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“The keyboard has played an integral role in my journey as a musician” – Gulraj Singh

For almost two decades now, Gulraj Singh has worked in the music industry as a composer, music producer, singer and keyboardist. Gulraj started training in music at a very young age and started doing gigs while he was still in school. He has also performed extensively on stage with some of the biggest names in the music industry including A. R. Rahman, Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy, Salim – Sulaiman and Ranjit Barot. Despite doing multiple things, Gulraj never gets tired as everything he does is connected to music, the one thing he was most passionate about right from the time he was a child.

As a composer, music producer, singer and session musician, Gulraj has worked on several films over the years. However, he makes time to work on non-film music as well. ‘Janaabe Jaaniya’, his newest work as a music composer and producer, has been released recently by VYRL. The song is a dulcet melody with a touch of sufi thoughts and middle-eastern beats.

In this interview, Gulraj talks about his recent release, journey in the music industry, popular songs, collaborating with A. R. Rahman, learnings from Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy, bond with Manoj Yadav, love for the keyboard, musical training, upcoming projects and more.

‘Janaabe Janiya’ has been composed and musically produced by you. How did this song take shape?

We were asked by VYRL, the music label, to create a song with a sufi vibe to it. ‘Janaabe Janiya’ is a love song which is addressed to one’s lover. In this song, the love or bond shared by a young couple has been depicted. Love, however, can also be an emotion between you and the Almighty. When you listen to just the audio and observe the lyrics, you realize the song can be interpreted in that manner as well. Manoj (Yadav) has written the song beautifully. I got to work with a wonderful team on the song. I would like to express my gratitude to each one of them. The recording engineers are Amey Lodhe and Akshay Purandare. The mixing and mastering engineer is Ashish Saksena. The ethnic string instruments you hear in the song have been played by Tapas Roy. Shon Pinto has played the guitar pieces. Shirin Sukheswala, my manager, was also a part of this project. Saugato Roy Choudhury was the artist coordinator on the song.

The song has been beautifully sung by Javed Ali. Is this your first collaboration with him?

I had worked with Javed bhai on Rahman sir’s shows. I play the keyboards in Rahman sir’s live gigs and Javed bhai has been a part of most of those shows. I have performed with him on stage multiple times. I also got a few opportunities to sing with him on stage. ‘Janaabe Jaaniya’, however, is my first composition which Javed bhai has sung.

You have collaborated frequently with Manoj Yadav all these years. How would you describe your equation with him?

We shared a very strong equation and that’s why, I believe, we have been able to work on so many diverse projects together. Manoj is like an elder brother to me. There is a lot that we have in common. There are time when I take his advice on certain things. We don’t talk about music all the time. We love discussing life and about different philosophies. Our friendship is very deep and that also reflects in the work we do together. The albums or songs we have done are a product of the kind of the chemistry we share. Our wavelengths match and that’s very important for collaborators. When I create a melody, I know Manoj will come up with the rights words for it. Similarly, when he writes something first, he has the confidence that I will be able to weave an appropriate melody around it. 

This also seems to be your first association with VYRL.

Yes, this is my first song which has been released by VYRL. However, I have worked with Universal Music India, which is the parent company of VYRL, in the past. They had released the ‘Ganaraj Adhiraj’ albums.

In an interview, you had stated that you love singing but composing music is your first priority. In 2015, you had won an award as a singer for ‘Pakeezah’ (‘Ungli’), a song which you had also composed. You have sung for other composers as well. You sang ‘Rang Bharya’ composed by Amartya Bobo Rahut for ‘Darbaan’. Do you look at singing as an integral part of your musical career?

I have had no training in singing. I really wish to get better at it. Singing is actually a by-product of my work as a composer. When we compose, we have to hum the tune. When the composer creates a dummy track to present to a producer or director, he mostly sings it himself. There have been some friends in my life who encouraged me to sing. Manoj Yadav is one of them. He would always tell me that I should sing more often. I call myself a composer – singer. For my friend Parag Chhabra, I had sung the song ‘Patanga’ from the film ‘Waah Zindagi’. It was co-sung by Suvarna Tiwari. The composers who have called me to sing for them have been very kind.

Apart from being a composer and singer, you also work as a music producer, session musician and live performer. Does it get difficult, at times, to juggle between so many different things?

Everything that I do is music. Doing all these things has helped me learn a lot. While working with another musician or composer, you switch to a different mode. There is a certain kind of music and sound every composer likes. If I am arranging a song for Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy, I have to keep their preferences and sensibilities in mind. When I arrange for Rahman sir, I operate differently. Working as a music producer and keyboard artist has helped me explore a lot of things. When I am doing the songs or the background score for a film myself, these lessons help me.

As a composer, your most popular song from a film has been ‘Pakeezah’ from ‘Ungli’. The film will complete ten years of its release this year. There is an interesting story behind how this song came into being. Manoj Yadav gave you the word ‘pakeezah’. You had this word in mind while driving back to the studio. Suddenly, you started humming the phrase ‘o pakeezah re’.

That’s right! I was quite excited after Manoj gave me this word. The guitar part you hear in the song started playing in my mind. Then, I started humming ‘o pakeezah re’. After reaching the studio, I recorded that part and composed the rest of the song. Manoj was with me, so he wrote the song quickly. We completed the song in just a few hours.

Apart from ‘Pakeezah’, you had also composed ‘Aadarniya Ungli’ for the film. The latter was the first song you created for the film. Somebody from Dharma Productions heard your album ‘Ganaraj Adhiraj’ and offered you ‘Ungli’. ‘Ganaraj Adhiraj’ has been one of your most acclaimed projects. When did you start working on it?

We started working on the album 3-4 years before it came out. The first part came out in the year 2011. Manoj and I worked very hard on each of the songs. A friend of ours wanted us to do an album on Lord Ganesha. He wanted us to recreate popular Ganesha songs. The project, after a point, did not go any further. Manoj and I thought we should do an album on Lord Ganesha but with original songs. A lot of times, you get busy with commissioned projects and your personal work takes a backseat. I was busy working as a live musician with Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy at that time. There were many other projects happening as well. Because of that, it took us a long time to complete the album.

In the year 2011, Shankar bhai told me, “you have to finish and release the album this year”. It was a very positive pressure. Because of his persuasion, Manoj and I started working on it more actively. The first part was received very well and that encouraged us to come up with more albums in this series. Next year, in 2012, ‘Ganaraj Adhiraj’came out. It had six songs. In 2013, the third album, which was titled ‘Ganaraj Adhiraj Sampoorna’ came out. With this, the trilogy was complete. In 2019, ‘Ganaraj Adhiraj Nirantar’ was released by Merchant Records.

Your studio is filled with a variety of keyboards. The music industry knows you as a music wizard. How would you describe your relationship with this instrument?

My relationship with the keyboard goes back to the time when I was a child. I was born and brought up in Thane, which is a suburb in Mumbai. In the keyboard family, a bunch of instruments including harmonium, keyboard and synthesizers exist. When I was a child, one of my aunt’s harmonium would be kept at home. I got fascinated by the instrument and started playing random notes on it. I used to enjoy my time with the harmonium a lot. I started playing harmonica around this time. My parents saw this and felt I had an inclination towards music. I was 6 or 7 years old when my parents gifted me a small keyboard. I remember the model number. It was a PT90 Casio keyboard.

Slowly, I started playing the keyboard in small functions and programs. The keyboard has played an integral role in my journey as a musician. After a while, I started playing live with local artists. I would sometimes play the harmonium and accompany other musicians. Eventually, I got into music production. Keyboards play a vital role in music programming. I feel blessed that this instrument happened to me. You can do a vast number of things with this instrument. Keyboards, I feel, have played an important role in the evolution of music.

What is the kind of training you have had?

I started learning Indian classical music on the harmonium. A lady, whom we used to refer to as Joshi Madam, was one my first teachers. Before that, I learnt the tabla for a short while. I was very fascinated by that instrument. We had a teacher named Gokhale sir in our school. He used to teach us the tabla. I started learning the harmonium at an institute called Vimal Sangeet Sadhna. Joshi madam used to teach there. Pandeep Pradeep Chitnis, who used to run that institute, also taught us. From him, I started learning Hindustani classical music. My first western classical teacher was Mr. George Almeida. Apart from western classical, I also learnt a bit of jazz from him. Unfortunately, we lost him few years back. I also learnt western classical music from Manikanandan Pillai sir. I appeared for grade examinations conducted by the honourable Trinity College, London. Teachers from the institute come down to India and conduct the exams. I have completed eighth grade in digital keyboard.

Your family had no connections in the music industry. Was it difficult to get the first few jobs?

I always feel that you should try to do good work. That should be your priority and it eventually becomes your calling card. Struggle is a part of everybody’s lives. Things will not always be smooth. Even today, I face certain challenges. I started doing things from a ground level. Slowly, I made a name for myself in the live circuit. Then, I started arranging music for my composer friends. I would program music on the keyboard for other composers. Slowly, my work started getting recognition and things started falling into place. You have to accept the challenges that are thrown at you and try to give your best to everything that you do. One should treat every project equally. No work is big or small. Whatever work comes your way, you should do it with utmost sincerity and honesty.

Do you remember the first professional assignment you worked on?

If I remember correctly, I got my first professional gig when I was in the tenth grade. I played the keyboard for a Ganapati pandal set up at one of the residential societies. I had to play the keyboard there. That was the first time I played with other musicians and got paid for my work (laughs).

Was it tough to break into the mainstream music industry?

Since I was in Mumbai, I got to meet some people from the music industry. Some of them became my friends and I started doing music production and programming for them. I worked on the title tracks and background scores of many TV serials in my early years in the industry. My first association with a celebrity artist was with Kunal Ganjawala. We fondly refer to him as Kunal bhai. I started playing the keyboard in Kunal bhai’s band. That was my first big gig. I was a part of rock bands before that but this was my first gig with a celebrity artist. Soon after that, I started working in the film and music industry.

You made your debut as a film composer with ‘Tutiya Dil’ in 2012. Those who have followed your work would feel that you should have done more work as a composer. Today, many music labels sign certain artists and choose to work exclusively with them. Is that the reason why we haven’t heard your music as much as we would have liked to?

To be honest, I am not sure if that is the reason behind me not doing too many films as a composer till now. I tend to be a little choosy about my projects. I don’t think lesser number of people are getting opportunities because of labels preferring their own artists. In fact, I feel the number of opportunities has gone up significantly. A lot of content is being released on streaming platforms and the web shows and films have original soundtracks. Many of them feature original songs as well. Singles are also releasing regularly.

Apart from being a composer, I do a lot of work as a music producer and keyboard artist. I also perform extensively on stage. All these things take up a lot of my time. I have done a lot of background scores. With God’s grace, I have been constantly busy as a musician. For a while, I have not worked as a music producer for other composers. I have been busy working on my own projects as a composer. When you work on your own compositions, you are in a different mindset. Sometimes, films also get stuck or shelved. Right now, a lot of projects are lined up. In the next couple of months, 3-4 films I have worked on as a composer will release.

Out of all the songs you have composed so far, which one has been your favourite?

That’s a very difficult question. It’s like asking a parent who is their favourite child. I would say my favourite or best composition is yet to come.

You have arranged or produced music for several composers over these years. Was ‘Johnny Gaddar’ the first film you worked on as a producer?

Before ‘Johnny Gaddar’, I had produced music for other composers. I had done a score for a Marathi film. However, it was my first film with Shankar – Ehsaan – Loy as a music producer. It marked the beginning of an association that continues to last. So, ‘Johnny Gaddar’ will always be a special project for me.

You have worked on a bunch of Marathi films as a composer. When you work on a Marathi film, is your approach as a composer any different?

Not really. No matter which language the film is in, I follow the brief of the director and make songs as per the storyline. I have got the opportunity to work with some brilliant directors in Hindi cinema. Aditya Sarpotdar, the director of ‘Unaad’, had a very good sense of music. Before working on ‘Unaad’, I had done a Hindi film with him called ‘The Sholay Girl’. So, we already had a good equation. He gave me complete freedom as a composer. The songs in ‘Unaad’ were designed to help the story move forward.

A. R Rahman, Ranjit Barot, Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa are some of the most prominent names you have performed extensively with. What are some of the things you have picked up or learnt from them?

The one thing common to all of these great musicians is that they always give me the freedom to do what I want to. As an artist, that encourages you a lot. They will share a brief and then, offer you enough freedom to interpret it in different ways. All of them are much senior to me but they have been extremely kind and encouraging. I genuinely feel humbled. They have treated me as their little brother. I have learnt so many things from them.

Ranjit Barot sir has been like a guru to me. He taught me that you have to respect the musician within you. He says you have to believe in yourself and do what you feel like doing. He made me realize that we, as artists, should work in an adventurous and fearless manner. It is important not to be scared of failure. When you are doing live gigs with him, you are on the edge. That trains you in different ways. He taught me the importance of doing things with all your heart.  

Shankar bhai, Ehsaan and Loy sir are very different from each other and yet, they work so beautifully as a team. One of the great qualities of Shankar bhai is that he always stays positive. He is always willing to help people around him. I have rarely seen him say no to something. He taught me how we should embrace everything life throws at us with a smile. Ehsaan is an extremely kind hearted person. I love vintage keyboards and equipment. He has gifted me a lot of his equipment. He keeps introducing me to interesting songs and bands. Loy sir has been like a father figure to me. There is so much to learn from him. A while back, he was talking about how it is great to have low expectations or none at all. When you have expectations and things don’t work out in your favour, you get disheartened. However, if you just do your work without expecting anything, you don’t get troubled by things not working out.

Rahman sir’s humility has always inspired me. When I started working with him, I would often wonder as to how he walks on the ground despite achieving all that a musician would dream of achieving. Despite all that he has done and achieved, he stays humble. As much as I am in awe of his music, I am a bigger fan of the human being he is. He is always excited like a child, trying to explore new things in music. He has done so much work and yet, I always see that childlike excitement in him to explore more.  

What are you doing next?

I have done the background score and songs for a film called ‘Suryast’. It has been directed by Avishek Ghosh. I had done the background score of ‘Ishq-E-Nadaan’, which was Avishek’s first film as a director. ‘Suryast’ features Lara Dutta, Patralekhaa and Purab Kohli in principal roles. I am also working on a very interesting film that is being directed by Mr. Boman Irani. It is Mr. Irani’s debut directorial feature. There is one more film which I am working on. Currently, we are working on the songs. It will go on the floors soon. A lot of non-film music will come out this year. A couple of months back, I released a single with Gurdas Mann ji. We are working on one more song that should come out soon.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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