Last week, the BBC Proms joined with the BBC Asian Network to celebrate 50 years of Asian programming on the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall. Featuring special guests Kanika Kapoor, Emeli Sande and Arrow Benjamin, the spectacle was headlined by Naughty Boy, Palak Mucchal and man of the moment Benny Dayal.
The superstar singer behind some of the major hits of Indian Cinema in recent years won the stage with explosive orchestrated renditions of Bang Bang and Badtameez Dil. Prior to the event, we got a chance to speak to the humble crooner with uniquely groovy glasses to find out what advice he has for new musicians and how he got to where he is.
How does it feel to be performing at the BBC Proms?
To be on the same stage where all the greats have performed –The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Kishore Kumar – it is an absolute honour.
Do you have any particular music idols?
I just mentioned most of them. Also RD Burman, Madan Mohal, Shankar Jaikishen, Oppi Nayyar, AR Rahman, Ilayaraja, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Salim-Suleiman, Amit Trivedi – all my contemporaries, all my seniors, everybody! (and yes, he seriously remembered all of these names.)
What do you find different with the crowd in the UK?
I feel that the UK crowd is very in tune with what’s happening and they’re pure music lovers. They love it when you take a regular Bollywood track and make it your own. Which is what we’re doing at the Proms – having the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra play it isn’t going to sound like what we recorded in the studio. This is going to be a majestic experience and everything sounds so soulful. People sitting around rehearsals keep getting goosebumps.
Anyone from the West that calls out to you?
Obviously, there’s Pharrell Williams, Will I Am, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Jamiroquai, Sting & The Police, Peter Gabriel. I’ve acquired all of these libraries of music by working with musicians and sharing collections with each other. These sounds have really inspired my work.
And if you had to choose one of those from the list that you could collaborate with-
(Immediate response) Pharrell Williams. (laughs)
In terms of your career, you did a lot during your time at Madras Christian College: performing arts, journalism, literary events. If you had the opportunity, would you try and make a career out of any of these interests alongside music?
Well, music will always take first priority and remain my main focus, but if I can write about music through journalism, I’d definitely do that.
Was it quite easy to get into music once you graduated?
I’ll tell you something – there are so many people who come up to me and ask “Can you recommend my son / my daughter to ‘this composer’” and I tell them I can’t do that. The Pursuit Of Happiness is important for any artist. So the way that you pursue your career, and how you attain it, and how that makes you happy because it was solely your effort – this gets snatched away from you. I don’t believe in shortcuts. If you want something bad enough, you’ll get it and you’ll be ready to do whatever it takes.
So you didn’t have any contacts in the music industry before joining?
Nobody. I approached a lot of composers, and there were some of them who told me “You’ll never become a singer”. I kept at it no matter what people said.
What advice would you for aspiring musicians?
Keep putting your music out there – there are a lot of mediums right now. Let people have easy access to your material. The most powerful thing these days is word of mouth. If your music is really hitting the spot with a group of people, you’ve made it. The best example of this is Gangnam Style – very few people know the words or who sang it, yet when that song plays, everybody dances. That’s the power of music. You don’t have to know the language, the music speaks for itself.
Can South Asian music create the same impact as something like Gangnam Style?
It already has. Jai Ho went international. Why This Kolaveri Di had millions of views on YouTube and Bollywood flashmobs in Amsterdam and New York. Music is a language in itself. You don’t need to know the language to sing the song.
What’s your opinion on the Indian Music Industry overall? Is it fair?
Every music industry is evolving all the time – it’s going back and forth in terms of sound, composition and voices. We had the Bappi Lahiri sound at one time, then the voices of Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan during the 90s. And now Bappi Lahiri is back on the scene – he did Ooh La La for Dirty Picture, bringing back the sound of that era.
Even my track Bang Bang is disco and funk, and that sound has never been in Bollywood - it’s come through Vishal and Shekhar reviving the sound that Michael Jackson created through his album Off The Wall, and stuff like that.
If you had to choose one, which of your tracks are you most proud of?
Definitely Kaise Tu Mujhe Milgayi from Ghajini and Tu Meri Dost Hai from Yuvraaj, both of which I sung for Mr AR Rahman. These are the songs that are very close to my heart.
The BBC Proms was held on 22nd July at the Royal Albert Theatre. You can listen back to the performance at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06305vx until the 21st August.