Singer-songwriter Nikhil D'Souza on his Bollywood music, biggest artistic influences, and launch of his EP
Singer of Bollywood hits like 'Shaam' and 'Mere Bina', Nikhil D'Souza is currently working on widening the scope of his repertoire, with a new EP that recalls the innocence of childhood.
Through his latest EP People, Mumbai-based singer-songwriter Nikhil D’Souza is expanding his musical identity. The two-track EP consists of an English and Hindi version of the track by the same name. Thematically different for the musician who normally croons about love, relationships, and heartbreak, ‘People’ is a response to the hate, division, and intolerance he’s been witnessing all over the world. “You expect the world to be in a better place, for the idea of equality to be more widespread, but every year this is diminishing. That’s what I wanted to write about,” he says in an interview with Firstpost.
To address this, D’Souza and his co-writers for the song, Jonathan Quarmby and Neil Ormandy, recalled the innocence of childhood, when one doesn’t think about racial, economic, or other divisions. “When you get older, these things are sort of imposed on you. Grownups are the ones who tell you not to play with a certain child. So this song is essentially [telling] grownups that we should look at children, and [consider] how life is simple for them in terms of treating other people as equal. We can use that example. And we shouldn’t change that side of kids, we shouldn’t impose our insecurities and prejudices upon them,” says D’Souza.
Besides the theme, the decision to have a Hindi version of the song also marks the primarily English language singer’s foray in a new direction. He worked on the song while in London around the beginning of 2018, and recently played it at an online gig during the coronavirus lockdown, garnering generally positive feedback. Seeing that, and given the relevance of the message, he decided to put out a Hindi version as well.
With the help of lyricist Pinky Poonawala, who also worked on his single ‘Sitaare,’ the Hindi version reinterprets the song instead of working as a literal translation, primarily keeping the message in mind. He then recorded the track at home and sent it over to his producer Quarmby. “I feel the Hindi lyrics are deeper. And the approach [towards] singing this song, there’s a hint of melancholy, which I avoided in the English version.”
There’s also a music video for the Hindi version, directed by Suraj Wanvari and Ruhi More, conceptually a reminder to be kind to one another. “We’re trying to see the bright side of the lockdown. Yes, there are huge negatives about being locked down, but there are few things here and there; acts of kindness from people you didn’t expect,” he says.
While primarily wanting to get the message out to more people, singing in Hindi also helps Nikhil D’Souza bridge the gap between his two distinct musical identities: indie singer-songwriter, with deep influences by Western melodies and English lyrics; and Bollywood singer, known for tracks like 2010 film Aisha’s ‘Sham’, Crook’s ‘Mere Bina’ in the same year, and more recently, the 2019 track ‘Vaaste.’ “I realised that at shows when I play my original music, there are fans who show up who want to hear Bollywood, and there are no bridging songs in that set. It’s extremely western and then it becomes Bollywood,” he says.
While some of his songs simply wouldn’t be suited to this exercise because “the melodies are so strongly western that if you superimpose Hindi lyrics it won’t work”, there are other unreleased tracks that he’s now considering recording again and releasing only in Hindi. Essentially, original songs with Hindi lyrics are his attempt at filling in that identity gap.
A Western sensibility has been deeply embedded in him since his childhood, even though he's expanding his repertoire now. His father, who worked in Oman, would visit every six months, bringing back collections of the Tom and Jerry cartoons for him, which he watched over and over. “You see this cat chasing a mouse, of course. But it’s being done with the most amazingly played classical music, jazz music, prohibition-era old-school blues, even country music sometimes. Impeccable musicianship. As a child, watching this, I absorbed all of it, committed all the sequences to memory,” he says.
Later, he observed the teenage boys in his building picking up the guitar, “because they knew the girls like it”, and he learned a few chords watching them. But beyond that, D’Souza is entirely self-taught, learning through trial and error. He’d listen to the mix-tapes he had, filled with tracks that were popular at the time for hours on end, figuring out the root note, and then the rest of the chord, effectively teaching himself music.
For a long time, music remained a passion, as he got a degree in geology and worked through three jobs in three years. But while at his third job, he stumbled upon a folder with music by Jeff Buckley. “With the opening riff of ‘Last Goodbye,’ I thought this guy is doing everything I thought music should do. For me, it opened this box of something new and I had to see what’s going on. I was obsessed with it, trying to understand where it's coming from. That was a big influence — it showed me a path to where I could take my music,” he says.
The artiste soon made the decision to quit his job, get hold of a mic and record a demo, heading back to Mumbai soon after. He was composing not just personal music, but also working in advertisements, which then served as a gateway to Bollywood. “I did an Airtel ad which led to the call for ‘Sham’, because Amit Trivedi was looking for new voices and he heard this,” he says.
While Buckley was the turning point, D’Souza’s influences also include Sting, The Police and Dire Straits, among others. “Growing up listening to good melodies above all, that’s what shaped the kind of songwriter I became later. It was about strong melodies and great voices. Lyrics started becoming a priority later.” This is also largely his composition process. “I think 75 per cent of the time it’s the melody that comes first. And then beautifully enough, sometimes, a phrase just fits right in there with that melody.”
Now, besides working on a video for the English version of ‘People,’ D’Souza is also putting together a three-song EP titled About Deserts and Highways, slated for release next month. “Films aren’t releasing, so music is not coming out. Which means the main chart positions are now vacant. Streaming [services] are actively looking for indie music that can occupy these spots,” he says optimistically, while much of the indie music scene seems disillusioned. “Indie musicians just need to grab it. [You need to] put the best music out right now, because the chart positions are waiting for you.”
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