Listen: Rehan Dalal
Mumbai-bred Toronto-based techie worked the Motown sound for his crowdfunded, relationship album
Singer Rehan Dalal is one of the lucky few who has struck the elusive work-life balance. During the day, Dalal goes through the motions of a nine to fiver as a web developer working at the massive Toronto office of software company, Mozilla. At night, his soul musician alter ego comes alive and brings with it a remarkable transformation that includes a slick pompadour, thick rimmed glasses, a fitted red tuxedo with a waistcoast in place, and if the occasion demands, a bowtie.
A soul revivalist in modern pop, 26-year-old Dalal, born and raised in Mumbai, has been a late bloomer as far as music is concerned, he admits. He moved from Mumbai to Canada in 2005 to pursue a course in Computer Science, and took to music immediately. Says the musician over the phone from Toronto: “I was 18 when I moved to university and I pretty much started playing here. I think, in the first year of university, I spent most of my time in the basement with my guitar, just trying to get good at it.” He probably missed a lot of classes, as even now, seven years since he began college, Dalal has to finish “a bunch of credits” before he gets his degree.
Back in Mumbai, Dalal’s growing up years were packed with a healthy dose of jazz, thanks to his father’s robust collection. “I picked it up by osmosis,” he says, “At that time, in Mumbai, there was Jazz Utsav, the one time you were allowed to be up real late.” Barring piano classes, the closest young Dalal got to music was singing for the school choir. Says Jehangir Jehangir, drummer of Mumbai jam band Something Relevant and Dalal’s schoolmate: “Neither of us were musicians in school. But what knocked me off was when, about two and a half years ago, I saw a video of him playing the guitar and singing at a bar in Canada. I always knew him as someone who played the piano.”
So when Dalal performed an early set at Mumbai’s Blue Frog in 2010, Jehangir, who now considers himself more of a fanboy than a critic, didn’t want to miss out. Says Jehangir, “He makes exactly the kind of music I love. His songs have catchy melodies and intricate arrangements. I wasn’t surprised to hear it since I was already familiar with his material, but I was surprised to see how polished his act was,” says Jehangir, “Even though he was on the stage alone with barely 15 people watching, he managed to look professional, as if he was ready to perform in front of a crowd of 20,000.”
Always dressed to the T, Dalal tells us that his love for jazz has influenced more than just his music. “Most of the shows I went to early on, were jazz shows and jazz has a long tradition of dressing up. I kind of like that time. It’s the tradition and you kind of respect it. There are shows that I don’t dress up for, but sometimes it’s just nice to put on some fancy clothes,” he says.
The singer says that he spent the last few years convincing himself that music may as well be a serious career. “I was always interested in music as a hobby, but I just didn’t know it could be an option. When I got here (Toronto), I saw how many people were trying their hand at music and somehow here it seemed like something you can do,” he says. Initially gigging was tough: “When I was starting out in Toronto, they just wouldn’t book me ’cause I hadn’t played anywhere. I pretty much started as a one man band, playing a lot of open mic nights and figuring how to be on stage. I think it was sometime in December 2008 that I booked my first show,” he says. Soon, Dalal’s one man band went on to showcase at the Canadian Music Week as well as at Fringe Festival’s Fringe club. In 2010, when he released his debut EP Traces, Dalal won the Toronto Independent Music Award for Best Adult Contemporary.
This year, late June, Dalal released his debut full length album, Got To Feel It, which features vintage pop tinged with soul and can be described as a throwback to the Jackson 5 era. Unlike his EP, the album’s production is topnotch. “The EP was like a demo for people who saw me perform and wanted to take something home. This one is a more focused effort since I knew the vibe I was going for,” he says. A Motown sound with pop hooks and doo-wop grooves, the 10-track debut received a grant of 15,000 Canadian dollars from the Canadian government and raised an additional 10,000 through crowdfunding. Dalal, who calls his latest release a “relationship record,” confesses he’s been in quite a few relationships since he moved base. “It’s more like life’s lessons. The songs cover romantic to bad romantic to relationships with others that are nowhere near romantic. It’s (the album) sort of like light advice for later. It’s experience-based so it talks about something that happened as well as something I may not want to do again,” he says, referring to his cheeky breakup song “Moving On (Without You)” that goes “I won’t be hung up on winning you back/ no I won’t waste time on foolish things like that…”.
Produced by Justin Abedin, who also plays guitar as part of Dalal’s stage lineup, which features two keyboard players, a drummer, bassist and backing vocalist as well as a horns section for bigger gigs, the album’s clean sound surprisingly for a techie, has no programmed instrumentation. “I think maybe that’s because I didn’t want to live in computerland, because the rest of my life is in computerland. I always sort of took to making music naturally. It’s less about bucking a trend but more about expression and doing what feels good,” he says. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Dalal hasn’t put his programming skills to good use for his music. He’s built himself a nifty website and is currently, after filling in his hours at work, building himself a peddle board. “The two sides of what I do always help each other out. When I make music or when I need a website for my music, I can set it up on my own,” he adds.
Only last month Dalal, who calls upon Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and John Mayer as his influences, released his album on the Indian digital music platform, OK Listen. “I have a lot friends in India for whom I’m trying to make this available. In fact, my Facebook page stats show that I get a lot of likes from India,” he adds. High on his agenda is taking up his newly formed band on the road. “I would like to come to India, but it would be hard for me to bring the band there unless it’s a big show,” he says, adding that he currently has plans to tour Canada and North America.
Listen to Got To Feel It here:
Got To Feel It is available on OK Listen, buy the album here.
This article appeared in the August 2013 edition of Rolling Stone India.