World Music Day: Sid Sriram discusses his musical journey and collaborations with Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman

Sid Sriram who was supposed to perform in Chennai this weekend, talks to Indulge about performing Thiruppugazh at Coachella, working with the doyens of film music, and more
Sid Sriram
Sid Sriram

Ever since playback singer Sid Sriram stormed the Indian music scene with Mani Ratnam’s Adiye from Kadal (2013), he has managed to carve a niche for himself with his distinctive singing style. A decade later, the singer, songwriter, and composer is living out of a suitcase, straddling three worlds — films, independent music, and Carnatic music — all with ease.

Born in Chennai and raised in the US, this singer, who has his roots in Carnatic music and is now testing waters with English songs, exploring a global identity, is a true-blue testimony to the adage that music transcends all boundaries and has a universal language. Sid says that he has reached a point in his life where he has fallen so deeply in love with the craft of music that he wants to wake up every morning just to become a better musician with each passing day. Indulge caught up with the singer amid his All Love No Hate World Tour. Excerpts...

Ever since you began your singing sojourn with Adiye, your career has been on the rise. Did you expect to become a singing sensation in such a short time?

I don’t think so. Adiye was truly a debut for me. And this was not just in terms of taking the plunge into films, but to get an insight into the industry and be welcomed into the world of cinema. Though Adiye was a path-breaking piece of music, it was after Thalli Pogathey that things took off for me.

You grew up at a time when both the doyens of Tamil music, Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja and Isai Puyal AR Rahman were at the peak of their respective careers. Did it shape your taste in music?

I was born in 1990. As far as I remember, I listened to Rahman sir’s soundtrack growing up. In my formative years, it shaped the way I listened to sound and perceived music. As I grew older, I comprehended the way he fused cultures and used synthesisers and rhythms. It felt like worlds colliding in the most beautiful way possible.

I discovered Ilaiyaraaja sir’s music in college, when I stumbled upon Nayakan and its soundtrack. Once I became obsessed with his music, it gave me a new perspective and view on melody and what melody could do without trying to be attention-grabbing. I learned the simplicity of a melody and how that could be emotionally compelling. So at different stages of my life, both geniuses made an impact on me.

And you went on to work with both of them eventually. Does it feel like a sense of accomplishment?

ARR sir, gave me my first break. So, I consider him my guru and mentor. The other day, I was listening to the Bombay album. And to imagine that I have gotten to work in this capacity with the same person who’s created this masterpiece of music feels surreal even today.

My tryst with Ilaiyaraaja sir, began on an emotional note. When I stepped into his studio for the first time, I was reminded of my maternal grandfather, who passed away in 2011. He used to be an arranger, composer, and Carnatic musician. I had heard him talk about studios like the one that Ilaiyaraaja sir had. When I arrived at the recording, a sense of deep warmth swept over me. And then, I got to interact with the maestro. The pace at which he was directing me to sing the song helped me to take the right kind of approach to perceiving melodies. More than accomplishment, it feels like a divine entity that was supposed to happen.

Sid Sriram
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Both of them have very different working styles. So, do you prepare differently while working with them?

I have a thumb rule for any composer I work with. I go in like an empty vase and let the melody fill me up. Having said that, the process of recording has been different for both of them. I think it’s quite representative of their musical styles. While Rahman sir’s is evolving the melody and bouncing ideas, Raja sir’s melody is set, and there’s a specificity to it. Though these are different processes, there are similarities in the way they envision these grand masterpieces. I think being an instrument for both of them has been such a great honour.

You recently performed Thiruppugazh (an anthology of Tamil songs dedicated to Lord Murugan) at Coachella. How was that experience?

There are moments when you get on stage and feel like everything has dissipated. You dissolve into this magnetic frequency and forget yourself. Those are the best shows because you feel like you’re channeling something other-worldly. And those moments are profound. This show felt that way.

Thiruppugazh is a piece that’s close to my heart. Performing it in front of people who have never heard it, or the language, was surreal. The audience was wrapped in silence. I’m proud to be an ambassador of the music, the language, the culture, and the people that have made me who I am. I got a day to process it, and I put up a post about it on my Instagram. I was just so deeply grateful.

How easy is it for a brown artiste to be accepted worldwide today?

I think it’s now more than ever! In the last year-and-a-half, I have been churning out my English album, touring the West, and doing a lot more work on this side of the world than I’ve done before. I realised there’s a need for a perspective that comes from people like us.

I wasn’t expecting my English album to take off, but it did. It’s time for music from the Indian subcontinent, diasporic cultures, or populations from around the world. And since India has a diverse spectrum of music, it’s time for it to proliferate throughout the world.

You are someone who has dabbled in diverse forms of music, be it Margazhi katcheri, English music, playback singing, or even composing. Which is the most demanding among them?

They are all challenging in their own way. When it comes to English music, I pen the lyrics and melody. I build my universe, put forth my ideas, and give people something that is straight from me. It’s like a manifestation of my soul.

When you take on film music, there are some welcome challenges. I’ve been trying out genres that I normally wouldn’t take up. Because of that, I have to pursue new melodic approaches and learn new ways of singing. It has broadened my musical vocabulary.

On the other hand, Carnatic music, for me, is the foundation of everything. It has allowed me to venture into anything that I do musically, be it playback singing or my original music. It’s the music I’ve rigorously studied since I was three. When I was younger, the biggest challenge was to understand this music form that is so complex. As I’ve grown older, I am delving deeper into it.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve fallen so in love with the craft of music that I wake up every morning to get better as a musician. Since that’s my mindset now, I find these challenges fun.

Your parents have had a huge influence on your musical career. What’s their favourite among your works?

They are deeply integrated into what I do. My mother is a Carnatic musician, and my father comes from a background in tech and business. They have their special moments in all three formats. There are certain concerts of mine that they love. If they think I can do better, they are always the first to tell me. We have all come to realise that there’s no real divide between the different musical formats.

It’s been a liberating realisation, because I don’t feel the need to divide myself into three different pieces. I am just one person who expresses himself in three ways. Maybe tomorrow, there’ll be a fourth. They’re an honest unit that keeps me humble and inspired.

Are they your biggest critics?

Most definitely! But I do believe they are my biggest fans as well. I can see it in their eyes when something is truly special. For example, the Coachella moment! It’s not pride, but excitement and love.

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How do you react to feedback, especially when you receive flak for your work?

I’ve gotten good at discerning feedback when it comes from a place of love versus pettiness. It’s taken a lot of discipline to rein in my ego. If someone criticises you, it’s easy to get defensive. I am now able to decipher constructive feedback from the tone and spirit in which it is shared. It is something that has helped me in my evolution as an artiste. But if people say something just for the sake of saying it, I have learned to brush it aside.

What are your upcoming projects?

Since my album came out, I’ve been touring, and I have been inspired. In both films and my music, there are many projects in the nascent stage. But I’ve been creating boundlessly, so I am looking forward to sharing more music later this year and next.

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Quick Four

If you had to choose one song of AR Rahman that is not yours...

Kappaleri Poyachu

And one song of Ilaiyaaraja...

Nee Paartha Paarvai

A song that you wish you had sung?

I am super happy with the songs I’ve sung, and being a fan of the songs I haven’t

One favourite song of yours

Ennodu Nee Irundhal

sangeetha.p@newindianexpress.com

@psangeetha2112

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