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Jeanne Merchant on her Wake-Up Call of a Song ‘Round and Round’: ‘I’m Happy Something Dark Didn’t Come Out of It’

The ace music coach on her new release and how the pandemic inspired it

Rolling Stone India Aug 21, 2021

"I had the intention to bring 'Round and Round' forward with a message of love and humanity,' says Jeanne Merchant. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

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Jeanne Merchant found her song “Round and Round” in a state of disturbance. The renowned music coach and piano instructor has led countless in music sessions, but during the rage of the pandemic, as the world slowed down, she was drawn in by the tunes that were thrumming urgently within her. The global news flashed headlines of racism, genocide, terrorism and other conflicts, leading Merchant to compose and write the contemplative pop earworm “Round and Round.” Merchant’s dulcet voice melds with viral producer Anshuman Sharma’s jazz interludes, rendering a poignant track about the state of the world — but not without hope. Even as the musician bemoans current affairs, she offers up a balm to the banes: “When that circle ends/They will find a friend in you and me,” she sings. 17 years after her first single, the electro-pop song “Yeh Wadiyan,” Merchant returns to music with a track that’s humanity’s wake-up call. This time around, it’s vital we truly listen.

In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Merchant discusses “Round and Round,” balancing her many creative hats, what she would change in the music industry and more. Excerpts:

Congrats on “Round and Round” — it is a marvelously layered song. Tell us about the point where the ongoing political chaos and apathy around the world propelled you to write this? Did you pen your thoughts in poetry before composing it? Please share the process.

Thank you for appreciating my song and indeed “Round and Round” is truly a reflection of my thoughts at the time. The world was (and still is) going through the current pandemic and despite this huge problem, we also had to deal with so many pressing and sad social and political problems and situations. Issues like ‘Black Lives Matter,’ the sad attacks in Gaza where innocent people died, the Indo-China conflict where we lost so many of our soldiers at the border, the Asian hatred and so much more were affecting me a lot. And what bothered me the most was the manner in which people were handling all of this. I find it appalling — the lack of empathy that humans can have — and one fine day, it all just came to a fore in this song “Round and Round.” 

So, with this kind of mood and disturbed thoughts, I sat down at my piano and just hummed out a melody that came to mind with lyrics simultaneously flowing and locking themselves into the melody, while I gave it some harmonic structure at the piano. I think all of this happened in a very connected way — the tune, the lyrics, the harmonics on the piano — as it was all connected to my thoughts at the time. 

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And also, I’m happy that something very dark didn’t come out of it, as while my thoughts were quite disturbed, I also had the intention to bring this (“Round and Round”) forward with a message of love and humanity, rather than with a condemning, hopeless spirit. 

In your previous interview, you’d mentioned how there’s a focus on sound more than songwriting. How do you balance both as an artist?

My focus has always been the message. I want to convey through my song’s melody and lyrics first. I feel like the tune and lyrics are the heart and soul of each song. But having said that, the sonic treatment is very important to help you express the mood of the song in a manner you want people to experience your song. The sonic treatment really attracts the listener, but I have never let it overshadow the melody and the lyrics of a song. In fact, the sonic treatment enhances the melody and lyrics, and it goes hand in hand to create one powerful message, and one powerful song and sound.

Who have been your biggest musical influences growing up?

In terms of musicians, I have had so many influences growing up like Tania Maria, Dianne Reeves, Dinah Shore, Ella Fitzgerald, The Brand New Heavies, Billie Holiday, Chaka Khan and so many more. In terms of the people around me, it has to be my dad. He blasted music every morning at six a.m., and we literally woke up each morning to the sound of a new jazz and blues album. It was initially quite annoying in the beginning, to be woken up each day in this manner, but this soon became a way of life in our household, which actually is what has affected and shaped who I am today as a musician and singer.

Tell us about the songs you’re currently working on?

The new songs I am writing are different from “Round and Round” in that they are light-hearted and about relationships, feelings, love, romance. I’m hoping to release my next song very soon and you will hear a lot of new music in the coming months from me. But it will be more of a different kind of writing than what I’ve been doing. 

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How has the pandemic helped you evolve as a musician?

When the pandemic first arrived, no one was clear on how to proceed with their work, and most definitely didn’t think of using the online medium so productively. So, for the first three months of the pandemic, I did no teaching at all and instead, spent my time working on another big strength of mine (apart from vocal training) — songwriting. I didn’t get the chance to focus on songwriting prior to the pandemic as I was teaching almost a hundred students weekly and wasn’t able to give a thought to this passion of mine. I’ve always been a composer and songwriter at heart. These really are my musical strengths, apart from teaching vocals and singing. So, the pandemic really did give me the opportunity to capitalize on and hone this aspect of my musical self. Also, I’d like you to know that you can find my song “Round and Round” (released via Merchant Records) on all the streaming platforms like Gaana, Spotify, Wynk, Hungama, Apple Music, JioSaavn. And you can find the music video on Salim-Sulaiman’s YouTube channel. So now, I am legit an independent artist. 

If there were three things that you could change about the music industry today, what would they be?

The first thing would be to have equality among artists of different languages, and of course, giving English and regional languages as equal importance as mainstream Hindi. Secondly, I would love to see live gigs flourish even more. It would be great if there were budgets and venues for not just big artists, but also for new and smaller artists who need a live audience and a venue to perform their music in. We need more opportunities for them. Lastly, it would be amazing if labels and streaming platforms support smaller and new artists just as much. And if we could have more radio stations whose focus was independent music, it would be nice.

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