Indian music composer, Ricky Kej, thrilled everyone with his latest rendition of the Indian national anthem “Jana Gana Mana”. During an exclusive conversation with WION, the three times Grammy-winning artist talked about his inspirations and his journey from advertising to making his own music.
Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: With three Grammy wins, you are in the league of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Can you comment on your experience?
A: Of course, it’s a surreal experience. Growing up in India, and making my own brand of music, I never even imagined it – winning Grammy looked like an unattainable dream. I used to watch the award show on television, and that was the end of it. When I was 33, I won my first Grammy, and after that two more Grammy awards, I think it’s been an amazing recognition of my journey in music.
Q: You have over 21 studio albums with international releases. You have worked in over 3500 TV and radio commercials, and you have also composed the opening score of the Cricket World Cup of 2011. And now your Grammy award-winning compositions. First, I want to know about your vast experience.
A: I have done lots of music, not limited to one style. As you mentioned, the TV and radio ads, the Cricket World Cup Opening Ceremony, so I have been doing music for various events. When it comes to advertising, I have been fortunate that over a span of 13 or 14 years, I did more than 3500 commercials, for pretty much every brand and their competitor. Even though I don’t do it anymore, I consider that part of my life really important for my career, because the more I was composing music for commercials, the more I was composing for various genres of music.
I got my chance to explore Tamil folk jingles, Celtic jingles, and heavy metal jingles, the thing is that I was constantly on my toes when it came to newer genres of music and newer musicians within the genres of music, I had a huge database of musicians from all over the world, who I could tap into whenever I needed their talents so that variety found its way into my music, that is why my brand of music has a unique fusion because it has all of these elements from all over the world and different styles of music.
So now I believe that there are only two genres of music, there’s only good music and bad music and it just cuts through all the known genres of music.
Q: Can you talk about the soft power of Indian classical music?
A:India has Bollywood music, the mainstream music and then you have the niche genre, unfortunately, classical music is considered to be a niche genre even though it is an integral part of Indian culture and tradition. But I have noticed, that when a Bollywood singer or composer goes abroad, they are always able to fill up a stadium, but the people who show up for those concerts are the people from the Indian diaspora. So with a few exceptions, Bollywood has not actually broken cultural barriers, because the only people who listen to Bollywood are people from all over the world but all of them are people from the Indian diaspora.
But when it comes to classical music, for example, Pandit Ravi Shankar, I had seen a concert of his when I was 19, I was in San Francisco. I was so shocked that the demography of the audience that was within the theatre was very representative of the demographic of the city. Pandit Ravi Shankar was playing pure Indian classical music on a sitar, he was not doing hip-hop or rock, yet he reached out to an audience that was not Indian, and he familiarised a whole new generation of global citizens with Indian music. So I believe that is the soft power of our Indian classical music. It transcends boundaries, geographies, and philosophies and it is liked by everybody.
Q: You hail from an era when music was heard in cassettes, then CDs, then digital streaming. You were associated with the music industry when they were going through these changes. Can you comment on that?
A: When I professionally started my career in the music industry around 25 years ago, at that time, as you correctly mentioned, it was cassettes, so people were listening to music on cassettes. Now in cassettes, you could not skip from song to song so easily, so there, the album was a very important concept, because you had to listen to the cassette from the beginning to the end, because it was very difficult to go from song one to song two, so albums were everything.
After that when we moved to CDs, everybody started making individual songs, because you can skip from song to song now. So that way, every song was extremely important and people were concentrating on making conceptual albums, they would make a collection of songs, there was still pride of ownership at that time. People would buy cassettes, friends would come home, play the music and talk about the new piece, and people would open CDs and say wow, this is this new band that I discovered. Then you went to mp3, where you had to store the music on your phones, and I-pods, but now there is no pride of ownership anymore. People don’t want to store something on their phones anymore. They just directly go to a streaming site, and they don’t want it to stay on their phone. So there is no pride of ownership. Because of this, songs do not last the way they used to last. When you buy a CD you know you are going to listen to it for 10 years, 20 years, the physical product that you have purchased, you had that pride that you actually owned this piece of music and you listen to it. But right now you listen to a song for about two weeks, or three weeks and then you forget about it. Then you move on. So I believe that the longevity of music has been lost because of streaming platforms.
Q: Saw an interesting YouTube video on your channel about Baul. Two questions, are you a part-time documentary filmmaker, and since when have you been familiar with the Baul culture?
A: Yes, I was part of the film, ‘I am Baul’. I produced the movie and composed the original music for it, but I am not a documentary filmmaker. I never direct my own music video, I have got fantastic directors who do that job because I believe that being a musician I should stick to that. Also, every time a filmmaker makes a music video of mine, the more I suggest something to a filmmaker, the worse the music video becomes you know. That is why I believe I should stick to music.
About the Baul documentary, a fantastic filmmaker Sairam Sagiraju made that documentary with a lot of my vision. So the thing about the Baul culture that got my interest was that, it is basically over 1000 years old, and these amazing musicians use music as their pathway to speak to God. They do not want their gateway to God through a priest, maulvi, pandit or anyone like that they believe that the way we are going to reach out to our God is with our voices, our music. This tradition has been passed down for over a thousand years, and these people are so simple. They sing for food, a place to stay at night. They are nomads so they move from place to place. For them, being part of the culture was their way of going out of the caste confines. Music was everything for the Bauls. That was such a lesson for me and I realised that I need to know more about the power of music.
So now, tell me, about your journey with ‘Divine Tides’. How did it start and then go to the Grammys?
A: In 2015, I won my first Grammy award for the album, ‘Winds of Samsara’. For the next seven years, it was always on my mind that I need to make a follow-up of that album. But I had a relentless touring and travelling schedule. Every year I was doing concerts in 13 or 14 countries. There was no way for me to sit down and create a new album. Then 2020 happened, the pandemic hit, and we were all forced to remain indoors, that is when I started making the first few pieces of music of ‘Divine Tides’. I needed a collaborator for that album because I felt that I cannot do this alone. I needed someone with a strong vision.
Growing up I have been a huge fan of Stewart Copeland, he had already won Grammy back then. He even composed tracks for Oscar-winning movies. So when I reached out to him, I thought what’s the worst, he will just say no. So I sent him an email and showed him a few pieces, I asked him if he was interested in coming with me on this journey of making this album. To my surprise, he loved the music and said yes let’s do this together.
I was living in Bangalore and he was living in LA, so I changed to sleep timings to collaborate with him. After several video calls, phone calls, and remote recording sessions, the album was very successful. We got nominated for a Grammy, and I had not even met him in person. He became like a father figure to me although I had not met the guy in person. So then we went for the Grammys. That was the first time I met my idol. It was a very emotional moment for me. Then we won the Grammy together.
Q: Have you ever suffered from creative blocks?
A: When it comes to creative blocks, it comes to musicians when you are working on a deadline and also on somebody else’s sensibilities. When it is not based on your own sensibilities, that is when you have creative blocks. I used to have them when I worked in advertising. But not anymore, now I make music when I get inspired. For me, it is an art form.
I had two ways of escaping blocks. One, was the threat from my clients, that if it is not delivered within this deadline then of course there was money, the one factor that gets your creative juices flowing. (Laughs and signs off)