Ehsaan Noorani, along with Shankar Mahadevan and Loy Mendonsa, affectionately called SEL, has created some of the greatest songs in the Hindi film musical canon. Think of one of your favorite films soundtracks or a song that is always on your playlist, and we can bet that one of them was done by SEL. Not only does Ehsaan work on Hindi film music, what you may or may not know is that when he is not in the studio composing, he is also an incredible guitar player whose first love is the Blues.
Now Ehsaan is putting on a new hat, that of judge, for a groundbreaking new reality show titled ‘The Stage’. Premiering on Saturday, October 10th at 9pm on Colors Infinity, the show, which also has Vishal Dadlani, Monica Dogra and Devraj Sayal joining Ehsaan on the judging panel, will find the best from among 20 talented artists, and hand over the opportunity of a lifetime – a record deal with Universal Music and a 10-city tour along with a mentorship program.
In this exclusive in-depth interview, Ehsaan chatted with Stacey about ‘The Stage’ and all things gaane. A fascinating must read!
Tell us about your new project the singing reality show called ‘The Stage’.
For the first time in India they are doing a singing reality show in English, which I think is fantastic. Normally everything out here is ruled by Bollywood, which is okay, that is the big thing here, but the thing is that there is a lot of talent all over the country that sings in English and it is a real pity that they don’t get any kind of platform to come and showcase their talent. I think Viacom and the channel Colors have done a very good thing by having the first singing reality show in English. We will see how it does but from what I can see from the preamble to it, people seem pretty excited.
Why did you decide to become a part of this show?
I haven’t done any of these reality shows before, the other Hindi ones are looking for singers or whatever. But as soon as this came up I just said yes because one, it is English. Also because I am always for the indie scene and to promote music that is not dependent on film and giving a break there. So, I immediately said yes and I said this is going to be really exciting.
What kind of judge are you?
There are four of us and I am supposed to be what they call the sagacious one, if you know what that means. (Laughs) I must admit I didn’t know what it meant when I heard about it, in fact I said, ‘What the hell does that mean?!?’ (Laughs) They said basically we want you to have a mentor type quality to you and share your knowledge since I do have a lot of knowledge about music and the history of music and artists and that kind of stuff. That was pretty much my role – so I was telling the singer as it was – in the sense of if their pitching was off or what he or she needed to work on, even what they should listen to because you know all these guys are kids and there are some people who are singing R&B whose parameters are Sam Smith or Justin Timberlake, but they have not heard Earth Wind and Fire, Diana Ross – the old stuff. So I had to keep advising them about things like that. I made out a whole list of tracks for them to listen to and a lot of them have been very thankful about that. I was more there to give them input then to just judge them and kick them out.
What is the thing you were looking for in a singer, what made you say okay you have got it?
See the thing is when you want to be a performer or a singer there are a lot of things you can look into, but the first I would look into is if you can sing. If you can’t sing well you might as well not even try! The thing is you have to be able to sing well to be a singer! Your basic singing should be good; the rest it takes a little time to develop. Then after, of course, everything in terms of the pitching, the timber, the entire soul and understanding the kind of music that they were singing. You know I didn’t get much into image and that kind of stuff because yes, that is all there but I first have to hear the singer. I can’t judge a singer if she is a bad singer and she does not look good, that’s not correct and that is not for me to do, so there were other judges who looked after that. Monica (Dogra) was very into the artists in terms of presentation, in terms of being on stage, connecting with the crowd, things like that. But for me, being a producer, I always look at the recordabilty of a person’s voice.
Besides you and Monica there is also Vishal Dadlani.
Vishal is a musician who has been part of both the indie and Bollywood music scene and a veteran of reality shows and will call a spade a spade. His experience helps him spot talent and future artists.
As well as Devraj Sanyal.
Devraj is the CEO of Universal and he is also a heavy metal singer. He is basically the suit. (Laughs) He is the record executive who is going to give all these singers a deal. His input was very good because he knows the business side of things so what he was looking at was something different.
One of the things that is different is that normally in a lot of these shows there is voting by SMS by the crowd, but this was not like that, we were on the spot – we had to judge them. Their fate lay with us. So it was difficult, very, very difficult. Especially because the thing is, I wanted to be completely objective. You know, it is very easy in these reality shows, someone becomes a favorite and automatically your heart takes over. The thing is, I am not that way in the studio and I don’t want to be that way with these people, because I think it is better for them to know where it is at than to have a false impression of themselves.
Was it hard to judge because sometimes people get nervous when they sing the first time?
Yes, yes. We did see that happen in the first couple of rounds but then as they got comfortable they became so good! They got better and better and better. It was fabulous to see such growth happening. The thing was that it was not only as singers, they were changing as people and that was really fabulous to see. So there is also an entire spiritual side to the show, which was fabulous.
It is really cool that you are mentoring these aspiring artists.
Absolutely. In fact, I have a couple of them who are performing with me in Bangalore, I am doing a Blues show and one of them has sung for us in Hindi in the studio. So this was really good because I know for me and especially with Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy we have always encouraged new talent. It is just sad that a lot of talent does not get recognized because they don’t have the contacts; you know how it is. So we try and make sure that we can push as much new talent as possible. Well, as much that is with in our control.
The independent music scene in India is growing a bit, can you see it growing even more?
It is very small but it is growing. But yes, there are people who recognize independent artists. I think it needed a TV show like this to get them the kind of recognition that they require.
But the thing is, it is not just about independent music. See, these singers can do studio work; there is a lot of other stuff that they can do. I feel it is more important for any musician and I won’t even say singer, it is sort of any musician – to be a working musician, where I am not talking about you being a rock-and-roll star but about being somebody who earns money making music. There are so many people all over the world like that and we don’t even hear of them or we don’t even know who they are.
Did you enjoy filming the show?
Yes, absolutely. I was very comfortable with the entire filming process. At first, for the first episode, you are a little shaky and I don’t mean insecure, but you always want to know if you have done well. So you go and watch the tapes back and you see the way you have spoken, what you could have done, what you shouldn’t have done. But basically you just have to be very natural. The thing is I can’t act. I can never act. I just like to be myself and be completely true to that. So that is the way I was, I was just myself and I think that went down pretty well with not only the producers, but also it went down very well with the artists.
Were there any surprises?
Actually, according to me the surprise was the talent. It is just amazing to see. All these people came from the northeast, the small little states. It is so fantastic that these people are getting recognition. There is a goldmine of talent out there. They don’t come to Bombay because maybe number one, it is just so far and two, because they are doing their thing there – singing in church and that kind of stuff. Where are they going to perform if they come to Bombay?
What are your hopes for the show?
Actually number one is that these singers get recognition. Also that the show does well and that people watch it so that it becomes bigger. Right now it is a very small show but it will become bigger with season two hopefully. And more than anything that these musicians can be out there working and getting recognition. Like I said earlier, I am not talking about anyone being a singing star but all of them being working musicians so they can do their own music and present it to the public and have a market for them.
What do you think of Hindi film music today?
I like a lot of the stuff that has been done. But you know how it is with hit music, the songwriting is not necessarily good and that is true for anywhere in the world. Personally for me, I would look for much deeper songwriting. I like Vishal-Shekhar’s songwriting; I like Amit Trivedi’s songwriting very much. If the songwriting is not good then the song does not appeal to me. There is a lot of songwriting, which is good, and there is a lot of songwriting, which is not good. It is the usual thing. You know, I personally do not listen to Hindi film music.
Oh you don’t?
No, I don’t. I don’t listen to Hindi film music at all. I hardly watch Hindi films either so… (Laughs) I listen to all kinds of international music. You know I am a Blues guitar player so I do listen a lot of Blues. And that is what I am playing every day when I am practicing. I am also trying to learn jazz. I listen to a lot of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). So you know there is a lot of stuff going on in Bollywood but I won’t necessarily say all of it is good. Having said that, a lot of it is good too, which is the case all over the world. There is a lot of songwriting that I hear, even from America, there is a lot of this complete factory produced pop coming out. But then there is a lot of good stuff too maybe by people who don’t make it that big, but there are some lovely songwriters there, like there always are.
The music of Katti Batti was a huge success…
It was, it was – unfortunately the film didn’t do too well, which was really sad.
My favorites were ‘Ove Janiya’ and ‘Sau Aasoon’. I loved those songs, I feel like they really had depth.
Yes, yes they do have depth. The main thing that I and the three of us always concentrate on is really writing a good song. Forget if it doesn’t become a hit, that is not in our hands, but at least we know at the end of the day we have written a good song and we have done good work. We have a catalog of what now, 280 songs out of which 90 to 95% of the songs are very good songwriting.
What to you makes great music?
I think it is a basic openness to music per se. And by openness I mean you should be like an empty hard drive waiting to absorb stuff from all over. See that is what I do. I mean I am going to be 52 this year, but the music that I write is what a 17 year old or even a 13 year old would like. It comes from having an open mind towards music – where I can’t say because I used to and love to listen to Led Zeppelin that I am not going to listen to Taylor Swift. Even if it is factory produced or whatever, there is something there, which is why it is popular. Let’s face it, music is an emotional process – when you listen to it it touches you. Whether it is heavy metal or whether it is EDM – there is something there, which makes it work so you have to connect with that something. And you have to connect with the soul of the music. That keeps your song writing completely on par with anything else in the world. That is were I am at right now.
As you said, you are a Blues musician, can you give us some of your influences.
Of course my first big influence would be BB King. There is a fabulous guitar player who lives in Ojai, California, his name is Robben Ford, he really is like my guru I would say. There is Larry Carlton, of course Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Landau, I could keep going on and on. Basically I love guitar! That is my passion and my life. I play guitar all the time so any good guitar player for me is really fabulous and an influence for me.
Could you name a favorite guitar riff in a song?
Actually the guitar riffs that got me into guitar playing in the first place was a song by Deep Purple called ‘Smoke on the Water’. Actually I think only about a hundred million guitar players must have got into playing guitar hearing that. (Laughs) That is what really turned me on to guitar.
If you were to do a solo album what would it be?
It would probably be a cross between funk, gospel and blues. It wouldn’t be all lamenting songs though; it would probably be some fun songs. Because you know the Blues is really about a story, it is not so much about being sad. It is a story.
From hearing that first riff of Deep Purple until now, did you ever imagine this would be your career?
No actually, I was very unsure what I wanted to do with my life. Luckily my folks told me you should study music, which is very, very unlike parents, especially in India. And that was it. I think the main thing is that life has pointed me in that direction. I do believe in that kind of stuff – it is like almost karmic that things happen. Getting to the film industry, it just happened. I did not want to be a part of it. It all just fell into place. I got a call to do music for a commercial. It was New Year’s Day and nobody else wanted to do it so I did it. Then my career changed from there. It became a career. I started composing for commercials and through composing music for these commercials I met Mukul Anand who had us do music for his film Dus. It just all fell into place. There was no plan ever made. I think that is a blessing. I am lucky that way. I have a lot of gratitude towards life and what it has given me – all of this.
Can you give us any hints into the music for Rock On 2?
We are working on that now. I can’t really give you any hints (smiling) but the music is turning out nice. And we have Shraddha Kapoor, the actress in the film, who is going to be singing in the film. She is a really good singer. And then of course Farhan as well.
What about Baar Baar Dekho?
We are supposed to be doing a couple of songs for that because I think it is more like an OST. We are going to be working on that very soon.
What else is in store?
We are doing a film with Rakeysh Mehra, called Mirza, and we have been working with the director of Dhoom 3 on his new film. So yeah, we have a lot of stuff going on.
How cool is that Hindi film music and Indian music is going out into the world?
I think it has been a long time coming. Now Indian music in production is on par with what happens anywhere in the world. I think Rahman was very instrumental getting that all started. You know we performed at Royal Albert Hall a while back and we had people who were not of Indian origin, flew in from Norway, people from France, people from Germany, came over to watch us. We have fans in Morocco. It is really cool to see where it is all going.
What does music mean to you?
Music for me, on one level, it is my life for sure. I also think music for me is my spiritual connection with everything. Because I often question where do melodies come from and how does it just happen? I really do believe that a lot of musicians, especially if you are honest about your music and are doing good music which people love all over the world and touches people all over the world, you are basically channeling a higher power. I think that is what you put out in the world, because at the end of it what do you do you just makes people happy. That is more than a lot of people can achieve. A person can listen to your song and really feel nice. I think that is really what it is all about.
A message to the fans of the music?
They are the reason we make this music. They are the reason we keep going. They keep us going. I have a lot of gratitude for that!