In The Studio: Soulmate
The Shillong band are readying to release their much-anticipated third offering in July
It’s hardly a case of Monday blues as we know it, when I step into Mumbai’s YRF Studios (YRS), where Shillong’s Soulmate are recording their third, as of now untitled, 11-track album. Rudy Wallang is working his 16-year old light blue Fender Stratocaster for a track named “I’ll Be Around.” A week ago, the band had finished recording keyboards, drums and bass section for the entire album. Now it’s Wallang’s turn to record his parts. Chief engineer at YRF Studios, Shantanu Hudlikar, takes his place behind the well-lit mixing console and gives the guitarist a thumbs up midway into the song to cheer him on.
When vocalist Tipriti ‘Tips’ Kharbanger, the other half of the band, returns to the studio, she’s impressed with the take. “It sounds awesome. I love the drums,” she says. Tips airdrums and breaks into a jig and Shantanu airguitars as Wallang carries on his signature lead. “Rudy, you are sounding awesome,” she shouts from the other end, hoping that her voice will carry across into the recording room.
It’s been 10 years since Soulmate brought the blues to Indian clubs. From being staples at South Delhi’s blues bar Haze, where the band held a residency for close to four years, the duo from Shillong have toured the USA, Bhutan, Indonesia, Kathmandu, Dubai, Singapore, Sweden, Germany and Norway performing alongside bluesmen such as John Mayall and Gary Clark Jr. In India, they have opened for jazz greats like Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal and remained fixtures at the annual Mumbai blues event, Mahindra Blues Festival. More recently, the band shared the stage for an impromptu jam with guitar legend Santana, not once but twice. “People ask me how it was to perform with such legends, but I can’t describe it. Maybe I should write a song on it,” says Tips.
For now, the blues partners of 12 years have been busy writing songs of another kind. “This is another album of love again… of love songs for one another,” says Wallang. The guitarist wrote one such ballad titled “Sunshine” when Tips left him for a three-week long holiday in Paris. “I wrote it for her. The song is so simple that some people might say what kind of lyrics are these but to me, it means a lot. Only a person who has been in love can understand it. They will know what it’s like to be loved and to be alone. But the song’s also for people to interpret it in their own way. That’s the beauty of songwriting, someone else can find a totally different meaning,” says the soft-spoken guitarist. Separated in age by 20 years, it was the love for blues that brought Tips and Wallang together. Then a schoolgirl and a gospel singer, Tips walked in to audition for Wallang while he was playing with his band, Mojo. “The kind of people we are as individuals and when we are together is so different. Both of us, as a duo, are pretty powerful,” he says. Like their 2004 debut album, Shillong and their 2009 follow-up, Moving On, their latest album also looks close to home for inspiration. “I write songs that I feel about… about things and people that affect me. People ask us why we don’t write protest songs or those with social messages. But I think there are enough people doing that. We want to make something down-to-earth and real, that ordinary people can identify with… so what better than human emotions,” he adds.
On their new album, Tips shares songwriting duties for the first time, having written four songs in all. “I didn’t decide to be a songwriter. I scribble a lot. I write a line, sometimes two or four or eight lines and sometimes 20 and then it becomes a song. I do everything on the spur of the moment, so if I’m writing, I can’t say I’m going home to write a song. I don’t wait for a particular day or moment to write,” says the 30-year-old vocalist, who has been the muse for Soulmate’s body of work. This time, she returns the compliment on “Tell Me,” a love song for Wallang. “Lie,” another song she wrote, inspired Santana to join the band on stage in Noida last year. Adds Tips, “It’s like I was writing songs about people and things around and one day Rudy said ‘You’ve never written a song for me’ and then I said ‘Oh shit’ and started writing a song.” She quotes a verse from “Tell Me”: “I sit around lazing all day long/ Wondering if I should have put it in a song/ About the way, the way I feel for you.”
Soulmate’s third album, slated to release in July, has been in the works for a while now. In fact, fans are likely to have heard most tracks on the new album at various gigs. “The first time we discussed recording the album was at last year’s Mahindra Blues Festival,” says Hudlikar. Unlike their previous album, recorded at their home studio in Shillong, this one produced by Hudlikar, will be mastered in the US. “There are mastering studios in India, but a blues album should be mastered by experts and Shantanu suggested a friend of his in Texas who has worked with blues artists,” says Wallang. Another first on this record is their new drummer. Days before they started recording, Soulmate’s drummer Shaun Nonghulo decided to call it quits. “Rudy called me up one day in a state of panic, saying that they would have to cancel the recording since their drummer left,” recalls Hudlikar, who also introduced the band to Kolkata-based drummer Debashish ‘Debu’ Banerji, known for his jazz project Urban Reflektions. “The first time that Debu heard the band in its entirety was in the studio. He had never played with them before but it worked out so well,” adds Hudlikar.
At the studio, Wallang is now on the microphone, while Tips is on the rhythm guitar. “I wish Tips could sing all the songs,” he says. As the two take their places, they pause only to cheer for one another. Hudlikar, who has known Wallang from his Mojo and Great Society days, only has praise for the band: “This is the only band which actually plays the blues, they don’t play blues songs. We have an exciting album on our hands and I will go out on a limb to say that this is probably one of the finest recordings you’ll be hearing coming out of this country, once it releases.”
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Rolling Stone India