Aditya Balani has always had that sensibility as a guitar player that’s enabled him to synthesise his virtuosity and exquisite command over technique — his remarkable understanding of the nuances of the instrument — with an instinctive knack of communicating through music. Balani’s use of the fretless guitar with his cross-continent exploratory jazz ensemble, the Aditya Balani Group, has always been a thing of fascination for most fans, but the Advaita co-founder, and staple part of a host of other independent alternative and jazz bands in New Delhi, has gone in a different direction with his new solo EP, titled Constants & Variables, adopting a far more accessible approach as a singer-songwriter. He speaks with Guardian20 about the new release, his approach to songwriting and pedagogy, and Global Music Institute, the music institute he founded with his brother, Tarun Balani.
Q. What was the thought behind Constants and Variables? When did you start writing the songs?
A. Constants & Variables are the mental equations you create and how they dictate your decisions. While writing songs for this EP, I was exploring some uncharted territory and I did have to battle with these kinds of mental doubts. In fact, many musicians and artists in general go through phases of self-doubt because they are not following a standard path and sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming.
I started writing the songs in February this year and they took shape pretty quickly. I then made basic demos and shared them with my musical peers to get some feedback. While recording the EP in Mumbai, I changed some things here and there, and worked on the arrangements and instrumentation in more detail.
Q. With this release, you’ve moved towards a more melodic direction with a greater focus on the voice, than your past work. Is this shift in style something you’d been experiencing for a while?
A. In general, I have a broad spectrum of styles that I compose music in. Over the past year, yes, a lot of my compositions were in the format of a song with lyrics, so in a natural way, it led to this EP, which focuses more on the voice. However, I have been writing songs for over a decade; in the past I’ve featured other singers to sing over them. For this EP, I sang all of them which was kind of an experiment. I do intend to take this further and I’ve already written material for a full-length album. I keep adding these songs to the live set to expand it further.
Q. Can you walk us through the writing/recording/production process of Constants and Variables?
A. So my writing process is very stripped down in the initial stage. Usually, I just sit with a guitar and work out melodies and lyrics. Sometimes the initial idea is driven more by electronic sounds I create and that becomes the shooting off point. The next stage is to arrange more parts for other instruments and try it out with the live band. That gives me a good idea of how to produce the song as a final
I just went with the flow in terms of arrangements and instrumentation with what each song needed. Now that I think about it, the melodies are quite simple and hummable; however, there are a lot of intricacies in the layering of different electronic elements and sound design.
Q. How has the response to the EP been so far?
A. The response has been pretty good actually. I’m really happy! People who've known me for years are saying, “Oh so you’re finally getting around to releasing this stuff” as they are aware of this side of me as well. Other people who only know me as a jazz guitarist are definitely surprised. I hope pleasantly, though!
Q. You’ve been actively involved in very different sounding ensembles, so are the shifts deliberate or a reflection of a your musical evolution?
A. I would say it’s definitely a natural evolution and a reflection of where I am, musically and artistically speaking, at that point in my life. I’ve always wanted my music to be an honest creative expression rather than it being deliberated to suit a particular need.
Q. Having spent time at the Berklee College of Music, can you elaborate on the importance of studying music and theory?
A. I see studying music as expanding your tool palette. Your raw creativity and sensibility are an innate ability. Studying doesn’t diminish it or overnight make you a great performer or composer. It can help you develop and polish your playing and writing. In terms of songwriting, a working knowledge of harmony can help you explore a bigger sonic spectrum. In terms of playing, while studying you explore different playing situations, different styles and learn how to better communicate with your fellow musicians. I guess it prepares you better for the music industry in general, and if you’re stuck in a creative rut, having more tools in your bag can only be a positive thing.
Q. What are your views on the state of pedagogy in India? Do you feel musicians here need to develop a greater comfort with theory and technique?
A. Well, when I started out I really had a hard time finding a good teacher. In fact, I learned mostly from instructional videos that I used to get from Palika Bazar! Now definitely there are some really good schools in the country and also the internet is an amazing resource. I remember waiting 30 minutes to buffer a one-minute instructional video on a dial-up connection when I was younger. Now I see my students pick up so much stuff from YouTube videos.
Another thing I’ve seen in India is that musicians want to make this distinction between someone who’s self-taught and someone who’s studied music as if it changes you in some way. Learning good technique is just finding easier ways to do the same things without straining your voice or hands. That can aid in longevity for your musical career as well.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the Global Music Institute? What made you and Tarun Balani start the school?
A. Tarun and I both started teaching very early in our musical careers and over the years developed a network of students. Music education is something we both are passionate about. When we moved back after graduating from Berklee, Tarun approached me with a concept plan and it seemed like a natural step to organise our teaching into a more formal space. He had a vision for a full-fledged campus for college level music education. However, we decided to take it step-by-step and we started with a smaller space and brought in faculty from US for a month-long program. Gradually, our programs became longer and we moved to a semester system. Our campus in Greater Noida is almost ready and we will start our first program in early 2016.
Music education in India is a growing industry and I feel that better trained musicians will lead to a greater level of professionalism and overall musicianship, which in turn creates more opportunities.