Guitarist Bhrigu Sahni Weaves an Acoustic Soliloquy on New Album
The Berklee graduate takes his debut ‘What Is Now’ on tour in India and America with the aim of making you look up from your cellphone
Fingerstyle guitarist Bhrigu Sahni is giggling over an avocado bowl as he talks about the first job he had in New York City as a server at Manhattan Inn, a now-closed restaurant and music venue in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. While he worked in Greenpoint, a historically Polish area, Sahni remembers people coming into the restaurant and being confused by his Indian identity. “They’re all looking at you like, ‘Why you in my ’hood, what the fuck?’” recalls Sahni with a laugh. “It was heavy shit, but it was good.”
Sahni made the decision to move to New York while he was still a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. He would go back and forth between New York and Boston to play shows in the big city, and his decision to move came down to one particular moment while he was on the subway in Manhattan and the doors opened on some buskers at Union Square. “The doors opened at Union Square–thak!–and I heard music, buskers. They’re fucking playing the best shit you ever heard, and [only] for a dollar bill,” says Sahni. “I heard the music and I was like ‘Wow, there’s some electricity in this city.’”
These days, Sahni splits his time between New York and India, leading a somewhat nomadic existence by subletting rooms and crashing on friends’ couches while he’s in each city. In addition to his gratuitous use of swear words, his conversations are a confused mixture of Americanisms like “what a drag, yo” and a truly strange tic where he uses a rhythmic Indian “thak!” as a sort of verbal equivalent to an exclamation point. “The way I divide my time is pretty fucked up, actually, because I tend to come to India in the summer, when nobody’s here,” Sahni says. “And I go to New York in the winters. At this point I wanna correct the cycle. Who wants to get fuckin’ minus five [degrees Celcius] in New York and then come to motherfuckin’ Bombay or Poona where it’s 40 degrees?”
One major step in Sahni’s effort to switch up his seasons is to get himself onto India’s festival circuit, which begins in October. Sahni released his debut, What Is Now, at the end of 2016 and has been promoting the album across India for the past few months in order to sow the seeds he needs to secure festival slots later this year. The album was recorded in its entirety in Mumbai, but was written by Sahni in both India and America. The music, as a result, feels more transient than rooted to a particular place. The dreamy guitar riffs and dewy production on tracks like “I’m Leaving” envelop you in a dream world of Sahni’s creation.
Though Sahni has a full-fledged team behind him, he still books most of his shows himself. “I like to do fucking everything by myself, because I’m in control of it, you know?” he says. Sahni’s summer tour has seen him perform at venues such as Goa’s Vaayu and Dharamsala’s Cafe Illiterati (“Everybody calls it Cafe Illuminati,” he winks). The penultimate performance of his tour, before Sahni heads back to New York, is set to take place at Mumbai’s antiSOCIAL on June 14th. “I’m getting there at 10am to set everything up,” says Sahni.
The early call time is only a small indication of the intricately planned live performance Sahni has conceptualized. “The idea is to create an immersive experience for an audience member,” he says. “When you go to a concert, the odds of somebody having complete focus on the performer are rare.” In an attempt to better engage with his audiences, Sahni and his team have jumped onto the audio-visual bandwagon that’s been taking over musicians’ sets all over the country lately. The final shows of his tour have incorporated dry ice machines, laser displays and projections. “It’s like an art exhibit,” says Sahni. “It makes you solely focus on the art, as opposed to looking at your cellphone.”
Though the novelty of an audio-visual experience may have worn off for audiences who’ve seen the gimmick tried out by other Indian artists in past months, Sahni’s vision to keep his live shows as in-the-moment as possible extends to the music being played as well. “When you have an album, it’s produced, you have overdubs. When you’re playing live, it’s just one stream, it’s done, you can’t go back,” says Sahni. To make the live performance as true to the album as is possible without playing to a backing track, Sahni and his bandmates–drummer Dhir Mody, bassist Nathan Thomas and keyboardist JK–have loaded their looping equipment with samples taken from the actual album itself.
Sahni aims to take his wired-up version of live performance to New York and bring it back to India for the festival circuit at the end of the year. He has it all planned out in advance, and it’s a long game that he’s playing, but he doesn’t mind. “All good things take a long time,” he says. “Like biryani.”
Watch Sahni perform “I’m Leaving” live with his bandmates at Cotton Press Studios: