At BollySpice.com we have loved the songs that she sings, and fans and critics everywhere love her fabulous voice. Our reviewer raved about Mahalakshmi Iyer’s vocal on ‘Bol Na Halke Halke’ from Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: “Mahalaxkshmi’s rendition magically sways with the melodious music. The track stands as a superb example of what a romantic song should offer”. We also praised her newest track from I Hate Luv Storys (IHLS), ‘Sadka Kiya’: “Mahalakshmi Iyer gives gorgeous vocals that are full of depth and feeling.” This is the second time I have interviewed Mahalakshmi, (see the first one here) and it was a another wonderful conversation – she is truly one of my favorite people to interview and to listen to. This time she talks about ‘Sadka Kiya’, the tour with Shankar Ehsaan and Loy, and everything gaane!
You were part of the fabulous album for Slumdog Millionaire. How was that experience?
Incidentally, that song [‘Jai Ho’] was recorded for another film, but for whatever reason it was not used. Then they re-recorded the song and some of the lines and changed the verses. I believe when Danny Boyle heard the song he was really thrilled and it went exactly with the mood of Slumdog, so he asked Rahman to give it to him and this is how it came to be in the film. In the other version I had a lot more lines, but in this Jai Ho version I have just about two or three lines. It was a great experience because working with Rahman either which way, it is all the time fabulous. He is so creative and he is so spontaneous. This is what I have always said about him, that he just pushes you very gently to what he wants without like getting under your skin, as they say. I mean, if I need to get something right I need the other person to push me towards it gently, instead of making me feel uncomfortable. Rahman is one of those music directors who never, ever pushes a singer beyond any limit. It was wonderful working with him. I also think Gulzar-saabs lyrics are fantastic in that song; it is a great song. Rahman deserved all the particular honors he has won for that particular film.
That song has become sort of an anthem, even in the UK and US. How does it feel to be a part of something that has gotten so big?
It was great fun and I am really honored. I am glad also that my name will figure somewhere in history.
An Oscar winning song; that is pretty impressive…
And a Grammy, that is most important. A Grammy is like the Mecca of music awards. I guess for us that really is the icing on the cake and the cherry on top!
You were also heard in ‘Aaj Ki Raat’, which is from Don and re-used for Slumdog.
It is very interesting to know that a song that was so popular, someone can take it and give it a little twist and add something to it and give it a completely different dimension. It is very interesting to know what someone can do with that and I think with Rahman it is like incredible; who else to give it a different twist. I think the Don version was more pop-ish, more disco-ish, while the Slumdog version was a little more funky.
One of my favorite songs on the IHLS soundtrack is ‘Sadka Kiya’.
I really like that song! I think it turned out much better than when I rendered it.
What brief did they give you for the song?
Punit was there when I did the song, and Vishal and Shekhar both were there. So was Anvita Dutt, who has written the song; she has written it really beautifully. They gave me a brief of what Suraj’s style of rendition is going to be, and that it’s about the hero who does not believe in love at all, and the heroine who is obviously a diehard romantic, and her interpretation. So, it had to be soft and gentle and enticing – it is suppose to entice the hero into believing in love. I think it was a very nice brief, because I was able to emote that in the song.
At the recording stage do they tell you whom you are going to be singing for? For example, ‘Sadka Kiya’; did they tell you it would be Sonam?
Well, yes, more often than not these days we are given the cast and crew of the film. Sometimes it does happen that they sign up an artist, but for whatever reason the same artist is not playing that role any more. In this case, I was told that Sonam Kapoor would be playing the female lead and I was also given a brief about her role in the film. I feel these days that it is most important that I get a brief of what the person is portraying on the screen rather than her face and her personality. I was told it was Sonam and this is her role, so accordingly I was asked to keep it gentle and almost cutesy. If you notice in the promos she is playing the completely head-in-the-clouds-wants-desperately-to-fall-in-love kind of a girl, and so I think it suited that kind of rendition.
When I talked to Suraj Jagan, he told me that you recorded that separately. Is it difficult to record like that?
Yes, we did record it on two separate occasions. Actually it was probably a couple of days after Suraj had done his vocals that I came and did my part. My parts were a little easier because they were in the middle of the antara; they were in the middle of the first verse – Suraj already sang the first version, so I pretty much had an idea of what the mood of the song is. It has become a norm now in our film industry and music industry to work with the artists when it is convenient with them or the studio time or the musicians, etc., are available. Technology has made it possible for us to record on one particular day and then for the other back up vocalists to record on another day. It is a little different from the yesteryear, because those days the technology didn’t support that. You would have to be in the same place at the same time to record. It has its pros and its cons. I think with technology you can do multiple takes and you can try a lot more. I mean, if a music director says I want more variety, I want a little more, I would like to try this, he can cut the take right in the middle of me singing and say now I want you to do something different. You can’t do in a live recording. Everything has to be rehearsed and down to a tee and you can’t change anything when they are recording the song in one final go. I think all those are the pluses. The minus, I would say, is that sometimes the mood of both of the singers don’t match, because they are not there at the same time and the briefing may not be the same, especially if for example maybe the producer is not there or the director, etc.. By and large, most of the new singers and most of my contemporaries have adapted to this way of recording a song.
Once you heard the final version of ‘Sadka Kiya’ with the mix of yours and Suraj’s voice, were you happy with it?
Yes, yes, absolutely. This is the first song I have sung with Suraj. I think he is an incredible singer. He has sung 15-16 films now and he is one of the wonderful new voices of our industry. It was great to work with him, knowing he is the male counterpart in my song. Also, Vishal and Shekhar have always done exemplary work – whatever kind of film it is, they always manage to come up with fresh and very different kind of music. So, yes, it did come up to my expectations. Initially I thought the song was really simple, extremely simple, but after we have recorded the song they have put in a few more elements in the music and I think that has added to the song. Overall, it has really come up pretty good.
You are also getting ready to go on tour with Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy. Tell us about the tour.
Oh yes, that is something I am really, really excited about! Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy have been planning this tour for the past 2-3 years now, I think, and either they have been very busy and they have not been able to take out time from their other commitments or something else would go wrong; last year it was the recession. This year everything has gone well. They have finished most of the assignments and have enough time for rehearsals and promos, and the tour itself. It is going to be really, really great because there are six or seven artists and they are all brilliant. There’s Shankar of course, then there’s Richa and Shafqat then there are some younger singers, too. There is also a choreographed team of dancers and the lights and sound and you know the whole I call it “dhin-chak” show. It’s going to be great fun. I think their repertoire is really, really tailor made for a really rocked-out live show performance. Take any song, whether it is a bhangra type song like ‘Jhoom Barabar’ or a completely rocked out song like ‘Rock On’ or even if it is a gentle song like ‘Maa’. I think the range of work they have done is really, really tailor made for entertainment.
So, the tour is in the US?
Yes, we are doing mainly the US and we are doing a couple of shows in Canada.
What will fans get to hear you sing?
I am going to be doing a lot of my songs that I have done for SEL. All the popular hits – obviously ‘Aaj Ki Raat’ and ‘Bol Na Halke Halke’. I am also going to be doing a couple of other of their hits, which I have not sung, but it is some of their most popular songs. It’s a mixed bag. Plus there is something called the unplugged version. You know, it is not really possible to do every song, because there are so many. I mean they have released 40 films so far. So, we do an unplugged version of some of their songs – it is like a showcase of certain songs. I am not going to give away too much – you must come and watch it.
What is your favorite thing about performing live?
Immediately what I can think of is when your name is announced and you come on stage, the thunderous applause that greets you, that is really, really heartening for any artist. To know that people have heard you that they appreciated your music and they have come all the way from wherever to hear you sing. Lots of times after a song is done or even midway through when they like a particular portion they applaud. All those things, it is like a really big high. Then once the show is over and people come backstage and tell you they liked this song for this reason, why it moved them and why they came that is really amazing. To meet your fans and get to know why they like a particular song is really amazing.
What is your favorite song to perform live?
‘Bol Na Halke Halke’, I think it is really a popular song. Though it is not a peppy song, which usually gets rendered on live shows, wherever I have traveled and where I have performed I have always sung this song and people have asked for it again. I think it is a very nice melody. Right now, I really enjoy doing that song on stage.
Do you get nervous before live shows?
Yeah, the butterflies happen just before the concert is about to begin. The whole day you are cool, you are preparing, you are doing sound check and you are doing rehearsal and whatever. Just before they say, okay 5 minutes show time that is when the butterflies start. Fortunately for me, it only lasts for those 5 minutes.
Do you get nervous before a recording session?
Actually no, because before you go to a recording session you never really know what you are going to sing. It is only at the recording session that some nerves can happen if the song say is a little tough. Or if there is something that is particularly wrong on that day, you know everybody can have an off day. If you are having a particularly off day and you can’t crack it then you get a little nervous because you know people are waiting for you to deliver the song according to what their expectations are. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and that can cause a little bit of nerves. However, by in large with experience and having worked with all these music directors, I think I have good control on my nerves. But, yes if I were to work with someone really new or someone really big, someone like Ilayaraja sir or maybe if one of the biggies from the western world would come and ask me to record I would be a trifle cautious. More than nerves, I would be cautious about what I was doing or not doing.
What do you think of Hindi film music today?
Fortunately, in the last, I would say, three or four years we have struck a good balance between entertainment and musically rich albums. Earlier, ’til some time back, I felt everything hinged on fast-paced, peppy beats and songs that were only supposed to entertain – there was nothing subtle. Music was just a lot of…I won’t say noise because music can never be noise, but everything was just in your face. I think music has now reached a balance where there is an album that, according to the mood of the film, if there is a peppy song, there is a beautiful romantic ballad or there is a nice folk song or something like that. That balance has come back and that is really, really a welcome change. Lyrics, also I think have gotten better and better.
You also have some new music directors coming in, too. What have you thought of their work, someone like Amit Trivedi?
I think Amit is really, really the most happening composer in our film industry now. He is really going to climb big. I hope I am right and I pray for his success in all his films, because he is really one of the most incredible new talents. I haven’t sung for him so far, but I am hoping to in the future. I’m very pleased with whatever work he has done. He is very different; he is completely different from the rest of the music directors who are all ready entrenched. They are also very young, but this guy has really come out and delivered. You can ask anybody in the industry they will have a wonderful word to say about him.
What is your favorite song from the past year?
I really liked ‘Dil To Bachcha Hai’ from Ishqiya. I think that is beautiful – the lyrics and the way Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sung it. The composition is brilliant and the word BACHCHA is unbelievable, the way it comes across. That is right out of my list right now, number one on top!
We talked last time about playback singers not getting enough credit. Do you feel that has changed at all?
I think it is changing; it has to change a lot more. I am speaking for my entire singers’ fraternity. I think it has changed a lot and thankfully for us radio has done a lot of good, because we have a lot of radio channels out here. Whenever they play our songs many times they let the listeners know who sung the song and sometimes they also say this song featuring this actress or this actor. Sometimes, I feel radio should be fairer to the music director, the musicians and the singers, but they have made a lot of changes, so people are more aware of the singers. Also the live shows that happen on television, the reality shows or whatever where we singers get to come and perform in front of the audience that also has made a lot of difference. People now want to know who sung the song and that so and so sung this and so and so sung that. So, there is a lot of interest definitely.
Have you written or composed any more songs since Ustaad?
No, not really. I have had a quiet dull year. I lost my mum, so I have just doing my usual regular work and my recordings. I also do a lot of regional work. I do a lot of Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, Guajarati, and Bengali films. So, I have just been recording. Now, I have decided that yes, I want to start putting my head into some compositions and see if I can really, really try my hand at some composing. Maybe, who knows in the next year, if nothing else, I would hope to release a single and see if I have the flair for it. It all depends on that and what people think about it. So, I am going to muster up enough courage to do that.
You said you did a lot of regional work. Is there a difference working in the industries?
There is a lot of difference – the styles are different, the stylization is different. Largely, I would say in the South, the compositions are a lot more melody based songs. However, that is changing and the scenario is a little different now, because even in the South they have started composing a lot more how they have in the Mumbai. I really don’t know. It has reached a stage where it is pretty much the same, and yet, I would say, there is a distinct difference between the compositions, where the South lays more emphasis on a melody.
It seems in Mumbai they have gone more towards the western popish music. Have they done that in the South as well?
And what do you feel about that?
I am not adverse to this. I have always said this, Stacey, there is only good music and poor music; there is no bad music. So, there is a good song and a poor song. Nobody intends to make a poor song, they start with something, but sometimes it doesn’t work. I would say anything that can elevate a song and give it something different, give it a twist, I think is welcome. Though, I think even in the recent songs I have heard people using the accordion, the sitar, the sarod, I have heard Rahman using a new instrument called a fingerboard continuum. There are a lot of new instruments out there that are being used. There are a lot of traditional instruments being used as well. Mid-eastern, Mediterranean you can hear a lot of these influences in some of our songs. Likewise there are a lot of western influences. I mean in a film like Rock On!!, obviously there is going to be a lot of guitars and the heavy metal and stuff like that. I think it is welcome. I have always said whatever can give a song a different kind of appeal, I welcome it completely, but it shouldn’t be forced.
What do you think is special about your voice?
[Laughs] People are going to call me a narcissist for this now…[laughs]. Well, I think I have a good texture. I have noticed when I get behind the mike and I sing the first reaction of the person in the recording room is a raised eyebrow, which means to say lovely voice. I like that, because that is the first battle for any singer to have – you know you must appeal to that sense, that this person likes my voice. So, I feel the USP of my voice is that it has a nice, smooth texture. I have good control over my voice and my vocal ability. The rest is God’s gift, because I feel I have trained pretty decently in classical Indian music and I have polished it. I think it is a nice, fresh sounding voice, a nice, gently soulful sounding voice.
We also talked last time that you were still looking for that song that was really for your voice or that challenged your voice. Have you found that song yet?
I’m still looking; I’m still looking (she sings). The one song that made me challenge my own limits was ‘Kabhi Shaam Dhale’, that was released quite some time back, I think in 2002-2003. That was really a challenging song. Post that, I would say I had a great time working on the ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’ song…the second version, not the Shankar Madhavan version, the one where I have sung with KK and Sukhwinder. That was different, because Shankar made me sing in a very, very low pitch, which is not my usual scale. He said, No, you will have to try. It is sounding lovely over the mike out here Maha, trust us. Gulzar-saab was also there and he also nodded in agreement. So, I said okay, fine I must give it a shot. That is one song where yes, I have been able to push my limits. But, yes I am still looking for that one challenging song. The one for people to get up and say Ah!
What will we hear from you next?
I am just doing a lot of Bollywood, Mollywood, Kollywood…whatever ‘wood’ they call it here (laughs)! I like to call it Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali… I am singing for feature films in all these languages and then there is the tour. But what I am really, really keenly looking forward to this year is either to start working on an album or a single; just start to compose something and see whether I have it in me to become a music director. I mean, I am not going to take it so seriously right now, because I still want to do a lot more singing. There is a lot more as a singer I want to explore. I don’t think I have really explored all that I have in me. So, yes these are the three things I am looking forward to.
We can’t wait to hear Mahalakshmi’s gorgeous voice singing some of her own compositions! Until then, we hope the SEL tour is coming close to your city. If not, just put on some favorite Maha tracks and chill or dance depending… “Bol Na Halke Halke”…