OnRecord: The Nikhil D’Souza Interview
Shruti Goyal · May 02, 2018 · 6 Minute Read
You weren’t always a musician. Who were you before your musical career started, and how difficult was it to make the shift into music?
After completing my Master’s degree in Geology, I worked on oil rigs for a few months. The first one was off the coast of Andhra Pradesh, and the second was off the northwestern coast of Japan.
Those were by far the worst experiences of my life — 12 hour days, for 40 days at a stretch, and really nothing to do there, only machines around. I quit that and looked for something to do with my geology degree in Mumbai, eventually becoming an editor of research papers. After a year, I realized I wasn’t making enough money! (chuckles)
Next, I took up a job in Oman with another oil company for a year, but I was a little more than a glorified librarian there. During this job, I used to have a lot of time on my hands, so in the evenings, I’d take long walks outside.
It was around this time that I stumbled upon Jeff Buckley’s music. Something about it struck me — it took music to a place that I never thought it could go. I tried figuring out how he was playing the guitar that way, and that’s when I discovered alternative tunings.
After making some demos, I told my boss that I was quitting. I told myself: “Okay, now I know what I should be doing.” I came back to Mumbai, and the timing was lucky because The Blue Frog opened up in December of that year (2007). Suddenly, bands and musicians were coming up and saying: “You know what? Let’s make our own music, let’s perform on stage!” I was right there in the middle of it, and that’s when I started performing live regularly. I also began doing ads, and then some film work came along as well.
You kicked off the Bollywood chapter of your career in 2011 with my personal favorite – the soulful track “Sham” from the movie Aisha. Since then, you’ve created many chartbusters in Bollywood. What was the big difference between how Bollywood works as compared to the indie community?
The major difference is that in Bollywood, as a singer, you’re more of a voice. You can’t necessarily sing a song the way you want to sing it, you’re guided on how to do it, so you’re really an instrument in the hands of a composer.
As an indie artist, you’re more involved because you’ve written the song, and you’re singing it the way you want to. So that’s the difference between being a performer, which you are in Bollywood, and being an artist, which is what you are in the indie scene.
Your genre and musical style has a lot of layers to it. Many define it as pop/alternative, with folk influences. Do you sort of mentally put your music in any specific box?
I prefer not to, because if you try to compose in a box, then that’s what it is going to sound like.
So how would you describe your sound?
I don’t want to. If you hear it a certain way, then that’s what it is. If you think it’s alternative, then that’s what it is. If you think it’s pop, you’re welcome to see it as pop. It’s a bit eclectic I think, that’s the way I would put it. But that’s as far as I would go to describe it.
Tell us about your creative process.
For me, melody comes first. When I’m creating something, it has to begin with a melody that I will wake up singing in the morning, and can’t rid of.
Once the melody is there, I’ll put words to it — the words that most naturally fall into that melody. The verses and the choruses somehow just build themselves around that.
Usually, I try and finish a song by myself, but lately I’ve been working with a bunch of writers in the US and also in the UK.
With all of my songs, like “Silver and Gold” or “Still in Love,” I always have something to begin with — a verse or a chorus — then I bring it to my team, and we come up with the rest of the song together.
You collaborated with Jeff Cohen and Jonathan Quarmby on your recent single, “Silver and Gold.” Take me through your process of choosing collaborators. What synergies do you look for?
My label in the UK, Warner Music, has been instrumental in getting these collaborations in place. For me, the most important thing is to understand each other on a melodic level, and to be able to find someone who can challenge what I’m doing and come up with something that surprises me and makes me go — “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought of that!” I’m glad I’ve found people like that, and it’s been absolutely wonderful working with such a talented team.
Your first solo performance was during the Thespo Festival at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai in November 2007.
Wow, I’d forgotten that!! That was such a long time ago!
Looking back on how far you’ve come since then, what are some of the things that you’ve discovered about yourself through your creative journey?
One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m as comfortable playing solo with one guitar as I am when I’m performing with a band. For me, there has to be an exchange of energy with the audience, which means that I have to be feeling the songs when I’m singing them (otherwise it doesn’t translate over).
I don’t know how to describe it – it’s like the energy bounces back and forth when you’re performing. You have to really be invested in the song that you’re singing, otherwise it doesn’t work. You’ve also got to be able to crack a joke or two between a few songs — not cheesy ones, but off-the-cuff jokes (chuckles). These are the things you learn as a performer.
What’s the ultimate direction for you as a musician? Is there a point you’ve envisioned where you feel like your journey will be complete?
I’ve given this some thought. I always wonder — is it an award? Is it more awards? Because it never stops there. If you win one award, you’ll want to win more. You’ll want to compete with that person who’s won 8 Grammys!
For me, it’s about having people listen to my songs, and actually be affected by them. That’s a process that can never stop. The aim should be to just make music that makes sense to people, and affects people. Think about it! The songs that were made in the ’60s and ’70s, they’re still fresh today! The reason is because of the lyrics — the lyrics make sense, even now. So I think the aim for any artist should be to write songs that people will be singing 50 years from now.
Your new album is just around the corner, fresh out of the studio, ready to be released. What’s this album all about?
The themes of the album are quite close to my heart.
One theme is the secret relationship I was in. It created so much conflict, because we had to be two completely different people when we were together in public. When we were alone, it was one thing. Then when we went out, we had to be two completely different people, because we couldn’t let anyone know that we were seeing each other. It was hard. We’re not actors! The tough part was, after an extended period of time, we started to believe in the act — that we weren’t together.
Another theme is the innocence of love. When you’re just getting into it, it feels like “this should be simple, this should last forever.”
Tell us what you can about this secret relationship.
I don’t think either of us were in a place where we could have a really long-term relationship. This is something that’s fresh to me, even though it was a while ago. It hasn’t gone away completely, because there was never any closure. Sometimes, when I’m on stage, and I’m singing a song like “Still In Love,” it still hits me, and the emotions come back. These are things that, as an artist, will always be there. You’ll always be able to draw on these emotions.
After stalking you on Facebook, I discovered that you welcomed 2018 by writing: “Looking ahead to probably the most exciting year of my music career!” What exciting things do you have lined up for the year?
The reason I’m excited about 2018 is because this is the year that the album is going to come out. I haven’t released an album before — in fact, I had recorded an album in 2013, but never put it out. So it’s exciting that I’m going to put this one out now and then see how it does, because it’s already picking up in the UK.
It’s quite surreal — for instance, my alarm clock in the morning wakes me up to the sounds of BBC Radio 6. Two days ago, Chris Hawkins, who’s the DJ on the morning show, started talking about me, and then he played my song! I was sitting there on my computer in my shorts, thinking “Are you kidding me!” (chuckles)
It’s an amazing feeling, having that happen live, right there in that moment. Some really exciting things are happening, and we’ve got some really good songs coming up in the next three months before the album. I’m definitely pumped about that!