Over the past few years independent music in India has been growing exponentially. The whispers in closed circles are now voices heard loud. As is common knowledge the audience has appreciated independent music forcing the music industry to take notice.
What was once on the fringes, independent music is now tipped to be India’s crossover to the global music market.
One man who has been producing and composing ‘non-mainstream’ music for decades and is now aiming to take Hindi music global is Leslee Lewis.
Leslee started off as a guitarist playing for jingles and later started composing them. He is among the pioneers of Indi-pop and Bollywood remix albums. He has collaborated with various artists across genres, be it classical-pop as Colonial Cousins or folk-contemporary music fusion for Coke Studio India.
For our Interview of the Week, we spoke to composer, music producer and singer, Leslee Lewis about being the first Indian to sing for a Hollywood movie, his ambitious project Global Hindi, using technology and more.
Along with Hariharan, you formed the Colonial Cousins. A combination which was unthinkable in mainstream music at the time. How did you two come together and what was the thought process behind Colonial Cousins?
Hariharan and I wanted to compose music that we wanted to and not what everyone does so we formed ‘Colonial Cousins’. For a long time, the music world didn’t understand in which genre to categorise us. Our music was labelled as pop, ghazal pop, bhajan pop etc but the music was liked by the audience which made us a hit duo.
What has influenced your music?
I have always been influenced by the elements of various genres and that reflects in my music. It did in Colonial Cousins, during Indi-pop and it still does. Suneeta Rao’s ‘Pari Hoon Main’ was folk based while KK’s ‘Pal’ had rock influences, the remixes reflected the dance part of me while for Coke Studio India my music was about folk meeting contemporary.
I have grown up listening to varied genres and have been influenced by all of them. Artists like James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Quincy Jones when it comes to producing, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and loads of other artists and musicians.
How has pop music evolved in India since the Indi-pop days and how has pop music influenced Bollywood music?
Pop actually turned into Bollywood music. Earlier Bollywood music was influenced by folk and had a lot of tabla, dholak and similar instruments. With the entry of pop music, these instruments were replaced by drums, keyboards, synthesisers, bass and other pop music sounds. What was called pop music was imported into Bollywood and that became the new sound of Bollywood. Bollywood has always followed the trends. When ‘swing music’ was at its peak, Bollywood gave us songs like ‘Eena Meena Deeka’ and the industry has followed this trend since.
Whatever the masses liked, Bollywood has incorporated it. This is how it has survived and will keep on surviving because it has the power, money and appetite for it. Lucky Ali and KK are essentially pop artists but they have sung for Bollywood films. Who doesn’t want to work in Bollywood? Everyone does because it means reaching out to a large audience and every artist wants that. There is nothing wrong with that.
Your ambitious project, Global Hindi, aims to take Hindi music to a worldwide audience. Tell us about its sound and how does it stand out from your other projects?
There’s more to Hindi music which many have not heard. The 90s had Indi-pop, Global Hindi is the 2.0 version of it in the 2020s. The big difference is that, for Global Hindi I am writing the lyrics and composing the songs too. I have now become an independent artist as it gives me the freedom. The Global Hindi sound has a wide spectrum. It can be jazz, pop, boss nova, Indian classical or folk, funk, or soul. Its global independent music but in Hindi as I want to connect to the Hindi audience worldwide.
I started Global Hindi in September 2020 and right now it’s similar to a start-up. I have composed, penned and sung all the goals except a couple of them which Kavya Jones has sung. As the sound is global, there could be international collaborations in the future.
For Global Hindi, I have recently produced and composed a song with Kavya called ‘Aaj Meri Bahon Main’. I have done a mix of the song ‘Lag Jaa Gaale’ which the music label Sa Re Ga Ma have featured on their channel. Last month we did a duet, Teri Meri Zindagi, which is doing really well. All these songs are under the umbrella of Global Hindi and all my future endeavours will be under Global Hindi.
You recently became the first Indian singer to sing for a Hollywood movie song. How was the experience?
Somehow I have always been the first person to do many things. I started Indi-pop, Bollywood remixes, mainstream fusion, Coke Studio India and now I am the first Indian to sing for a Hollywood movie. I have collaborated with composer/music producer ATG and Rapper Omar Gooding for the song ‘Entourage’ for the movie ‘Trap City’ which has been well received by the audience. They were looking for an Indian artist who could sing in English and I am happy they reached out to me. These two along with the movie producer, Tel Ganeshan made for a great team to work with.
I completely left the production part to ATG and concentrated on my singing. Even though I am a music producer, I did not interfere in his work as the song is about his vision and not mine. Collaborations are all about playing your role in the team.
You have been in the industry since decades and have witnessed the technological changes through the years. What changes has it brought to your music and what has remained constant?
I have been a tech guy since the onset. I am still mixing, mastering and doing all the studio work myself and with the latest technology. The technological upgrades have changed a lot of aspects which is great. Technology has its advantages as well disadvantages and I have worked on both sides of them. I know where and to what extent should technology be used. But for music to survive it requires melody. The less you get of it the more suffocated you get.
My music has always been about melody and Global Hindi is going to be no different. The best part of technology is now one can mix and master a song on the go and doesn’t need to be in the studio. The bad part is that many composers are using the music clips available and are not actually playing the music. Along with technology, a composer should use their musical skills as well. Once you allow the computer to dictate, it becomes the master and the composer, a slave. I don’t want to be a slave to the machine.