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Ricky Kej’s Advice to Budding Musicians: ‘Don’t Seek Validation from Bollywood’

The Grammy Award-winning musician’s 16th album ‘EK’ comes out this week, features multiple collabs

Nirmika Singh Aug 06, 2020

Grammy winner Ricky Kej. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Sixteen albums in 16 years is no mean feat, but then Ricky Kej has always been an unflinching advocate of hard work and consistency over everything else. “Talent may not always be under your control, but you can be the most hard-working person, like I am! Never use creativity as an excuse for laziness,” says the Grammy Award-winning musician whose latest album EK releases on August 7th

Keeping with Kej’s ethos of environmental preservation, EK is aimed as an appeal for a more egalitarian and kind world. The 12 songs featured on it boast an impressive array of artists, from Shankar Mahadevan and Udit Narayan to Jonita Gandhi and Anushka Manchanda, among others. It comes as no surprise — cross-genre collaboration has been one of Kej’s biggest fortes as a musician who is on a global mission to bring more meaning to music. The world’s biggest honor in music came too came to him via a remarkable collaboration, with South African flautist Wouter Kellerman on their album Winds of Samsara (which bagged them a Grammy in the Best New Age Album category in 2015).

With EK, Kej is hoping that the partnerships with mainstream artists help spread awareness about environmental sustainability. He says, “EK means ‘one,’ it is a word that I connect with deeply… It could mean the first in a series, which implies competition and maybe vanity, but the meaning that I try to capture is harmony, similarity, co-existence and equality,” says the 39-year-old composer and producer.

In this candid interview, Kej drops a series of truth bombs about how artists and art can survive in the long run.  

Your new album EK carries a much-needed message in these times. Maybe many of these songs have a whole new meaning now given the pandemic. Tell us about when you first envisioned the project and how it took shape over the months, and what kind of challenges the pandemic posed?

I do all I can to create awareness about the environment and positive social impact through my music. All of these songs are fun, and yet drive home an important message. I am a huge fan of all of the fantastic artists featured, and I was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with them. The experience was definitely not what we are used to, all of us recorded our portions in our own homes and everything was done virtually because of the lockdown. However, the album has turned out much more beautiful, than I could ever imagine, and I enjoyed this experience thoroughly. I have always believed that mainstream artists have the power to make a massive difference through their talent and reach, and this album will bring the topic of environmental sustainability to the forefront and mainstream.

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You have 15 albums to your name before this new record. How do you think you’ve evolved as a musician over the years and what have been your biggest learnings?

Early on in my career, I found recognition by making over 3000 jingles for multinational corporations and other global brands. It took me a while to realize that these corporations understood the power of music and used my music to sell their products to consumers. It was then that I decided to focus only on creating music for positive social impact. Music created just for entertainment, or to sell a product, did not appeal to me any more. Since then I have created anthems for various causes, including many official songs for the United Nations and other global non-profit organizations like WWF, Earth Day Network, etc. I work with several national and state governments, global bodies, scientists, and other world leaders to effectively convey their urgent complex messages related to the environment through the powerful language of music. Instead of waiting to be hired to create music, I now create music from the heart, as an extension of my beliefs and personality. Since I am an environmentalist, all my music has themes of sustainability. I am humbled to serve as an Ambassador for the UNCCD, UNESCO MGIEP, UNICEF, Earth Day Network etc. Through my live concerts in India and around the world, I can directly interact with hundreds of thousands of people and disseminate these important messages through my music.

Kej won a Grammy Award for ‘Winds of Samsara,’ a collaborative album with South African flautist Wouter Kellerman.

Is it exhausting/overwhelming/frustrating to be a musician and an activist at the same time? Do you face a lot of hurdles because your music is niche and socially conscious?

I have always been a strong conservationist and environmentalist, along with being a musician. It was through music that I fell in love with our natural world and I find a deep connection between music and nature. Being exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated etc are negative emotions to me and when it comes to music and the environment, I never feel those things because I find peace, comfort and inspiration through them. Also, I have never considered myself to be an activist. Even though activism and protest is an extremely important part of a democracy, I take a different route of working closely with governments, elected bodies, corporations, etc, on either side of the aisle, and bring about change through goodwill and music. On the other hand… unfortunately, the movie industry still holds a vice-like grip on the entire music industry and a lot of independent artists who are extremely talented seek validation from Bollywood or just give up. This is one of the reasons why I released most of my music abroad although my music is strongly rooted in India. There is so much more to Indian music than film music and independent, folk and classical artists in India deserve the spotlight. There will only be a dedicated audience to socially conscious music when more mainstream artists align themselves with causes close to their hearts and use their talents to create awareness by making impactful music and films. We need this now more than ever.

Tell us about your most favorite memory from the recording of this project.

It is very difficult to pick just one. I have been a huge fan of all the artists on my album and working with them was a fantastic experience. All of the vocalists on this album are at the top of their game and legends like Shankar Mahadevan, Udit Narayan, Kailash Kher etc have been in the industry for decades. Every single artist brought their unique artistry and their emotions to powerfully convey what our planet means to us. It comes across beautifully in all of these songs. I actually did not have to do any guiding with this respect. Each of these artists cares deeply about the environment and their fellow human beings. If I have to mention one moment, I was honored to receive a beautiful, emotional voice message from Udit Narayanji after he recorded my song, appreciating the song and thanking me. That was a definite highlight.

Is the accolade of a Grammy Award a heavy title to bear? Having won the highest honor in music, what kind of goals do you set for yourself now?

In order to make a tangible difference in the world through my music and address global issues like climate change, I cannot rest on my laurels. I consider every award to be a recognition and a platform. I am grateful, and never take awards for granted. If awards are used just for vanity, it’s pointless. Using awards for the greater good is what matters to me. My aim is and has always been to do all I can, in every way I can, to make this world a better place, for everyone and everything, and the Grammy has definitely enabled me to take this further.

What is your message to budding musicians who dream of winning a Grammy one day? What must they do and don’t do?

My advice would always be to treat music with respect, and always be hard working. Talent may not always be under your control, but you can be the most hardworking person, like I am! Never use creativity as an excuse for laziness. Never make awards the end goal, but be grateful when you earn them, and use them as a platform for doing bigger and better things.

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