Karthick Iyer is a violinist, composer and vocalist in the carnatic style of South India, but has also journeyed into new territories over the last two decades. He has collaborated with international artistes and toured in Asia and Europe, and evolved his own unique sound. I caught the launch of his recent album IndoSoul, whose motto is to “Take Indian music to the world and bring the world to Indian music.” Iyer has also worked with Oscar winning music composer A.R. Rahman, and won a number of awards himself.
Karthick Iyer joins us in this exclusive interview on his music journey, collaborations, vision and message.
What was the vision behind founding of your music group? What new lineups and instruments have you experimented with since the early days?
When I started Karthick Iyer Live, I had already gained a lot of experience from my days as a freelancer, having worked with a variety of instruments from the harmonica to the tavil! I have always wanted to make my own music and this led to the birth of Karthick Iyer Live and our sound IndoSoul.
I always felt that there was a deep yet subtle connection between the Indian and other forms of music. The more one probes into the depths of this connection, the more the possibilities of sound textures and composition. With our latest album IndoSoul – Looking within to Look Beyond, I feel like we have taken our first step in our journey of uncovering these possibilities.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
The time when I was starting my career as a professional musician was a bit of struggle in terms of convincing my father that I could stand on my own financially. I moved away to Bangalore for about a year just to get head wrapped around being independent, paying my own bills, etc.
Right now I’m trying to find the best way to balance time between my music, practice and the mounting administrative work that comes from being my own band/tour manager for most concerts. I believe these challenges are useful in the sense that they serve to teach us to create new and evolved techniques to cope up with them.
Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career? Who are some of your favourite musicians?
Well, that’s a long list of musicians! I try and catch aspects of positive things from any music I listen to. Here are some of them in no particular order.
L Shankar – for his early experiments in electric violin and Indo-wesstern fusion since the 1970s.
A.R. Rahman – for the extra dimension he added to produced music in India and his innovations in creating varied sound textures for his songs.
Prem Joshua – for his collaboration of electronic sounds with classical Indian instruments.
Led Zeppelin – For their unique brand of live music, a heady brew of notes and rhythms that four people created onstage.
Billy Joel – For his vivid lyrics.
Michael Jackson – For being the king of pop! The way he could add so many dimensions to his music from lights, costumes, dance to screenplay and stories for his music videos can never cease to amaze.
How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your music? How do you bring about fusion without confusion?
We don’t use the traditional term ‘fusion’ to describe our music. I feel like we need to go beyond genres to get to the root of the commonality of different forms of music. Our sound IndoSoul is something that grew organically out of jamming with my musicians Vikram, Sumesh, Naveen and Ram at the practice pad with the sound evolving with each song. Each musician brings his own flavour to the song.
I think it’s important for songs to have a definite direction and form even if it can’t be classified into the traditional verse, chorus, pallavi or charanam. If there is a certain flow or story that emerges from a song, be it a vocal or instrumental track, I believe half the job is done. The rest depends on how the different aspects of melody, rhythm and lyrics intertwine with the authenticity of the composition to provide a unique song.
Terms like ‘confusion without fusion’ have arisen since most fusion music that we have been exposed to since the 90s have fusion of instruments as an end in itself rather than a means to a creating a unique composition.
How would you describe your musical journey and how your albums have evolved and changed over the years?
When I started working with Oxygen in college, that was my introduction to playing in a band, more so in a band with Western instruments. I learnt about the studio techniques and software tools that aided composition at home with a computer with our first three albums. With Emergence, it was about meeting a bunch of unique musicians from around the world and finding the way to create music together in an organic and sustainable manner. With The Raghu Dixit Project, I got to play to huge crowds that instilled a huge dose of confidence to my playing.
I started to experiment with my playing posture like standing and performing in the Western posture. This gave me the opportunity to move around the stage and shake my leg a bit to the music as well. By then I was yearning to start my own band and create the music that I could envision in my mind. When I formed Karthick Iyer Live, I put all this experience into play. With this overall vision along with valuable inputs from my musicians IndoSoul was born of which my recent album is the first step.
How does your composition process work: through a main songwriter, or through collaboration/jams between your band members? Do you compose on the road also, while travelling?
Incidentally, I composed the melody for one my songs mid-air when on a flight between Auckland and Queenstown during my honeymoon! I visualized the overall framework for the track Boundless during the same trip as well.
To answer your specifically, the composition process varies between songs. There is no prescribed path towards fruition of a song. Sometimes I come up with a melody or the framework and send it to the band. Our most recent songs though have been totally spontaneous outputs of jam sessions between musicians.
For the next album for which I plan to incorporate a mild electronic flavor, I’m leaning towards composing with each musician on the computer software. This helps create a more layered sound and would be an interesting change from our first album.
How was your overall experience in playing overseas? What were the Top Three highlights for your?
The first time I played overseas was with Emergence in the UK. We had gone to perform at Glastonbury. I was 22 at that time and in total awe of the history and culture of England. I followed this up with many tours, most of which was with The Raghu Dixit Project spanning countries like UK, US, Canada, Australia, Spain and so on. What struck me most was the way music in a foreign language could reach and be appreciated by people from different cultures. Also the festival atmosphere, the varied acts that I met, interacted and listened to were big pluses from touring overseas.
Highlights: Glastonbury tour with Emergence – 2008; Maximum India festival at Kennedy Centre for Performing arts, Washington with Emergence, Raghu Dixit Project; WOMAD, Caceres, Spain with The Raghu Dixit Project.
Among all your tracks/albums, which are your favourite ones, and why?
While I think every track in IndoSoul interests me in its own way, I consider A Saranga Convergence as a special track. This was one of the spontaneous compositions that came up in the practice studio. We wanted to come up with a psychedelic song initially and hit up on the Carnatic thillana like verse of the song. Vikram’s guitar solo and Sumesh’s konakkol followed and we had a semblance of a song within 90 minutes!
What I like about this song is our experimentations with time signatures. One could call A Saranga a collaboration between carnatic and prog-rock music. However the key takeaway for me from this track is that it still retains the melodic flavour without sounding technical.
What is your message to our audience? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
My message to any audience is to seek out and listen to music that moves them in one way or other. This is not to say that one should listen to only serious music. Even a happy-go-lucky folk song about the rain can move one deeply by helping them de-stress, possibly.
What I notice today is that ‘so called’ popular songs today, in media like radio and TV, are thrown at listeners so often that one get habituated into accepting it as something they wouldn’t mind listening to. This is probably why songs that are considered popular in today’s market have extremely short shelf lives.
Good music on the contrary always leaves a lasting impression. Great music lasts forever!
Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com