Nitin Sawhney is widely regarded as one of the most innovative artists working in music today. His breakthrough album Beyond Skin introduced the world to a musician with a seemingly limitless capacity to engage with and master styles from across the globe, finding the connections and moulding them into a distinctive and unique sound of his own.
In 2017, Nitin Sawhney was awarded the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award for his work and accepted a CBE in the 2019 New Year Honours list for services to music. In addition to his acclaimed solo output, Sawhney composes film and television scores, orchestral pieces, video game music and has collaborated with some of the world’s best-known artists, including Paul McCartney and Sting.
Last week, PRS Foundation announced that Sawhney had been appointed the new chair of the board of trustees and will be supporting the Foundation through the next stage of development.
Following his performance as part of PRS Presents LCKDWN, we caught up with Nitin and discussed his new appointment, his forthcoming new album Immigrants, the COVID-19 crisis and his approach to the diverse mediums he explores in his work. For Sawhney, as is the case with his music, politics and pressing current affairs are often in clear focus.
Nitin's latest single, You Are, is out today. You can listen to it below.
Firstly, thank you for chatting with us. How are you doing and how are you coping with the lockdown?
Obviously, it’s really sad to be seeing what’s going on, constantly reading the news and being updated with the madness that’s happening. I find it difficult because I’m constantly worried about what kind of world we’re coming back to after all of this and how many people are losing their lives, particularly NHS workers. Across the world as well, how many people have unnecessarily lost their lives? But you adapt to what you can. We in the UK are able to do this much more easily than other countries.
As a musician, I think it’s a difficult thing, but at the same time I’m still working. I’m doing a lot of film score work and working on my album. It was difficult losing shows because obviously that’s a big deal and I do really enjoy touring. It’s a source of income too. I’ve moved my studio to my house and I’ve got everything sorted so I can carry on working the way I’m used to. But it’s still difficult as I’m used to working in teams and having people around me who contribute a great deal. I’m asthmatic, so I don’t really go out at all. I pretty much am truly in isolation.
'There is also much more of a sense of people becoming truly conscious of what the NHS contributes to this country, as if that ever needed to be underlined. There’s a stronger sense of how much those people really do for all of us.'
Do you see any opportunity for positive repercussions coming out of the crisis?
I guess on a smaller level. Obviously with the amount of death around in the world it’s difficult to look at it from a positive angle, but I think there are movements towards improvements in improvements. Latency has been an issue in past and there’s people working very hard to solve that, so we can communicate much more in real time and even so musicians can jam together. There is also much more of a sense of people becoming truly conscious of what the NHS contributes to this country, as if that ever needed to be underlined. There’s a stronger sense of how much those people really do for all of us. Everyone is really getting that now. I also think there is a stronger community spirit, people are looking out for each other, trying to help those who are vulnerable.
I think people will want to hold government and a lot of people to account when all this is over. It’s much more difficult when you’re in the thick of it. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, particularly the shortages of PPE and all the rest of it. I’m not qualified to go into all of that in detail, but I do read a lot of the news and I do keep up with what’s going on around the world. I find it amazing to look at how well Jacinda Ardern has managed to contain it in New Zealand. There are twelve deaths there, whereas we are already over the 20,000 mark. I don’t know, it’s difficult to see positives. But I think as a musician, for example doing an online gig the other day, collaborating with other people, that’s something I use to lift my spirits.
Congratulations on your recent PRS Presents LCKDWN Performance, yours was very popular. Was it your first live streamed show? How did you find it compared with an ‘in-person’ performance?
I did cut a thing together with Anoushka Shankar for the centenary of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s birth. That was really good fun and I really enjoyed that. Anoushka is a fantastic friend and a brilliant musician. The LCKDWN performance was interesting because I was working with a whole band and putting that out there. I really enjoyed that too.
In a way, there’s a bit of a renaissance to it, the whole idea of seeing people in their natural environments rather than on a stage. A stage in itself can feel like a barrier between people. I’ve always found it interesting where people have expectations of roles. When I do a one man show, I’ll say: ‘I’m not here to make you laugh, cry, or have a visceral reaction to anything I’m saying, I’m just going to talk to you.’ I think, in the same way, even if we’re performing in the Royal Albert Hall, I’ll try and think of people as being in my living room and just chat to them and play to them in that way.
When you see people in their natural environment, just relaxing but still playing, it’s a whole different kind of decontextualisation of what you’re used to with artists. In a way there’s a democratisation of music around that, in the same way as the punk movement in the seventies, the idea that anyone could pick up a guitar, or microphone, and express something cathartic. It wasn’t about being judged for the technical proficiency or anything like that, it was about validating people’s opportunity to express something that they felt strongly about. I think, in the same way, people being able to stream stuff from their bedrooms gives a platform for a much more intimate and personal catharsis.
To be performing to an audience, you feel an electricity coming back. It’s a very powerful feeling that you have with the audience and it’s quite a symbiotic relationship. You’re giving to them and they’re giving back to you. With live streaming, it’s like playing in a vacuum, so inevitably it’s different. Having said that, you engage with the music in a different way and you are perhaps expressing things maybe in a more intimate way than you might have done, in that you’re in your own space and you’re much more aware of your environment being a safe space to be in. You don’t feel judged if you’re performing in your own bedroom or studio. Not that I do ever feel judged by an audience, but there’s a sense of being in a space that you’re very familiar with and that the space is also part of the performance, as any space is, so it does affect the way you play.
'To be performing to an audience, you feel an electricity coming back. It’s a very powerful feeling that you have with the audience and it’s quite a symbiotic relationship.'
You write in a diverse range of mediums. How does your writing process alter when you’re composing film scores, orchestral pieces or your own albums? Does a creative idea come from the same place, or does it differ with each medium?
If I’m working with a director, I’m working with their psychology and their perception of a film that they’ve created that’s been an extension of their vision, so it is to some degree a suspension of your ego if you’re working with a director. But if you’re working with your own album, you’re collaborating in a very different way. It’s a much more symbiotic process in that you’re working with other artists and trying to feel their energy and what they contribute to what you’re doing. Sometimes I’ll write everything. Some of the pieces you heard the other day during PRS Presents LCKDWN, I wrote the music, the lyrics and the arrangement.
Having said that, on this new album, I’m working a lot with artists I admire and respect and collaborating a great deal. I love collaboration in all different ways, so I’m very excited about doing that with this album. I’m equally excited when I do it with film, but it’s just a different process. Every single thing is a process that cross-fertilises with other ones. You’re always thinking of the narrative of what you’re doing and the evolution of a strand of an idea. So, if you’re working on music for a film, you’re really following the psychological threads of that film, depending on what it is. If you’re working as a DJ, you’re trying to keep the audience interested, so there’s still a journey you’re trying to take people on. If you’re working with an orchestra creating music for a live performance, you are still trying to take people on a journey and still trying to find the shape and curves of that journey. I think it’s about exploration of narrative and how you find psychological resonance with other people in the way that you create things.
Do you remember writing your first piece of music? What impact did that have on you?
It’s a difficult thing because I started improvising when I was very young. When I was five, I was already improvising on the piano. I remember taking pentatonic scales on the black notes and fiddling around with them, finding that everything I touched or played on the black notes sounded nice. I loved looking at how I could improvise around the scale. It was a similar thing when I first played the guitar with the blues scale, learning that and trying to play along with music I liked.
I had various milestones in terms of composition. Playing through Bach’s Two-Part Inventions really inspired me to get into relationships harmonically and in terms of interweaving lines with music. That really helped me later on with orchestration. Also, listening to great jazz musicians like Bill Evans and his interesting way of using triads in creating structures and harmony, the Lydian mode with Miles Davis.
'When I was five, I was already improvising on the piano. I remember taking pentatonic scales on the black notes and fiddling around with them, finding that everything I touched or played on the black notes sounded nice.'
Listening to the great composers, right through from the baroque period through classical to romantic, playing a lot of those on the piano, really influenced the way I thought about harmony. Debussy was incredible that way. Indian classical music was a huge influence too. Listening to Pandit Ravi Shankar, trying to play along with certain ragas and understanding the rules of the ragas system, and also the tala system, to the extent that I could at least try and incorporate some of those ideas in what I was doing. I guess it’s always been a process rather than a specific moment when I thought, ‘OK, now I’m composing music.’
I think I was always writing music from day one, in that I was playful with different ideas. If I would play through a Bach Two-Part Invention, I would try bringing in moments of improvisation within that. It was always playfulness and looking for patterns. That’s something I find interesting with music. Quite often, you’re looking for relationships, connections and patterns, with musical interval, notes and harmony. In some ways I think it’s like an unveiling of something that’s a feeling or something that’s in your mind. There are a lot of other artists who have explained it that way or thought about it that way. That makes sense to me, that you’re looking for this unveiling of patterns and relationships in music and I find that a very beautiful process.
How has your approach changed over the years?
When I was younger, I was more into the grammar of music. I’m now more into starting with the shape of the emotion and allowing that to dictate what happens with the musical grammar. Over the years, I focused more and more on what I’m feeling and what I have to say, then finding the right grammar to express that. I think that’s the difference. When I was a kid, I was really excited by the grammar of music in itself. I would experiment with music and not really worry about what it was saying or what it was doing. It was more like, ‘I really like that piece of music, that appeals to me’, I wouldn’t question why. I would be playing automatically and sometimes that would lead to compositions that sounded a bit more clinical. Whereas now, I don’t mind if there isn’t anything technically challenging in a piece of music, as long as it gets across the emotion that I want.
'I’m now more into starting with the shape of the emotion and allowing that to dictate what happens with the musical grammar. Over the years, I focused more and more on what I’m feeling and what I have to say, then finding the right grammar to express that. I think that’s the difference.'
It was the twentieth anniversary of Beyond Skin last year. Did revisiting those songs and those ideas seem pertinent to the times we’re living in now? Does the new album develop on the ideas explored in Beyond Skin at all?
Yes, definitely. I have a track on that album called Immigrant. I was revisiting stuff that was very personal. I mean, that album was made in my bedroom, which was a kind of self-imposed isolation. My dad passed away in 2013, so I guess it was more poignant for me to play some of those tracks, particularly because I did play back his voice in the hall. There were a lot of tracks on that album that have a different kind of resonance now. A lot of it was looking at the journey of my parents to this country. It’s a celebration of immigrants and pays tribute and respect to the journey that they undertook, which I think is something I want to do with this album.
So, I guess that revitalised my passion about restating the value of immigrants to just about every country, but particularly here. I think people are starting to get that now hopefully with the amount that immigrants are contributing to the NHS and saving lives, much to the cost of their own. 75 percent of the NHS workers who have passed away have been of BAME background. It’s quite incredible when you start to see some of the statistics. As ever, immigrants are right on the front line of helping and working to make the country a better place.
What led you to take the position of chair of the board of trustees for PRS Foundation?
I had preliminary conversations particularly with Joe Frankland and Vanessa Swann from the Board of Trustees. I was a judge ages ago on their new music award and I’ve always been aware of, for example, Anna Phoebe who plays violin with me - she was a grantee. I know a lot of people who have applied to them for help.
'I hope to bring a degree of understanding of what it is to be a musician out there at the moment. Also, to really think more about diversity. I think the PRS Foundation does a great job that way. They do really value consideration of diversity in the awards that they give.'
The PRS Foundation is well known amongst a lot of musicians who I work with in terms of helping young artists who have innovative work and have a project they really want to get funded. So, I’ve always had an awareness of it as a very important body really helping new developments in music. From that point of view, to be engaged with that and to be involved in that as an institution, I thought would be fantastic.
I’ve sat on a few boards in the past. I’ve been on the Ivor Novello committee, I’ve worked with Complicité and the Whitechapel Gallery, but this is particularly special.
How important is PRS Foundation support in the industry, particularly right now because of the global COVID-19 crisis?
There’s the Emergency Relief Fund, Joe Frankland sits on the board of that, which is a PRS For Music initiative. It’s great that he’s involved with that. I can’t go into the detail of it, but there are a lot of talks taking place to see what the best way forward is to help young musicians and artists who are struggling at the moment. Certainly, doing the LCKDWN gig the other day was a contribution towards that. I was really pleased with the feedback I got from various people I know who did contribute to the fund in the wake of our performance and other performances. It was amazing seeing people like KT Tunstall, Joy Crookes and Katie Melua taking part as well. There were some great artists who did outstanding performances.
How will your experience as a creative play a role as chair?
I hope to bring a degree of understanding of what it is to be a musician out there at the moment. Also, to really think more about diversity. I think the PRS Foundation does a great job that way. They do really value consideration of diversity in the awards that they give. To be able to give a musician’s perspective on things will hopefully make a difference.
On the board, there are some very interesting and very bright people who have a lot to say and a lot to offer. I think it’s going to be a very enjoyable experience, thinking how we can do the best we can to help musicians and to find ways of promoting exciting new work. I think essentially that’s what the PRS Foundation is there for.
You can watch Nitin Sawhney’s recent PRS Presents LCKDWN performance below.