He’ plays with the Ghalat Family. He is the voice behind Jannat, one of India’s most original albums in recent times. If you are looking for meaningful music, you have found your man! Singer, lyricist and writer, Ankur Tewari gets candid with Aniket Dasgupta as he talks about emotion, passion, reason and more…
Aniket Dasgupta: How did you get involved in this industry? How did you “arrive” in this world of Indian independent music?
Ankur Tewari: I can give you a very long, detailed answer for this which I can make up. Actually, I have no idea how I got involved in this scene!
AD: I was reading this article about you on CNNGo in which it stated that you had actually studied Hotel Management and then things changed. What actually happened?
AT: For a long time in my life, I had no idea about what I wanted to do. Even now if you ask me about what I am trying to do, I won’t be able to answer. I usually go with what I feel like doing on a particular day. Basically, I had a long list of things that I didn’t want to do. One of them was Engineering mainly because my father was a professor at IIT and I had lived there all my life. I wanted to move out and do something exciting which no one had done at that time. Well, nobody was doing Hotel Management. Now it’s become popular. I had never entered a Five-Star in my life and I didn’t know that working in a place like that would be so different from what I had imagined. But then you realize that the other side of the table is much better where you’re being served rather than serving.
AT: Midway through college, I had idea about what I would do. But right through college, I was playing a lot of music and I was playing in restaurants and in the hostel a lot of times. During my ragging and even after that! The music was something that was just happening naturally. Right though childhood, I was playing music but I never knew what I was going to do. Everybody goes through a stage of life where you think, “What do I want to do?” I came forward and decided that I should do what I do here at college – the thing that I have the most fun doing. I seriously did not know that I would end up recording an album. I blindly followed my gut at that time. And well, even today I am doing the same thing!
AD: Right. So how did your album Jannat happen? Well, it’s really hard being an independent musician in India.
AT: It took me almost ten years to record Jannat the way I had planned it. I always knew that I wanted to record live and record the songs as I sing them. At that point in time, we were ‘living room musicians’ and would sing at barsatis in Delhi or in somebody’s room while getting drunk. I wanted the songs to sound exactly like that. Well, that was a wrong time as ‘remix’ had just come into fashion. They did not understand why I would want to go through a more painful and longer process of recording my songs. Finding a good producer was difficult and I recorded my first demo in a bathroom because the song would get that natural reverb! I just scraped around and things didn’t work too well. I shifted base to Delhi because Mumbai didn’t work too well for me initially. I started working more and writing more songs thinking that I would eventually meet a company that would be interested in my music. Fortunately, I did meet people from the label I record for, HOM Records. They really liked my songs but I told them what I told other investors – I didn’t have any money to record these songs. I asked them I was interested if they would invest in my music. They didn’t even think twice. That’s how it happened – it took me around 2 – 2.5 years to record it from that day.
AD: Well, independent Indian artists are paid much less than people in the West. How do you manage in this scene?
AT: Well, I make money off my music and I also write.
AD: Yes – screenwriting. I have read about that.
AT: I make money off my screenwriting too and I have just survived. (chuckles) I don’t know how. I have told myself that I have to do this. Just like a carpenter does carpentry and a tailor stitches for a living, then why should a musician or an artist be anything else to make a living? Why should you be a “part-time musician” and work in a call centre for the rest of your time? Well, if I am a writer, I’ll be only a writer and when I am musician, I’ll be only that. That’s what I do! I have never thought about it in much detail. If I am good enough, I know I’ll make money! I work really hard and I put in long hours into my work. I hardly get any vacations but then, that’s the nature of my job! In every person I meet, I find the possibility of a new character. In every incident that happens, I find the possibility of a new song! I am a writer in music and I work 24 hours. It is hard but then, so is being a labourer!
AD: True. You even wrote the film, Tum Mile. How did you end up writing that? Was it based on personal experiences?
AT: No. I had written a few screenplays and I was not making good money. I wasn’t able to sell them well. So I adopted a new strategy in my writing which was that I’ll only write commissioned stuff. Well, once you know that you want something from me and you commission me, you’re going to pay me more money! I ended up meeting the director of the film who was narrating an idea to me but he didn’t want to make it. I asked him what he really wanted to make and he told me that he wanted a story around the floods. He knew that there was going to be a love story in it but he didn’t know how. I told him to give me a few days and that I’d come up with it. Eventually, I thought of the story which was two ex-lovers meeting on the day of the floods. It was quite an interesting experience.
AD: Apart from screenplays, what do you do when you write a song? What inspires you in the song-writing process?
AT: Well, it can actually be anything! it can be the normal cup of hot tea in the morning which makes your feel good and inspires you to write a song. It could be anything that gives you an honest feeling in you – it could be love, hatred, anger, jealousy, hunger! I am a bit of a liar and an exaggerator so I just build up the feeling a bit more. There is no particular method – sometimes I get a feeling, a word or a note and I just expand on that. I just know that I can’t write when I am not ‘feeling’. I try and create situations which are difficult to explain, complicated to process. It’s like having a champagne bottle – you shake the bottle but you don’t let the champagne escape from the bottleneck. You make another hole in the bottle and let it come out of there. That’s what I do. I shake my emotions up – when I am really hungry, I won’t eat but I’d write about that feeling!
AD: Alright so you play with the Ghalat Family – Sid, Gaurav, Johan and all. How’s your experience been onstage?
AT: Well, it’s awesome. They are brilliant musicians – they all are very different in their approach in their song-writing. In all our rehearsals – we end up laughing and joking most of the time instead of rehearsing. They are a great bunch of friends and well, we just end up having a great time on stage!
AD: Ankur, This is a question which I ask every independent musician in India. What do you think of the scene in India right now? Has it “arrived”? Are we there yet or is there a great scope for improvement?
AT: For me, I don’t try and classify musicians. A musician is a musician – whether it’s a Bollywood musician, a rock musician or a mainstream musician. Like I came to know a few days back that Sonu Nigam is starting a rock band. For me, it was a really cool thing because he is a great singer and he’s exploring new genres and starting a whole new thing. There is no territory that is barred for anyone. Anybody can do anything that they want to. For me, the scene is what you make of it. Right now, the scene is pretty good because there are a lot of bands out there. Earlier, when Bollywood was the only identity of our nation on this front, the scene was bad. No one was attempting to write interesting songs and there were a couple of bands who were also finding it hard to survive. Now, if we sustain the work we’re doing, the scene will remain good! I have felt that there has been a lot of ground – it’s just that now people are exploiting it. I think it will remain the same – it depends on how many bands stick around.
AD: You do so many things – you write your own songs, you sing them, you write music for Bollywood and you also write screenplays. What do you enjoy doing the most out of all of these?
AT: I find everything to be the same! What I enjoy doing most is that when I am writing I want to get lost in the songs and time has different dimension for me at that time! I don’t realize whether it has been 5 minutes or 5 hours. I like that feeling the most. So I enjoy doing everything – writing for myself or writing for others. There’s one term I like to associate myself with which is being called a ‘storyteller’ rather than a ‘song-writer’ or a ‘screenplay writer’. I tell stories in various forms and each time, the product is different.
AD: If you had to collaborate with a musician, who would it be?
AT: Umm… Sting, of course!
AD: A musician you wish who were alive today?
AT: George Harrison.
AD: Ah! Ankur, where do you like playing more? In concerts like the NH7 or in smaller gigs which are more personal and where you maybe know some of the people?
AT: They are all different. For instance, we used to play at Zenzi where it was very intimate. The distance between me the audience would be a few centimetres! I like that setting a lot and of course, NH7 was a whole different experience. With the sun setting behind you, it was beautiful. The sound was just perfect – it’s like I can’t compare the two! I like to play wherever the audience is having fun – whether they are 2 people or 5,000 people!
AD: So, when will we be able to hear the next Ankur Tewari album?
AT: Well, the structure’s set and the recording has started. The songs are in place. I guess, by the end of this year, you should probably have something!