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Q&A: Jinja Safari Singer Cameron ‘Pepa’ Knight on Traveling India to Record Songs

The co-frontman of the Australian dream pop band talks about how learning to play the sitar, setting up a studio in his backyard and writing music in India for his new collection of songs

Rolling Stone India
Rolling Stone India Apr 22, 2014
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Cameron 'Pepa' Knight in Jodhpur. Photo: Gina Knight

Cameron ‘Pepa’ Knight in Jodhpur. Photo: Gina Knight

In 2011, Cameron ”˜Pepa’ Knight of the Aussie pop band Jinja Safari had his own Beatles moment when he traveled across India. The vocalist and sitar player, who launched his solo project earlier this month, debuting with his single “Rahh!” says in an interview with ROLLING STONE India, “”˜Rahh!’ was originally written on my first trip to India and all I wanted to do at the time was to escape everything and become a sadhu [hermit]. Obviously I didn’t have the guts to do it but the song is about craving something more and wanting a change.” The single is part of an upcoming collection of songs titled Hypnotized.  Knight wrote and recorded them while he was traveling across India between 2011 and 2013, including his tour with Jinja Safari in November 2012.

Although the songs he had worked on over the last year were deleted from Knight’s computer by accident, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist is currently re-recording the songs at his home studio. Says Knight, “I’m hoping to release 10 to 12 songs this year.”

 

Where in India did you write the first songs as part of your upcoming collection?

I remember one of the first songs was written around the time of Diwali in Rajasthan. Fireworks are illegal to buy in Australia so it was very new and exciting for me to see everyone, young and old, lighting fireworks in the streets, all day long, for the festival. I recorded samples of the fireworks, cut them up into a beat and then recorded vocals and harmonium over the top and that turned into one of the first songs in the collection.

The first single was more of a dream pop sound with a subtle Indian influence. Which songs of yours would you say are much more inspired by Indian classical or feature Indian instruments?

There is an Indian influence in all the songs, but some are more obvious than others. Some songs are primarily a sitar and tabla arrangement and other songs are more melodically or rhythmically influenced with my western interpretation. There is a song called “LakePushkar” about my time in Pushkar, which was a beautiful town where I used samples of a gypsy lady singing and [Rajasthani folk drums] Nagara drummer that I met and recorded by the lake.

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Which places in India did you find the most inspiring?

The most inspiring place I traveled to would have to be the SpitiValley in Himachal Pradesh. I have never seen the HimalayanMountains before and was totally blown away. The jeep trek was intensely dangerous at times, but I was at home stays in every village and was really inspired by the families that took me in. They were very generous and kind people and I really admired their simplicity.

Did you set up a makeshift studio everywhere you went or were you just collecting samples and writing while you were traveling in India?

I was traveling light so I unfortunately couldn’t bring my full set up. I mostly collected samples on a portable stereo mic and wrote down ideas as I went, but there were a few moments where I found a power outlet to set up my laptop and UAD2 Satellite Card and stitch together and warp samples or write midi tracks. It was a great way to kill time on 40-hour train trips.

You’re also creating a video for “Rahh!” – the photo you had posted from the making looked interesting. What is it about?

The film clip for “Rahh!” was shot very spontaneously one day with a few friends. We just shot it in my tipi, used what we had on us and the dress code was futuristic Bollywood. I’m planning to release it in the next few weeks.

”˜Rahh!’ was originally written on my first trip to India and all I wanted to do at the time was to escape everything and become a sadhu. (laughs) Obviously, I didn’t have the guts to do it, but the song is about craving something more and wanting a change.

Pepa Knight with a Nagara drummer. Photo: Gina Knight

Pepa Knight with a Nagara drummer. Photo: Gina Knight

I know you play the sitar. Did you learn to play any Indian instruments while you were here? Did you add to your collection?

I started playing the sitar before I went to India, actually. That’s why I have such bad habits, but I did get lessons in Udaipur from a great man named Rajesh Prajapati. I bought my second sitar from him. It is an electric sitar and much easier to tour with and easier to stay in tune. 

I toured India in 2012 with my band, Jinja Safari, and I felt really goofy attempting my very incorrect, western way of playing the sitar. I didn’t even attempt sitting in the right posture – I am really not flexible. I felt like everyone in the audience were professional sitarists getting very disappointed at me, but surprisingly the response was very nice.

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I also learnt the bansuri, harmonium and the dholak over there [India] and added them to my home collection.

You’re now recording songs you wrote in a tipi. Where had you originally recorded these songs?

When I’m not on the road, I usually record everything from home, which is a small granny flat in a small surf town called Long Jetty, on the east coast of Australia. Although this summer, it was getting too hot to record in there; all my gear was over-heating, and I was too, so I moved up all my recording gear into the tipi that I had set up in my backyard.

I read your comment saying you get a lot of bird noises when you were recording in the tipi. Is it a bit distracting that it’s right in your backyard? You could walk straight back into your house, right?

Yeah! [laughs] The tipi has a great atmosphere to work in but unfortunately, not very soundproof. Sometimes you will get birds or other animals in the background of a take but I don’t mind it. It kind of adds to the sound and the vibe.

My dog is the worst offender though, often when I starting recording my vocals, he decides that he wants to sing as well and starts howling uncontrollably into the microphone. I felt obliged to record him one day and put his howling into one of the songs.

What stage are you at with the songs right now? When can we expect the next release?

I completely finished all the songs last year, but accidentally deleted the recording files. So that was heartbreaking and took a while to recover from, but the second single is currently getting mixed and the rest of the songs are 95 percent re-recorded, so fingers crossed new music will be out very soon.

Are you planning to travel to India again sometime?

Definitely. I have been back and forth for the last three years, but I am itching to get back soon. I have always wanted to start a band over there to tour with the new songs but I should probably do that in Australia first. Maybe one day. (laughs)

Listen to “Rahh!” by Pepa Knight below

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