In the current phase of your life and career, now that you have some time off from playback singing, do you think you can afford to experiment more with the kind of music you choose to do?
A. I haven’t really been very experimental with my music so far. It is just now that I have started to experiment, and to explore myself. And now that there is no real pressure of trying to redeem or reclaim my position—I am under no delusion that I am going to get back to the peak that I probably had attained at some point in my career. So it is a good time, there is no pressure and I can try different things and enjoy myself basically.
Q. You are considered the king of romantic songs. We have in mind numbers like “Chand Sifarish”, “Aao Milo Chale”, “Jabse Tere Naina” and other are timeless classics. Still, in this industry you are bound to be compared to other singers. Does it annoy you when your voice is compared to anyone from the present lot?
A. No, not at all. You can’t stop people from comparing you to others. Personally, I really believe that I have always had a very distinct voice, and you can tell my voice from any other, which is something I would encourage in other artists as well. Create your own style and don’t just stick to one style; you don’t necessarily have to do the same thing in every song. Whatever you do, stay true to the song. If the song is different, the listeners will find a fresh and different way of singing it as well. This is the philosophy I have always applied. Having said that, I still feel that there are a lot of genres that I haven’t attempted yet, so those are the genres I am looking towards.
Q. You are quite active on social media and you have also recently launched a personal mobile app to get connected with your fans. How important do you think it is for an artiste to have their presence on these platforms?
A. I don’t think it is important unless you have something to say and share. So if that is not there you can’t make it out like a job that is necessary. But from time to time if I want to share something or I want feedback on something, or I want people to tell me what they want to hear, then social media is a good platform. You also get to know what is going on. So it is a nice platform to stay updated, and that way you can stay relevant also. Sometimes we build our own castles and think that this is it. We are not very susceptible to change, but when you have a literally direct analysis happening with what you do, it helps you understand what is the present trend and what people really want from you. It allows for two-way communication; better than when you just do your own thing without any feedback from the audience.
Q. You have worked with the biggest music directors in the country. Whom did you enjoy working with the most, and whose style of making music influenced you the most?
A. I have worked with a lot of musical legends but since the last 5-6 years, there have been a lot of composers I haven’t had a chance to work with at all. In fact, they are the ones I look forward to working with, may be at some point to collaborate on something. Otherwise, all the music composers that I have worked with in the past have been very kind, very patient with me, and I had wonderful experiences with all of them. I have worked with all of them repetitively. I have worked with pretty much everyone from that era. Be it Ilaiyaraaja ji, Raghvendra Jain ji, Bappi da [Bappi Lahiri], to, much later, with Vishal-Shekhar. The one composer I really would have loved to work with, I did a few songs but they didn’t come out, is Vishal Bhardwaj. His style is more rustic, I guess. So he might not have seen me fitting into that mould of singing.
Q. You have also given some hits in regional languages. What is your approach when you are attempting a song in, say, Telugu or Kannada, or any other language that you are not very familiar with?
A. Over a period you have to realise that you cannot sing a song and make it sound evident that you don’t quite know the language. So when I am singing such a song I almost imagine myself in a getup that connects to the song. In Tamil, I have also sung songs that are colloquial Tamil. So you really have to work hard. I have taken 5-6 hours to get every song right. You have to do to the best to your abilities, and after that jo hoga dekha jaega [whatever happens, we’ll see]. But it is hard work and you cannot escape it.
Q. You have also done a number of hit remixes, like the reworking of “Roop Tera Mastana” in the ’90s. In the last few years, we have seen plenty of young artistes trying to revive the form. There has been a huge gap from the ’90s to 2015-16. So why do you think there was this hiatus?
A. Now it is happening much more rampantly but it has been happening over the years. Remix projects were happening back in the day, but they have suddenly come back. The comeback has been noticed in films. This is the new trend. Also, there is so much music already around us, and then there is a whole new generation who probably hasn’t heard the originals, so there is no harm in remixes. Even internationally there are songs you think are originals and then you realise, “Oh it was a classic from the ’60s and has been rehashed some seven times.” So this happens and is bound to happen that people want you to hear these classics or a new spin on these classics. I just think they can choose better songs. They usually choose songs that are actually not that good.
“If you look at things, today it’s Arijit who is singing 80% of the songs, just as Kumar Sanu was singing everything in the early to mid-90s era. There were other fabulous singers then as well. But when someone works, the audience really tends to get fixated on them.”
Q. A lot has been said about the way remixes are composed today, without any regard or respect for the original. So I would like to know from you about the kind of responsibility that comes on a singer when they choose to redo any classic song.
A. It is not so much in the singer’s hand. No singer should actually think of it as a classic. They should think of it as an original and sing it with their own unique style. Sometimes you can get thrashed if it comes out as too different, but if you copy the original that wouldn’t sound good because the original is the original. Very often I feel that why they fall short when they are doing a remix is because the singer is incapable of singing that melody. It is not in their DNA. They are singing particular kinds of songs and then suddenly they do something else. They don’t know how to approach it. The emotion of the song, the energy of the song, the expression of the song are all completely destroyed. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want them to sing it like the original because that would be just silly. At least what the song is asking for, you got to be able to give it that much. Very often it is not even the singers doing it; it is the composers directing them to sing the song in a particular way.
Q. Who are your favourites from the present generation of singers?
A. Of course, there is Arijit [Singh]. His singing is versatile. But the only thing is that there are a lot of clones of the same style that troubles me. Mohammed Irfan is also hard-working. Then there is Javed Ali and Benny Dayal. Among the new voices, Jonita Gandhi and Divya Kumar sing well. Neeti [Mohan] has also been there for a while and she is also good. There are so many voices now and you have to mention all of them. How much of it is really them, and how much of it is the engineer, you really cannot tell. So much of engineering of voices is happening that you really cannot tell if you are hearing the voice in its true form. It is only when you hear them live that you get impressed. So that’s why I have mentioned some of these voices I have heard live, and they are all brilliant.
Q. Of course there is no dearth of talent these days. But back in the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t these many voices. Why do you think we are seeing this sudden boom of singers in the Indian music industry?
A. It is the same as before. If you look at things, today it’s Arijit who is singing 80% of the songs, just as Kumar Sanu was singing everything in the early to mid-90s era. There were other fabulous singers then as well. So when someone works, the audience really tends to get fixated on them. Of course, there are many voices around but how many songs are they really singing? Not many. Now also there are two or three of them who are getting the most number of the songs; the rest of them are getting little. But this has always been the case.
Q. You have composed music for “Allah Hu”, a song sung by the winner of the second season of the reality singing show The Voice. While you have made a lot of music in the past, how different was your experience this time, since you were also his mentor on the same show?
A. The song was tailor-made for Farhan’s genre. Because I have been a mentor to him, I know his range and his potential as a singer, which is why I could have the song around that. Also, on the production level, we have added a rock element to it to make it more contemporary rather than traditional. The song is more like a chorus, so that people can sing along. You try to balance out a lot of things when you are making something beautiful.
Q. Television is currently flooded with singing reality shows. However, we see that only a few of the lot are able to make it big in the industry. What do you think is the reason behind it?
A. What happens is, with every reality show, every year, you have new talent coming in and then you cannot forget about them as the next season starts. They need to be inducted into the industry. The only problem is that after the reality show there is no follow-up for the winner. I think one person who stands out is Abhijit Sawant. There was a buzz for him even post-Indian Idol. He was doing live events, his video came out. But since then we haven’t seen that sort of push for the artiste once the reality show is over. It is important for production houses and channels to push the artistes. In fact, this will help them in the next season. This is why the artistes don’t last that long; otherwise, they all are very talented. They are deserving of a future and there is a lot of work these days—there is television, there is digital. It is just not about being a playback singer, there is a lot more.
Q. You have made appearances in some films too. So did you ever think about seriously trying your hand at acting, like a few of your contemporaries did?
A. I have never really thought about it. The offers I have got were not so impressive. A few of them that I had selected didn’t quite work out. So I don’t harbour any such secret desire. But when people call me to say, “Why don’t you do it?” I go ahead and do it. It is not for a career but for fun. Just for an experience. I have no plans to venture into acting.