In an exclusive in-depth interview with Gianysh Toolsee, Shweta Pandit talks about her start in the industry, her voice and her future projects as a singer and lyricist in Bollywood.
You got your first break with Yash Raj Films - Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein in 2000 with 5 leading songs ('Chalte Chalte', 'Pairon Mein Bandhan Hai', 'Aankhein Khuli', 'Soni Soni') at the age of 12. How did your first break happen?
Your songs in Aditya Chopra's Neal N Nikki ('Neal N Nikki', 'Akh Ladiye', 'Halla Re'), David Dhawan's Partner ('You’re My Love'), Anees Bazmi's Welcome ('Kiya Kiya'), Ram Gopal Varma's Naach and Sarkar Raj ('Jhini Jhini') and Karan Johar's Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna all became very popular. How do you select a song and why do you think music directors choose your voice specially?
It was an incredible time, all those songs happened back-to-back! Neal N Nikki was a major turning point because of 'Halla Re', which was my first popular item song and became a rage with the young crowd. Sohail Khan heard it and called me to sing 'Chhore Ki Batein' from Fight Club with Pritam. I decided to try voice variations each time I was challenged with an item song, because I didn’t want to sound the same on everything. I wanted to modulate and try new techniques. David Dhawan and Sajid-Wajid heard 'Chhore Ki Batein' and called me for 'You're My Love', which became a big hit in 2008. Even in the Welcome song, Anand Raj Anand had me sing for both Katrina Kaif and Malllika Sherawat and he didn’t use two different singers because he thought I could sound different using the versatility and modulation of my voice. I love trying new things in a song. So, in a way, I almost feel that these songs chose me rather than the other way around! I try to let destiny take its course with a little help from my initiative.
Your debut record album Main Zindagi Hoon was released with Virgin Records, India, when you were only 16 years old. Tell us the experience of recording an album at such a young age.
Recording at that young age was a big deal for me as a solo artist with an international company like Virgin Records and I really enjoyed working with them, though the whole market for pop music in India was slowing down at the time. We shot three videos and recorded eight songs. I especially enjoyed doing the promotions and live events and meeting so many new people. It was a great experience, I learned so much.
You hail from a prestigious household of classical music powerhouses, also known as India’s Mewati Gharana of music and your father, Vishwaraj Pandit is a renowned tabla player himself. You are also the niece of Pandit Jasraj and grand daughter of Pandit Pratap Narain. What influence did or does your family have on you?
Growing up in a musical family to me is divine (smiles). Waking up in the morning and seeing everyone around you talking about music and understanding everything so deeply, makes me feel so lucky. As a little girl, I used to wake up to the sound of the tanpura and tabla and riyaz happening with my grandfather teaching my sister Shradha. I was so fascinated I thought my grandfather was a magician because he would mesmerise people with his voice. It transported me to a different world. I would try to sing his pieces on the way to school and would scold myself for not learning enough from him.
Of course, it just makes the world outside think that things are easy for someone coming from a family like mine, and in a few cases it sure can help but not always; in some cases it can even make things harder. My musical lineage may be strong but my family aren’t film producers and many of them don’t work in the film industry at all, as they are classical singers. So getting work or opportunities because of them is a misconception. I had to audition and wait in offices as much as a newcomer needs to do. It was really no different for me, and I’m proud of the initial scratch work that I did, because it made me more independent and make me really value what success came my way. I learned this from my mother. I was born for recording studios and to sing for music lovers.
Your sister Shraddha Pandit, who has earlier done playback for films like Khamoshi-The Musical, Sangharsh, Khoobsurat, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai, Soch and Raju Chacha turned composer with her private album Teri Heer in 2008 and a Bollywood music composer with the recently released Hisss. You have also turned lyricist for her songs ('I Got That Poison (Hisss Remix)' and the title track) for that movie. The best part is that you have rendered both these songs. Does writing the lyrics, help you in better expressing yourself in the singing department?
Writing lyrics for me is an exceptionally beautiful thing to do, and it really helped me connect to these songs. Singing helps me read and understand what the lyricist is trying to say, and writing for myself makes me see a song completely in a new light and I get more involved with the process of recording a song. I plan to do more of this.
I believe Shraddha has always been a great potential composer, even in an industry traditionally more male-centric. Maybe industry people don’t seem to think that a female composer can present songs for a full-fledged film. It’s very rare and maybe that will change as the rest of the industry seems to be changing at warp speed. In the end, it’s about good songs, whoever is behind them. It’s incredibly competitive and difficult to do any of this in our industry, whether it’s singing songs, writing or composing them, and in most cases it all depends "on who you know"…
And that's how Hisss came about. I knew Mallika from Welcome, and she introduced me to William Sees Keenan, one of the producers, who was heading up the soundtrack effort with Hollywood music executive Marcus Barone. They had this vision of bringing East and West together by pairing me with Panjabi MC, Shruti Haasan with David Kushner of Velvet Revolver, and Julian Lennon with Mallika (who sings for the first time!). Really interesting songs, I was very happy to be asked to be part of it. And the whole film itself was very female-powered, so to speak—about a female "superhero" the Nagin, with a lead female actor, female director, female singers) etc but we didn't plan it this way of course (Laughs). It just happened and we realised this recently as a little bit of trivia.
Everyone on the team said they were inspired by one of the lines I wrote, 'I am the nagin, I've got the poison' and decided to make a darker, "femme fatale" song around it. I shot the music video in LA while I was on tour with A.R Rahman. That was great fun too.
You have also shot for the music video of the title track of Hisss (composed by your sister), which is quite sensual too. Tell us about the experience. (For video link, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGWOFtORoVg)
I shot in LA last month while I was on the Rahman tour and it was so much fun. I choreographed most of it, too. It was more a dark song and needed a mystery feel about the girl in it. We used a lot of close-ups because in our design we wanted to add that mystery to what she looks like – from head to toe, with more facial and eye expressions symbolising a certain power in her and maybe make people think "she might be an ichadhaari nagin!" The dark red nails symbolise blood, passion and a rare power in the girl. It’s more for the viewer to keep guessing. I like that about the video.
After the good response of 'I Got That Poison (Hisss Remix)', would you and Shraddha be taking up projects as composer-lyricist-singer in the future for Bollywood movies?
Yes, definitely. We have some awesome melodies and sufi songs and Bollywood dance tracks; a good versatile example of that is Shraddha’s music album Teri Heer with Sony Music released last year.
Coming from a family that includes awesome music directors like Jatin-Lalit and hearing them composing songs since we were little school girls, has been a long, beautiful and amazing musical journey for both of us. There’s so much to still learn and musically we’ve just begun. Music direction and writing comes naturally; we've really been blessed, and we're looking for good film projects to continue doing good work.
You are part of A.R Rahman's Jai Ho World Tour, along with Hariharan and Javed Ali. What was it like performing with A.R Rahman?
The Journey which began almost three months ago in Los Angeles, rehearsing for Jai Ho everyday for almost 14 hours every day. Singing Sir's songs and being on stage with him on this amazing tour has been such a rich experience and has been one of the most fulfilling projects for me as a vocalist. It's been my most sincere dream to perform with him and sing for a world audience under his magical guidance.
Sir, as I call him, has been one of my greatest inspirations for my music - He's my Guru ever since I was a little girl and today to be next to him and see him play his piano and work a song on his Mac, has taught me so much and I can only thank him and everyone who made it possible.
When you perform live, how you keep your energy going?
It's the audience who is responsible for my energy; they are where I get my energy from. I give them all the credit. I believe the stage is a place where a certain energy is generated by humans. It's an amalgamation of emotions, music, speech, a larger-than-life experience. I believe when all these things come together, the power that is created forms a blessing which gives me energy to perform and give my best.
Let’s get back to touring then if we can. You recently got back from the Jai Ho Concert tour. What were your most memorable moments?
While rehearsing at centre stage, Janet Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Earth Wind And Fire, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus and Pussycat Dolls were all rehearsing next door to us for their tours as well. They had amazing things to say about Indian music. I got a chance to speak to Jermaine a lot and he mentioned how Indian music became a rage thanks to Slumdog Millionaire’s soundtrack. They are amazingly humble and focused artists. They work with great energy and it’s been an experience watching them and being in the same space as them.
Unlike other female singers who find it hard to change their style once they start, you have been very versatile in trying different genre of songs. You have sung a wide range of songs, from the high pitched ‘Jhini Jhini’ in Sarkar Raj along with Roop Kumar Rathod, the peppy ‘You’re My Love’ and the ‘Farewell Trance’ in KANK. How would you describe your voice? Any style of songs you would like to sing?
When people hear my songs, I want them to feel that I added something more to it that excels my previous work. My voice can sound different each time and that’s what I think is part of my USP as a singer. Each song I get, I try to add something new to it, rather than following any trend. I meditate on what would be unique to the song before going in front of the microphone. Then I like to be spontaneous (smiles).
Your song in Agyaat's ‘Khoobsurat Hai Dekho Hai Jaha’ went completely unnoticed, although it was an excellent performance and a good composition from Bapi-Tutul. How do you feel as an artist when your songs do not get the appreciation they deserve?
That’s a great question. Even if it’s a great song, if the film doesn’t do well at the box office, sadly the song can go unnoticed. Best examples would be Naach, Agyaat (most of my great songs for Ram Gopal Varma Sir’s films like Gayab, James had fabulous duets with Sonu Nigam, Sukhwinder Singh, but weren’t noticed as much though). I must that RGV for always believing so much in me.
I still get fan mail asking why these songs weren’t hits like my other songs. That’s one thing that’s not in my hands! And it’s another reason why I’m very happy that a lot of my South work (in Telugu films like Kotha Bangaru Lokam which got me my first Filmfare Award for Best Playback in 2009) Leader, Marocharitra, Inkosaari have all super hit songs sung by me. I’ve also sang for Punjabi films like Heer Ranjha and Lagda Ishq Ho Gaya (which are huge hits in the North), so the feedback is great from all these places.
During the last five years, various established senior singers have made comments on the quality of the voices of the younger singers (including male); implying that most of the current singers’ voices are hard to differentiate i.e. they all sound the same. Your reaction?
It’s an argument that’s being made, but it’s also debatable. Some people get lucky with one hit song and manage to become a household name, and sometimes it seems only possible if it’s a solo song for a big star in a big film, promoted well and the film too does well. It’s a long process (that’s kind of the conventional wisdom about it) while there are others who have done lots of work but they get a bit lost doing various TV shows, live events (most young singers now are almost the same age so its easy to get confused, who they saw or heard) while in the past, it was so difficult to get a break in playback singing where only 2-3 singers made it big and ruled hearts of music lovers for decade. This was because of exclusivity and also there was much less media then and a soundtrack would just be played on radio and an LP record would be released and all singers had their names written in block letters (where the singers were usually named by the radio announcer). Today the names on audio CDs are so tiny and there are sometimes 30 names on it. It’s almost impossible for a music lover to go through everything.
Since you started, you have worked with most music directors including Rajesh Roshan, Jatin–Lalit, Ilayaraja, Pritam, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Salim-Sulaiman, Amar Mohile, Daboo Malik, Bapi-Tutul, Anand Raj Anand, Nikhil Vinay, Sanjeev- Darshan, Harry Anand, Sajid Wajid and more. Who, dead or alive, would you most like to work with?
Madan Mohan ji has always been close to my heart. His songs were difficult and challenging for singers. With Ghazal and Indian classical, it’s all very well practised and pitch perfect and Lataji, had such a gifted voice and added so much to his tunes, its petty difficult to render his songs.
Today, I enjoy and love working with so many different talents, and I love Vishal Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Salim, Amit Trivedi, Mickey J Meyor (who hasn’t worked in Bollywood yet, but is amazing in the South and I think he has a bright future) and Rahman Sir, of course, is a singer’s dream.
Is there a song or album that has been really important to you growing up and why?
When I was growing up, Viju Shah’s soundtrack of Gupt in 1997 really inspired me. It was a soundtrack way ahead of its time and I was really happy that people loved it and that the music became a superhit and was acknowledged, because I hadn’t heard that kind of sound. Even today, it has so much great repeat value and audio value.
What would you like to achieve musically, and why?
I’d like to keep making great music, keep challenging myself to do better, and keep expanding what I do. It is such an incredible time, there are so many new, creative opportunities, I have a lot of ideas for things I plan to do.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?
It’s a tie between getting a FilmFare Award, working with A.R Rahman, and receiving really nice compliments for my songs and performances from people I highly respect in the industry like Hrithik Roshan, Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan.
What is your biggest dream?
Okay, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’ve been approached a few times recently about acting in films. My aunt was one of Bollywood’s only singer-actresses, and I always thought of doing at least one acting role where I also sing, (which to me would be kind of like an homage to her), so I might take them up on it and try it out.
Finally, for those that had not heard you before, I am sure that a whole new audience were wowed by your vocal talents on the recent Jai Ho tour. Any message to all your fans, new and old, that have come to love you and your vocal talent?
Thank you for helping me live my dream, there is no better feeling than making people happy through music.
Thank you very, very much for your time Shweta.
For a full discography and other information about Shweta Pandit, visit her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ShwetaPandit7 or follow her on Twitter @shwetapandit7
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