first saw her at Luminato Festival in Toronto last year, and she blew me away. Who the hell is that girl? What a great voice, because she was just singing alaaps. I thought she’s bang on the money. And so I said I’d love to work with you and I’ve just written the music for Deepa Mehta’s film Midnight’s Children. So I brought her in and Deepa went absolutely apeshit over her voice. So I kind of thought, I asked her if she fancied doing Coke and she said yeah, definitely. As in Coke Studio! “Do you fancy doing some coke?” Hahaha. I meant Coke Studio India. Haha, I’m joking.
The standard of our singers has been really high. The comment that I was getting a lot was that, ‘You guys really filled the room with hardly anyone there.’ That’s what I was really looking to do. It felt like a really cohesive set, it felt like it was complimentary. So, it worked.
Take a look at Nitin Sawhney working out a bassline detail with Mohini Dey below.
NH7: Can you take me through each of the songs, and what you planned for them?
NS: ‘Chahat’, or ‘Longing’, is a song about unrequited love. Or it’s about desire. But you can define it in lots of different ways because it’s like a metaphor for life, and the idea of ambition and expectation and how we build up expectations of things or design in a way that fits in Hindu philosophy, or what I perceive as that.
So, my mum writes really deep lyrics which have multiple layers of meaning. But in that track I try to really build up this sense of passion and with the chord changes and the way it works, it kind of really has a structure that is about building a sense of power and passion. It features Samidha (Joglekar) and Nicki (Wells) doing some beautiful vocals together, and Ashwin (Srinivasan) as well, working really tightly together on harmonies. I love working with Indian classical vocalists or people that really harmonize in that way because it’s so exceptional when you hear the shrutis and harmonies. It’s special when you can find people who come both from an Indian classical tradtion but have some knowledge of Western classical or jazz or folk. It was kind of cool hearing Jivraj going ballistic over that. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of acoustic guitar sets and so it’s been nice getting to play keyboard and electric guitars as opposed to purely an acoustic guitar.
Watch a clip of ‘Chahat’ below.
NH7: Well, in most of your live acts, you always seem to be strumming an acoustic guitar. This was the first time I had seen you with an electric guitar banging out a solo.
NS: I haven’t played electric guitar in 30 years. That was my main instrument when I was growing up. So, to actually go back to that was quite cool but I was in loads of rock bands, and punk bands and funk bands. That was part of what I used to do all the time. It was like an old friend.
Then you have ‘Saahil Tak’, which means to the shore. It’s is based on the theme of the boatman which my mum really likes and brought that through. Again it’s probably our influence from Tagore, and from Bengali folklore. The boatman representing fate and in a way it’s a love song as well because it’s saying that if you had the oars to the boat, my boat would stabilize. But it’s actually a lovely idea because she’s kind of playing between this concept of a love song between the person in the boat, and the oarsman and this love story between the two people. It could also be a divine force/spirit. It could be many things, could be your own soul. Could be yourself.
Listen to a snippet of ‘Saahil Tak’ below.
So, these many interpretations is something that I like and that works really well with Papon, because he has got something that is quite elemental to him and he’s a mountain guy. Originally, I put this track in Hamsadhwani and I actually thought it didn’t work for me. I heard Samidha sing in Hamsadhwani which was really beautiful and very sweet and lovely and we did it in Dadra and we tried it in Ektaal, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. It was a bit too nice. So, I thought, I need to kind of make it a bit more Papon and it worked very well. At first, Samidha wasn’t sure about this and she didn’t want to do two versions but then when she got into it she thought it was much better.
We’re also doing ‘Nadia’ and ‘Sunset’ which are old favorites which we do. And since I haven’t really done any Indian TV, I wanted to bring some of myself with me, of things I’ve done in the past.
Take a look a glimpse of ‘Sunset’ below.
Then, there was also ‘Tere Khayal’. Firstly, Prasad (Khaparde) is actually someone who I really admired because he sings with a band or he used to sing with a band called Indialucia, who mixed together flamenco influences with Indian classical, which is just gorgeous. He just sung to me outside and I nearly fell over because it’s just such a beautiful song. He sings ‘Herencia Hindu’, which is just beautiful, what a voice. When I heard that, I thought that’s the best voice I’ve ever heard. His tuning and pitching was just so spot on. And so the idea of him performing with us was so cool. This song felt like it worked with him. It’s a very simple song. It’s about the cruelty of love. I think it has pain to it and flamenco has that too. Originally, I was doing it in raga Bhairavi as well, which I always associate with pain. There is something about a Heer which always has that sense of pain because of the epic poem and what it means.
Have a listen to a bit of ‘Tere Khayal’ below.
The other song is ‘Vachan’… tuta hua, which is actually about broken promises. Again, my mum was talking about the idea of wishing on stars and people who wish on them and themselves break promises. She was just juxtaposing imagery. She makes it quite epic and universal and quite resonant. Oddly enough a guy came up to Samidha and asked her for one of the lyrics to write it down and send it to his girlfriend who he’d just split up with, about the ‘unfaithful’ and it was quite intense. *laughs* So, he said, ‘I like these lyrics they are really powerful.’ He wanted to text the lyrics. Hahaha. Pretty hardcore.
Check out a snatch of ‘Vachan’ below.
NH7: Is there any other producer that you are looking forward to hearing?
NS: Yeah, definitely, Karsh more than anyone I think. I love what he does and he’s a really bright guy. I’m actually hearing great things about all of them. I mean, Clinton I’m looking forward to, all of them really. It should be a really great season.
Take a look at the first song from episode four ‘Nadia’ below.
Tune in to Nitin Sawhney’s Coke Studio episode on MTV on Saturday, July 28 at 7pm.