Catching up with Shiraz Uppal
Shiraz Uppal seems to have done it all. From writing chart topping hits and melodic pop records to crossing the border and working in Bollywood to scoring hits on Coke Studio and contributing to new recent wave of Pakistani films, Uppal remains one of the more multi-faceted artists currently working in the local music scene.
These days, he’s riding high on the success of Punjab Nahi Jaungi to which he contributed as music director. While many may argue that Uppal’s music is no longer as innovative and personal as it was in his earlier years, Uppal does know how to make music that appeals to the masses, not just the classes.
In addition to his successes, he remains the one artist with whom Indian music maestro A.R. Rahman has collaborated on more than one occasion. And in 2015, Uppal featured in Rahman’s landmark concert film that was documented during the 18 shows the two performed across North America.
In this interview with Instep, Shiraz Uppal reflects on his working equation with Rahman, composing for Pakistani films and more.
Instep: Let’s begin with A.R Rahman. What was your first interaction like?
Shiraz Uppal (SU): He was my inspiration when I started off and still is. It will always remain so. I began listening to him in 1992, when Roja came out, and his chord arrangements and the production side of his tracks amazed me. It wasn’t until another six or seven years later that I actually met him in New York. He was touring back then, so I caught him during one of his shows. It’s a long story how I actually managed to meet him; it would take up a lot of your pages so let’s keep that for another time.
Instep: You are featured in Rahman’s recently-released concert film. Tell us about it.
SU: It obviously feels amazing. I’ve been working with him since 2001 and he’s been my guru, my teacher. After we connected, he got in touch with me for this song called ‘Shakalaka Baby’ but I couldn’t get a visa to India at that time, so we recorded it in UK instead. During that period, we bonded. After that, I went to his studio in Chennai and stayed there for sometime. I was just too keen and interested in learning how he produced and mixed his songs. So there was a lot of learning there, I used to observe how he worked. When I released my album, Jhuki Jhuki, I used to mail my songs to him and I clearly remember how encouraging he was, especially for this one track called ‘Man Ja Vay’. We kept in touch. He would ask me to dub for a few songs every now and then and in 2012, he invited me to perform with him in New York at a Peace Concert.
In 2015, he asked me to join the band in Chennai for a rehearsal, which continued in Tennessee. This was followed by a tour that lasted for a month and a half during which we toured all over North America. It was truly an experience of a lifetime.
Instep: How do you think you can incorporate the learnings from Rahman while making music in Pakistan?
SU: I don’t know how I will apply all of those learnings but I know that for now I should just keep on making music. A lot of people tell me that my sound shares a resemblance to his work. I feel that you do see a jhalak (reflection) of your teacher in your own work. I cannot deny that. Plus, I’ve not only learnt music from him; he has been a mentor. When you accept someone as your mentor, you pick up certain ways of life as well. He and I often share our spiritual dreams with one another because he is a very spiritual person.
Instep: What do you make of the ban that has been placed on Pakistani artists from working in India. Has it affected your work as well?
SU: Art has no boundaries and the exchange of art between countries is always healthy. I see it as a bridge towards building peace because music to me is all about peace.
As for myself, it doesn’t apply to me. I am still working in Bollywood. I work from here only; I am not required to travel. Directors from India connect with me over Skype. I’m given the brief and I just record the track in my own studio and mail it to them.
Instep: You’ve given Coke Studio some massive hits including Tajdaar-e-Haram. But this year we didn’t see you in the production. Were you initially a part of it? What’s your general take on corporate involvement in music?
SU: I wasn’t. But generally I feel corporate involvement is always great because an artist does have budgetary constraints and if I want to put out a song myself, I have to invest in things like production, video and promotion. When the brand comes in, your song is automatically heard and viewed a lot more on TV and social media since it becomes their responsibility to push it. At the end of the day, they have to sell their brand as well. So I take it very positively.
Instep: In recent times, your work is associated with cinema and while popular it does tend to follow the conventional path. Tell us a bit about it.
SU: It has to be that way. It has to sound larger than life because that’s what cinema is all about. I visualize the song playing in the theatre while composing it. I think about the requirement of a certain scene and what instruments would be suitable for what is going on in the film. It might be absurd but I ask a lot of questions including things like who the song will be pictured on.
Instep: Lastly, what kind of music do you prefer?
SU: My personal preference, of course, has to be soft, romantic, melodious songs. The songs that have a strong melody and give me goose bumps are of my liking. It doesn’t mean I don’t like or entirely hate the item numbers I do as well. I just keep working. God’s been kind.
Shiraz Uppal with Indian music maestro A.R. Rahman; the two collaborated multiple times.