It sounds incredible. A self-taught Indian musician who many have not even heard of has gone on to win a Grammy. But that’s just what Ricky Kej, the Indian-origin composer based in Bengaluru, has done, scooping up a best new age album Grammy for his “Winds of Samsara”. Kej talks to Indulekha Aravind about why India does not produce more Grammy winners. Edited excerpts:
Why do you think your music has been received better in the United States than in India?
There are various reasons but I also don’t begrudge that, as has been suggested. As a musician, I have to go where my audience is. In India, even if I have an audience, there is no way for me to reach them because everything is dominated by the film industry. For example, when people meet a musician, the first question people ask is which film they’ve composed for. The scene for independent music isn’t that great. It’s very difficult to be validated as a composer in India if you are not doing movies. There is a niche audience for my music here but it’s not like the audience I get in the US where I was No. 1 on the radio charts and on Billboard, a first for an Indian and of course, won a Grammy now.
But isn’t that changing?
The general public is not aware of it. If we talk about festivals, it’ll be the same people who are attending them, and it’s not nearly enough for a musician to survive. Also, there’s no culture of buying music. Everybody in India has an amazing music collection but ask them when they last bought an album and they will be stumped. Abroad, if you tell someone you have an album, they’ll immediately say they’ll go to iTunes or Amazon and buy it. Here, it’s considered a free commodity.
Why don’t we have more Grammy winners? Is it, again, because of Bollywood?
Absolutely. To win a Grammy, you need to make music from the heart. If you look at John Mayer, he writes music when he breaks up with someone and when he is in love with someone. Adele’s album, which won so many Grammys, is a slice of her life. I do listen to a lot of Bollywood music. But at the end of the day, these are not songs that will get critical acclaim worldwide because they do not touch your soul.. There are so many issues in India but why aren’t people writing music about how they feel about it.
How did you make it abroad?
It’s been a 15-year process. I’ve been making music for those markets and signing up with labels there and getting a lot of radio air play. It’s all about perseverance. For instance, Winds of Samsara topped the radio charts and even my album last year, Shanti Orchestra, which did not get much recognition here, was No.3 on the world radio charts, which was a huge deal.
It must have been difficult initially?
I was fortunate to work with some very good people early on in my career. I had someone called Rod Linnum, who was vice-president of Universal Music. He discovered my music and encouraged me to sell more in the US. I’d made an album called Communicative Art when I was 19 or 20 and by a huge coincidence, it had been exported by some enthusiast to an Indian store in America. Rod happened to pick it up from there, because he liked the album cover. Then I got a call at midnight from him, saying he had been listening to it for a month and really liked it a lot... He asked me to make a new album for him, and I did. He helped me a lot.
So does luck play a role?
No. I think it’s just about hard work. Unless you’re out there, you’re not going to get lucky. And you have to persevere. For me, it’s about being incredibly good at your work and having the work ethic to constantly reinvent yourself. If you’re an independent musician, your work has to be so sincere that you believe it’s the best possible product, however long it takes. And if you’re extremely happy with it, it becomes super simple to market it. You’re proud of your work and you don’t have to make excuses for it.
How long do you spend on your music, in a day?
I’m usually in the studio by 7.30 am, and I go to bed at 1.30 in the morning but the good thing is my home is right here. I have to be in the studio even before I get ready, or laziness creeps in.
How did you get the courage to take up such an unconventional career?
I’m very driven. I had decided music is what I wanted to do when I was in 12th standard, and realised I could never do a conventional day-job. So I spoke to my parents and told them I want to make music my profession. They obviously thought I was crazy and after a lot of fighting, I made a deal with my father that I would finish a dental degree after which I would do whatever I wanted. I started doing ad jingles while I was doing my degree, and I studied just enough to pass the exams. I had various techniques - the university was ten years old which meant each subject had 20 question papers. I realised if they hadn’t asked a particular question in those 20 papers, they never would, so four days before the exam I would study the answers to only those questions and I would score very high marks! People used to wonder how someone who failed his internal exams could do so well, and they used to hate me for that. This is also a comment about our education system itself, of course. After that, there was no choice but to be really successful in my music career because I had to prove a point to my parents and because I couldn’t go back to dentistry!
Who are your inspirations in music?
My music has sounds from all over the world. My philosophy is that it has to be music from the heart, an extension of myself, my emotions and my beliefs. I try not to be told what to do with my music. My early influences were Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Peter Gabriel, because they inspired me to not let my genre define what my music is. It encouraged me to experiment and express myself with any musical instrument. At the end of the day, it’s the emotions that give longevity to a song, it’s not the production quality or the virtuosity.
Doesn’t not wanting to be told what to do come in the way of your commercial work?
I love doing commercial work because it usually takes a day to be completed and you work with a different creative person each time, so it’s almost like a workout, where your skills are tested regularly. It keeps you on your toes, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. I do about 15 commercials a month and every day is a different challenge. You also get to work with a lot of different musicians and you become more multicultural in your work, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s the best education process in music that I can get, and helps me be in touch with musicians from all over the world.
You’ve also done music for few movies?
Yes but all with one director, Ramesh Arvind, because he’s an incredible person to work with. I really enjoyed working with him but at the same time I realised making music for films is not my thing.
So are you done with films?
No, if someone I really admire approaches me I would do it. I keep telling people that if Gireesh Kasaravalli approached me, I’d drop everything and do the film. That’s not just because I get to work on the film but also because I’d get to work with the man and learn from him. I’ve watched every film of his and you can see that he’s uncompromising in his work, and puts his heart and soul into the movie. But I would not become a regular Bollywood director who does six films a year and treats his music as a factory.
Did you study classical music?
I was self-taught while in school but later I realised I had a bit of a handicap, and began learning classical music when I was around 24, after college.
If you got the chance, what suggestions would you give to the prime minister about the music industry?
First, artistes in India do not feel protected. For instance, in France, if an artiste is really good at his or work, he is assured of his livelihood because the government gives grants. Also, being nominated for a Grammy is a pretty big deal for the country as well and any other government would have covered my entire trip because it would have been proud. Even after the win, I don’t see any appreciation from the government.
The second is piracy, which nobody seems to be doing anything about. Everyone seems to be comfortable downloading music and pirated films. Buying music is almost a laughable matter in India. We’ve got great laws but we need to enforce them. Also, there does not seem to be any intention to let artistes have ownership of their work. Your intellectual property rights are taken away, while, in fact, I should have the right to monetise them in every way.
What are you working on now?
Well, tons and tons of ideas. I hope to start working on an album soon, again with Wouter Kellerman.