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Ocean by Nischay Parekh

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The singer-songwriter genre is becoming increasingly popular among younger pluckier musicians who’d rather be earnest than glamorous rock gods. However, every emo youngster out there who has basic guitar-playing skills considers himself/herself to be a singer-songwriter, which is a mockery of the genre. Very few artists in India have made a name for themselves as singer-songwriters with their sheer talent and musical sensibilities and one such person is a musician from Kolkata – Nischay Parekh. Nischay is a precocious 21-year old musician and may still be a student of the Berklee College of Music but he has already played at sold out venues throughout the country and was a crowd puller at last year’s NH7 Weekender. Incidentally, Parekh would rather that people called him a pop musician instead of a singer-songwriter.

Quirky, quietly confident and massively talented, Nischay Parekh had always been interested in music – having started guitar lessons at the age of 11. His teacher just happened to be  another Kolkata-based artist – Tajdar Junaid, who is a multi-instrumentalist and immensely talented musician in his own right who has just released a very successful album of his own. Although, Tajdar Junaid’s musical style is very different from that of Parekh’s, we wouldn’t have heard Parekh’s music without the insistence and guidance of Tajdar Junaid.

Parekh exploded onto the indie music scene last year and we suddenly saw him everywhere – from playing at A Summer’s Day music festival at Mumbai, which was headlined by Norah Jones, to being a featured artist at all four NH7 weekender festivals. Nischay Parekh is now the face of pop and indie folk in the Indian music scene and has gained a loyal following with his boyish charm and unique style. His pop sound, soulful words and unaffected style has drawn comparisons to Jason Mraz, John Mayer and Jack Johnson – which is high praise indeed. Unlike what we normally associate with pop music, Parekh’s music is replete with straight-from-the-heart lyrics, stripped down arrangements and squeaky clean vocals – showing that the genre itself has matured and Indian musicians are not afraid to be associated with it anymore.

At an age when most musicians are discovering themselves, he has already come out with his debut album – Ocean, which was released on 4th October, 2013.  Although he collaborated with members of his band The Monkey In Me – Jivraj “Jiver” Singh (on the drums) and George Matthew Dylan Varner-Hartley (on keyboards) on the album, it is largely a solo effort. Other collaborators include the famed producer Miti Adhikari on the bass and Pedro Zappa, who provides additional vocals along with the bass duties. The first thing that any listener will notice about this 9-track album is that it is way too short for an album this good – lasting less than 25 minutes. Most of the songs are barely around 2 minutes in length and you will find the songs ending too soon much to your dismay while you are busy humming them. Sitting squarely in the pop-genre, all the tracks are soft and groovy and each song has the potential of becoming an earworm. The youthfulness of the tracks belies the heavy and grand themes that Parekh tries to tackle with his music – love, loneliness, longing and life.

The lyrics might be straight-from-the-heart, but they aren’t straightforward! This is why you will find yourself wondering why this album has a song called ‘Panda‘ on it. This is not a simple coming-of-age album but is a mature and restrained offering reminiscent of the music of Ben Howard and Paolo Nutini. Parekh’s musical style on this album can best be described as pop and acoustic with the honesty of country-music. The tracks are unpretentious, with infectious riffs and effortless melodies. The album starts off with songs that are clean, upbeat and very pop but as the album progresses, more synth-pop and R&B elements crop up that give the songs a slightly darker edge.

The first song on the album is ‘Newbury Street’, which is an excellent start to the album and is so polished and beguiling that is can be a very successful single. With a riff-driven intro and a very likable melody, you will soon find yourself listening to this track on repeat. This song seems almost like it was written in a stream of consciousness and talks about being ready for a positive change and the accompanying rush of uplifting emotions. Parekh’s soothing vocals, earnest lyrics and the very addictive melody make it very hard for you to get it out of your head.

The oddly named ‘Panda’ is up next with eccentric lyrics like “I used to be a Panda in my past life” and the song seems to be Parekh’s way to describe himself rather than love. This track is definitely more electro-pop and is one of the more complex tracks on the album. Another very catchy and lively song with unobtrusive vocals and it is a testament to how well he works with his bandmates from The Monkey In Me, as the track is seamless where no one musical instrument overpowers the other.

The next song ‘I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll’ is more folksy and acoustic and proved to be a very successful single earning him a legion of groupies. The bongos really underscore the folk element of the song and again Parekh keeps his vocals restrained, clean and painfully earnest. Laidback, cheeky and sweet, the background vocals lend a very breezy quality to the track but sometimes the song can sound more like a lament rather than a love song.

The album suddenly shifts to a very synth-pop track ‘Hill’, which is personally my least favourite song on the album. With muffled vocals and alarming squawks, this song does not flatter his vocals or his talent as an acoustic guitarist. The lyrics and the accompanying music lend a very eerie and disturbing air to the song. ‘Hill’ stands out like a very sore thumb and can come as somewhat of a rude distraction when one is so comfortably put in a state of cheerfulness with the preceding tracks.

Thankfully, the bad taste left by ‘Hill’ is quickly replaced by utter bliss as ‘Philosophize’ is a masterpiece of song – something you will not expect from such a young artist. Unlike the rest of the tracks on the album, ‘Philosophize’ is more piano or keyboard-driven with more of an R&B feel where Parekh dazzles the listener with his pitch perfect falsettos. The song does have some synth-pop elements but they never come to focus. The soothing tempo gives Parekh a chance to show off his vocals and control and lends a very relaxing note to the whole track. There are no musical interludes or dramatic tempo changes as every musical instrument used is there only to compliment the emotion and the words that Parekh is trying to get across and boy, does it work!

The next track called ‘Me and You’ is a very pop number and is a sweet romantic track and again is so sincere that it will leave you with no doubt as to why Nischay Parekh is such a “chick-magnet”. The languid lead guitars and extremely tranquil tempo never gets boring or monotonous and you will find yourself smiling to the song. It is just a happy sort of song that will give you a spring in your step and melt all your worries away. Again, his vocal finesse and control shines through even though there is no power singing involved.

‘Secrets’ plunges the track into the realm of psychedelia, with a very trippy intro complete with the buzzing of insects. This song is very short – barely over a minute and a half in length so you will probably write it off as an aberration. When you have heard so many excellent, upbeat and pop tracks and are in an album-induced state of calm, this track can disturb the peace slightly. However, overall this track is quite forgettable and does not seem to sit right with the rest of the album.

The album then moves into another laidback song ‘Ghost’, which is a bit R&B, a bit soul and a bit dream pop. Parekh hits such high notes on the song and with so much control that it lifts the whole track to a very ethereal level.  With a groovy bass line and a piano drenched melody, the song can sound very lounge-ey sometimes. Like ‘Philosophize’, it is a very memorable track on the album and you will appreciate the fact that it is almost four minutes long giving you all the time to savour its intricacies.

The last and title track of the album makes for the perfect conclusion. With very effective hooks and sparkling riffs, ‘Ocean’ will make you want to listen to the whole album repeatedly. Bright easy vocals and a sprightly tempo allow the album to end on a high note. Add to this the playful backing vocals and summery feel of the song, and ‘Ocean’ will “stick to you like glue”.

What is most startling about the album is that none of the songs were recorded in a studio. Nischay Parekh and his band recorded most of the songs in his and Jivraj Singh’s family homes in Kolkata and in parks in the country and the United States. For a debut album, Ocean is uncharacteristically polished all thanks to legendary producer Miti Adhikari who also contributed creatively to the album. Nothing about Ocean betrays the fact that it is the debut effort of Nischay Parekh. Sublime, easy on the ears and filled with sophisticated lines, most of the tracks on the album have the potential of becoming a earworm. This cannot be said for most albums let alone a debut one. The fact that every single track can become a very successful single shows the talent and the ingenuity of everyone involved in the making of the album.

Ocean is like an exciting little gift with a bow tied around it. Most of the songs are devoid of dramatic intros, progressive build-ups and vocal acrobatics and this is why the album is so special. It shows the power of restraint, candour and youthfulness and will make you appreciate the artistry of these young musicians. There is hardly any negative criticism about the album and all I have to say is that be prepared to have the album playing in your head at all times once you have heard it.

Anusmita Datta

Anusmita Datta is an ardent day-dreamer, music lover, die-hard foodie and occasional writer. Her obsession with pandas is sometimes disturbing and she can be often found lusting after momos!

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Interview with Karsh Kale

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Karsh Kale is an Indian American producer, composer and musician, known for melding Indian music with the modern electronic club music of his American upbringing. Kale often creates a unique blend of Indian percussion with techno music and drum & bass. WTS got talking to him about his style of music, collaborations and more…

WTS: You grew up in New York but you showed promise as an Indian percussionist from an early age, how did that happen?

Karsh: Well I was first introduced to Indian music by my father who’s a great lover of Indian classical music and of course old film music. That’s the environment I grew up in. So the tabla and mridangam, the sounds of those things were introduced early on, and then I just naturally caught on. My father was very close friends with a film composer from India, they grew up together. We used to visit him when I was a small child. His name was Bal Barwe, he’s a Marathi guy he lived in Bombay, and he generally composed for Marathi films. He and my father had grown up together, so he brought me to him when I was about three years old and that was really the first time that I’d ever kind of played the tabla and from there I was always interested in it.

WTS: Your father played a major role in your musical development. Could you tell us more about that?

Karsh: Besides the fact that he was always playing music, he was the Vice President of an organization called the Indian Academy of Performing Arts, which was an organization in New York which used to bring Indian musicians. This was back in the time before people were playing in places like Carnegie Hall etc. They would organize concerts in high school auditoriums, so when I was growing up I got to see people like Bhimsen Joshi, Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia. So I really got to be backstage, meet the musicians and spend some time with them and things like that. My father’s also a singer and he plays the harmonium. So I grew up accompanying him and we played a lot of Marathi community events in the States. And then of course at home, at least four times a week he would be sitting with this harmonium and have me come and play with him. So a lot of my development came from that as well.

WTS: Tell us a little about your musical background and how your solo work came about.

Karsh: Ever since I was a teenager, I started composing music, and started playing with different sounds because I was the drummer in most of the bands that I was playing in and of course there were all those instruments in my house, so I started learning with them, and we had 4 track recorders and 8 track recorders, so I started composing early. Once I came to New York as a student at NYU, I really started to see how I could take all of these different musical influences that I had from everything: from orchestra music to rock and roll to jazz, and that time electronica was something I was getting really interested in, and how I could take all of that and bring it together into one sound. And also, at the same time the technology helped too, being able to start making music in your own bedroom using computer software and things – that was coming up as well. So all of this happened at the same time and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, being in New York. Being able to be around a lot of different inspiring artistes, who were doing something similar – taking their culture, and incorporating it into a new idea, that was really what inspired me to start developing a sound. From 1993 to the end of that decade was when I really developed a sound for myself and found the places that I wanted be able to go as a composer and as a musician.

WTS: How would you describe your sound?

Karsh: That’s a tough question to answer. I think I’ve always tried for the past 15 years to try and describe the sound but I’ve never really found the right words. But I would say that the way that I describe my sound is creative. Once people hear what it is that I’m doing and the different places that I’m referencing it becomes clearer. Simply put, it’s a mix of Indian classical music, rock and roll and electronic music.

WTS: Do you plan to drift into other genres as a matter of experimentation?

Karsh: I already have. For me, even trance or psy-trance or techno or tech house all of these different sub genres of electronica, I don’t like how they become controlled by purists where it becomes stagnant. It becomes like still water for me and starts to stink if that makes any sense (laughs). Music has to continuously flow and it has to continuously evolve and as soon as you define it as something it stops developing. For me, that’s why I don’t like those terms like tech-house or something like that because that to me is like still water.

WTS: What kind of material do you like to play for your DJ Sets?

Karsh: I play all kinds of different stuff. We just played a show the other night, myself and The Midival Punditz, where we were DJing all kinds of music – everything from electronic ghazals to Jay-Z remixes and Rage Against The Machine to Underworld – we have really run the gamut of all the different kinds of music that we love. When it’s presented that way, people really understand you as an artiste because they really see the different places that you’re coming from. Those are my favourites of the DJ sets but I play everything from trance, to house to dubstep to drum and bass. But when I come back to creating my own music, I try not to fall into the trappings of creating a particular style and borrow different things from different styles to create something new.

WTS: How has the response been from the traditional folk artists that have heard your material?

Karsh: From the get-go, I have gotten a very positive response. On my very first album, I had got a call from Ustad Sultan Khan who happened to be in New York and he said if you’re working on an album I’d like to come down. Besides that, I have mainly been working with local artistes. Once these artistes started getting involved in what I do it was definitely very encouraging. Since then I think that more than listeners and more than people who keep the construct of the institution alive, the musicians and the artistes themselves – theyabsolutely understand where the music is coming from and more so they see where it can go in the future. That’s why we get so much support from people like Zakir bhai and Pandit Ravi Shankar, they have great respect for what is it that we’re trying to do and where is it that we can try and take it.

WTS: You’ve collaborated with a number of artistes including Anoushka Shankar. How has the experience been and how does it help you musically?

Karsh: For me especially, I don’t have an actual formal Guru who I turn to for musical advice, I’ve always listened to my own voice, my own instincts. So when I get to work with people, it’s a learning experience for me as well, I try and absorb a lot from them. Working with Anoushka for instance, we didn’t just go to the studio for a couple of weeks and write. We spent almost 3 years between the time that we started writing the music and between the time we released and started performing the music. Being around her and learning so much of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s repertoire through that and being in the studio with people like Shankar Mahadevan and Vishwa Mohan Bhat – these are people who you learn from when you’re writing with them , and when you’re recording with them. So I’ve had the opportunity to be around such great artistes. I tend to absorb what’s around me. For me, I’m fortunate that I can really absorb a lot from an artiste if I’ll be able to spend time with them. So, what I learn from collaborating with people like them is that I take a little piece of them with me.

WTS: Tell us a little about your musical background and how your solo work came about.

Karsh: Before I work with different artistes, I tend to assess what it is that they are going to bring to the table. Because for me, I can do a lot of different things – I can sit down a guitar, on a piano, on a computer and start programming and I can sit on tabla, harmonium, and start training Indian minds and things like that so it depends on who I’m working with. When I was working with Anoushka I was mainly playing acoustic guitar while she was on sitar. And we were trying to figure out the different places where we can take these traditional lines and bring them into a western context. When I’m working with The Midival Punditz our frame of reference is different. I might be sitting and programming with them and Gaurav might have composed some keyboard parts, so it really depends on who is bringing what and I try to fill in this gap. What we did with ‘Karthik Calling Karthik‘, I was doing more string arranging while these guys were doing a lot more of the electronic programming sounds which all came together to make the soundtrack. So it really depends on the project and who I’m working with.

WTS: Tell us about your association with The Midival Punditz.

Karsh: Well we’ve done a tremendous amount of stuff together (laughs). We met in 1998 in London, and we had both been playing each other’s music in our DJ sets. At that time it was very exciting to meet artistes who were doing something similar because all of us started with the feeling that we were alone, that we were the only ones trailblazing this sound. So when I met the Punditz, we met on a musical level but firstly we got along on a personal level so well that we’ve become family and over the years our families have become family as well. In that way that’s first and foremost what our association had become. But then more than anything, we recognized that we bring so much to each other, because we come from such different places because they tend to come from a DJ culture even though they grew up listening to rock music and are very well versed in Indian music, from film music to Indian classical music. So we get to meet on a lot of different levels. When I can sit with an artiste and reference Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Stravinsky at the same time that’s when the associations, for me, tend to continue and that’s what it’s like for me and the Punditz. We can come together on so many different levels.

WTS: Is the audience an important factor to consider while composing?

Karsh: I think it depends. We need to think differently when we are working on a project like a film because first and foremost you’ve to think in terms of the director’s vision. It’s not just your own artistic vision that you’re adding, you have to be in line with the main theme and the main idea of the story and what the vision of the director is in the direction of the film. When I was working on Cinema, I really kind of went in and every time I’d hit a wall and think this is what’s expected of me, I tended to turn the other way and do something else that I felt going to be more challenging. But that’s what I like to do as an individual artiste but if I’m working with somebody else and they say I want to do something for the radio then I know how to think that way. Personally, I would much rather challenge my audience, make them scratch their head a little bit and then come back and realize and discover something new, as opposed to giving them something that they have already heard before.

WTS: For a performance such as yours, what do you aim for in your music? People don’t seem to realize skill in such music, what do you think of that?

Karsh: I think that just comes from people’s ability to be able to see it in different ways, visually being able to see a concert and see what people are doing because otherwise, we don’t necessarily know what we’re hearing when we listen to a piece of music unless you hear live music and see how they interact with electronic musicians and things like that, because this is a new phenomenon as well. What we’re doing now in a live context is taking the aspect of electronica and DJing and bringing together the aspect of interaction between musicians. I think the audience is growing with more and more that they get to see of what it is that we do.

As far as what we want to accomplish, I think it’s more on a level of making people have an experience, letting them lose themselves. For me that’s what music is. Music is an intoxicant that takes you to another world, takes through your own thoughts and animates your life. That’s what we try and do with our music, we try and let people go into their own space and let this music become the score for their own life. As opposed to drawing their attention to my fingers or to somebody’s skill on the sitar, which is impressive when you see a concert, but it tends to take away from the cerebral experience, what we try and do is focus our music more on the mind experience. For me, there’s a fine line between music and sports (laughs).While growing up as a table player, as a drummer, I grew up in that competitive environment but I realized right away that is not where it ends for me, music is much more than that. It goes beyond than somebody’s doing or their dexterity on the instrument, it goes to what is the story that’s being told and how profoundly can you tell that story.

WTS: Where do you think the future of electronica lies?

Karsh: When people say electronica, it’s almost as if it’s something different or separate from live music. I think it’s just another instrument and another dimension that’s been added to music. So when people see music in the future they are going to see musicians who have incorporated technology in whatever they are doing. Think of the tabla, as a traditional instrument the way it sounds today is not the way it sounded even 50 years ago. There’s a lot of technology involved and there’s a lot of audio analysis that has gone into how to present the music on an international platform. We can’t think of electronica as something brand new and challenge that. It’s just a natural progression of something traditional. Because otherwise there’s no way to fill that space with sound and there’s no way to be able to make those instruments so eloquent. All these great artistes have been part of the development of these instruments. And now I use electric tablas on stage, I have modified my tablas so that i can go through the laptop and modify the sounds, and I can control the instrument, but what you’re hearing is something certainly new.

WTS: Tell us about your connection with Bollywood and about your upcoming projects.

Karsh: Bollywood is something we’ve always talked about, not as a style but as an industry that we’d love to break into, that we’d like to use as a platform to expose what we do as artistes. It was once again a natural progression for us to get to that point where the audience is ready to hear what we’ve been developing all these years. If you look at any scene or any exposure for a particular style of music, you’d think that it became popular when it was discovered. But usually when you look into it there are years or decades of development that went in to that before the major or general audience came to know about it. What I feel what we’re bringing to it now is a natural progression because it takes time to develop something before it is time for it to be exposed.

WTS: You’ve expressed a desire to work for Hollywood projects, has anything come up yet?

Karsh: We’re not doing anything right now but we’ve collaborated with a lot of independent artistes in the States, we have worked with Ajay Naidu, who’s a Hollywood actor and has his own independent film that he’s produced directed and we have done the music for that. It’s called Ashes which is now playing in film festivals across the States and of course we have higher hopes to do more. For us it’s not necessarily about Hollywood/Bollywood as much as it’s about a good film. Rahman for that matter – he’d just done a Hollywood film last year and it wasn’t a very good film, but it was Hollywood. I think the differentiation has to be made about a good film because genres put out all kinds of different products. As an audience we have to differentiate between what’s quality and what’s not.

WTS: You’ve said you enjoyed collaborating with Sting the most. What was so different in this collaboration?

Karsh: Well I think for me it was that I got to write the song as opposed to him coming and writing the song with us. When we worked with Norah Jones on the album, we sat together and had written the song together. He’s another hero of mine, he’s somebody I had been listening to since I was 12 years old, studying his music and style, even when he was with The Police and as a solo artiste. Getting to the point, writing a song for him was like a final exam, it was that moment where you have to prove what you know and I had to prove it with a man who for me is one of the best song writers in the world. To be able to write something like that is like writing a novel for Shakespeare!

Priyanka Shetty

Priyanka Shetty is the founder of What's The Scene? Follow Priyanka on Twitter @priyanka_shetty

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