For a long time, Nitin Sawhney has occupied a prime slot on my very short bucket list of people to interview. I first encountered his music in the early 1990s, and to a great extent, he has provided the soundtrack to my adult life. Perhaps that was inevitable. After all, we are part of the same generation, and his albums capture the reality of the world as seen through the eyes of an immigrant. I had once described him as the Dylan of the connected, wired, post-globalization world. Sadly, that world is fast becoming a faded memory.
Born and raised in Kent, England, Sawhney is British of Asian origin. Early on, he studied law and worked in a boring day job, which he eventually quit to work on the seminal show, “Goodness Gracious Me.” Accomplished in disciplines, he is particularly known as a musical renaissance man. Unpredictable and difficult to pigeonhole, he can play multiple instruments and create music in different genres. His ever-expanding body of work includes multiple solo albums, as well as the scores for many television shows, video games, and movies.
His new album, “Immigrants,” will be released on March 19, 2021. It comes more than two decades after his big breakthrough with “Beyond Skin.” So much has changed in that span of time. The world that promised a bright collective future has given way to the dark clouds of tribalism, distrust, and a crippling sense of nostalgia for the status quo.
Influences: A Wide Palette of Sounds
Om: The thing which is really interesting about the arc of your music is that, when I listen to some of the old stuff, like say, “Displacing the Priest,” it has a very timeless quality to it. You just were part of this possibility of a future of the world where all cultures live together. As somebody who wrote on the Internet, I always enjoyed your music. To me, it kind of reflected a lot of the Internet idealism in musical form. How do you think about your music and its cultural context?
Nitin: I’ve said many times I don’t try to make didactic music. I don’t try and make music that is preachy or anything like that. I try and make music that is an honest expression of what I feel or what I think.
I’m not even politically interested. I’m more interested in the idea that each human being is of equal value, and I try to reflect that in every part of what I do. Those themes will find their way into my music, maybe subliminally. Even if I write an instrumental piece of music, there will be something in there which will be about respecting other people, respecting humanity, or finding a connection with other people.
It’s nice that you say it’s timeless, because I would make the same decisions now that I made then — probably because I’m not really interested in fitting into a genre or fitting into anything. I’ve always been more about finding the truth of your emotional expression and what that means.
The boundaries that exist in the world of words and speaking, they don’t apply to me so much, because I’ve spent more time playing music than I have speaking anyway.
Music, for me, is about truth and honesty. When you get to truth and honesty, it’s very difficult to impose prejudice in music and keep it sounding pure, whereas people can be very deceptive with words.
“Music, for me, is about truth and honesty. When you get to truth and honesty, it’s very difficult to impose prejudice in music and keep it sounding pure, whereas people can be very deceptive with words.”Nitin Sawhney
Om: Can you share a little bit of your journey? More importantly, how did you convince Indian parents that you’re going to make a career in music? I’m still trying to explain to my mom what I do.
Nitin: Although I grew up playing a lot of music, I also went and studied at Liverpool University. I qualified as an accountant. I was working as a financial controller of a hotel at one point. Then one day, I just walked out on my job. I thought, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. It’s not relevant to who I am.”
That was in my early 20s, I think, a very long time ago. Wherever you want to start, if you go back to when I was kid, the piano was very exciting to me. I loved Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart, so I was playing a lot of things that came from classical repertoire originally.
Then I got into other forms. Flamenco was very exciting. I didn’t know until later that flamenco had its origins in Rajasthan. Even the footwork of the flamenco dancers comes from Kathak, a kind of folk dancing from India.
You can see those connections the more and more you learn about different forms. I hate the idea of fusing music from different parts of the world because that feels superficial. What I like is the idea that you can have a wide palette of sounds to express yourself emotionally or to paint emotional pictures with. That’s really my approach.
Om: Who and what were your influences?
Nitin: I grew up playing lots of music. When I did “Migration,” my second album, in 1994, I had been listening to Massive Attack. They did an incredible remix of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the album “Mustt Mustt” with Michael Brook. I loved Qawwali, always. I just thought, “This is great.”
Bally Sagoo had obviously done a remix of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But the thing is, Bally Sagoo, he’s not a white guy. Basically, to hear three white guys working with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and finding something so special — the idea then excited me.
I’ve always listened to Pandit Ravi Shankar, of course, since I was very young. Since I was seven years old, he’d been a hero of mine. I was aware that he was somebody who could transcend many boundaries. I was aware of his work with Yehudi Menuhin, for example. Then, when I was in my teens, I was listening to John McLaughlin’s work with Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar and Shakti.
Hearing how someone like John McLaughlin could be playing with a tabla and the guitar, it sounded incredible. The first time I heard his albums “Natural Elements” or “A Handful of Beauty,” those were huge revelations to me.
As I got older, production was the thing that impressed me more. And that was the thing with Massive Attack. They were an incredible band who could actually program things to sound deeply psychologically moving and powerful in ways I’d never heard. It felt like they could get into your head with sound.
The culmination of them with Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was just such an incredible revelation. The way in which they really pushed the boundaries of your own imagination with the sound that they’d created was something I’d never heard.
A Sense of Journey
Om: “Migration” is a poignant album. What was it all about?
Nitin: “Migration” was essentially about journey and trying to find a way back to understanding my heritage. I grew up in a very white neighborhood. There were hardly any Asians. I had felt quite dissociated from my heritage growing up. I would come home, and it’d be a very different life. We would sing the Gayatri Mantra, but I had no connection to it. I didn’t really understand what it was, because no one was speaking to me in Hindi or Punjabi when I went to school. I didn’t really relate to many things. Gradually, it was a process of discovery of my own heritage and my own identity. I think music allowed me to do that.
Om: There is a certain cinematic quality to all your work. Maybe that’s why it resonates with many people like me, who have a very fluid idea of what home is. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that your music is the soundtrack of my adult life. When I listen to your music I feel like, “Oh, I’m in some place where I’m supposed to be.” But, of course, I’m not. I think that kind of dissociated state represented in music is something that makes it more interesting. Now, when you said this was your exploration in your own heritage, it makes sense. Tell me a little bit more about that. What did you go looking for and how did it translate into music?
Nitin: I’d grown up listening to the Beatles, and I had an awareness of (Pandit) Ravi Shankar through my dad playing a lot of his music. I was always astonished by his sitar playing. Then, I saw “Pather Panchali” when I was very young. Hearing Pandit Ravi Shankar’s sitar on the score for “Pather Panchali” was incredible.
Also, I listened a lot to cinematic music. I listened to Bernard Herrmann, his work with Alfred Hitchcock. I loved Ennio Morricone’s work with Sergio Leone with his Spaghetti Westerns, which for me, had a certain Indian flavor as well.
There were lots of films I loved when I was growing up. “Umrao Jaan,” I found really beautiful. I loved great cinematic music from Indian films. Some of these films really moved me. Then as I got older, when I watched films like “Blade Runner.” I loved Vangelis’s score. I was always listening to film scoring, which is why I don’t just make albums, but I (also) write a lot of film scores. That cinematic quality that you’re talking about is very important to me as a storyteller.
“It’s more a feeling of a journey, a sense of journey. That’s what I try to create in all my albums — a sense of journey.”Nitin Sawhney
I tried to tell stories of the subconscious. I’m not really trying to say this is a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more a feeling of a journey, a sense of journey. That’s what I try to create in all my albums — a sense of journey.
Om: “Prophesy” probably was one of your last albums that had a very poetic cinematic quality. In the post Internet era, I find that your albums have become a little bit more direct and harder. “Philtre” was very hard. I sometimes wonder if that is a reflection of the fact that, before the Internet became so pervasive, your music allowed us to dream a little bit more. In a way, the Internet took away the idealism of far off places.
Nitin: That’s very true in a lot of ways. I felt like I wanted to be more direct with songwriting with things that I felt I wanted to say. I guess maybe I changed as a person, as well, over time. This new album (“Immigrants”) is designed to be the sequel to “Beyond Skin.”
With “London Undersound” I worked with a guy called Natty who had a very specific experience of having seen the bombs go off on 7/7. He was right there in front of the bus when it exploded. Then two weeks later, he was a couple of train carriages behind Jean Charles de Menezes, who was the Brazilian guy who got shot at Stockwell station. We wrote a track about his experiences together, which is called “Days of Fire.” This was, in lots of ways, more literal than stuff I used to do. I remember Björk apparently said that she wasn’t able to relate to that album as much as my previous work.
It fascinates me what you’re saying here, because actually there’s a phrase from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” where the guy on the motorcycle journey with his son says, “The Buddha is not to be found just in the petals of a flower but also the console of a computer.” I really like that idea. The idea of spirituality being all pervasive interests me. I’ve been reading a lot about universal consciousness in recent times.
Over the last few months, I’ve been reading about Jonas Kleiner, a mathematician who started to mathematically model ideas of how to measure or quantify human consciousness, or not just human consciousness but universal consciousness, which is panpsychism — the idea that everything has a degree of consciousness.
That kind of idea, I find, works its way into how I write music, because it’s always there in my mind. The concept that is there and it is something that you’re trying to tap into in the universe. Like Michelangelo saying, “The statue’s hidden in the stone,” or Ravi Shankar saying that he was like a medium for the raga to manifest itself. Or like John Coltrane saying that improvisation was like a bird that you catch in the air.
I feel like, when I’m in a certain state, not a meditative one, necessarily, but a certain state, feelings and music come to me in a way that I feel I have to make that particular album or make a particular statement. I don’t know why or how, but I feel a very strong compulsion to make that music in the way that I do. I can’t very easily explain things afterwards.
“I don’t know why or how, but I feel a very strong compulsion to make music in the way that I do. I can’t very easily explain things afterwards.”Nitin Sawhney
Some albums, I can more easily, in retrospect, because I’ve had longer to think about them. For example, “Beyond Skin.” It starts with [late Indian Prime Minister] Atal Bihari Vajpayee actually talking about how he tested three nuclear bombs in the Pokhran range.
He’s very proud of that, and he says, “This is great.” He’s obviously the leader of the BJP, and he’s like saying, “Isn’t this amazing?” — and he’s saying it in the name of Hinduism in many ways.
Then at the end of the album, you have (J. Robert) Oppenheimer, who’s the German-descended American scientist, who’s actually turning around and saying, “I felt like I had become Vishnu, the destroyer of worlds,” and he’s crying. There’s this American guy who’s actually quoting from the Bhagavad Gita in condemnation of his own creation.
Then you start with Vajpayee, he’s actually saying, “Isn’t it great we’ve got nuclear power. We can kill those people.” There’s an interesting paradox that emerges that is about nationality, and religion, and race, and identity that actually encapsulates that album.
But when I make these things, I don’t think. Or I just think, “I need to follow this feeling and just see where it takes me.” It’s only later on that I can analyze it.
A Scream for Identity
Om: The two albums which were jarring for me were “London Undersound” and “Last Days of Meaning.” Both were so direct. They came right at me. And my initial feeling was that I didn’t like them. It took me about a few months to understand what they were all about.
More importantly, I had to go back and ask myself, “Why don’t I like them?” I think it was because I was trapped in this idea of who you were instead of what you could be. I was discounting the fact that you could be somebody different. In hindsight, that is the quintessential failing as a human. It is that we are always constantly thinking about the past and the idea of nostalgia as a panacea for everything. And I was applying that to your album.
Of course, now, you see it being applied to everything, whether it is products, whether it is politics, whether it is race, whether it is how countries are being ruled and positioned. I think a lot about nostalgia as a drug, which has become a disease now. I think it’s the opioid of the human race in many ways.
Nitin: As soon as I feel that I’m being frozen in an expectation, I feel like I want to break the expectation.
If somebody has an expectation of me, that’s what “Beyond Skin” was. The face on the front of that is exactly that. It’s like, “I don’t want to be frozen in your expectation of who I am.” That scream is a scream for identity. It’s a scream to be heard as who you are, not who somebody else projects you to be.
I was aware that some people would say, “He’s Asian underground,” or, “He’s this.” And they put labels on (you.) As soon as they put labels on you, I absolutely want to be the opposite of that label. But I also don’t want to be not true to myself just to be that. Then something else emerges because I don’t want to be tied to a previous version of myself.
“All the albums I make are like diary entries. That’s who I was at the time. I will never want to rewrite those albums.”Nitin Sawhney
All the albums I make are like diary entries. That’s who I was at that time. I will never want to rewrite those albums. It was interesting for me to go back to “Beyond Skin” and perform it at the Royal Albert Hall last year in its entirety, because I had to go back into the album and hear it again as who I am 20 years later. I listened to it and thought, “That’s interesting. Why did I do that?” Then I could remember the feelings and the thoughts, but they felt like they were a different person. We all change over time.
Sometimes we set ourselves traps. Those traps are quite often built from fear, because we worry about losing what we have rather than gaining new experiences and possibilities in terms of how we can evolve our identity. I don’t think anybody’s identity is fixed or intransigent. I think everybody’s identity has a dynamic. When people talk about an individual, I always think, “There are phases to a person’s life just like there are phases to a country or a history.”
We quite often will accept the idea that countries can evolve and change over time, but we very rarely do that with people. We have an expectation of people to be the same, because we fear change in those we love, or we feel familiar with, or we like.
Om: Or even ourselves. Success in many ways is what inspires fear in ourselves. We want to hold on to success.
Nitin: One of my tracks is called “Letting Go.” That’s the thing. Also, I wrote a track called “Accept Yourself.” I’ve always had the idea that you need to feel unafraid of letting go. As soon as we become too attached to things, sometimes we become lazy in terms of trying to see the possibilities of who we could evolve to be, and also what experiences we could have. Experience is very important.
It’s been a new experience for so many people to be in lockdown, for example. So many are used to traveling all the time. I’m used to touring. I’m used to being with a band, I’m used to socializing, and going out and doing things, and traveling to many countries and meeting incredible people.
But the idea of being still for a while has actually been quite revelatory. Since you’re still for a length of time, suddenly, you have to look at everything in a very different way and so you’re forced to confront yourself as well in lots of ways. When you’re in lockdown, you’re given the mirror which is forced on you. You can’t escape that. That’s been powerful because, quite often, we’ll stay busy, or we’ll travel, or we’ll do things in order to avoid looking at ourselves.
Getting Back to Basics
Om: What have you learned about yourself in isolation?
Nitin: For me, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what I value. I’ve learned about prioritization, which a lot of people probably have. It’s about getting back to basics and thinking about what makes us feel a sense of security and a sense of also belonging, and also feeling comfortable in ourselves.
I’m actually playing chess at the moment quite a bit. I’m enjoying that, and I’m enjoying playing music. Before I got COVID, I was just enjoying running — and getting back into yoga and things like that, which are all very self-contained things. Isolation makes you do those things. I found myself getting back to things that I used to do a lot when I was a kid basically, like things when I was a teenager. I think a lot of people found that.
Om: Are you a solitary person?
Nitin: My natural state is to reflect and to discover things for myself and to learn from experience. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s company. I do. But I find the most interesting ways of thinking when I’m on my own.
Om: The music industry has a standard idea of success based on things like the Billboard Top 100. Then there is success which is transcendent, like Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Generations upon generations listened and will listen to them. What is your idea of success? For a minute, you were signed to a major label, and then you were doing things on your own. And now you’re with a major label again.
Nitin: It’s interesting, because I’m back with the biggest label I’ve ever been with now — Sony Masterworks. Ultimately, success for me is none of those things. It’s actually when you feel content, peaceful.
I think that, if you are in a state of constant wanting or being in a state of constant desire, which is what the world tries to tell you to be in by
The basic definition of economics is the allocation of scarce resources to meet unlimited wants and not needs. It’s based around greed. Economics is the study of greed. Essentially, if you look at the most basic models of capitalism, that’s really what it is. The thing is, we’re constantly made to feel like we’re not successful, and that’s a problem.
I think it’s in stillness, and when we are content with who we are, and when we stop expecting, or stop desiring, that’s when we are most successful.
Om: How did you come to that state?
Nitin: I don’t know if I am, but I try to be. It’s about being in the moment. The whole thing is about being in the present and not living your life in a state of expectation of the future. Right now, everyone’s thinking, “When’s this all going to end? When we get the vaccine, what happens?” All these kinds of things. If you can achieve that state where you can be not frustrated in your own company, then that is success.
I Want to Do Something
Om: You’ve been very active on social media and being very clear and crisp about how you feel about the political situation in the UK, and of course, in the US. Why did you feel it necessary to be that expressive about the changes which are happening?
Nitin: I go to therapy quite a lot, and one thing I identified quite a few years ago was that I get very frustrated with injustice. If I see something that is unfair, I just want to change it. I want to do something. It’s just a very strong feeling that I have. I’ve always just thought every human being is of equal value. I cannot understand how that is not something that everyone accepts. It should be the starting point of everything — that every human being is born of equal value regardless of where you’re born, what you look like, anything.
But the world is not that way, and because it’s not, it frustrates me. I have a platform that allows me to be able to be heard by a few people. These things are good, because it means that I have the opportunity to say something that could possibly change something. That has happened a couple of times in ways that people don’t even know, but some of the things that I’ve written have actually had an effect. That’s great. At the same time, I also recognize that’s a very fortunate position to be in.
Om: Has the Internet changed your creative process? Has it influenced what you create and how you create?
Nitin: No. It’s a very pure process when I make music. I’ll start from a feeling or an idea, and then I’ll find whatever, it might be a guitar, it might be a piano, and then I’ll build up on that. It will be about something that is going on with me, or it might be a metaphor about the world. I use technology, of course, if we’re going to be more literal about it. I have Logic, which is the program that I use to program things and to create.
One thing that technology has allowed me is to be able to simulate a whole orchestra in the studio. There are a lot of sounds that you can get now from places where real players have actually played them into a microphone and then I can actually play those things on a keyboard.
It allows me a lot more possibility to be experimental with sound and to be very organized about sound. But ultimately, the process doesn’t change. It’s what I’m feeling at the time. Quite often, I will have a title before I do anything.
This new album started with the title “Immigrants” because I was feeling passionately about what was going on in terms of demonizing immigrants, and I wanted to make an album that did the opposite of that.
It’s the same with “Beyond Skin.” I made the album title first. With “Displacing the Priest,” I came up with the title first, because there were things that I was thinking about, and then I have to find a language to express that.
Om: I want to ask you about all these wonderful musicians you’ve worked with. I have absolutely loved discovering Joss Stone, for example. I would have never discovered her. How do you feel about collaboration — and in a way, bringing these artists to the world as a gift?
Nitin: Joss was already a big star. She got signed at 13-years old and sold 10 million records. I’ve been very lucky in finding some really great young talent, and some of these people I worked with early. Like Riz Ahmed, Riz MC, he was somebody I worked with when he was very, very young as a rapper.
I’ve been very blessed with people that I met along the way, who are special people, interesting people. It’s fascinating seeing them grow in their own direction. I’m choosing people that I can talk to and whose company I enjoy. Music is interesting as an extension of your personality and who you are. That’s when it’s fascinating, to me. The people I work with are all people I like, and I would hang out with all of them. They’re good friends.
Om: Can you tell us a little bit about the new album? What is it about?
Nitin: It’s not so much a celebration of immigrants from around the world as it is an acknowledgment. In recent times, in the UK, and in America, and across different parts of the world, there has been a very strong attempt by right-wing organizations to move towards nationalism in a way that actually alienates people who are just struggling for a better life, as if that’s a crime.
Every nation is built on the immigrant experience. So, it amazes me that, instead of being grateful to the way in which history has actually given us opportunities because of mass immigration, or mass migration, we are constantly trying to shut doors and make every country stagnant and ruin the dynamic power of what could happen.
That’s what the album is, and that’s philosophically where it’s coming from. I worked with some great artists. There’s Nina Miranda. There’s Nicki Wells. There’s Ayanna Witter Johnson. There’s some great people. Dhruv Sangari, who’s a fantastic Qawwali singer I met over in India. There’s also Abi Sampa, who’s got a great voice.
I was working a lot with the idea of storytelling and trying to find a journey. I was using a lot of news footage or clips, as well. And I talked to my mom — she’s on there. In the same way I personalized “Beyond Skin,” I’ve done that with this album too.
Om: I am excited about listening to this album. Some of the tracks which are already out, I put them on repeat and listen to them a lot. By the way, who are you listening to while in isolation?
Nitin: I really like a lot of different artists. I like Riz’s latest album, “The Long Goodbye,” I like Kate Tempest’s “The Book of Traps and Lessons.” I like Little Simz and what she did with “GREY Area,” her new album.
I listen to a lot of flamenco. I still listen a lot to Paco De Lucia. I listen to some of “The Great Masters” all the time. I’ll be listening to Nils Frahm, and Olafur Arnalds, and Max Richter, coming from that new classical tradition.
Then I listen to a lot of Indian classical music all the time, but I go back to people like Vilayat Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Shiv Kumar Sharma — the classic guys.