Last month, Shashwat Bulusu, a visual artist, producer and singer-songwriter from Baroda, released his debut Hindi record Aabad. The a-side/b-side record features two tracks, Aabad and Charkha, which act as a call and response to each other. While Aabad reflects unfettered hope, Charkha responds with unfettered perseverance.
Rounak: There is a kind of bare minimalism to Charkha and Aabad, where rather than creating densely layered passages, you've stripped down songwriting to its elementary components - guitars, a few samples, vocal harmonization and lots of space in between. Did you find yourself working with these sparse elements from the get go or was this a process of stripping away elements throughout the production process? Shashwat: It has been more intuitive and what feels right in that moment. I usually do indulge in the process of adding everything and then stripping away. But I have been wanting to practise restraint in my craft a lot more as it is very easy for me to get carried away in the process of stacking. These two songs were among the first few where I tried that. I'd written Aabad first, and here, the arrangement came first and it just felt right to drive the song with vocals that can glide over the ornamental parts of the arrangement. Once that came into place, it was just a matter of finding the right moments to introduce newer elements. Although Aabad might sound minimal, there is a lot happening in the arrangement, but I tried introducing these elements at different points, and I guess that works. With Charkha, I just had been writing the vocal melody for a few months without picking up the guitar. By the time it came to recording the song, I was used to the idea of it being bare. Eventually, it was just the guitars and vocals and one sample to fill in the gaps.
Rounak: Where and when does inspiration usually strike when you're writing music?
Shashwat: I've never been very conscious of that, plus I feel impatient waiting for the eureka moment to happen. That's why I've always looked at writing as a craft. I end up writing something weekly as a practice, and then once something stands out, I start editing or arranging it. In terms of what is being said, I usually write down the first phrase and use that as a starting point to flesh out and add a premise or context to the song.
Rounak: Is there any aspect of your songwriting you would call "experimental" - where things are left to spontaneity or chance? Or do you feel that when you begin writing and recording something, every step feels intentional?
Shashwat: It is quite experimental for me in how the songs are arranged. While the words are written in advance, in the process of producing, I usually look for one good performance that I resonate with. If something happens that was unintentional in that moment, I retain it. If you listen closely to Charkha, you can actually hear my phone's notification go off. The core of the songs- the writing - is rather structured. I look at the arrangement more intuitively and respond to what is feeling or sounding right in that moment.
Rounak: As musicians who balance "real life" with their music-making practice, I find that music often becomes a respite from the times where we aren't making music. But even drawing that distinction between music and real life can sometimes feel strange. Can you talk a little bit about this? Shashwat: Making music does feel therapeutic because you're engaged in creating something as opposed to doing something in our "real life". It feels empowering. Although I do feel differentiating does make it strange. One, because I don't really believe in sticking to one thing. I think it's important to do different things and for them to eventually complement each other. Also, honestly, I also like to detach from my own music so that I can explore other things. Secondly, music is a tool to express, and if one's not experiencing "real life" there's nothing to ground your music to reality. You could become a fantasy writer though.
Rounak: One immediately noticeable detail about your new music is that it's in Hindi and not English. You've spoken a bit about how this changed your perception of and approach to songwriting. What is it like to write, think and be vulnerable in a different language? Shashwat: Hindi was the first language I started writing in, and then I slowly shifted to English. I've always been writing in both languages, just that I've found confidence in my Hindi writing now. For me, English has afforded me to be vulnerable while being impersonal. It has allowed me to be vague and get away without exposing my own vulnerability. Hindi, on the other hand, is transparent. In Hindi, it is very difficult to be vague without it sounding like shit. You've got to say what you really mean otherwise you sound like every other Hindi artist out there. Writing in Hindi helped me deal with the fear of people hearing my vulnerability and them knowing what I think or feel. I also end up thinking harder when I'm writing in Hindi because it feels like most Hindi songwriters now share a common vocabulary. This feels fake and unoriginal and makes it very generic. I feel like I have to practice Hindi writing more so that I don't fall into that trap that I had in my early days of writing.
Rounak: Was the intention of writing in Hindi to try and appeal to a new kind of listener or was this process primarily personal? Shashwat: As I said, I started writing in Hindi and then moved to English for the newer listeners. I write in Hindi when I want to be honest about something or when the song is not very narrative but more confessional. I do feel there will be a new set of listeners who would come through just by virtue of this being my first Hindi release. The task is for me to help my listeners in bridging the Hindi and the English works, and for them to look at all of it as one body of work.
Catch Shashwat on his ongoing India tour:
Photographs by Friends Republic.