A student of one of the most prestigious institutions for music, Nischay Parekh’s journey is the stuff dreams are made of. From opening for Norah Jones to releasing his first album, produced by the legendary Miti Adhikari, these dreams have certainly been realised. In an interview with Riddhima Khanna, he highlights this journey and takes us behind the scenes of the man and his music.
Being from a Gujarati family, where music wouldn’t necessarily be the first option- how did music essentially happen to you?
Well, my interest in music piqued when I started playing the guitar at the age of 13-14, which is when I also started writing songs. A big advantage for me was that both my parents were very keen listeners of music, which was a very big part of their lives. My mother listened to a lot of western music and my father was a big fan of Indian classical music. So growing up I was always listening to them listen to a lot of music. It was just always playing. As in instead of watching TV or reading a book this is what they would do in their free time. So at a very early age I realized that music is a big part of my life and can be a part of people’s lives. And once I started taking song writing seriously I discovered that you could actually go to universities and schools abroad and study music and make it a real career for yourself. My parents were supportive when I took that decision because I was very clear from a very early age what I wanted to do. I know that this isn’t the most conventional thing for a boy from Kolkata or India to do, I wasn’t the first and I certainly won’t be the last. Music today could well be a very viable profession. Even today when look at universities abroad that teach music there are a many Indians there now. And not just as a performer, a musician can be a producer, an engineer, an arranger or a composer- there are many options in the music industry today, so I think my parents were keen to that fact as well.
The formal education in music that you gained from Berkley- how do you think that experience helped you over all?
Well, I am still a student at Berkley. I have spent a year there and will be going back soon, I haven’t completed my course there. But the time that I have already spent at Berkley so far has benefitted me greatly. You know like when you actually study the form, when you sit down and dedicate time to it and you have people who are more experienced and knowledgeable helping you and guiding you while you are doing an assignment- those type of things become like an intrinsic part, it changes you. Like when you learn a language, if you read a lot of books and really know the alphabets, nouns, synonyms, proverbs, you know everything- you become better at reading that language and communicating in it. It’s the same with music, music is a language and at Berkley you really understand the mechanics of music and I think that has helped me a lot in making music, and to simplify and complicate things when required.
A lot of young musicians would love to study music at Berkley or any other institution; however not many have the means to. That being said, do you think a formal education in music is important?
Well I wouldn’t say that it is necessary. I’ve met a lot of musicians over the years that haven’t had a formal education and yet have gone on to create some of the best music you will ever hear. That being said, with the internet, which appeals to a large demographic of people, everyone could educate themselves in music. There are so many other ways to do it. Even if you are taking a guitar lesson privately or even if you are going to a concert when a good musician is performing, I think it’s a learning experience within itself. So I think music education should be a big part of everyone’s life but music education doesn’t only apply to established music schools in Europe or the US. Music is all around us, and as long as you are interested in learning and you really want to better yourself, you can keep learning. But formal music education is not really a requirement for everyone. And if you have a desire to better yourself and learn you always keep learning whether you are at a music school or not.
I’d read that what really attracted you to music was ‘intelligent harmony’. To a layman how would you describe the term?
The three basic components of music as I see it are rhythm, harmony and melody. Harmony is that bit where everyone can instantly identify a beat, as in instantly identify the melody and go ok that’s the tune. But harmony is the middle ground between those two components; it’s actually the core. Like when you hear the chords in the music and the way they change and how that sort of influences the melody. And I think it also forms the rhythm. It’s basically the texture of the music I feel, it’s the last thing that people hear probably, or the last thing that an average listener would be drawn towards listening to. It’s like the support system of the music. From a very early age I was very interested in the sounds behind the rhythm, behind the melody. And that’s the harmony which basically attracts me.
You recently debuted with Ocean. So tell me, what does it have to offer that would excite a new listener?
Well, I’d say its experimental folk music with simple tunes and melodies that people can relate to. But at the same time what makes Ocean what it is, is that it is an intrinsically positive record filled with positive emotions and with affirmations. It doesn’t deal in any sort of negativity at all, it’s a very bright album, and I think anyone who listens to it will be infected and will be affected by the positivity and the brightness of the album. It’s just meant to make people happy.
You recorded music in Ocean in a lot of unorthodox places- like your bedroom and your garden. Did it help add to the end product?
I think it definitely added to the comfort of the performances. I mean I recorded the vocals in my bedroom, and there’s a certain level of comfort that one feels in their home- where one can give a comfortable performance- maybe even one of their best performances if they can. I don’t know whether I would’ve been able to give as good a performance as I believe I have in Ocean if I was in an alien environment like a recording studio. Recording in a studio is very professional, and I guess as I grow more as musician I will gradually be more comfortable recording there. Also, recording in unorthodox places for Ocean was more about doing stuff with my resources. I don’t really have access to like a proper soundproof recording studio. Also, honestly, with technology today anyone can record anywhere in the world. All you need is a computer!
What according to you are the hindrances that indie music bands in India face when they want to produce their own music?
Well, in terms of production, it’s one of the places where a band has lesser limitations. I say that because when a band is trying to perform or trying to make a name for themselves, that’s when a band really faces more problems, because there’s a lack of organizers, there are not enough venues, usually the organizers are not very friendly to new bands and they get ripped off quite often. Those are problems a new band, or almost all artists, face in the real world. But when you are producing your own music it’s just you and your computer and all the software and technology. Music production is artistic in nature but it also involves a lot of science. There are a lot of rules. Even if you want to change the rules you need to know the rules first, you need to educate yourself. That’s one area where new bands usually face an obstacle- their musical ideas, performances and compositions are great, but maybe the production quality in India sometimes suffers because it’s usually self-produced and is the first effort. So the quality, the sound, the recording, the production and some of the arrangements- don’t do the band justice. That’s one issue I can see, but that can be easily overcome once the bands get experience. Even if they continue producing their own music if they do more research and educate themselves more, learning new things and then their music would sound as good as they’d want it to be.
You’ve described the sound of Ocean as a mix of classic pop sensibilities and kindergarten electronics. What are these ‘kindergarten electronics’ that you are talking of?
Well, there are a lot of little blips and bloops on Ocean. One of the most experimental things in the album is that the sound of synthesizers that I have used is not very conventional or very purist. Someone who loves electronic music and listens to it, he would really be able to associate himself or relate to some of the sounds. All of them are very aggressively experimental sounds that I have tweaked in over a year or so. It was the concept of me trying to actualize the sounds in my head and make it real. I’d try to utilize software and synthesizers and use affects to try and make it as close to the sound that I’d thought of in my head- a very childish sort of approach to synthesizers. That is what I term as kindergarten electronics. When you perform these songs live, there’s a lot of very child like elements, like we use a toy keyboard, all of which sort of adds to the whole aesthetic of Ocean.
Miti Adhikari produced your album. What was the whole experience like, working with someone who has worked with the likes of Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Coldplay?
It was amazing and inspiring!! It was so educational. I am so lucky that he agreed to work with a young boy from Kolkata who has no music released. Before Ocean the only people who had heard my music were friends from school. Apart from that I don’t think anyone else had heard anything about my music or me. That being said I was very lucky to have him on board! I just sent him an e-mail, I happened to know him through Neel Adhikari, who is Miti’s cousin. Miti had come to Kolkata a couple of years ago and had attended a gig I was playing at the Big Ben. He’d heard some of my music then. When I finally decided that I wanted to release an album, I was thinking of whom I could work with to mix and produce the album, and Miti’s name was the first that came into my mind because he was such a legend in the industry- all over the world. Also I knew I had had some sort of introduction with him because of Neel. I sent him an e-mail and Miti was very excited right from the start. I sent him demos and he was a real collaborator, he didn’t just sit there and say this is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do. He really worked with me. We threw around ideas. He added a lot of musical ideas. It was great!
You started off with The Monkey In Me, opened for Norah Jones and performed at all the four cities for the recently concluded Bacardi NH7 Weekender. Could you describe this journey in a few words?
It was spontaneous. It was sudden. It was surreal. These, in my mind, are what describe the whole journey. My first performance was at the NH7 Weekender at Bangalore which was actually last year. That was the first time that I actually played to an audience outside Kolkata, and that too happened quite suddenly. We weren’t really prepared for that or anything. But it went quite well and the organizers of NH7 (OML, Only Much Louder) heard me and were obviously happy with the music. And then the Norah Jones thing happened a few months later and that was the turning point. A lot of people enjoyed my music. Well before all this had happened I’d decided that I wanted to release my own album. The process was already on going. And OML got involved and I got more shows and more exposure and people became associated with my music and me. So I guess I was very lucky in many ways, and I’m glad that all of this has happened to me.
You’ve had two bands called The Monkey In Me and Orange, the Panda. You have this sort of affinity to animals. Is that somewhere there in Ocean too?
Well, I there is a song called Panda in the album and there’s this song called Secrets which is about a goat and a frog. I think I am still a fan of animals and that’s been incorporated in Ocean as well. Animals are still a very big part of my song writing and the affinity is still very much present. It’s just the title, which I wanted to be able to evoke a sense of largeness. But the animal’s are still right there- the pandas and the goats- the animal connection is still very strong.
What do your fans have to look forward to next?
Well my fans… I guess I’m in a good position because my fans are also fans of The Monkey in Me, so the MIM fans, and (hopefully) my fans, can look forward to a double album, which we’ll begin recording soon. Then there’s a follow-up to Ocean, which might release sometime this year, if everything works out properly. Then there’s a lot of visual content we are working on, like music videos which would be releasing soon. So there’s a lot of fun stuff to look forward to!