VoxTalks With The Mellifluously Silken Voice For The Ages – Shakthisree Gopalan

‘Music transcends time and space and is capable of overwhelming even Gravity’ goes a quote. In this context, our guest here today is equipped with talent beyond any quantifiable measure. She needs no introduction in our part of the country and the music loving community we live in. Her Coke Studio rendition of a melodious track, which went on to become a chart-buster of sorts, for the most part basing on her soothing voice and impeccable freshness in her vocals. We are of course talking about the find of our times, Shakthisree Gopalan. We pestered her with questions day in and day out, and being the warm and patient person that she is, she talked to us in detail about her journey thus far, her collaborations with the biggest names in the Music industry, and her future endeavours. So without further ado, here’s presenting Shakthisree Gopalan in conversations with VoxSpace…

To start off things, Shakthisree ( we are in love with your name, like for real), you shot into worldwide fame with Nenjukkulle in 2015. But then, it was in 2008 that you had won SS Music Voice Hunt. How would you look back at the seven years in between?
Nenjukulle was released in 2012, not in ’15. It was released through MTV Unplugged, just before Kadal, the movie released. And in 2008, I won the SS music voice hunt. So 4 years. I started doing playback in 2008. It started off with Guruprasad Subramaniam who was doing music for a Kannada film at that time. He got in touch with me after he heard some of my songs on ReverbNation. I used to put up original compositions that I was making with friends at that time, on ReverbNation. Back then ReverbNation was the in-thing. And Guruprasad heard some of my songs, he really liked my voice and he reached out to me for a Kannada film song. That was my first playback opportunity. Unfortunately, the song never came out but while I was at the studio to record for Guruprasad, he asked me to write four lines in English and put it to tune. I was outside at the coffee machine, writing these four lines and singing it out. The recording was happening at AN studios. At that time, Rahman sir happened to be going to the first floor of the studio to work on his own music. And he heard me singing. He asked the studio manager to get my number.

Two weeks later, I got called to be a part of four backing vocalists for this track in Ghajini and that was my second professional recording ever. So it started. Later, I got the opportunity to do playback for Vijay Anthony for this movie called Taxi 4777. It was a song called Swargam Madhuville that was released later that year. So in 2008, I won the SS Music Voice Hunt and I got to meet a lot of really interesting people and made a lot of friends in the process of the reality show. And later in the year, I got playback opportunities because of original compositions that I’ve been putting up online. In the same year, I started off doing backing vocals at Rahman sir’s sessions. Besides that, I was doing playback for music directors like GV Prakash and Vijay Anthony. Later in 2012, I got my big break in singing when Nenjukulle came out.

Wikipedia tells us that you are a learned disciple in Carnatic Music. Eventually, you are a pivotal part of a freestyle band called ‘Off The Record’ which is more inclined towards soft rock. How do you think the two musical genres fuse in together? How does the classical training help you in making rock music?
I think Wikipedia is a little outdated at the moment. But yes, I did get trained in Carnatic Music Vocals. I learnt for nearly 12-13 years. But my theory is very poor. I would attribute my voice culture to all these formative years of Carnatic music. I think it’s a lot of hard-core vocal exercise that makes it easier to sing a lot of different genres of music. Off the record happened in 2010, when I was still at college. We used to jam and play, we did a lot of gigs in and around the city – at HRC, at Sarang etc. It was an interesting experience. It happened until 2011.

After 2011, we started this band called Pyjama Conspiracy – a freestyle band, that used to do a lot of different genres. With Off the Record, we did a lot of original content and music. We used to jam every other week and write new songs and perform them. We also did covers. But with Pyjama Conspiracy, we mostly did Covers – reinterpreted versions of different songs that we liked. That was a really fun time as we got to experiment a lot. All this while I have also written a lot of songs on my own, although I didn’t get to produce as many as I would like (produce as in have them produced in the studio and released them as singles or tracks). The writing process, however, has been ongoing.

I don’t think the question applies – how do the 2 genres fuse in together? I don’t think they fuse in together. How does classical training help you make rock music? – It doesn’t work that way. Classical music is classical music. Rock music is rock music. With Pyjama Conspiracy we covered a lot of genres. It’s just that I appreciate a lot of different genres and work on them. I like rock music for what it is and classical music for what it is. I also listen to Jazz music and really admire the old time Jazz standards. I love Nina Simone, Norah Jones, …, Charlie Parker, – that whole era of music, that’s something that I have always gone to! I love Electronic music, I like EDM. I like Soul, Neo Soul, Trip Hop and a lot of these things. I think it’s just a matter of taste and inclination. I don’t think learning Carnatic music helps in making rock music. It’s just different aptitudes and skill sets.

What do you think of the fusion music that we are ushering into as a nation, Coke studio being one of the greatest platforms for it? Has it perhaps sidelined the classical music formats or has it only enhanced it.
Fusion music is a very very broad term. Any two genres mixed together in music can be called Fusion Music. I don’t know if you mean fusion forms of classical music – I think that’s what you mean. I don’t know if Coke Studio is a great advocate for fusion music. Coke Studio has always been a great platform for launching new tracks or original music, regardless of the genre it belongs to. I think in India, film music dominates the music industry. And people know film music, the listenership for independent music is very limited. It might also be because there are not enough platforms, avenues or launchpads to distribute independent music to the masses and make it palatable. So I think in that way Coke Studio is great because it gives a platform for original music and it has a great fan following, viewership and listenership.

Coke Studio has however focused on Mainstream Artists (Film Artists who have another side). But there is an entire underground music scene of independent musicians and artists that have not been showcased. So I think it’s very limited in the way that it still showcases the mainstream artists. Although I don’t think the sidelining is relevant. I don’t think classical music formats has been sidelined or enhanced it for that matter. Its just been a platform for original music. Classical music continues to exist just fine. Even up north, in the form of Hindustani music concerts or festivals or in the traditional dance forms. Even in the south, it hasn’t. In the case of Kerala, we have the Margery season, a Carnatic music and dance festival. They all go on just fine. I don’t think the follower-ship or significance of mainstream classical music has been sidelined at all.

I know you get this a lot, but then I have to ask…How did your association with Mr A.R.Rahman start? You’ve collaborated with him over Kadal, Mariyaan, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and 24. How do you think you’ve escalated as a singer over the length of these 4 movies? 
Yes. I think I already answered this at the start. I didn’t see this coming and so. I started working with him for backing vocals in 2008 and I got to work on many different backing vocal sessions. Sometimes it would be a group of 2 people. Sometimes, 4 people. Sometimes I would be 1 in 10 people. There are a lot of different aspects to singing and recording in a studio. And I got to learn a lot of these things. At the same time, I was doing playback for other music directors like GV Prakash, Vijay Anthony, Paul Jacob and many other music directors. This way, I got to explore the various aspects of singing solo/playback. I have also been really lucky in both my careers. I am also a practising architect.

It has always been a dream for me to design a music school and in 2011, AR Rahman got in touch with me regarding the design of new campus for KM College for Music and Technology. And it was quite serendipitous that the whole thing happened. I had done extensive research in my thesis in my final year (B.Arch) program, on designing a music school. So it was really exciting because if ever I had to pick a dream project that would be to design a music school and I got to do that for one of my greatest inspirations in Music. A.R. Rahman himself. We started construction by March 2012, the building was done by Aug 2013 and it was inaugurated and opened. It was a pretty big project that took a lot of time in the 2 years and it was really satisfying to see the end result. And through the course of these things, I got to do playback for him and sing with him live at MTV Unplugged. And perform Nenjukulle with an amazing lineup of musicians and also sing for more movies like Jab Tak hai Jaan and Marian. I also got a chance to work with a lot of other music directors.

Also, you’ve worked with the biggest music men in our country, Harris Jayaraj, Gopi Sunder, Yuvan Shakar Raja to name a few, how do you think their music styling differs when compared to A.R.Rahman?
I think everyone has a different approach to making music, going by the way they see things. As an architect, designer, singer/songwriter, I am able to understand and appreciate that. Everybody’s process or approach to design is very different. Some are linear, some are entirely non-linear. Whatever works, works. It is their individual vision that comes to life. As music directors, they have a vision in their mind that they want to move towards, with the guitarists, vocalists or violins or everything. In the end, they orchestrate it, arrange it and bring it together. I think it’s been great. Getting to work with Santosh Narayanan. He’s fantastic and he always appreciated the rawness in musicians and sort of tried to portray a not-so-processed version of voices and of the spirit of a musician.
Harris Jayaraj is amazing. He has his own style, his own way of working and approach to getting the session players to meet his vision.

There have been a lot of other amazing music directors. Sean Roldan has been amazing to work with. It’s always a crazy fun working with him in the studio. Because he always has these crazy whacked out ideas where he’s always open to experimenting. Working with Anirudh has been amazing because there’s a lot of energy and it’s like his presence – just like his music. He embodies the spirit that lies in his music – the energy kind of hits you and it’s contagious. Working with Pradeep Kumar/Vijay is amazing. He’s done music for Telugu and he’s making music for a Tamil Movie. His orchestral arrangements and ideas are quite genius. So everybody, I guess, has their own approach and their own style.

I guess the best thing I have to say about AR Rahman is the fact that he is a teacher, he is a fantastic mentor. He somehow has a great quality of bringing out the best in a particular musician. He knows how to make that aspect shine. He finds a way to get the singer/musician to make it their own, bring in some element of themselves into the music and that makes it magical. And the song is always in one state when we record it. By the time the whole song is done and we hear it, it’s something else. But, with Enga Pona Raasa, we had a completely different experience because we were jamming the song; Keba – the guitarist, lyricist and I had a chance to be involved in the process of song making, along with Rahman sir. Yeah, so everybody has their own individualistic styles and its great to see and experience these things!

The four years in between your first collaboration to the next offing. Comment. 
So the four years in between, if I had to put it, in a nutshell, it would be learning. It was a lot of learning. Learning about a lot of things during the process of recording the songs in the studio, hands on. The technical side of things. About the studio recording techniques. Things like that. It was four years of a lot of learning and at the same time, I was doing my architecture at the school of architecture and planning, Anna University. Architecture is heavy duty in itself. So I guess was having my hands full. Lots of learning all through those four years

There was an interview on Kappa TV a short while back, where you said that you actually designed the layouts for K.M.College of Music And Technology, being an architect yourself. And then, perhaps you got into the music college as well. How did that happen, considering that’s a really innovative way of getting into college?
Yes, I was the chief architect. I designed the layouts for KM College of music and technology. And I did the interiors. But I did not go study at the KM college of music. Although. It has always been my dream to study music at a college. But the only school I got to go to is the college of architecture and planning at Anna University.

One singer, you wish to collaborate with in near future?
I don’t know about the near future but I am a huge Norah Jones fan and a John Mayer fan. If it ever happens, I think I would be the happiest person in the world. Thrilled beyond belief. And I love Bruno Mars. I think he’s an amazing singer too. So I guess any of these collaborations would definitely make me one of the happiest people in the world.

When people think of Shakthisree Gopalan some 10 years down the line, what should they fondly remember?
I think I would be happy if they remember me. I think being remembered in itself is a fantastic thing. If they remember my original music or film songs, it’d be great. As a person, I would also like to – if I have been able to affect some kind of change in the 10 years that are to come – whether in film/independent music or in any other kind of value addition to society, I would feel great. And as a playback singer and as a singer/songwriter, there are 2 aspects. Step 1: When you’re part of the making of the song, and Step 2: is when other people are able to connect to it. So I think it would be of great meaning if people were able to connect to the music that I have been a part of and then remember it!

The Defining Song Of Your Playlist For The Year 2016? 
Naan Yen – Coke Studio Session with A.R.Rahman – that song has an amazing profound kind of quality to it. One that keeps you coming back to it. So I guess if I had to pick one, that would be it!

Regarding, Off The Record, where do you think it’s journey would be to? Any shows or tours looking forward?
Off the record has been off the record for the past few years. It has been active from 2010 to 2011. After that, it was pyjama conspiracy from 2011 to 2012. After that, it’s just been me doing my singles and original compositions. Playing my original music with an indie lineup. We’re yet to come up with a name. But we’ve been doing shows.
Yes. I plan on releasing a lot more independent material this year and we’re looking at performing these independent originals at different venues in Chennai and outside Chennai.

You write your songs ( Recently By Our Side too), what are the things that perhaps inspire you to write then? And is there a particular genre you look to when you want to come out with your own music?
Um, I don’t know for sure. Sometimes it’s the frame of mind on that particular day. I never know what I am going to write about till it actually happens. Sometimes it’s the chords that inspire that state of being, the happening of the day or the general mood I’m in. People are always an interesting subject. Feelings and life experiences. All these songs that I write are usually born out of imagined scenarios or real-life personal experiences.
Is there a particular genre you look to when you want to come out of your own music. No, not really. I really like electronic influences. I also like Jazz at the same time. I like soul, new soul and RnB and all these things. I think it’s a lot of mixed influences, there’s no particular genre. I am still trying to find my own sound.

Favourite bands? Music men worldwide? That one song that defined 2016 for you?
I love Coldplay, I love U2, John Meyer, Norah Jones, Nina Simone, Jill Scott, James Blake, Bruno Mars, Coyote, Daft Punk, the Weekend, There are lots and lots of favourite bands. Also lots of musical influences; there is no ONE song that defined 2016 for me. I think there were loads of songs and it keeps changing and I don’t think I can pick a song for the entire year.

Lastly, Shakthisree what would your advice be to the hundreds who want to make their career out of singing in today’s world? What do you think they need to do beyond just training in music? Would you suggest any avenues for them which could help them make their mark?
Work Hard. Keep working hard. You never know when it’s going to be your time. And if you have the belief in your art, I think your art will believe in you. It’s mysterious how the universe works sometimes and brings you to being at the right place at the right time. So there is no reason why you shouldn’t work hard and give it your everything. Because it could be today, tomorrow – any day when things actually fall in place.
Hustle! Figure out – What context you want to make a mark in! That’s all I got to say, Hustle. Loads of opportunities and loads of avenues out there – with YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, MySpace – I don’t know which one I should suggest. It’s a friendly world where it takes some time and research to be able to get your music out there!

So that was Shakthisree Gopalan who took us through her journey till this point of achieving a soulful excellence. Voxspace wishes her all the best wishes and may she enthral us even more with her future endeavours. Be sure to follow her works on Facebook,and  Youtube and never lose out to awesome stuff.