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'I obsess over my music'
At Coke Studio, no one tells AR Rahman to make this song, make that song. But, he says, it's also nice to work to a director's vision.
Of all the things one expects AR Rahman to say it's not: "I'm getting more confident and have a lot more trust in my fellow musicians. " For someone with two Oscars, two Grammys, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, four National Awards and shovelfuls of Filmfare awards to his name, confidence and confidence in collaborations were never assumed to be a problem. But for Rahman, who is meticulous to the point of being picky, depending on other people to make the kind of music he hears in his head is not easy. But, he says, he's getting better. "As an introvert, playing with people like Mick Jagger and the rest of the Superheavy gang (Dave Steward, Joss Stone and Damien Marley) I think my whole approach to music making has changed, " Rahman tells TOI-Crest, minutes after shooting a promo for Coke Studio@MTV, his first appearance on the now threeyear-old show. "I've a lot more trust in my fellow musicians now," he smiles.
That trust is going to be an essential component in trying to bring together the vocal talents of a Buddhist monk from Nepal, Ani Choying Drolma, Jordanian singer Farah Siraj, the mellifluous Ghulam Mustafa Khan and Rahman's own sisters Rayhanah and Ishrat, with his band that features Sivamani, Prasanna and Keba (Jermiah) and percussion students from his music school.
Rahman auditioned "around 40 singers and shortlisted about seven of them who were extraordinary. They could sing anything like that," he says snapping his finger to demonstrate. Rahman joins other music composers like Amit Trivedi, Ram Sampath, Salim-Sulaiman, Papon and Hitesh Sonik for the third edition of the music show. For Coke Studio, getting Rahman on board was a coup. "It's a big deal, let me tell you that," says Wasim Basir, director, integrated marketing communications, Coca Cola. "It's a ratification of all the efforts that we've put into building this property. " he adds. When asked what brought him to Coke Studio this year, Rahman said, "I started liking the whole concept," he says, "the unusual musicality. It's well produced and you can watch it again and again. Plus, this was in a more controlled environment where you could tweak ideas and be a little flexible rather than being in front of an audience where you can't do anything." Fans should look forward to songs with trademark Rahmanesque flourishes: Eastmeets-West melodies and unusual vocal textures. What made it even more fun for him was the fact that he only had to channel his thoughts to make the music. "There was no one saying 'make this song, make that song', though someone from MTV tried but then gave up," he laughs. "Musically, we did have some interesting fun. It all fell into place. It wasn't intended but it happened." Even though, like most Bollywood music directors, Rahman relished the opportunity to make the kind of music he wanted to, he isn't in a hurry to throw the director out of the studio, just yet. "I'm a slave to the director's vision which is good because if everybody pulls in different directions then you'll end up with nothing," says the 47-year-old. Rahman still has the magic touch of the 26-year-old who created the haunting melodies of Roja in 1992 - voted by TIME as one of the best albums ever. His score for Mani Ratnam's Kadal was the bestselling song on iTunes India all through December. He has composed the background score and songs for the newly-released romance Raanjhana.
For him, having a recognisable sound has been an important feature of his work, even though some people might confuse it with predictability. "When I came in, I had the whole world in front of me, " he says. "Everybody was following a pattern and I asked myself: do I want to make a statement? That forced me to be really wild. Now there are many producers, many programmers who are now composers. They're all really good at using technology but now you can't differentiate between most of them. It is so important to stand out. Especially in this era we need to focus on our sound. I think it's a good thing if music directors have a recognisable stamp."
If Rahman had his way, he would do everything himself. Even though he now has a competent team, he still likes to arrange and mix his own songs. "So that I can take the blame, " he says, but like other creative geniuses, he too suffers from the constant search for perfection, bordering on obsession. "I'm a perfectionist, " he admits. "I sometimes do 30 or even 40 mixes just to strip down things. I take breaks and come back to a song or project."
Wherever he is - be it cooped up in his studio in Kodambakkam or across the Atlantic - he keeps an eye on the competition. Rahman, who usually watches movies without the sound, browses through YouTube videos at night to stay abreast of all the happenings in Bollywood. "I like Amit (Trivedi) a lot. I like Pritam. They all have a fantastic sound. I really liked Yeh Jawani. . . Sometimes I think to myself, What am I gonna do? These guys are so good'. "But something keeps coming out. There's always something that hasn't been done," he says in his self-effacing way, accompanied by a coy smile.
His next big release will be Imtiaz Ali's Highway while Maryan, his latest Tamil soundtrack will hit screens worldwide next week. It's a common consensus between fans that the 'Mozart of Madras' generally makes his best music in the Southern city for Kollywood. "It's a combination of many things, " begins Rahman. "The infrastructure, the resources the people, the comfort level. My family is there. There are seven small studios and one big studio so there's always something happening and the output is that much faster. It's a better environment than in Mumbai where I have to travel and I need a driver and other sundry things. You lose two hours. This is more peaceful."
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