Jeff Bhasker: ‘Seems like Bollywood is struggling to reinvent itself’
The American producer on his Indian roots, working with popstars and his process as a producer
An unlikely connection to Grammy-winning American producer Jeff Bhasker? The Los Angeles-based superproducer who’s worked with the likes of Mark Ronson, fun., Drake, Kanye West and Katy Perry has a mentor in Punjabi singer and early-2000s hitmaker Jasbir Jassi. Bhasker recalls how he was roped in to work Jassi on his album Jassi – Back With a Bang about 12 years ago. “They [a record label tied to Warner Bros] were trying out an international project for Jassi. I connected to them and became the lead producer on the project, which really ended up in me creating some amazing music.”
Bhasker, who was in the country as part of MTV India Music Summit last month, was invited by music platform Loudest.in to host a masterclass and workshop in New Delhi on November 6th. Loudest.in founder Aparajita Misra says, “After attending this session, we realized that there was a need for the independent segment of the music industry to engage with him.”
Hosted by Jassi, the workshop and masterclass was “an extension” of the conference for Bhasker, who picked out 25 producers, singers and artists from India’s independent scene from over a 100 applicants. In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Bhasker talks about coming to India, upcoming projects and winning Grammy awards. Excerpts:
Have you visited India often?
It’s actually the first time I’m here in 30 years, since I was like 12 years old. I don’t know how different it is, but I am a grown man and seeing with different eyes now. It’s still has similarities, though, but it’s some kind of home (to me), since my dad is from here. It’s really great. I’m having a great time.
You were the only international name on a panel with Indian artists at the India Music Summit recently.
It was really interesting because knowing my really good friend and one of my mentors and teachers Jasbir Jassi, whom I met 12 years ago in New York, it was from that point, a kind of confusing clash of culture in a really wonderful way. Take away your understanding of music and see how it works. And the business side of it is the same, because now that I’ve reconnected with Jassi, I wanted to do a music project with him now that I’m kind of more successful and I understand the music industry, in my country at least, better. Trying to understand the marketplace in India for music, it was a perfect place to kind of dive into that and day by day, little more light would be shed on how things work here and the state of the music industry–where it’s going and where it can possibly go.
I got to interact with some of the totally traditional, classical side of musicians to the up and coming more Western-influenced side, which was great. To the credit of the conference organizers, it was fantastic that they included such a diverse range of representatives of Indian music.
You mentioned Jassi being your mentor. What was it like working with him?
It was definitely a moment where I realized how American I really am. It was highlighted how different our worlds were, even musically, culturally. Music is just a reflection of culture. At the same time, it really highlighted the basic human similarities that we had and it’s really a testament–that project–to how Jassi and I are still friends.
He has a high standard of the musical excellence he wants to achieve. He’s a very loose, relaxed and cool guy, but he’s always pushing standards of quality in the music–from the lyrics to the sound to the spirit that we put into it. He’s always pushing himself and pushed me really hard to live up to the highest standards we can. That’s why I call him my mentor. That really had a big impact on my success later on.
Right after that project was when I moved to Los Angeles and had my first placement on The Game’s album [The Documentary] and eventually met Kanye West and I was kind of prepared to dive into a world of very high standards, which isn’t always the main thing, you know, in the American and Indian music industries. Things are kind of driven by ‘Just do the least amount to satisfy commercial considerations’ and not dive into deep human levels of music and explore the human condition and take an artistic approach to it.
What is it like getting your first Grammy as opposed to getting your fifth Grammy?
First of all, it was really nice to win the first Grammy, because that’s the highest honor. I was part of a larger group that contributed and collaboration owed a lot to that. Producer of the Year award  just recognizes me, you know? But all in all, it’s great to be recognized and have these awards but you still have to keep challenging yourself and hold yourself to the standard, not have the Grammys or anyone else hold you to the standard. It’s ultimately up to us as artists and musicians and business people and politicians and whoever you are, to hold yourself to the standard and not someone else.
What was it like working on [former One Direction member] Harry Styles’ solo debut?
That’s one thing that’s my approach – not trying to fit in with what’s going on at the moment, but really diving into what the artist wants to do and encouraging them to be brave and express their own vision, do the best to present that vision to the world. I think that’s what happened with Harry’s album, it’s a lot different from what he was doing with One Direction and had a lot of fun exploring an artistic side of his personality rather than a really strong commercial side or any celebrity angle. He really dove into a world of his own thoughts, emotions and identity.
We had a really great team working with us, like Mitch Rowland, the guitarist, drummer and co-writer of a lot of the songs. Couple of producers that worked with me–Alex Salibian and Tyler Johnson–and our engineer Ryan Nasci, we just have a tight-knit group, it’s like a rock band. Artists of that caliber and commercial success usually have teams of 50 different writers and 10 different producers, so it was really fun to have a tight-knit group and a focused vision. It was really great.
Is there a certain detachment you practice when you’re a composer, co-producer or co-writer? How do you get a feel of the artist?
That’s interesting that you used the word detachment, because this album [Harry Styles] was one of the first I did where my team took a larger role and I got to be more detached. I guess it left the artist to be more involved with the creative direction of it. I can kind of help guide and support them without kind of imposing my own ideas at the outset. That seems to be one of the biggest–and that’s what I learned from the summit–differences in the Indian music scene. Things are much more structured – things are written, there’s a scenario, there’s a narrative. The singer just comes in and sings. Here you call them singers–they’re not creating the vision. It’s kind of a processed thing. That’s one of the things Western… the singer is often encouraged to also have their own personal feeling in the music.
I think that comes across when the singer is more invested more emotionally in the song. I think the listener also feels that. There’s a different emotional dynamic that happens in a song like that, compared to the stuff you hear over in India. But that’s also changing.
I think the younger generation are catching on to that and taking a big risk and standing by their own creative ideas and combining with that unbelievable talent and the rich tradition of music in India. It’s pretty exciting to see the stuff that’s coming out – like the stuff Clinton [Cerejo] and Bianca Gomes and Vasundhara [Vidalur] are doing. They’re singing really awesome Western-style singing and they really get it. Papon too – he’s such a star and he’s doing his own thing. You can see the seeds being sown for the future.
There could be big independent music artists in India for an Indian audience. I think it can be outside the Bollywood system and I think it can be a good thing. It doesn’t have to be in competition. Right now, it doesn’t seem like Bollywood is churning out the highest quality of content. They’re struggling to kind of reinvent themselves and maybe it’s a perfect opportunity to change the creative process up a little bit and have a new platform and narrative style–the challenge is totally there.
What else is coming up for you?
I’m doing an incredible album with Angelique Kidjo on my label, Kraven Works. We’re covering the Remain in Light album by the Talking Heads and we have some amazing guests, like [indie band Vampire Weekend frontman] Ezra Koenig, [UK alternative act] Blood Orange, [drummer] Tony Allen of [late Afrobeat pioneer] Fela Kuti and that’s like an African reworking of Remain In Light, which is an iconic album.
My first artist, Cam, who had a Number One on the country charts with her last single “Burning House,” has a new single out on RCA and her new album will be out soon. Also wrapping up with another band on my label called Vacation Forever. They’re kind of new wave, punk, tropical and emo band from Sweden that’s really got me excited.