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Suchitra Pillai: Time to Rock & Roll

The Mumbai vocalist discuses her upcoming EP ‘History of Rock and Roll,’ working with producer Ashish Painoli, and her future plans

David Britto Feb 22, 2018

Mumbai vocalist Suchitra Pillai's new EP 'History of Rock and Roll' releases this April. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Not many people might be aware, but renowned Mumbai-based actor Suchitra Pillai has had her moment of glory in Britpop music history.

If you remember Oasis’ video for their hit track “Morning Glory” off their 1995 record (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? you couldn’t have missed the furious sari-clad woman banging on the door of the English rockers’ apartment. “It would’ve been even better if I had managed to break down the door,” she jokes.

Pillai, a popular face in theater, TV and cinema, is also an accomplished vocalist, having released a six-track bilingual album in 2011 titled, Such Is Life. She is now back with her latest offering, History of Rock and Roll, a four-track EP which is slated to release this April. “I was interested in doing something which had more gravitas based on my pop and rock influences,” she says of her latest record.

History of Rock and Roll was tracked at Rockford Studios in London by session musicians while vocals were recorded at Mumbai’s Songbird Studios. The EP was co-produced by U.K.-based Nick Brine and Mumbai producer Ashish Painoli. “We were sure about it being a heavier album than the first release,” says Painoli who also composed the songs and played lead guitar on the project. He adds, “She [Pillai] was sure of the fact that the songwriting was key; we relied less on post production in all fairness. The way it was recorded is the way it was played. Nick Brine made that a reality being a class producer.”

In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Pillai opens up about the inspiration behind the songs, her influences, collaborating with composer Papon and more.

What are some of your early experiences related to music and what pushed you to pursue it?

Music has been an intrinsic part of my life, not only because my mum used to sing but [because] I started singing at around seven years of age at zonal competitions in the parish we lived in Bandra [Mumbai]. I trained in Carnatic vocals for few years and had the good fortune of singing with stalwarts like [veteran pianist] Louiz Banks in my teenage years in shows and jingles. Once I moved to London in 1991, I got selected to sing with the [Brit pop] band Kula Shaker before the release of their album K on a TV show there called The White Room and that’s when Crispian Mills [of Kula Shaker] asked me if I’d like to do a track on his album, the result of that was the cult track “Govinda” on which I am the female voice with Crispian. 

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Your first album Such Is Life (2011) is a multi-genre record. Tell us more about how that came about.

The previous release was a set of songs written over a period of a few years. Two were English, two Hindi and one electronic dance music track, in different styles. It was a promotional album with different styles ranging from soft rock, indie pop, to acoustic guitar and voice only. This time around, I wanted to release a proper EP.

The new EP, History of Rock and Roll, is pretty much what the title says. What made you go down that route?

Yes, this EP definitely leans towards rock; I’d like to think Brit rock of the Eighties and Nineites style. My aim was to be on par in every aspect of my music with the kind of music I listen to, be it Sting, Abba, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Tears for Fears or the like.

How did your collaboration with producer Ashish Painoli come about and how was the experience of working together on this project?

Ashish was introduced to me by Mahesh Tinaikar (guitarist, Indus Creed), he thought we had the same sensibilities and he was definitely spot on. We jammed together; Ashish had some tracks in mind for my kind of voice and then I started writing lyrics once we decided the tracks. Working with Ashish has been a dream–he understands me totally, what I’m comfortable with, my voice range and, most importantly, the kind of sound I love and he delivers every time. Blessed to have him in my corner.

The songs on the record all have their own identity. For instance, the heavy rock rager “Long Road” and the groovy “Can’t Get Enough” are both very different from each other but sit well together on the EP. Tell me about these songs in particular.  

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Ashish and I work out the tunes first and then extrapolate to see what vibe we’re getting from the track before writing the lyrics; then the lyrics and title come in. A lot of my lyrics come from either experiences I’ve had or felt or feel strongly about. I do reminisce a lot so maybe “Long Road came from there, as it relates to going back to times where love came from a place when I was truly myself, unadulterated by life. Can’t Get Enough deals with intensity having a kind of dialogue with itself about giving a relationship another chance.

You’re also releasing a single called “Sad Song” featuring composer Papon. Tell us more.

The track with Papon was a conscious choice once we decided it’d be a duet. I love every aspect of Papon’s voice and we thought it would be interesting for him to sing in his mother tongue for this one. He loved the track when we played it to him and since he is a dear friend, he jumped right in and did it, even getting lyrics written in Assamese to go with the English lyrics I had penned. His voice most definitely fit the intent of the song. “Sad Song”–when we first wrote it, we felt that since it’s a ballad about unrequited love and it should be a duet, no one except Papon came to mind.

What are your plans to promote the record? 

We have already shot videos for Sad Song” and “Maybe I’m Right Maybe I’m Wrong.” Long Road will be my next video. We intend to start touring small and build a fan base. My forte is definitely live music, it’s another kind of adrenaline rush for me to perform with my band. 

What do you have in store for the rest of the year?

We’ll see how people react to the album and take it from there. But I would definitely want to sing at major music festivals, hopefully as a credible headliner.

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