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Not Your Regular, Mundane, Superficial Interview
For me, this year seems to have started with a string of interviews. I have had the opportunity of interviewing as many as five artistes in a span of hardly forty days. The first three interviews were painful, to say the least. These three artistes (whom I interviewed separately) insisted on meeting in a bar or a restaurant. I don’t consider either of these to be the best place for an interview. Too crowded. Too much noise. Too many distractions. Ideally, the spot should be some place where the artiste can pick his instrument up and sing parts of the songs or play bits of the compositions he’s talking about.
Inevitably, the first three interviews were desultory, constrained affairs with the artistes having to shout their views out to be heard above the din. And in one case, the artiste completely stopped making sense after his third whisky-soda.
So when I had to interview Sanjo and Chandrani, a New Delhi-based composer-songwriter duo, I was pleasantly surprised to see Sanjo pick his residence as the venue for the interview. “All my musical instruments are at home”, he said gleefully with childlike enthusiasm, “we can jam a bit as we talk.”
Sanjo says that bit about “all my musical instruments” in a casual, offhand manner, and people who don’t know him have no idea what the word “all” encompasses. Sanjo is truly a multifaceted musician. He plays the six-string acoustic guitar, the twelve-string acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, mandolin, keyboards, flutes, harmonica, drums, tabla and a wide variety of percussion instruments. In his debut album with Chandrani, he has composed and arranged all the songs, sung them and played every accompanying musical instrument.
Not to be left behind, Chandrani is an equally talented artiste. A trained classical singer, Chandrani has written most of the songs on their debut album, Barson Huey, which was released earlier this month (February 2006). She has also provided the lead female vocals and backing vocals for many of the songs. Her vocal range is impressive and one of the tracks on the album has her harmonising across three octaves, hitting incredibly high notes.
We pick a Sunday morning for the interview since both Sanjo and Chandrani are caught up in work during weekdays. At the appointed time I arrive at Sanjo’s Dwarka residence in west Delhi. Sanjo greets me warmly and we sit around for some time, drinking tea while we wait for Chandrani to arrive. She is driving down from her east Delhi residence – a long drive that takes her all the way across the city. As we finish our tea, the doorbell rings. Chandrani has arrived and we are ready to begin.
We are sitting in Sanjo’s sparsely furnished living room. Just behind me is a room that Sanjo calls his ‘Music Factory’. It is littered with guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphone stands, cables, keyboard stands and other musical instruments. Sanjo selects his favourite guitar – the twelve-string acoustic guitar – and takes it carefully, almost lovingly, out of its case. He uses musical allusions to illustrate much of what he is talking about, so the guitar stays on his lap throughout the interview.
I begin by asking how and when the two artistes met, and how their collaboration started. Apparently, it happened by sheer accident. Sanjo was on a vacation at a hill station called Mussoorie with his colleagues. Chandrani was a guest of one of these colleagues. That’s how they met – five years ago. Sanjo had his trusty guitar with him. Chandrani joined in for the jamming sessions during the evening. Sanjo couldn’t help but notice that Chandrani had a great singing voice. He was toying with the idea of doing an album, and he asked Chandrani if she would pitch in. She agreed. And that’s how the partnership began.
There is an ironic twist in the tale. Chandrani initially joined the project with a very limited role – she was supposed to do just the female vocals and backing vocals. However, a few months into the project, the songwriter dropped out after having written just four of the ten songs planned for the album. Chandrani, who has a natural flair for writing, offered to step in. The first song she wrote was the title track, Barson Huey. Most fans rate it as her best work on the album.
So I tossed my next question to Chandrani. Which song does she look upon as her personal favourite? Is it Barson Huey? Surprisingly, the answer is no. “It is difficult to choose just one, as all the songs are very close to my heart”, she replies. “However, Palkon Pe Tha will get a few extra points from me as I feel it is lyrically rich. Also, in terms of composition, Sanjo has beautifully captured the emotion the song intends to communicate.”
I pose the same question to Sanjo. The reply comes pat. His favourite is undoubtedly Barson Huey. “When I first read the lyrics, I felt a Wow factor”, he says, “and after I had finished composing the song, the Wow factor was still there. I rate it as one of my best compositions, and the lyrics really do something to me.” He strums the guitar and sings his favourite stanza from the song, and I silently marvel at how great the song sounds even with a single guitar for accompaniment.
One characteristic of the songs composed by Sanjo is that they all have rich, varied and complex instrumentation. This stems from Sanjo’s ability to play so many different instruments and work them into his arrangements in a seamless manner. Almost all the fans have been talking about the depth and richness of the music, especially since the sound is entirely acoustic and natural, differentiating it from the morass of synthesizer and computer-based music flooding the market nowadays.
Given this instrumentation-rich quality in Sanjo’s music, one would expect it to sound tinny and unsubstantial when it comes down to just an acoustic guitar. But as Sanjo plays the closing chords of Barson Huey, I realise that the freshness of the melodies, the clarity of his guitar work and the mellowness in his voice are the factors that make the compositions so memorable. The instrumentation simply gives it more body, more substance.
I ask Chandrani what she considers to be the toughest part while working with Sanjo. It is an intriguing question since they seem to match each other, feature for feature. He’s a workaholic. So is she. He is creatively possessive. Same goes for her. He can work on his music all night long even after working a 12-hour shift. Ditto for her. The bone of contention is a lot simpler than one would have expected. “Sanjo and I sing on completely different scales,” Chandrani explains, “this makes it very difficult to ensure proper coordination and at the same time, keep the emotion and mood of the song intact. Now, if I stick to the scale I am comfortable with, Sanjo has problems – and vice versa. It’s tough.”
I take Chandrani’s word for it, but personally, I can’t see any such conflict. The artistes have done a duet titled Sapno Ka Ek Shahar on the album and it is mind-blowing in terms of the quality of vocals, the musical arrangements and the sheer intensity of the guitar interludes.
This talk about conflict enables me to ask an awkward question: do they fight when they work together? They shoot a quick glance at each other. Sanjo slowly shakes his head with a wry smile. Chandrani giggles. I take that as a “Yes”.
I ask Chandrani how she perceives the act of writing a song. Is it an artistic endeavour? Or is it just a hobby? “It’s how I connect with myself,” she replies, “music and writing help me to unwind.”
I turn to Sanjo with the same query. “Tough question,” he replies, “music is so many things to me. It’s a passion, it is a stress management tool, and most importantly, it is a channel for enhancing my creativity. Every creative professional needs to explore other avenues to avoid creative fatigue. Some paint, others write… I compose and play and sing. Music lies at the core of my existence. I cannot live without it.”
So what does the future hold for this highly talented duo? What have they planned as the next step? Online music sites have reported that the material for their next album is ready and they are about to start recording the songs. Both Sanjo and Chandrani confirm this news. That is certainly impressive. Most debutantes take a long time to come up with their next round of work. I ask them to tell me something about the new album.
“We have tried to be more experimental in the second album”, says Chandrani, “just like the first album, every song flows from a concept and tries to communicate an idea, a message… something one can relate to. Something one identifies with, as if it has happened to you. I feel if a listener is able to relate to a piece of creativity and is able to identify with it, the song has done its job well. All the songs in the second album attempt to do exactly that.”
“Also, we have turned a little choosy in terms of the styles of the compositions”, adds Sanjo, “our first album had a few songs in the pop genre which I feel is a crowded, cluttered space. Our producer felt these songs would give us an advantage from a purely commercial point of view. In the second album, we have steered clear of this, focussing largely on what we do best – create melodies that are pleasing to the ear, emphasising the acoustic feel that characterises our music, and building on the guitar-based sound that is the essence of our songs. And let me share something else with you: the album springs a major surprise – you will see Chandrani debuting as a composer!”
The chemistry between these two artistes is very apparent. You can see it in the way they look at each other, in their interaction and in the fact that they are very comfortable in each other’s presence. So I decide to pop the obvious question: any romantic inclinations? Chandrani throws her head back and laughs heartily, at the same time signalling a vehement ‘No’ with her arms, moving them vigorously from side to side like a pair of windscreen wipers.
To refute my observation, Sanjo points out in his typical underplayed manner that, had it been so, the album would be filled with mushy love songs. Instead, some of the tracks focus on a far more mature version of love, dwelling on the pain of separation and the sadness of failed relationships.
Point taken. I back off.
To bring the interview to a close, Sanjo picks his twelve-string guitar up and sings an unplugged version of my personal favourite, Shaayad Kabhi. Composed in a swinging bluesy vein, the song was written as a kind of farewell song from Sanjo and Chandrani, promising to be back again. With their second album just around the corner, it looks like they have kept their promise.
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