Shilpa Rao: AR Rahman is not a quiet person!

The singer opens up about her equations with the contemporary singers and music directors she has worked with in her seven-year playback singing career

A singer with a distinctive, unique and soulful voice, Shilpa Rao is among the new breed who believes in exploring the live stage, doing jam sessions, being part of musical collaborations, studio recordings and playback singing, all at the same time. Shilpa, who first rose to fame after her Bachna Ae Haseeno song Khuda jaane became a huge hit and won her almost every award that year, has sung some beautiful songs in her seven year long career – from Anjaana Anjaani’s I feel good, Jab Tak Hain Jaan‘s Ishq Shava and Paa’s Udi udi to Lootera’s Manmarziyan. We caught up with the singer at her Andheri apartment, where the energetic, bindaas girl spoke of her Bollywood journey, her favourite musicians in the film industry and her inspirations.

Excerpts from the video interview:

Last time we met, you had just won all the awards for Bachna Ae Haseeno. But people don’t know you sang your first song for Anwar a couple of years before that – how did you get your first break?

As a beginner you know big names like Vishal Shekhar and Shankar Ehsaan Loy. You still have some composers who don’t have films, but are doing good work in the background. Mithun was one of them. We had done a song long time before Anwar – a trial number. Tose naina happened after that. I didn’t have too many expectations from the film, because it was a small movie with a new cast. So I didn’t expect it to become that big. At that time the FM stations were just booming. And they used to bombard this song on the radio. Maula mere and Tose naina were played a lot by RJs. I definitely thank the RJs for this and I have told them that..

Now everyone has a structure and a proper plan on how promote a film’s music. At that point it wasn’t that structured. That chaos probably helped.

How many years were you in Mumbai before you got your first break?

I was in Mumbai for three years in college. I did a lot of jingles. It’s a great training ground for any singer. If you have just been singing and do not know how to record, jingles are a great learning experience. Singing live is another ball game altogether, but if you are in front of the microphone in the studio, it’s totally different. I think learning and getting a firm grip on that front was what happened in that phase. Those three years prepped me for playback.

You come from a musical background…

My father is a musician at heart, but not by profession. All my learning and my listening to music came from him.

Was it his dream to see you sing, or was it your own?

It wasn’t my dream at all. I never thought of being a musician or anything, for that matter. He wanted me to. Of course, he also saw that I was inclined to listening to music. – that is a bigger passion for me than singing. I never wanted to be a musician when I was a kid. These days children have specific goals about what they want to be.

Dad never forced me, though. He made a point that I learn music, and later on what I wanted to do with it was a different thing.

So when did you feel that you wanted to pursue a career in singing?

When I was 13 years old I met Hariharan uncle in Mumbai. He felt I had the knack to be a singer. I never had that confidence in myself, but a man of his stature having that much confidence in me was inspiring. And that’s when I changed things in my head and started focusing on singing.

There was a time when there were just a couple of female singers at the top. Today there are loads of them and there is tough competition…

Earlier, the composers would not take a chance with newer singers. Singers were always around. Just that you don’t know them because they hardly got a chance. Singers who go to the composers today get picked up. We get a chance today, which didn’t happen in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

You also have an independent band…. What gives you a bigger high – performing live or recording songs for movies?

We are damn greedy – we want everything! Sab laake de do! We are happy doing everything – recording, singing live, jamming with friends….all these experiences add to your repertoire as an artiste. Do not limit yourself to anything. Being a full time artiste means experiencing all kinds of music. And working with other singers is a lot of fun anyway.

How was it working with AR Rahman for Ishq shava in Jab Tak Hai Jaan?

I had this perception in my head that he was quiet person, but he is not! I met him at Yash Raj studio – he was there, and then were Gulzar, Yashji, Aditya Chopra…it was a great sight! He gave me the song and we began to chat. He said that he had seen my unplugged video and he had my song Dhol [from Dev D] on his iPod. He asked me, ‘Where do you want to record – here or go into the booth? Record here, because I will scare you!’ I said, ‘I am already scared’! He is a lot of fun, as opposed to what I had heard about him. He allows singers to be themselves, and that’s why he extracts the best from them.

Did he make you record through the night?

We recorded at a good time – it was evening. It wasn’t one of those late nights. I am looking forward to the late nights, though. I hope we do more songs together.

Tell me about Manmarziyan from Lootera. You have worked with Amit Trivedi for many years now. Whenever you two come together, you make some great songs….

He casts really well. His USP is that. Apart from being a great composer, he chooses the right people. And the singer doesn’t have to exert too much. With Manmarziyan there was no brief that he gave me, and neither did he lead me to sing in a particular way. The only background he gave me was that it was based in the ‘50s in Bengal. The singing style had to be Indian but it was a modern song, so it could not sound dated. And he also knows I cannot sing in a dated way.

Amitabh Bhattacharya [lyricist] is also a good friend. With the three of us, there are no explanations required. For example, the song was originally Marziya, but I sang a line and he said Manmarziyan would sound better. We recorded it in 30 minutes. It was a perfect song, casting wise. I am not saying that nobody else would be able to what I did. But our strength and limitations were just right for the song. Even the way you make mistakes can work for a song!

Watch the complete interview: