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Reaching for the stars

Mumbai-based singer-songwriter Nikhil D’Souza, who incidentally has his roots in Goa, was recently down in the state to perform at the Mahindra Open Drive festival. In a tête-à-tête with NT BUZZ


There’s something about Nikhil D’Souza’s voice that makes you pause in your tracks and just listen, and leaves you wanting more. Having released singles like ‘Beautiful Mind’, ‘Silver and Gold’, and the recent ‘Sittare’, the talented singer-songwriter has also sung for Bollywood films like ‘Aisha’, ‘Break Ke Baad’, ‘Queen’, ‘Jab Harry Met Sejal’ and ‘The Sky is Pink’.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Your recent tune ‘Sittare’ marks your first non-Bollywood Hindi single. What prompted this decision?

For me, since the beginning I was doing two extreme things – one was a fully Bollywood approach with Hindi songs and the other was a full indie approach with English songs. I started realising over time that there was nothing to bridge those two and considering that all the streaming services and labels are getting behind independent music this year, I also wanted to put out something in Hindi that people can really relate to, but which also captures what I do as an artiste. So ‘Sittare’ was the perfect bridging song. I am really happy to see the way people have reacted to a song that I have written in Hindi and I am happy to play it live as well.

Q. Why do you believe that actress Kalki Koechlin was the right person for the music video?

It was a very instinctive feeling. I was sitting with a couple of friends trying to figure out what sort of video we should do and we almost unanimously agreed that if there was to be a girl in the video, Kalki was the right person because she has that image where she is not completely Bollywood, she is an independent theatre artiste too. And with ‘Sittare’ being a song which is somewhere between a Bollywood approach and an indie song, I felt it really worked well. Also, I’ve known her as a friend for many years. So for me, a non-actor, to be on screen with a professional actor who is also friend, made it easier and I felt more comfortable on camera.

Q. How has the English indie music scene in India changed over the years?

I think the English indie scene in India has grown slowly. It hasn’t had the crazy growth that we hoped it would, but what really has changed over time is the bands’ commitment to making their music sound more international in terms of production. You can see that more bands are taking that very seriously. Some are actually approaching producers from abroad, getting into studios outside the country and experimenting with different sounds. Now with the advent of streaming services that are pushing independent music because they are trying to create a space for non film music, I feel there is a chance for independent music to become more mainstream than it has been in the last few years.

Q. Is it possible to establish yourself in the music industry in India without dabbling in Bollywood?

I think it is possible and a few people have broken through. The genre is important though. There are some independent genres which are more accessible to people. Hip hop for instance has really emerged over the last couple of years. Then of course there’s always the Punjabi independent scene. There has always been a good electronic scene too. Unfortunately, in the independent singer-songwriter scene there are extremely few artistes who have actually been able to break through and really capture the market. It’s going to take some time and more people to start validating the scene and make it mainstream. 

Q. What was your family’s reaction when you decided to change paths from geology and pursue a career in music?

My sisters were quite supportive of me trying out a completely different career, my parents not so much. They kind of took a ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. But they supported me through the years, especially financially. Finally things paid off I guess, especially when the Bollywood stuff happened and they were hearing from other family members and from their colleagues that people were really reacting to my songs on the radio. They were really proud as parents.

Q. There must have been challenges along the way as you began on this path. What kept you going on bad days?

There were numerous, especially with regard to being accepted in the music scene when you have gone away from it for years. The challenge was to keep going because I knew that there was nothing else I wanted to do. So I gave it everything I could. And I think it just shows that if you treat music as a full time profession and you take it really seriously, good things can happen. You need to get out, you need to meet people, and you need to push your music out wherever you can. I think it was perseverance that really paid off.

Q. Was Bollywood something you saw yourself doing when you first began on this music journey?

I never imagined actually doing Bollywood for a living or otherwise. When I got into the scene in India it was with a clear vision to just be an artiste who writes, composes and performs his music. So I used to focus on just doing that and doing advertising work for the money. I went to the studio when Amit Trivedi called me for ‘Aisha’ for the song ‘Shaam’. From there it felt like a lot of music directors were waiting for a different voice to experiment their songs with and as it happened Pritam and Vishal Shekhar got me to sing their songs as well. Bollywood just happened but it took me a few years to really embrace it to the point where I’ve been performing live on stage. It’s been a long journey but right now I’m comfortable with both Bollwood and my independent music.

Q. Who would you love to collaborate with in the future?

In India, Vishal Mishra has come up really well this year. He is one of the most promising artistes who writes and composes his own songs. On the international circuit if Thom Yorke from ‘Radiohead’ calls me, I’ll drop everything and go.

Q. So what’s next for Nikhil D’Souza?

I plan to put out at least two-three songs like ‘Sittare’ that I’ve written and composed. I want to see where this can go because I am enjoying the reactions from people and enjoying the fact that I can be an independent artiste and approach my music the way I really want to without labels looking over and trying to change the music. I am enjoying the process and want to continue with what I’m doing right now.

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