Composer, producer and singer Lesle Lewis, among the pioneers of India’s independent music scene, speaks to Bulbul Sharma about his attempts to reinvent his showbiz persona with a new style of music and a new approach to finding an audience.
Q. How do you look back at your early days as a musician, back when you were making jingles? Was it a phase of struggle?
A. When you look at half a glass of something, you might look at it as either half empty or half full. A lot of people look at struggle as “half empty”, theyregard struggle in a negative way. But I look at it as “half full”. In my opinion, if you don’t struggle you won’t understand what it is like to work towards your goal and achieve it. If things become easy to achieve, you don’t value them. I think I have struggled all my life in a way, and now I am again coming back as a new musician, as a new artiste. I have started my first independent music channel, “Lesle Lewis”, on YouTube. I am hoping to release 20-25 videos on this channel through the span of a year. I am also planning to promote a lot of new talent on this channel.
Q. You are often referred to as the “master of remixes”, and you have indeed created some beautiful remixes, like “Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Mein”, and “Piya Tu” among others. So how do you go about revamping an old song?
A. I first started with indie pop—with songs like “Pari Hoon Mai”, “Janam Samjha Karo”, “Yaaron Dosti”. And then there were remixes, with Asha Bhosle in “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja”, “O Mere Sona”, which really went crazy, andafter which the whole country was into remixes. Then I did “Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Mein”. I then did classical fusion with Hariharan and Colonial Cousins [a band formed by Lewis and Hariharan in 1992]. I also did Coke Studio. I have been constantly moving. So when you see from the remix perspective, and when you call me the “master of remixes”, it is okay. Everything I have done has been a big hit, but I didn’t end up doing only remixes. That’s one of the categories of music I do…
About the thought process when working on a song: to begin with, I should like the song or I should find a way to like it. Sometimes it is a commercial job, so you do it. But you still want to choose a song that you like. If you are given a song that you don’t like, half the battle is lost. So, first, you’ve got to like the music you are doing. Second, I like to keep the original composition in mind. When I hear the melody of the original song, I try to understand the mood that the composer is trying to bring out. Then I twist it around my own way and people still like it because I haven’t lost the heart of the composition in the remix.
Q. What are your thoughts on the kinds of remixes we hear today?
A. Well, I am not hearing them. These days everyone is doing a newer version of the same thing. Some are good, some are not so good, and good is a very subjective term. I am someone who doesn’t judge anyone.
Q. You have donned many hats and have established yourself as a composer, guitarist, indie-pop musician, classical fusion artiste. What next?
A. Well, next is Lesle Lewis the artiste, because for 19 years I haven’t done music for myself. I have done music for everyone but for Lesle Lewis. I was in Colonial Cousins with Hariharan, but it was always a shared platform. Lesle Lewis does a lot of other stuff as well. This is why I thought, before I die I want to pick up my guitar and I want to sing my songs. So that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t have too much left. I am 58, so if I can still go around the place and do what I can, this is the time I can do it.
Q. Do you think indie pop, which was all the rage in the ’90s, has lost its relevance in our time?
A. Tastes change and it has happened to the whole world. In the ’90s indie pop was fantastic but that was also because of the youth of that time, and they are now mummies and daddies. Also, younger kids don’t like to do what their mummies and daddies do. But the melodies are still there and people still like it. What’s happening in today’s world is that they are not hearing enough melodies, so what’s happening is that the music is getting a bit lost. There is a lack of really strong songs. I am a dinosaur but I am still in the music space. So now I am going to get this generation loving it like the older generations that liked good music in the ’90s. But of course, I cannot repeat the same music now.
Q. When you say that ‘music today is lost’, where do you think it is headed to?
A. I think music today is only headed to where the people who run the music industry are taking it. So they decide what music you are going to hear. People don’t hear everything. There are many people who are making music but you can only hear what you are given. A lot of people make good music but getting on a platform where the public can hear you—this will be decided by the people who run the business.
Q. Your thoughts on the independent music scene in India?
A. In the ’90s, I introduced a young singer, K.K., who sang “Yaaron Dosti” and “Pal”. I introduced the Band of Boys, India’s first boy band. That was independent music back in the day. Songs like “Pari Hoon Mai”, “Krishna” and others, were all independently made. In fact, they made a big movie, Janam Samjha Karo, after my song of the same name became a big hit. We had record labels promoting independent artists back then. Now, the record labels say they are promoting independent music; but since everybody can be an artiste today, the record labels are also not promoting any special people. But there is still room for a lot of music to happen, and I am still around.
Q. Since you are performing lots of live shows these days, do you think the live music scenario has changed in the country?
A. It has changed and is getting bigger because of the way it is marketed these days. However, it is less soulful than what it was, because there is too much technology involved now, and there are too many people involved who don’t know how to use that technology. Everybody owns technology these days but what they lose in the bargain is soulful music. The resonance of music is missing. By resonance of music I mean a good feel to the whole song. The whole musicality is missing from live performances. In the old days, when there was a live performance, it was all about the emotion of the song. When you heard it, you would be emotionally attracted to the band or to the performance. Today, you will find only a few artistes that are emotionally attractive.
Q. Your songs with Hariharan became very popular, and your collaboration with him has been quite rewarding for you professionally. So, what kind of equation do you both share on the personal front?
A. We are brothers, we are very close. Especially musically, we are very close. It is 20 years since Colonial Cousins was launched. And we are still buddies, we still perform. We met and decided to do this a long time ago. From then to now, look at what our music has become. It has become timeless in the Indian space. We were the only Indian band that has done an MTV unplugged show in London… Between the two of us, we have a great equation and it has been a great innings. We still hang out, still perform together.
Q. Your daughter, Divya, is also a singer. So clearly, music runs in the family. Do you give her any advice on her music?
A. My dad [P.L. Raj] was one of the biggest choreographers in Bollywood. Songs in Sholay, An Evening in Paris, Don’s “Khaike Paan Banaras Wala”, have been choreographed by him. So I have grown up in Bollywood. Everybody used to say, “You are going to be a dancer like your father.” And I didn’t become one. My daughter had the same problem. Everyone said you are going to be a singer like your dad and she doesn’t want to. So I have let her free, she would do whatever she wants to. She is a very good artiste no doubt. About the advice, she doesn’t want any. But we do talk about music.
Q. When can we see you teaming up with Divya for a song?
A. I don’t know. Somebody has asked us to do a father-daughter song. Maybe that would happen.
Q. You have also been roped in as a judge for the online show 10K Grand Challenge, by Starmaker Karaoke App. Tell us about it.
A. I was very attracted to the contest because there are a lot of people who are singing there. Everybody is good, but the best out of the lot could get a great platform and could eventually sing with, and for, popular musicians. As a star judge there, I can connect to so many people besides those who have already heard me. I will also introduce the winner in one of the original songs on my YouTube channel.
Q. What, apart from the contest and your YouTube channel, is keeping you busy these days?
A. I am doing shows professionally. After my recent show in Delhi, I performed in Lucknow. Then I went to Kasauli to shoot two videos for my channel. Post that, I performed in Goa. So, for now, I am busy with my live performances. You have always heard about Lesle Lewis as a composer, but now you will see him as a singer and performer.