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Shashwat Singh: ‘I Am First an Indie Artist and then a Playback Singer’

The ‘99 Songs’ singer on his dual musical journey and how he sustains himself as an artist

Rolling Stone India Jul 17, 2021

"Music is a divine art form, categories are man-made," says Shashwat Singh. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

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While most listeners now recognize him as the voice of Jay in A.R. Rahman’s 99 Songs, Shashwat Singh’s artistic journey started in 2009. The independent and playback musician first began composing music with his brother Rishabh Singh, when they moved from their native Allahabad to Pune. Dubbing themselves Plasmafaith, the duo rendered a fusion of melody and poetry, until they had to shelve their collaborative project for other plans. Singh eventually returned to music after an ACL injury, an event that led the artist to reconnect with what kept him centered — sound. 

“No matter what kind of stress I had as a kid, an instrumental theme or a song would come to my aid. It would clear my mind and I would go ahead and deal with my problems,” he says. As graduation passed and his family engaged him in traditional plans of assuming the roles of lawyer or accountant, Singh chalked up the courage to tell his brother one evening, “Music is all I understand and all I can relate to.” The artist specifies this pivotal moment as the domino that got the needle moving in the right direction.

An internship with veteran sound engineer Nitin Joshi (who has recorded with Agnee, Indian Ocean, Sivamani and Shubha Mudgal, among others) equipped Singh with all the technical and philosophical leanings it takes to make music. “Light-eyed, bald man with a legendary beard. He gave me a fat book on (music software) Pro Tools and said, ‘Read this book, sit behind me, observe and learn yourself’,” recalls Singh. Aiming to diversify his music education, the artist then enrolled in Academy and Grammy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory (KMMC) in Chennai. He tells us that visiting the school in 2010 was a turning point for him. “There were so many instruments everywhere, there was some kind of rehearsal going on in every room. I felt a sense of belonging in that place. I gave a small audition and got my admission,” he says. 

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Singh enrolled in a vocal and piano preparatory program at KMMC where he steeped himself in music theory for the very first time. He also dabbled in music theater, often finding himself in studios where he and his fellow students would record background vocals for course projects, and even Rahman’s films! It was at KMMC that Singh started his first Sufi band, NOOR, and joined Rahman’s a cappella collective NAFS. “It gave me some of the best experiences in the world of music harmony. Every single thing I experienced in KMMC has helped me become a musician,” he says.

A Hindi lyric project at KMMC eventually led to Singh’s first meeting with the maestro at the composer’s fabled studio. “I got a call one day from Panchathan Record Inn’s studio engineer asking me to come immediately as sir wanted to meet me. I went inside the studio and Rahman sir looked at me and asked, ‘Did you write this?’. I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ Turned out he was very impressed by my writing and said I should pursue it. I was so full of gratitude but inside my head, I was thinking, ‘Someone please tell him that I am a singer and I want to sing’.”

Five independent singles — including the electro-pop track “Yun Kyun” (2020) and the playful acoustic single “Mawaali Dil” (2020) — as well as playback hits like “Wat Wat Wat” (2015) and “Ruby Ruby” (2018) later, Singh has cemented his mettle as a breakout powerhouse vocalist in the last decade. About charting a dual path, he says, “I am first an indie and then a playback singer. Bollywood has helped me sustain my life; it has a larger audience in our country and the beautiful combination of cinema and music is something I am honored to be a part of. With my independent music, I do whatever I want to do with the melody and expressions. I enjoy that freedom.” He adds, “I just want to stay immersed in the art form. Music is a divine art form, categories are man-made. Got to keep serving the art form no matter what.”

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He attributes some of his biggest musical learnings to Rahman and playback icon Arijit Singh (with whom he has toured and also sung “Wat Wat Wat” and “Haan Main Galat”). “The sheer dedication and expertise they possess is every musician’s dream. I think it comes from a lot of hard work and countless days and nights dedicated to the craft,” says Singh. The singer maintains that anything overnight is temporary. He says, “The true mettle lies in facing the ups and downs of life and still showing up and doing what you are supposed to be doing.”

Up next for the musician is a slew of new independent releases. Listeners can expect them to be out on all audio platforms and Singh’s Youtube channel soon. “As soon as Bollywood resumes [full-scale operations], there are some playback projects to look forward to as well,” he says.

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