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Celebrating The Beauty Of Earth Through Ricky Kej’s Eyes

Grammy award-winning musician and environmentalist on his latest album, his artistry and advice to young musicians trying to find their style

Divyansha Dongre Oct 25, 2021

"Although massive numbers do have a feel-good factor, I personally consider my work a success if it helps inspire positive behavioral change in the real world. " - Ricky Kej. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Music has proven to be a powerful tool to understand various walks of life. To many, it’s therapeutic; to some, it offers a gateway to gaining a whole new perspective. In Ricky Kej’s case, it’s a medium to appreciate the whole reason behind our existence- nature. 

Through his craft, Kej is on a quest to evoke a sense of fondness and appreciation towards nature; ” I have always believed that we only protect what we love and that is what I hope to achieve by showcasing the magnificence of our natural world through my music.” Kej reveals in an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India.

I first heard about Ricky Kej at a seminar in Bangalore around five years ago. The details of the event, though foggy, don’t seem to have much of an effect on the impact he left behind. I am one of those with the memory of a goldfish, however, I recall leaving the seminar of 2016 feeling inspired and moved (It wasn’t an everyday affair to be in the same room as a Grammy award-winning musician. I was bound to be left spell blinded) 

Though the topic at hand wasn’t entirely formulated around the industry, reading up about his body of work and journey was my stepping stone towards understanding Kej’s unparalleled craft. 

As an extension of his craft, Kej is quite the household name in the climate control circle. Driven by his love for the glory of our Earth’s beauty, Kej’s responsibilities as an environmentalist bestowed upon him various accords and titles, including UNCCD Land Ambassador, UNESCO- MGIEP Global Ambassador for Kindness, UNICEF Celebrity Supporter amongst others. Though his talks at diplomatic events have greatly supported the conversation around environmental conservation, it is Kej’s craft and music that exhibit the charm of the earthy terrains that paint our planet and why they deserve to be treated respectfully.

About awards, I consider every award a platform, and important for an artists career. But if awards are used just for vanity, it’s pointless. Using awards and their platforms for the greater good is what matters to me. Winning the Grammy Award was a major catalyst in taking forward the causes that I strongly believe in, like climate action, children’s rights, refugee rights, etc.” – Ricky Kej. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Take for instance “Gandhi,” the eighth track off Kej and five times Grammy® Winner, Steward Copeland’s latest album Divine Tides. Chaterectized by earthy tones of a mellifluous flute with string and tabla sounds to keep the melody ambient, the music video offers an insight on the importance of co-existence– a concept we seem to have a blind spot for. The video opens with the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Honest, intriguing and powerful- the simplicity of the message beautifully sets the precedent for the tranquil mix of frames that’s about to follow.

“Visuals play a very important role in my creative process because through them, I can shine a light on what I feel and the message I want to convey,” Kej elaborates on the visual aspects of his creative process. For Kej, his music videos are the missing key to unlocking a “complete piece of art.” This vision is particularly fitting for “Gandhi,” where the larger message lies in the importance of harmonious and respectful co-existence. Contrasting the time spent on Earth, the video clips in a vital statistic; ‘Humans have existed for 300,000 years. Frogs have existed for 300,000,000 years.’ The focus on the role species of varying sizes play in maintaining the balance in nature is beautifully painted through a canvas of breathtaking shots of frogs. Unless you have ranidaphobia, the music video guarantees a visually stimulating experience accompanied by an enlivened sonicscape. 

For someone who is driven by environmental concerns, I was intrigued by his decision to show the beauty of nature as opposed to the irreversible damage we continue to inflict on it; “I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire and I think that we need light to dispel darkness,” Kej explains. He continues, “People are already well aware of the harsh realities of Climate change because the consequences are clearly visible for all to see through extreme weather events, rising temperatures, habitat loss, species extinction, etc.” 

Kej is clear in his purpose- With a profound understanding of music and the environment, he further elaborates on his responsibilities as a musician; “A constant barrage of showcasing these harsh realities through different mediums can also lead to anxiety and can take a toll on one’s mental health. A lot of people find it easier to look away when shown something that makes them uncomfortable. Despite everything, there is plenty of beauty left in this world. ” 

He further reiterates the fundamental truth about human behavior and how he plans of employing it to meet his larger vision, “We only protect what we love and through my music, my aim is to nudge audiences to fall in love with our natural world all over again, and hopefully, through that love, we will find it within ourselves to protect, conserve and regenerate. Shaming people into action can also be effective, but it is not the path that I chose. Although the approach might be different, our goals are the same.”

With Divine Tides– Kej’s follow-up to his Grammy-winning album Winds of Samsara- the seasoned musician has designed an entrancing sonicscape, unveiling the breathtaking landscapes of Leh, Tamil Nadu, The Western Ghats, the North-East of India, Thar Desert, Los Angeles and Spain. Co-created with Copeland, the latest project is the sees the two musicians blend their artistry for the second time; “In 2016, I was privileged to collaborate on a song with Stewart for a benefit album I produced. This time, during the pandemic, I mustered the courage to ask him to collaborate with me on a complete album and I was thrilled that he agreed,” Kej confesses. 

In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Kej reveals his vision for his long-awaited album, the experience of working with Copeland and how young musicians can find their voice in today’s ever-changing industry.

What was your artistic vision for Divine Tides? How is it different from your previous release?

Nature is the greatest artist and there is beauty everywhere you look. Nature is also my muse and my music is very often a celebration of our natural world. I have always believed that we only protect what we love and that is what I hope to achieve by showcasing the magnificence of our natural world through my music. At the same time, I acknowledge that the world has changed drastically, and Divine Tides is a reflection of that. Despite what we have done to our planet through our unsustainable ways, humans are an incredible species who have survived dire situations such as wars, pandemics, various forms of persecution, extreme natural events and so much more through the centuries. From living in caves to walking on the moon, we have come a long way in such a short span of time. I believe that if we celebrate our differences instead of letting them tear us apart and if we learn to live in harmony with nature, all living beings on our planet will thrive. Divine Tides illustrates these musings through its diverse soundscapes and music videos.

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Most artists usually release one music video, whereas you have decided to release eight music videos for your 9-tracks on behind this decision?

Visuals play a very important role in my creative process because through them, I can shine a light on what I feel and the message I want to convey. Stewart and I were very happy with the way all the eight music videos from Divine Tides have turned out. We were blessed to collaborate with several acclaimed film-makers from around the world to film these videos in Leh, Tamil Nadu, The Western Ghats, the North-East of India, Thar Desert, Los Angeles and Spain. As you can imagine, it was a challenge to shoot these videos during the pandemic but it was also a blessing in disguise as we could showcase Mother Earth in all of her glory since most of the world’s population were indoors. I consider all of the songs to be vital pieces of the larger picture which is the complete album. That is the reason we decided to make eight music videos since we felt that all of the tracks need their moment in the sun to shine individually and to work as a complete piece of art.

How was your experience working with Stewart Copeland for the second time? Why was he the best fit for Divine Tides?

Stewart Copeland is one of the most influential musicians in the world because of his artistry and his pioneering style of drumming and percussion. I started my professional music career when I was quite young, and growing up, The Police were one of the biggest bands in the world. I was blown away by his skills and even today, almost every artist I collaborate with – regards them very highly and are influenced by their sound and style in some way. There was always a lot of poetry and intricacy with Stewarts drumming, which in my opinion, made The Police the legendary band it is. 

Stewart also regularly composes for Operas, Orchestras, and for over 50 Hollywood movies including the Oscar award-winning ‘Wall Street’. So instead of doing things my way, I was always eager to respect and execute his ideas. Despite reaching the pinnacle of success, he is constantly evolving and learning by exploring new sounds, traditional music instruments, and rhythms. His infectious personality and his artistry really shone through and made this collaboration one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. He has collected all these amazing traditional instruments from around the world, and this album actually was an opportunity for him to mike up all these instruments and record them! Working with him was like attending the best masterclass imaginable.

“Stewart and I constantly threw ideas at each other, adapted sounds, and crafted this album together piece by piece.”- Ricky Kej. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

What was your creative process for this album? 

I had been working on a follow-up to my Grammy winning album Winds of Samsara and had catalogued some of my favorite ideas. Recordings were delayed because of my relentless touring schedule and when the pandemic hit, it presented an opportunity for me to spend time in my studio and kick-start this project. Stewart and I constantly threw ideas at each other, adapted sounds, and crafted this album together piece by piece. All of the songs have strong Indian roots with a fusion of the west. Given Stewart’s immense experience with various forms of music in various media, I had complete and absolute faith in his thoughts and suggestions, and every one of them took the album and the music to the next level. Also, given our time difference, I had to change my sleep timings, to sync up with his clock! 

Amongst the nine tracks, what track resonates with you the most? Why does this particular track hold a soft spot in your heart?

To be honest, my favorite song and music video from this album keeps changing all the time. It is hard to choose as the soundscapes are so diverse. For now, I would say “Art Of Devotion” is special to me because it just takes me to a special place every time I listen to it.

Do you feel the artistic pressure of being a Grammy winner–a sense of responsibility to continue producing records that live up to the standards you’ve created for yourself in the past?

I have always been my harshest critic and I would never release a record that I wouldn’t back a hundred percent even before the Grammy win. Even the terrible stuff I put out at the beginning of my career, I absolutely loved that work at the time it was released!! About awards, I consider every award a platform, and important for an artists career. But if awards are used just for vanity, it’s pointless. Using awards and their platforms for the greater good is what matters to me. Winning the Grammy Award was a major catalyst in taking forward the causes that I strongly believe in, like climate action, children’s rights, refugee rights, etc

How was the privilege of time, courtesy of the pandemic, for you? I understand you spent a lot more time in your studio. However, was the time utilized from a reflective front (where you evaluated your artistry) or from an experimental front (where you played around with different themes and sounds)

I used to have a hectic touring schedule. In 2019 I did 70 concerts in 13 countries! The pandemic, of course, put an end to that, and has allowed me to spend a lot of time in the studio creating music and spend time with my dogs. I experimented with online concerts, I did three major concerts for the WHO, UNICEF and UN Climate Change, which were watched by an estimated 100 million viewers from around the world. After that I felt I had nothing more to offer with regard to virtual concerts and I stopped doing that. I released a song “Make A Mark” along with Olympic gold-medallists, Niccolo Campriani of Italy and Abhinav Bindra of India, who trained refugees from war torn regions, in the sport of professional shooting, who eventually qualified and participated in the Tokyo Olympics as “Refugees” and not from any nation. I co-created a music-education project for children called “My Earth Songs”, produced and composed a feature film “Who Is Baul”, based on the mystic musicians of Bengal, which will soon be released on the MUBI platform. Produced a book and 3CD set compilation on the brave women singers who first adopted recording technology in India. In addition to all of this I have been giving courses on “Music and Advocacy” to various music institutions, like Monash University in Australia. So as you can see, I have kept myself really busy and have experimented a lot with my music and advocacy.

“The music that I create comes straight from my heart and I love what I do. I believe that hard work can make up for any lack of talent that one might have and I am an extreme hard worker!” – Ricky Kej. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

With the rat race seeping its way into the music space, do you feel pressured to create music that has the potential to ‘guarantee’ millions of views, streams and chart success?

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Although massive numbers do have a feel-good factor, I personally consider my work a success if it helps inspire positive behavioral change in the real world. We musicians creating music in non-mainstream genres have to realize that niche is good, and we just need to find a reasonably sized – supportive fan base for our Niche music, rather than attempt to create and market music that is a ‘one size fits all.’ I already know that my fan base will increase ten-fold if I compose music for commercial Indian films but I would prefer to stick to creating music for a cause that I believe in with all my heart, as it makes me happy at the end of the day and helps create a difference. I would rather be lesser known for songs that define me as a person, than extremely well known for songs that do not define me at all.

To a certain extent, today’s music space is largely pop– amidst the conflict that upcoming artists battle with (art vs numbers), how can young musicians continue creating music that is reflective of their artistic persona?

I have loved the styles of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan because they have never let genre boundaries define them. All that they did was make music that they strongly believed in and collaborated with some of the best musicians and individuals across the globe. They never lost their artistic personas. Because of the dominance of Bollywood and other film industries in India, composers and singers are very rarely making music from the heart, based on their own philosophies and beliefs. Every reality show out there is continuing the same trend and as long as it remains like that, it will be difficult for Indian Musicians to get international recognition across cultural barriers through independent music. Children must be taught to make music from the heart and budding young musicians should be taught the importance and value of our rich musical heritage which is extremely unique and diverse. The current independent music scene in India is definitely vibrant and promising. There are several independent artists in India that I am a huge fan of and record labels in India have to step up and actively seek and promote talent, rather than decide on a genre they want to promote and stuff artists within that genre. Radio stations, publications and television channels that promote niche genres must be encouraged. 

As a seasoned, award-winning composer, what is the larger legacy or impact you wish to leave on the Indian music industry?

There is so much more to Indian music than film music. Independent/folk/classical artists in India deserve the spotlight. As I said earlier, the independent music scene in India is extremely vibrant and promising. Unfortunately, the movie industry still holds a vice-like grip on the entire music industry and a lot of independent artists who are talented seek validation from Bollywood or just give up. Very early on in my career, I decided to never to compose music for mainstream films and since music in India is deeply integrated with Bollywood, I had to base my career abroad, even though my music is primarily Indian. Making art just for the purpose of sales does not make sense to me. I hope to inspire independent artists to believe that it is possible to have a successful music career in India without losing their artistic sensibilities. 

What keeps you driven and focused? Is there a specific aspect of music that makes you feel passionate about your work?

The music that I create comes straight from my heart and I love what I do. I believe that hard work can make up for any lack of talent that one might have and I am an extreme hard worker! Within music, what I am passionate about is – Collaboration. Every song of mine is a collaboration with one or multiple musicians, singers, producers, engineers, etc. I always collaborate with musicians who are better musicians than me, and I try and learn from them! With technology, I can create any sound or any instrument on my computer. In today’s time, a composer can record high quality music alone in it’s entirely, and many successful composers do just that. But I feel that if we collaborate with a musician, we are not only getting their instrument and sound into the mix, but also their life experiences, their music education, feel, philosophies, improvisational skills and thought process. This can truly lift our compositions and take it into places we never felt it could go. So I thrive on collaborations.

Are there any additional projects you’re currently working on? Could be outside of your musical endeavors too. 

It is hard to make any concrete plans right now since the situation around the world is unpredictable due to lockdowns, suspension of flights, border controls, etc. Touring is definitely on my mind but, I guess for the next few months I am going to work on promoting Divine Tides and try and get as many people to listen to it. Since I have worked so hard on the music, poured my heart and soul into it, I feel I owe it to the music to ensure as many people around the world enjoy it. During normal times, Stewart and I would have just toured and promoted the album through concerts and appearances. Now, of course, it is complicated.

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