Second to None: The song of the session musician

Second to None: The song of the session musician

By AKHIL SOOD | | 19 September, 2015
Illustration: Aaquib Wani
Personal glory takes a backseat as session musicians find a way to survive as part of the performing arts community by playing live or in the studio for other established artists. It’s a challenging path with its own pitfalls, as Akhil Sood discovers over conversations with many of them, but ultimately one that allows them to build a career doing what they really want to: playing music.
Musicians can’t be choosers. Well, they can, but it’s a tight balancing act. The odd breakout star aside, the performing arts have never been a steady or stable source of livelihood, and tales of eternal struggles count as a preemptive rejoinder to any idyllic notions of global stardom. That doesn’t mean altogether ditching noble dreams of making it one day and applying for an unforgiving data entry position with rationed coffee breaks and a punch-in-punch-out machine… or at a middling IT firm (it was, after all, National Engineers’ Day in India just last week). The prospect of working as a regular session musician, while not exactly glamorous, can be a fulfilling one. There are two kinds: You could either do studio sessions, where you’re asked to record parts for a song in a movie or an ad film, or for a band’s upcoming album, for a predetermined fee; or you perform live at concerts, usually as part of a backing band behind a famous artist — (Yo Yo) Honey Singh maybe, or Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy — and you’re compensated for your services. 
“I realised that playing music is the only thing I want to do,” says Abhijit Sood, a young drummer from the capital who frequently plays sessions for a range of artists, from indie bands Half Step Down and Cyanide to Parikrama, Shilpa Rao and Shibani Kashyap. “The way I look at it, it’s my job to play drums. You put me anywhere and I’ll do it — whether it’s in front of five people or 5,000.  I just want to play drums; that’s all I know.”
It’s not an organised industry as such — the only, or at least the most common, way of getting work is through word of mouth and exposure. Opportunities arise largely through meeting people at gigs or at social gatherings, where you share ideas and talk, which is how Heather Andrews, who does session work singing on advertisements and jingles, first began. That said, there is still decent money for someone who performs or records regularly as a session musician. 
For a popular, off-mainstream band, a sessions concert will fetch the musician a handy sum somewhere between 
Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000, while the figures go up to as much Rs 50,000 or more if the artist in question is a more established name, preferably a Bollywood hotshot with heavy circulation on TV. “It all depends, really,” says Vinay Lobo, a Mumbai-based session guitarist who has been playing for different artists for the past five years, including Mikey McCleary, Shalmali Kholgade, Anusha Mani and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. “With Bollywood artists, it depends on how many hits they have, how big they are.” Lobo started off at the standard industry rates, but he charges a higher fee now as he’s gained experience and grown in this space. “If you’re offering something of value, do not offer it for cheap. It’s important not to undercharge just because you want a job, because you’ll be stuck on that fee for a very long time.” There’s also the value that other musicians in the same boat offer, and the pitfalls of undercutting. 
In addition to concerts, Lobo also does studio sessions. “To run you through a typical session... I’ll get a call from some director. Very rarely will I know what the song actually sounds like. I’m just informed about the kind of gear I have to bring, so if it’s an acoustic song, I’ll be expected to come with an acoustic guitar.” All that goes out the window soon enough though, he says, as clients change plans by the minute, thus making it imperative for a musician to be fully prepared for anything. It’s why Lobo goes in for a session armed with his full gear. 
Sahil Mendiratta, a drummer from New Delhi who plays with IJA, Frame/Frame and Indigo Children, has also done some sessions work in the past — with Faridkot, Menwhopause and sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan — although it’s not something he’s actively pursuing these days. He’s used to playing with bands, which is a space that allows for a lot of collective growth and individual interaction, and concedes how that’s in stark contrast to the life of a session musician. One particular band he was asked to play a gig for, a band that plays plenty of high profile shows across the country, expected him to know — and nail in the first go — all the songs on the set, with the appropriate level of energy and power, while he had been under the assumption that there would be a bedding in process with a few jam sessions to develop a sense of chemistry. There was a clear disconnect in terms of approach. “Koi scene nahin hai. I was used to something different, and I realised that it was my fault that it didn’t work out; I should have done things differently,” he says, emphasising on the approach a session musician needs to have to keep up with the pace of the industry.  
It’s something Srijan Mahajan, the full-time drummer for Parikrama, FuzzCulture and a few other bands, dwells upon. He’s not an active session player anymore since his many projects take up most of his time, but he cites the importance of playing music and collaborating with different artists, admitting that he doesn’t even mind playing for free if the music excites him. But there’s the split side too: he was once asked to fill in for a band coming to India from Dubai since their regular drummer was taken ill. “I was told at 9.30 p.m. about the gig, which was at 5.30 p.m. the next day. There were maybe 50 songs I had to learn in that time. I don’t know… I’m open to doing any kind of music — Bollywood, rock ‘n’ roll, covers, anything — I just want to play drums. But with a case like this, where I know I’m going to be putting in 10 hours of laborious work, I’d charge Rs 40,000  - 50,000 or so for the gig.” 
The process differs greatly within the music industry, though, depending on the artists in question. It’s common for the backing bands to hold rehearsals even in the absence of the artist, to ensure a certain standard and quality of performance. Nikhil Rufus Raj, who has been a part of Honey Singh’s backing band, in addition to playing sessions for singer Apeksha Dandekar and a host of indie bands in the capital, recalls the initial period of learning Honey Singh’s songs. “We met him and he gave us his tracks the way he wanted them to sound live. He had edited them and made a mash-up to give us a reference. We sat with the songs, rehearsed and figured out the parts. Then he came for a couple of the jams.” Raj personally prefers the entire line-up, including the celebrity artist, to be present at all jams, but concedes that it’s not something that’s always feasible given the busy schedule of some of Bollywood’s bigger names, and over time he’s become comfortable with the fact. 
Shilpa Rao, Abhijit Sood tells me, assembles a new band every two years, during which the set list remains the same. Upon getting the band together, ahead of a couple of gigs, she came down to Delhi for five days, and rehearsed with the band for five hours each day. After that, the band would practice without her, meeting her for a rehearsal only before a gig for fine-tuning or any changes in arrangement. All the parts are clearly defined and structured — almost rigid in a sense — whereas with Shibani Kashyap, he says, the musical direction is slightly different, leaving more scope for jam sections and improvisations during songs. 
Independent artists in the country suffer from a lack of exposure and a glaring scarcity of gigs, with even those limited opportunities being further confined to the September-March period — the traditional “season-time”, but it’s a concern that doesn’t quite affect more mainstream acts. Lobo manages four or five gigs a month comfortably, further suggesting how playing sessions is a viable career option, and the number increases manifold during the so-called season, when he often plays up to 12 gigs each month. Sood has played gigs all over with his many projects, including a couple of shows in Malaysia. 
Faridkot performing an acoustic set, with Rajarshi Sanyal on the guitar and [right] IP Singh on vocals. In Delhi, Mendiratta says, sessions work is most prevalent among the Sufi and Hindi rock acts, bands such as Nasha or Ehsaas. “There are uncles and aunties all over the city who’ve been bitten by this Sufi bug. I’ve seen fat uncles killing it on the dance floor; it’s crazy. These guys, they gig all year round — concerts, weddings, private parties. There’s no f**king off-season for them; they play 20 gigs a month. Those bands are all getting tighter, they spend time working on their skill, their craft.”
Rajarshi Sanyal plays as the session guitarist for Ehsaas, and has already clocked up some 70 shows with the band over the past year or so. Musically, while certain bits are clearly defined, he mentions how there’s also some amount of freedom to explore within the realm of the songs, thus helping his individual growth as a musician, although he does have to tone down his more natural “guitar player” tendencies of actually playing as much and as often as he can within the songs. There was a sense of idealism that Sanyal tells me he had a few years ago, because of which he resisted the lure of doing sessions work for the financial stability it offers. “But at one point I was so broke I had to borrow money from my parents. I realised that financial independence was more important.” He performs and releases music regularly with his own band, the psychedelic Sufi rock outfit Faridkot, as well, and that’s the toss-up here. “I’ve always had Faridkot, and now I have the independence and the opportunity to push the band, write more songs, explore music, period. [Sessions work] allows you to financially back your own work and put it out there.”
“I would say selling out is when you drop out of music altogether, when you leave what you actually want to do. Where you get a job instead of playing music. This [sessions] is still a middle ground.” It’s the honesty and integrity of the individual that counts most. “‘Selling out’ would be the jump from Rs 40,000 to Rs 40 lakh; that jump isn’t really there. It’s just making sure you do what you want to do.”
The clashing of ideals and commerce is an eternal struggle for any full-time musician — playing what you love and first set out to do vs playing music simply to get by and survive. The age old dilemma of “selling out”. But Raj has an alternate take on the matter. “I would say selling out is when you drop out of music altogether, when you leave what you actually want to do. Where you get a job instead of playing music. This [sessions] is still a middle ground where you get to do what you want to do.” It’s essentially the honesty and integrity of the individual that counts most. “Plus, there’s nothing to ‘sell’ or ‘gain’ here in India,” he adds. “‘Selling out’ would be the jump from Rs 40,000 to Rs 40 lakh; that jump isn’t really there. It’s just making sure you do what you want to do.” Lobo, meanwhile, offers a slightly more philosophical take on the notion: “If you’re going to live with yourself, you have to find a way to enjoy what you do. If you hate it, you’re in the wrong job. Live, particularly, you work with versions of a song that you enjoy playing; you put an effort in creating parts that work for you.” 
Playing live on a bi-weekly basis, to thousands of adoring fans, touring the country (even the world), staying at fancy hotels, receiving borderline rock star treatment, making the big (ish) bucks, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and swept away by the hype of it all. Yet all the musicians we talk to retain a clear, detached sense of professionalism about the entire process, taking the good with the bad. It is what it is and the larger picture — the opportunity to build a career as a full-time musician — seems to keep them grounded. “I think everyone I’ve worked with has a pretty firm head on their shoulders. No one likes an egomaniac,” says Lobo.
“This is my job,” says Raj, “and I’m trying to do this the best way I can. I’m also having fun. At the end of it, at these gigs you get top-of-the-line equipment and backline and in-ear monitors and wireless patches and this and that. It’s good fun. At some level, you are being professional about the whole thing.” 
This degree of separation between the Passion and the Work helps the musicians, in a way, deal with those occasional moments when the cognitive dissonance that comes with playing music for a living, and also playing something you can’t claim ownership to (or, maybe, hate) sets in. Like how Sood says, “It just feels like a job sometimes. Some songs you don’t feel like playing but you have to. There are some tracks I hate playing, but being a session musician, I don’t really have a say; I just have to suck it up and play it.” Expanding upon the approach of the artist, Heather Andrews adds: “In advertising, a song is selling a product. You can’t have [aesthetics or] quality of the music in mind. You have to work with what you’re given and make it absolutely believable.” 
But there also lies a strong sense of personal growth that comes with collaborating and playing with so many different musicians. Nigel Rajaratnam, a multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer who has played sessions with Karsh Kale as well as on the TV show India’s Raw Star, explains: “You get to see different people’s ideas; a lot of composers are doing very fresh stuff — fresh for this geography — and it’s always nice to see how you would react to the music depending on the situation. You want to react to fresh musical ideas with your sensibilities, make it mutate.” Playing different styles of music on a regular basis, shuffling from Indian classical and folk to jazz or Bollywood or rock ‘n’ roll, also requires a moving perspective, which can be a challenging musical pursuit. “You have to have a clear head; it can be very difficult making that switch,” says Rajaratnam. “You can’t be reflexive. It’s very easy to, and then all gigs sort of become the same as you’re playing on reflexes. You have to have a very precise and clear cut approach and a good focus to help you react within the musical style required for a genre.”
Guitarist Vinay Lobo. | Photo: Vivek VishwanathanLobo alludes to the importance of working within the prescribed boundaries. “Learning how to transfer mood onto an instrument is very important [during studio sessions]. You can’t go in with a mindset where you try something that is technically out of bounds for you. That’s the creative challenge; you have to get the best possible result within that space, in the shortest amount of time possible.” 
It’s an abstract concept, but there’s an obvious shift in approach and mindset — as a musician — when you’re doing sessions as opposed to being the composer, the solo artist or part of a band. Understanding and connecting, if not always appreciating, with styles that may seem alien, while sacrificing some of the personal glory and the accompanying limelight that the arts tend to provide, becomes paramount. There’s an obvious sort of selflessness that the profession 
seemingly brings. 
But, as importantly, the sheer volume of content that needs to be mastered and performed flawlessly day in and day out can really seem daunting. Sight reading, where you read musical notation and play along with it, is a concept that’s widespread internationally, and, while it’s not exactly essential or even that common here, it definitely does help, as Rajaratnam, tells me, particularly when it comes to studio work. Beyond that, Mahajan and Sanyal both admit to having made little shorthand notes and cheat sheets for sections they think they might forget, while on the other end of the spectrum lies Sood — ‘The kind of music I end up playing is so different; there are so many songs. I know 150 songs of all these bands, I just know them in my head. And I really like the fact that I’m not writing anything down.”
Memorising that many songs, especially when they’re spread across different musical styles, seems practically impossible. “Man, the mind is a f**king funny organ to have,” laughs Raj. “I’ve thought about it. I’ve played with some 20 different bands and artists. I don’t know how I do it, it just happens somehow. Maybe it’s because I want to do music. My mind is attuned to it. Maybe it’d be different if I wasn’t enjoying myself so much.” 

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