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Nitin Sawhney - Interview

  by Sarah Maybank

published: 27 / 10 / 2011

Nitin Sawhney - Interview


Musician and composer Nitin Sawhney speaks to Sarah Maybank at a gig at the Union Chapel in London about his new concept album, 'The Last Days of Meaning', and recent soundtrack, 'Human Planet'

Nitin Sawhney, musician, composer, DJ, 21st century renaissance man, is standing by a table stacked with oranges, plums and pears at the far end of a cavernous dressing room. The Albert-Square-fruit-stall rider might look like it's come from the ‘EastEnders’ set, but, befitting the pre-gig situation, the talk is pure music biz. He's chatting with a singer about setting up a short notice recording session. She's due to fly to Mumbai tomorrow; he's got few free hours in three or four days' time. Cue the world's shortest pause as she weighs the options. “I'll change the flight,” she tells him, lightning-quick. Who knows the cost of ditching plane tickets for a 4,500-mile journey hours before your flight? But those are the things that happen when you get a chance to work with Nitin Sawhney. And who wouldn't drop everything if they got the call from one the world's most on-fire artists? He's worked with everyone from The London Symphony Orchestra to Ellie Goulding to Cirque du Soleil; he's written more than 40 film and TV scores, including the score for BBC's BAFTA-nominated ‘Human Planet’, which he's taking on an arena tour next spring. He's scored the best-selling video games ‘Heavenly Sword’ and ‘Enslaved’, too, and is the only artist to be invited to play at both The Proms and The Electric Proms. Everything he touches turns to gold? Pretty much. “It's easier to jot down what this man can't do than what he can,” says The Guardian. Every profile you'll ever read about Nitin repeats this quote – but they've got a point. Tonight he's playing at the Union Chapel in north London. With its stained glass and intricately carved stonework, the place might look like a giant jewel box but it's a bijou gig compared to the Albert Hall, where he's practically a house artist. Does it feel a bit rinky-dink? Nah. “It's a beautiful venue,” he says, unstarry as you can get. “I love how it feels; there's a real serenity about it and you have that intimacy with the audience.” Nitin is quietly spoken. He's casually dressed in jeans, trainers and taupe-coloured T-shirt, and his manner is as down to earth as his clobber. Which means that when he talks about his eye-popping career, he can bring up stuff that would make more showy characters sound like desperate attention-seekers. When he says things like “When I was at a party at Paul McCartney's house...,” or “I was doing an interview with Nelson Mandela...” then mentions ‘Einstein/Tagore’, a play he's writing that has “Natascha McElhone and Andy Serkis attached,” he makes it sound as everyday as hanging your washing out. Which it must be in a way, for him. A former Beatle and the ex-South African president on his speed dial are just a couple of the highlights of what Nitin describes as his “pilgrimage to now.”Things took off in the mid 90s when he emerged from the so-called Asian underground, along with artists such as Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation. His fourth album, ‘Beyond Skin’, was Mercury-nominated in 1999 and he's just scored his ninth hit album with his latest release, ‘Last Days of Meaning’ ‘Last Days...’ is partly inspired by growing up in the 70s, in Rochester's only Asian family, in the shadow of the National Front; and it's partly a response to politicians bodging up the economy then “blaming immigrants”. It pitches xenophobic rants from a crotchety old man, Donald Meaning, played by John Hurt, against a battalion of songs that argue for unity by merging a world of influences from Delta blues to flamenco via Sanskrit poetry and Indian classical music. It's a winner on two levels. It makes a political point without bludgeoning you around the head, and the melodies shine like a stained glass window in a summer sunset. With his recording date sorted, Nitin plonks himself down on a wooden chair, and prepares to talk about the album, how he stops “getting bored with myself” - and a surprise meeting with a girl called Tracey at Paul McCartney's party... PB: ‘Human Planet’ was BAFTA-nominated and the critics loved ‘Last Days of Meaning’. You must be pretty pleased. NS: I've had some great feedback from people whose opinion I value. People have really related to the John Hurt character, or know someone like him. One person told me it reminded her of her father before he passed away. She'd made her dad a mix tape, just like Donald Meaning's wife did, to try to shift his dogmatic way of thinking; she thought the album was based on something that had really happened to me, which was amazing. PB: How did you come up with the concept? NS: Some people – particularly men when they get older – they want to be king of their castle; they blame the outside world. Rather than making something that was overtly about [bigotry] I put this old man, who represented this fear [of immigrants]. This woman, his ex-wife, creating a mix tape, it was an address to him. If you imagine a feminine energy, when you have this dogmatic intransigence, you start to feel it might shift that intransigence. PB: The album title is a play on Meaning's surname, but it has a meaning of its own. NS: Originally, I was thinking there's this attention span thing that's happening. We're at the point where we think anything of any depth is a waste of time. All this reality TV... Also, you look at music nowadays, it's only seen as something that accompanies other things now; a run, driving a car. You put on an iPod and shuffle the tracks about; there's no narrative. We really are in the last days of meaning... I wanted this to be like the real idea of an album, something that unfolded. PB: You had two months to record the ‘Human Planet’ soundtrack – the equivalent of making a 50-minute album a week - and ended up practically living in the studio. How did making ‘Last Days’ compare? NS: It was a walk in the park [Laughs]. No, it takes a lot longer. It comes from you and your thoughts. It takes in your own feelings and experiences; you're constantly fiddling with it and questioning what you're doing. It makes it difficult in that way. PB: You're so eclectic – working with choreographers like Akram Khan; scoring TV, film and computer game soundtracks; ‘Last Days of Meaning’ started out as a film script... NS: I always thought there should be no problem expressing yourself how you want to. For me, that's the default position. I just never had those barriers. PB: You're known for collaborating with new talent too. NS: I like working with up-and-coming artists; it keeps you fresh and stops you being jaded. I like to do stuff that stops me settling into a pattern, that stops me being bored with myself [Laughs]. It's dull when you're by yourself. PB: Is it hard working with new acts when you're the 'alpha' artist? NS: No, you're sharing ideas. It's about finding common ground, a meeting point and sharing a common vision. You just work through the language of music. Most people embrace it wholeheartedly. PB: The Engine Earz Experiment album is hotly anticipated and you've worked on that. They remixed ‘Daydream ‘and ‘The Devil and Midnight’ for you too. NS: I did a little bit with Prash, I played some keyboards; it was good. I first worked with Prash through a programme called Aftershock and I got on with him really well. He's such a clever bloke and a great dubstep mix engineer. His mix of ‘The Devil and Midnight’ got half a million plays in a week. I was really impressed with that. PB: Shammi Pithia, the musician, composer and producer, did a remix for the album too. NS: I like him a lot; that mix [of ‘Laugh]’ is great. He's a bright guy and really talented. He's got a lot of interesting ideas and he's very fresh. He clearly listens to lots of different types of music, and I like it that he's into string arrangements. PB: Going back to your own early days, you dumped a job in accountancy for music. NS: My parents were okay with doing music – as long as you didn't do it for a living! They were concerned when I walked out of a job to join bands and things... To me, a job was always for passing time in between playing gigs [Laughs]. But there was no precedent then for an Asian family, for their kid going on and being a musician. It was all about being a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant. We came from the generation of Asian immigrants that wanted their kids to do well in life, to justify them coming here, so you got this list of respectable professions to choose from. But I played in punk bands, I played in funk bands... Music was interwoven into the fabric of my existence. PB: What is it about Rochester? There's James Taylor, the Medway bands; Billy Childish is from Chatham, which is nearby... NS: [Smiles] I used to go out for drinks with Billy Childish and James Taylor and this girl called Tracey, to a place called Star Hill in Rochester. Everyone knew Billy; he's a clever bloke, very interesting, with his art, his poetry – the ee cummings thing with no punctuation. He was in The Milkshakes or the Pop Rivets and he epitomised what that whole punk thing was at the time. PB: Were you all sitting around the table conspiring? Did you dream big? NS: I didn't really dream big, I didn't even dream! I always thought about things I wanted to do; I just thought, “I'd like to do that” and then I'd do it. It's not about looking at goals, it's about enjoying the journey. I tend to just follow my nose – and it takes me to amazing places [Laughs]. PB: Talking of amazing places, you got as far as working with Paul McCartney. What was that like? NS: We got on really well; I've been to a few parties with him. I've had a good jam session with him. He's a really nice bloke, with a dry sense of humour; a very unpredictable sense of humour. He's so imaginative, and a lot more surreal than people give him credit for. Even jamming with him, you can see what an amazing ear he has for melody and harmony. We're in touch still; I'm writing the music for a film about Brian Epstein and we're chatting about that. PB: Can you narrow down any other career highlights? NS: In terms of my albums, I'm always proudest of the one I've just finished, but ‘Beyond Skin’ and ‘Prophesy’, in terms of where I was as a person, and what was happening in my life at the time... Oh, and meeting Nelson Mandela. I was recording him talking about things he felt strongly about, for ‘Prophesy’. The single most exciting moment was when his PA and came in and said, “I have the president on the phone for you.” Nelson Mandela turned to me and asked me how many more questions I had, and I said, “Two.” So he told the PA, “Tell the president to call me back.” [Looks stunned]. PB: Finally, the party at Paul McCartney's house. How was it? NS: Tracey Emin was there and she came up to me. She said, “Are you Nitin?” and I said, “Are you Tracey?” We got talking and I remembered how we used to have drinks at Star Hill. That was an amazing revelation. I'd never realised it had been THAT Tracey all those years ago. PB: Thank you. For more about Nitin Sawhney, and to book tickets for the 2012 ‘Human Planet’ arena tour, log on to www.nitinsawhney.com.

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live reviews

Union Chapel, London, 4/11/2011
Nitin Sawhney - Union Chapel, London, 4/11/2011
Sarah Maybank watches Indian-British musician, producer and composer Nitin Sawhney play a stunning set at the Union Chapel in London to promote his new album, 'Last Days of Meaning'


Last Days of Meaning (2011)
Forceful yet optimistic latest album from London-based composer and musican Nitin Sawhney, which weaving in a world of influences from Western movie soundtracks to rap, takes on immigration from the point of view of an elderly bigot

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