In Conversation with A R Rahman

As I walk in to the Sky Lounge at Hilton Wembley on Thursday, I get to know that I missed a live keyboard rendition of Nahin Saamne by A R Rahman (for Jon Snow from Channel 4) just by minutes. Amidst all the nervousness and excitement of finally getting to meet the legend, there is also the annoyance of having missed that performance and the hope that there might be another live rendition for another channel. That was not to be, sadly, but after a bit of a wait, I do get myself what will possibly be the fifteen most memorable minutes of my life. Despite all the interviews the man has had to go through during the day, the man is surprisingly buoyant and chatty; his passion for all things music still strong as ever. Excerpts from our chat where we discussed his latest and upcoming projects, 25 years in film music, KMMC and more:

Let’s start with your latest release, Mom. The soundtrack has a few really experimental tracks. How did the idea for those come about?

Basically, when I met Ravi (Udyawar) know..he is young, and has done a lot of ads..I’ve done one of his ads, the Airtel one which won a lot of awards (not the original one with the famous jingle, the one that came later, he clarifies). So he has his sensibilities, and when he came to me, I could see the expectations regarding the movie, I knew that it was not going to be a song-based movie, but a more soundtrack-based one. They had just one song literally – O Sona – the others were all like background pieces. So then I had a lot of freedom; I presented to him Maufi Mushkil and he was like “I love this”, of course the producer on the other hand went “what is this stuff!”.. It made it nevertheless..Maufi Mushkil was one of the first ideas I played to Ravi. Then when I saw the movie, I felt there could be something very intriguing about this. That’s when I thought of Be Nazaara. Sudeep Jaipurwala is one of the famous music teachers in Mumbai, and I have in fact posted his grandfather’s rendition of the tappa three years back. So I said to him, “if you want a chance to sing, you learn this song” (laughs). He said “I have learnt it” and I was like “OK, let’s do it for this movie then”. I put in some sounds and it worked really well for some of the scenes. When I played it to Ravi he loved it too, and was torn where to use it, I told him to fix a scene where it seemed particularly effective. As for Raakh Baaki, Irshad (Kamil) had written some poetry, he gave it to me saying “there is poem I love and I don’t know how to use it” and I had been toying with it. Jonita happened to drop by the studio around that time when she was in Mumbai, while we were working on something else. And while she was there it was a spontaneous thought that happened, to record the track. We instantly pulled up the song from the inbox, set up the mic in the recording room and recorded it right then! While we were recording suddenly I felt like..why don’t we add these screams, sort of like from within..kind of like an implosion.. if that implosion had a voice. And I added those voices myself, standing probably six feet away from the mic to give that effect, and then processed it. Listening to me, Jonita got inspired too and she was like “can I do this too?” and I went “yeah sure”. So we ended up pulling off this stuff which was sort of over the top, but then we just kept it on.. it was like a jam.

You are also working on your pet project now, 99 songs. How different has the experience been? Does it help that you have an increased say in the matters?

We have a very very talented director.. Vishwesh is very talented, he is a musician too. You know, for 4 years or 5 years we have been jamming.. The challenge for the movie is that the vision is so big, and the know we have a new star, a new director, a new writer.. we had to find a balance, and then we found this great producer Ideal Entertainment from Canada. They loved the vision and wanted to support it. So we are there, this year we will hopefully complete it.

So what kind of music is it going to be?

The idea is to release each track a month..there are going to be more than 11 tracks I think.. So we don’t get this “oh, I didn’t like it at the beginning, I liked it later” and all that..let’s get it all out of the system (laughs). In these days of so much clutter, people need time to absorb.

Congratulations on completing 25 years in the industry. How does it all feel?

I am just enjoying the process. I feel blessed that people are still listening to some songs and that I still have some energy left create more, and also find my own platform to via movies, virtual reality and all that.

Would also be a good occasion to remember a person who was an integral part of your music until his untimely passing – H Sridhar. I remember him mentioning in an interview a few years back about how he used to be very critical of your work, pointing out what doesn’t sound good, et al. Do you miss that kind of a presence in your music creation process now?

It is incredible, really.. till Slumdog, our team was very very small, it was just probably 3-4 people: Sivakumar, me, Sridhar.. and now it has expanded because of KM, and the whole idea of giving back, and taking internship, people learning and them coming back to us.. we now have the company called Qutb-e-Kripa, consists of composers from KM.. so there are many composers out there now – Parag (Chhabra, who arranged two songs in Viceroy’s House/Partition 1947), Jerry (Vincent), Santhosh (N D)..all of them have evolved a lot. Before it used to be a lot of hand holding and baby sitting and all that, they have now come to a level where you can trust them. So I thought this company is very important because this way we are facilitating work for new talent rather than them having to go knock at doors for a break.. Because I reject so many movies..I probably accept 5% of what comes to me, this way I can do a bit more..I can focus on the main thing and they can help with the rest, they get mentioned when they are working as well. For instance they have done music for Daughters of Destiny, directed by Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Vanessa’s a beautiful documentary, a four part series.. I have done the title track and they have done everything else.

So is that the plan going forward with KMMC? To channel promising talent via Qutb-e-Kripa?

As much as possible, yes. Of course some of them are going independent as well, which is great. But for those who don’t, that would be the plan.

What is the quickest that you have come up with a song?

O Sona. I don’t know if it is good or bad, but I had to do it. I composed it in like 6 minutes, it was written in four hours, sung in half hour or so and in 3 days we had the song ready!

And looking at the other extreme, what is the longest it has taken you to create a song?

Longest were these two songs from Mom again, Freakin’ Life and Kooke Kawn. We did those, and then when I heard them again I had to repair them, and so on.

You have worked with a lot of musical legends in your time. Is there someone you wanted to work with, but haven’t been able to?

Actually I wanted to work with this amazing Tamil poet called Abdul Rahman, and I had thought of some day sitting with him and doing a Tamil ghazal album or something. Sadly he passed away. Sometimes you just have to be quick! He was a phenomenal poet..his poetry was so inspiring. Of course, I can take some of the books do something, but even sitting with him and conversing was fantastic.

So a Tamil album along the lines of what you said is still a possibility then?

There are many other things..I think the compelling things right now are my Virtual Reality movie (Le Musk) which is getting finished..I want everything to be complete in its own way..sometimes your mind wants to do many things but you have to focus your are getting older (laughs).

How up to date are you with the contemporary Indian music scene?

Not that much, unfortunately. I wish I could hear many things..what happens is, when you do a soundtrack, like the soundtrack of was supposed to be Hindi..then came a Tamil version, a Telugu version, a Malayalam you literally have to listen to all these versions, all the mixes, all the deliveries of voices, find the is cruel to even listen to one more track! You can’t, you just have to shut off. It’s like want to taste like 100 different dishes but you can’t. So when I am not doing anything, I listen to the radio.

Anything that caught your attention among recent works then?

Nothing Indian unfortunately..I was listening to iTunes..Apple Music playlists. But I would love to, I know that there is a lot of interesting work is happening..lot of younger people are doing stuff.

Since you mentioned listening to Apple Music, what are your thoughts on the burgeoning of music streaming? How do you think it will impact the musicians in the long run?

I think things would have to be sympathetic towards musicians, because without musicians there is no music..things will settle down I think, I always believe that.

Shankar Ehsaan Loy did Mirzya last year, a folk/classical based musical work. The year before that, Amit Trivedi did the jazz-based Bombay Velvet. This year, Pritam is doing Jagga Jasoos, which is supposed to be a musical in an even truer sense. Do you ever feel like doing something similar in Bollywood?

No I am just so frustrated after this attempt in Hollywood.. I did a movie called Monkeys of Mumbai, worked one of the best lyricists in the world, Steven I am actually relieved that I am not doing a musical! (laughs) Because five years of our know..from 2011 to almost 2016 we were working, and in 2016 they pulled the plug. It was everybody’s envy, that project. They loved the project, and said “this is going to win everything”…and it didn’t happen unfortunately.. so then I decided that I had enough of that..I think that is one of the reasons I went to Virtual Reality, doing my own thing. I am happy, liberated.

So when such projects get shelved (happens all the time, ARR adds), do you end up reusing the tune elsewhere?

I can’t, because contractually we are not supposed to.

You are working on a new project with Rajiv Menon (Sarvam Thaala Mayam). But he was also going to do an M S Subbulakshmi biopic, one which you were rumoured to be involved in as well at one point. Is that still on?

No, so Rajiv Menon was supposed to direct 99 Songs. We had the initial discussions and all that, and then he showed me the MSS biopic project and I said this is what is more like you, and I don’t want to trap you with my project. And I started looking for a different director. Then Rajiv’s (MSS) project got blocked, and he came around to doing this one (STM). Rajiv is very talented and amazing, I keep telling him to keep working at it and not stop.

Finally, about the Wembley concert. You are coming back to Wembley after seven years. How has your experience been, at Wembley, and performing in London in general?

I love London, love the far things have been good, hope this better!

I was at your O2 gig two years back where you showcased your greatest hits starting from Roja. How different is this one going to be?

Watch it and find out! (laughs)

A R Rahman’s “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” concert, a celebration of his completion of 25 years in film music, happens at the SSE Arena Wembley on the 8th of July. Details regarding the concert, tickets etc can be found here.

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