Meet Tushar Apte — the man behind songs by BTS, Zayn Malik and Nicki Minaj

The Indian-Australian writer, producer and composer chats with us on his visit to India
Tushar Apte
Tushar Apte

You may not have heard of Tushar Apte - the LA-based writer, producer and composer. But he is the name behind songs such as Home by BTS, Heavy by PJ Morton and Adam Levine, Sober by Demi Lovato and No Candle No Light by Zayn Malik and Nicki Minaj. On a recent trip to India to work with rappe Raja Kumari, we caught up with the Indian-Australian artiste. Excerpts on our chat with him about his early days in LA, and his writing process:

How did you interest in this field begin? Were you always into music growing up?
I grew up in a musical home. Even though my parents had other professions (my dad has a PhD in chemical engineering and my mum is a doctor and medical researcher) we had a lot of music in our house. Between both my parents I had plenty of early exposure to Indian classical, old Bollywood and western pop, like ABBA, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson. My parents spotted a natural musical ability and sent me to piano lessons early on, but the structured learning approach never worked for me, a lot of times I would just play by the ear and frustrate my teacher by not practicing what I was supposed to. I’ve been playing the keyboard/piano most of my life but have learned to play, read and write just by myown practice and ear. I think the best way to make kids fall in love with playingmusic is to learn to play the songs they actually listen to – that’s all that’s reallyworked for me.

I was also deep into jazz in high school so developed a lot of the more advanced playing technique learning to play and improvise on jazz standards. There was a period around late primary school where I was more into sports and other things all the kids were doing, but my 7th grade music teacher really ignited the musical spark for me and suddenly music became exciting again. All this is a long way of saying YES I was always into music growing up.

You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business. But how has thejourney been?
Did you face any hardships initially?I made the decision to basically pack up my entire life in Sydney. I’d done acouple of degrees (for my parents’ sake, of course) and worked in IT for a few years. ButI finally decided to take the plunge and get an exchange visa in order to stay in LAand work for a year. I had been working at my job and playing various gigs at night inSydney, but I knew that to really give music a proper shot I would have to leaveSydney entirely. It was obviously not easy leaving friends and family and everythingelse I had up until that point, but I just followed curiosity and blind ambition Isuppose. 

Moving to Los Angeles with no connections in the music business at alldefinitely had its challenges. I had many odd jobs (which had nothing to do withmusic) and dealt with some serious characters just to pay my rent, after I’d spentall my savings in the first few months of living in LA. For the first 4-5 years it’s fair tosay I was basically living month to month. I think a lot of these ‘hardships’ are actually character building exercises and actually when I look back, they were mostly some of the happiest times in my life simply because I was in LA doing (or trying to do) what I love –which was to make a career out of music. Looking back at those times, I’m glad tohave gone through them since it makes me more grateful every day to be in theposition I’m in now – though there’s always more to chase.

What was the first big breakthrough moment in your career?
I’ve had a few ‘moments’ over the last three years, but if I had to point to one day itwould probably be the session me and my co-writers created Zero which wouldeventually be released by Chris Brown. The production process took months andrevisions after the main writing day – but the song itself came so quickly in about 30minutes. Myself, Matthew Burnett, Sean Douglas and Talay Riley, we sat in a ‘live room’and jammed it out and it was so fast - I’d never really experienced worked at thatlevel or speed but also felt like I was where I was meant to be. The song came outabout 14 months later and changed my whole career and life trajectory. I got mymanagement and publishing deal at Warner soon after and the rest is history.

Out of all the artistes you’ve worked for, which has been the most exciting andmemorable?I’ve had a lot of great moments of meeting my heroes but a couple of recentprojects stand out. Last year I composed music for The Bobby Brown Story withKenneth Babyface Edmonds (all you kids should look him up!), which was anamazing experience for me as someone who grew up on ‘90s r&b. He is, by anymeasure, one of the greatest songwriters of any era in popular music – so it was anhonour to work with him, and to learn from him, and geek out and ask stories aboutthe ‘90s. 

Closer to home, earlier this year I was lucky to be a part of writing Home for BTS – which was so exciting because for me it was so unexpected. While I wasworking on the project I had absolutely no idea just how massive and impactful theyare, so when the album came out and it was #1 on Billboard (I think it’s still thehighest selling album of the year) it was a huge surprise and great being a small partof the meteoric juggernaut that is BTS.

What is your writing process like?
Most of the time I try to find a musical ‘world’ and a strong vocal melody for thesong to exist in before working on lyric and concept. So normally that means playingkeyboards or synths, messing around with sounds and building up a sonic palettethat seems interesting. Then I’ll start singing and playing around with vocalmelodies (these days with co-writers) and try to find a lyric or concept that fits the soundscape.

How was your time in India?
I love coming to India! I’ve been coming basically every couple of years since Iwas born. When I was younger it was mostly to visit family but the last few visitsI’ve been able to explore and see other sides as well. One day I would love to reallytravel the whole way through India – it’s such a rich variety of all human experiencethat I think doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

On this visit, I came to work with my friend Raja Kumari, whom I’ve known from theLA songwriting scene. We’re doing a few songs for her project; I’m also workingwith Lisa Mishra and a few other cool writers. There are a couple of other big Indianprojects I’m working on but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to talk about them justyet but you’ll surely hear of them VERY soon!

What projects are you working on next?
I’m currently wrapping up an EP for Nicole Scherzinger (from the Pussycat Dolls)which has been a cool process. I’m still writing and producing for many of the bigUS acts so you’ll see some of those records released over the next few months. I’malso scoring another TV show for a major US network – my first full season of a TVshow which is exciting and a new challenge for me. 

Hopefully I’ll also be back in India sooner than later to work with a few artistes – I’m also on the lookout for young talent that can crossover globally, I would love to find an Indian Rosalia to develop into a global superstar – I know she’s here somewhere amongst all the talentedpeople in India! I feel like the Indian music scene is poised to have the sort of ‘happyaccident’ that has made global stars out of the likes of Rosalia.

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