Nikhil D’Souza goes independent, releases ‘Sitaare’ – “I think I was missing a tune like this in my repertoire.”
October 23, 2019 · 7 Minute Read
We’ve all loved Nikhil D’Souza’s voice on “Dil Hi Toh Hai” from Farhan Akhtar’s and Priyanka Chopra starrer, The Sky Is Pink or the heart-melting “Mere Bina” and with his first non-film Hindi song, “Sitaare,” he has hit a home run in all respects. The song is an ode to the idea that it is preordained we will meet certain people in our lives – whether as lovers or friends or enemies.
Did you know he scored his first Bollywood song in Aisha completely by luck and there was a time when he could’ve quit music altogether? To know more about this talented sing-songwriter, read our candid conversation with Nikhil which revolves around more than just his latest single, “Sitaare.”
From singing for school activities to lending your voice to some of the most popular Bollywood movies including “The Sky Is Pink,” and now releasing your first non-film Hindi single, did you ever feel that your career trajectory would look something like this when you were just starting out?
Absolutely not! When I started, I wanted to be something of a purist – write and perform only my originals (English) and sing for advertisements for the money. In retrospect, it was a series of fortunate events that led me to where I am now, mostly involving being in the right place, right time and exposed to the right people. I would’ve easily been lost in the crowd otherwise. For example, it was being heard by chance by Amit Trivedi on a TV advert that got me my Bollywood debut “Sham” (Aisha). If that hadn’t happened, and my independent music hadn’t got off the ground, I might’ve had to go back to working in the field of Geology, which is what I was doing before music.
We fell in love with your latest release, “Sitaare.” Tell us something about the thought behind this track, songwriting, and production.
I wanted to bring together two beliefs: one, that we are all, in the end, stardust and two, the popular saying ‘our destiny is written in the stars’. After initially composing the melody, Pinky Poonawala and I brainstormed about the concept and she wrote some amazing lyrics to go with it.
For production, I approached Rohan Ramanna (who did part of the background score for Gully boy) and he and I were perfectly in sync about the dynamics of the sound production, sparse to begin with and then just explode into this ethereal but still accessible melody that you can sing along to. All in all, I’m glad I worked with the perfect team to put the audio together.
It’s a beautiful combination of storytelling and a soulful tune, how important is the concept of having a storyline in a song for you?
When writing a song, it is very important to have a unique point of view towards describing an emotion or being able to tell a story to describe a moment. I’ve learned over time that it is good songwriting that stands the test of time and creates a song that people come back to even after years. This is because most new listeners will relate to it at some level and people who’ve heard it before will re-discover and relate to it differently at some point in the future. Some songs, on the other hand, try to follow a trend and are lyrically not strong. They don’t seem to last that long.
As a listener, “Sitaare” stands out for the right reasons for being simple. What inspires you to cut the clutter and put out the music that’s this basic to assimilate?
I think I was missing a tune like this in my repertoire. It’s not as though I forced myself to write one, but when it did come along, I gripped it with both sets of claws. Although I did want to make sure it had lyrical depth underneath a simple melody. I’m glad people are discovering the layers of story and meaning and touch of ambiguity after they’ve assimilated the simple melodies in the song.
Coming from a Bollywood background, how was it working on a non-film Hindi song? Did you face any challenges during the whole exercise?
With Bollywood songs you never worry about the marketing, they reach millions of people by their definition alone. With “Sitaare” the challenge was mainly how to market it without spending all my savings on online and physical marketing/PR. A lot of difficult decisions had to be made because of the low, independent budget but I’m so glad we’ve got a song and video that I’m personally proud of.
On the actual process, this was my first time writing and composing a Hindi song. The challenge was how to transform my western sensibilities into something that our audiences would find familiar but still interesting.
I enjoyed the overall process since this was the first time I was able to control the entire journey from songwriting to the video and not have a label or producer change it to their expectations.
How important is your Bollywood experience to your musical direction?
Bollywood has taught me the musical/melodic approach that is necessary to appeal to the majority. That is essential when you need to ‘keep things relatively simple’ at a point in the song where you’re tempted to throw in a complicated vocal or instrumental part. Also, it has greatly helped my overall vocal technique (being an untrained singer) and the pronunciation of some Urdu/Hindi words.
Do you feel Bollywood music has reached a saturation level in terms of creativity since we’re seeing so many old songs and Punjabi being remade for almost every other movie?
I feel that creativity is still there among the composers. It’s just the people at the producer/label level that need to be a lot more willing to experiment. At present they’re just playing it safe with following the trend and feeding the audiences with what they assume the public wants. The audiences, in turn, will accept those songs that the labels put big amounts of marketing money into and assume that this is the music they’re supposed to ‘like’. It’s something of a vicious circle. The only way out seems to be that even Bollywood composers these days need to create and release music on their terms and their own YouTube channels.
What did you learn most about yourself and the industry while releasing English music with Warner?
I learned that I knew very little about the inner workings of the international music industry. I had to learn through experience the meaning and importance of copyright, publishing, master recordings, etc. It took me two years to understand the expectations of major labels from their artists, time frames of releasing music, the sheer number of songs you need to write and record before they finalize on only a handful to release, the uniqueness of my situation- an Indian artist in the UK and the immensity of the obvious challenges I was facing. I think I’ve come through to the other side with some good songs and a better idea of what I want to do with them.
Do you think it’s difficult for artists with a South Asian descent to break into the English music market?
Yes! The biggest challenge is to connect with that audience. Imagine a scenario where you’re playing as an opening act for a major western artist. The audience sees a south Asian artist walking on stage, imagining they will sound like some preconceived notion of Asian artists. And you proceed to sound like nothing they expected. It takes time for them to warm up to you as compared to a local English artist who they would connect to much faster. However, on the flip side, if you find that unique, exotic element that they might find irresistible, then you’ll probably do better than that other local artist who’s giving them something predictable.
If you could go back in time, what is one thing that you’d want to change about yourself or your career?
I’d be born ten years later. I think it’s only now that independent music is coming to the fore and I would like to have had my first introduction to our Indian audiences in the present day scenario.
This might be a blunt one, why do you think people listen to or enjoy your music?
Most of the positive feedback I get is for the texture of my voice. The rest is for the honest approach to the lyrics.
What inspires you to create music?
It’s a fundamental thing I need to do. Like breathing. I can never precisely pinpoint the inspiration. It’s just an overwhelming urge to put down a certain melody or lyric that enters my head and refuses to leave.
How would you like your music and your brand to be remembered in 10 years?
As songs, you’d like to sing or listen to today and are still fresh 50 years from now.
Is there a song you haven’t made, but hope to make one day?
A song for my parents.
What do you wish your listeners to take away from your music in general and “Sitaare” in specific?
I’d like for people to truly feel something when they listen to my music. That is the essence and true measure of any art form. If it inspires or changes people, that would be the highest form of appreciation of my music. I hope “Sitaare” does more of the latter.
Before you started your career in music, you were a part of the corporate world, were your friends and family supportive when you decided to switch? If not, are they happy where you’ve reached in the music industry?
My friends were overwhelmingly supportive and my sister too. Although, my parents were harder to convince. They don’t really listen to much music. My father felt I was making a mistake by letting go of a lucrative and steady job. That is until their friends, colleagues and extended family started contacting them about my songs being on TV or radio or inspiring their children. After that, my parents became a lot more accepting of me having a career in music.
More importantly, are you happy with where you are in your life at the moment?
I’m mostly unreasonably melancholic but I do experience moments of happiness, especially when I see that my music is reaching out and affecting people. Especially when I see people covering my original songs. I think I’d like to achieve a lot more before contentment can set in.
Although we’d love to know more about you and talk about a LOT of things, yes, we’ve got more talking points! Since time is running out, we’d like to close this conversation with the milestones that you’ve set for the next few months and a message for your fans on JioSaavn.
To release more music that I’m proud of, like “Sitaare,” and to hopefully sing some mind-bending good Bolly songs as well. And to release some of my English indie songs in the UK and India this year. (I’ve been sitting on a huge pile of unreleased stuff).
To my fans on JioSaavn, I’d say be a part of and support the recent rise of independent music, especially the songs released without a label. Follow the artist on social media and tell your friends about them, play their music at your late-night parties. Make the effort to go for their gigs, buy a ticket and don’t ask for a guest list pass!