Nikhil D’Souza is not just a young, talented, passionate singer/songwriter from Mumbai. He is the face of a niche type of music in India – an offbeat, acoustic and folksy genre filled with unpretentious, earnest feeling.
After quitting his pursuit of a 9-to-5 career track, Nikhil – who taught himself how to play the guitar because formal instruction was too “by-the-book” – took up his music seriously, since this was where his interest lay. He is the voice of Airtel’s advertisement song “Dil Titli”, and has recorded ad jingles for Indian Terrain, Mitsubishi Outlander and Skoda.
His original songs include ‘Father and Son‘, ‘Changes‘ and ‘Storm Without a Sky‘, which can be heard at NH7.
Recently, he has also forayed into playback singing for HIndi films, with ‘Shaam‘ from movie Aisha, ‘Anjaana Anjaani ki Kahani‘ from movie Anjaani Anjaani and the chart-topping ‘Mere Bina‘ from movie Crook.
Nikhil D’Souza talks to our journalist Shreya Ramachandran about his music and his aspirations:
Before you started your career in music, you were working in a more conventional, corporate set-up. What made you take this decision, and how did you first start your music career?
Well, it wasn’t so much family pressure, but rather, the fact that I knew the music scene at that time wouldn’t sustain a singer who primarily sang in English, and had no studio experience whatsoever. Those days, I was just playing in the occasional band, and only (English) cover material. After that, I went through 3 jobs in as many years till I realized that if I had to do something in music, the time was now. The 9 to 5 job wasn’t bad at all; it was just that the prospect of getting into a profession that I truly loved was infinitely more exciting. So the plan was to arm myself with a demo to get work – playing in bands, ad/film work, sending to record labels – and try and make some money doing whatever music production jobs came my way (where you create the soundtrack for a short film/ad/Tv work etc.).
I count myself as very lucky because the year I quit my job to get back into music was the very year that Blue Frog opened up in Mumbai – suddenly, there was a lot more work for live musicians, and then other venues also opened up to the idea of live performances, with an emphasis on original music.
You have recently sung playback for Hindi films. How were you approached, and what was that experience like? Is there a clash of any sort between playback and your own indie genre of music?
My first experience in singing for film was for the song “Shaam” in Aisha. Amit Trivedi had called me to try out for it in late 2009, after he heard my voice on the Airtel “Dil Titli” commercial. It was obviously very different from anything else I had experienced: I was given a sheet of lyrics, and made to listen to the tune repeatedly (with Amit’s voice on it) and then we recorded. One verse later, Amit felt he had made the right decision in asking me to try this out, so that was quite a high! So I sang it through a couple of times, and a few months later we re-recorded some lines and it was done.
I wouldn’t say there’s any sort of clash between the work I do for Bollywood and my own music. Bollywood is mostly ‘work’, except when there’s a tune I really enjoy. There probably would be a clash if I became a Bollywood stage performer, where I would have to perform an entire Bollywood set – it’s very easy to lose your identity in this case. Many of the gig inquiries I get are for Bollywood music, but I try and work around that by suggesting to the organizers that I will primarily play my original music, and throw in a couple of the Bollywood tunes I have sung that will fit into the genre that I play.
Also, it’s not so much a question of genre as of language – in this regard, I’m more comfortable with English, but my comfort level with Hindi is definitely much improved now. I look forward to performing songs like “Shaam“.
Do you feel that Hindi film music lacks original quality and creative innovation? Is there scope?
In my opinion, it’s important for the listener to understand that the final film song is not always a reflection of the music director’s true style or intention. There are several people – the film director, the producers, etc. who usually have a say in the direction of a song. So it’s not as though the music director has complete freedom of creativity. Still, there are those who come up with brilliant tunes and fortunately for them, a lot of film directors these days appreciate originality and something that will surprise them. So, occasionally you do find good original music, but you probably need to look lower down in the track listing of the film’s music album.
The trend of making somewhat off-beat films (and therefore off-beat and experimental music) is picking up, and we should definitely see more original, rather than ‘inspired’ music in the future.
Did you anticipate that ‘Mere Bina’ would become such a hit? What were your feelings when this mainstream venture – albeit with its own twist – got approval?
I had no idea how the audience would react to Mere Bina and a relatively unknown singer, so the positive response was quite overwhelming. Lots of people were, and still are, getting in touch on Facebook and email and being very appreciative and encouraging. Although you could say the song was mainstream, I was appreciated for my vocal style and quality, which meant a lot to me.
You have stated that the Indian music scene isn’t as strong as it ideally should be. Why do you think this is, and does this frustrate you?
Plain and simple, we need more quality venues and a different audience at each one, an audience that appreciates original music. We need a regular festival circuit, which will keep the bands busy performing and writing new material. Independent music should be allowed to earn a larger audience – Bollywood producers should look to incorporate music by bands into their films. Since people generally regard film music as the ‘music scene'; the one way to reach out to this audience is for independent bands to get themselves onto film soundtracks.
If you had to describe your music…
My music is intense, melodic and lyrical, loosely in the alternative/folk style. They’re songs and tunes that are based in personal emotion, and when I write and sing, I know it’s a good song when there’s an emotional connect.
The Times of India has commented, “Nikhil D’Souza attracts women wherever he goes, and that is a fact”. Your response?
More the merrier. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are your aspirations as far as your musical career goes?
First, to record an album of my original music that I will truly be proud of. The next step will be to send that music out around the world, play festivals, get famous – the usual.
Check out Nikhil’s chartbuster, Mere Bina: