Ricky Kej believes we need light to dispel darkness

He’s a prolific musician and a passionate earth advocate. But Ricky Kej is in the news these days for his second momentous Grammy Award nomination. He was first nominated and won the prestigious global laurel in 2015 for his album, ‘Winds of Samsara’ which dominated the Best New Age Album category.

The Bangalore-based humanitarian and music composer is thrilled with his second Grammy nod which is the latest in a long list of achievements for the 40-year-old. In an exclusive chat with Music Plus, Kej talks about his ardent drive to reverse climate change, making music and his relationship with Stewart Copeland who he co-created ‘Divine Tides’ with. Edited excerpts below.

You’ve mentioned that it was Stewart Copeland’s ability to incorporate rare instruments into music that drew you to collaborate with him. How did that work out?

Stewart Copeland is one of the most influential musicians in the world because of his artistry and his pioneering style of drumming and percussion. I started my professional music career when I was quite young, and growing up, ‘The Police’ was one of the biggest bands in the world. I was blown away by his skills and even today, almost every artist I collaborate with – regards them very highly and are influenced by their sound and style in some way.

There was always a lot of poetry and intricacy with Stewart’s drumming, which in my opinion, made ‘The Police’ the legendary band it is.  Stewart also regularly composes for Operas, Orchestras, and for over 50 Hollywood movies including the Oscar award-winning ‘Wall Street’. Despite reaching the pinnacle of success, he is constantly evolving and learning by exploring new sounds, traditional music instruments, and rhythms.

He has a huge collection of ethnic instruments in his studio that he’s collected from all over the world during his travels and tours but he’s never had an opportunity to use them for any of his music. He was thrilled to use so many of these amazing instruments such as the Crotales, Timpani, Tongue drums, etc to record ‘Divine Tides. His infectious personality and his artistry really shone through and made this collaboration one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Working with him was like attending the best masterclass imaginable.

You had ‘Divine Tides’ in mind before the pandemic. But since the outbreak, do you think the message has stayed the same?

For the last few years, I have dedicated my life and all of my music towards elevating environmental consciousness. All of the music that I have made since then has addressed different aspects of various environmental and social issues such as climate action, human-animal conflict, sustainable farming, the refugee crisis, etc.

I have always believed that only when people start acknowledging an issue and start a dialogue to solve it, a solution will come.  My aim is to inspire this dialogue through my music because music is an emotional language and has the power to retain a message deep in the consciousness of a listener. I have stayed true to these thoughts while creating ‘Divine Tides’ and it is a tribute to the magnificence of our natural world and the resilience of our species.

Most of the album was actually created and recorded by Stewart and me during the pandemic itself and not before. Lots of thematic elements came into the album because of the pandemic. I have always been fascinated by the resilience of the human species, and these thoughts were interpreted through the music. We are thrilled to have created an album that celebrates life and will create a wave of much-needed positivity in our audiences.

Was it important to you to focus on resilience of nature in your album as opposed to other aspects of conservation? 

I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire and I think that we need light to dispel darkness. People are already well aware of the harsh realities of Climate Change because the consequences are clearly visible for all to see through extreme weather events, rising temperatures, habitat loss, species extinction, etc.

A constant barrage of showcasing these harsh realities through different mediums can also lead to anxiety and can take a toll on one’s mental health. A lot of people find it easier to look away when shown something that makes them uncomfortable. Despite everything, there is plenty of beauty in this world. We only protect what we love and through my music, my aim is to nudge audiences to fall in love with our natural world all over again. Although the approach might be different, our goals are the same.

Also, when we talk about protecting our planet, I believe we are actually speaking about saving our own species from extinction, because the planet does not need us to survive, but we need our planet for our sustenance.

What was the process like to create Divine Tides?

I had been working on a follow-up to my Grammy® winning album ‘Winds of Samsara’ and had catalogued some of my favourite ideas. Recordings were delayed because of my relentless touring schedule and when the pandemic hit, it presented an opportunity for me to spend time in my studio and kick-start this project again. I reached out to Stewart Copeland and was thrilled when he said yes to making this album with me.

I have always relied on technology for all of my recordings and Stewart too is big on technology, and has one of the most amazing home studios. That helped us record seamlessly during the pandemic. Stewart and I recorded our portions individually and it all came together superbly.

Do you think New Age music or genre-bending work like you create could ever break into the mainstream now with the democratisation of music in the digital age?

Even with the democratisation of music in the digital age, independent music will break into the mainstream only if record labels step up and actively seek and promote talent. Record labels must seek talented artists rather than focus on mainstream genres and pigeon hole artists into them.

For example, the independent music scene in India is extremely vibrant and promising but unfortunately, the movie industry still holds a vice-like grip on the entire music industry here, and a lot of independent artists who are extremely talented seek validation from Bollywood or just give up.  Although all of my music has strong Indian roots despite being global, I had to base my career abroad due to this.

There is so much more to Indian music than film music and independent/folk/classical artists in India deserve the spotlight. I do hope that this Grammy® nomination for my latest album ‘Divine Tides’ will help inspire budding young musicians from India and elsewhere to make music from the heart and to also take inspiration from India’s rich musical heritage which is extremely unique and diverse when they create music.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just released a song called ‘Kaadu’ as a part of Salim-Sulaiman’s Bhoomi 2021 project with Tamil Sensation Arivu. It is a dedication to the importance of forests and how all of us rely on them for our survival.

It is hard to make any concrete plans right now since the situation around the world is extremely unpredictable due to snap lockdowns, suspension of flights, border controls, etc, and of course, with the virus constantly mutating. Touring is definitely on my mind but, I guess for the next few months I am going to work on promoting Divine Tides and try and get as many people to listen to it.

Since I have worked so hard on the music, poured my heart and soul into it, I feel I owe it to the music to ensure as many people around the world enjoy it.

Listen to Ricky Kej here

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