Discovering Nitin Sawhney

British-Indian composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Nitin Sawhney is arguably one of the most versatile artists of our generation. Francesca Treadaway of the ISM finds out more about his life and career in music.

I had to be honest with Nitin. I had spent a lot of time reading about him, listening to his music and watching interviews on YouTube to get a flavour of what to expect, but I still didn’t know where to begin.

My struggle to find a starting point is not unfounded. Nitin’s career spans nearly 29 years, in which time he has released 10 studio albums; scored over 50 films as well as many international TV programmes, ads, cinema trailers, video games and theatre and dance productions, and performed and scored with international orchestras to silent films. He has won over 20 awards for his work. He sold out both his BBC Prom and Electric Prom, and has collaborated with a wide variety of artists including Paul McCartney, Sting, Joss Stone and many more, and on various Robert Miles projects with Miles Gurtu and Organik. His own work has been remixed by 4hero, Talvin Singh, MJ Cole and Quantic. He also had his own BBC Radio 2 series: Nitin Sawhney Spins the Globe.

If that wasn’t enough, he is also an accomplished flamenco guitarist, pianist and DJ.

I comment on the sheer amount of work Nitin has been involved in. ‘I am quite a practical person in terms of subconsciously planning – I’m not like “I can relax now”, I have always looked ahead’, Nitin explains. ‘I always thought you were as good as the last thing you have done, and even then, you have to start from scratch again. After a while you look back and think “actually, that’s a lot of stuff”.’

Nitin refers to himself as a film composer and producer. He has been called ‘Renaissance man’, ‘pioneering’ and ‘ground-breaking’ by the press. But never a ‘portfolio musician’, I discover. A new experience for the man who seems to be involved in most areas of the music industry.

‘I have never heard myself being called a portfolio musician’, Nitin laughs. ‘Renaissance man, polymath, never portfolio musician – that’s new.’

Nitin was born into a creative family – his mother was a bharatnatyam dancer (Indian classical dance) and his grandmother was a harmonium player and a singer who was broadcast on Indian radio.

‘I’ve been reacquainting myself with the fact that my dad was a really good painter, and my mum used to make wicker baskets, etc – they were really into creativity’, Nitin explains. ‘But up until I was 11, I thought my dad was a great sitar player. There was this picture up of him in the house looking very authoritative in the way he was holding the instrument. He had brought it home from India. So, I asked him, “how do you play it?”, and he said “Oh I don’t know!”. Quite mad really.’

‘I think I had this placebo effect of thinking I came from a lineage of great classical musicians!’

Nitin had piano lessons from the age of 5, taking grade 8 when he was 11. He progressed through the Youth Orchestras and played in a jazz quartet at school. He also was learning flamenco guitar inspired by his dad playing flamenco guitarist, Phillip John Lee’s album in the house. Nitin found out that Phillip was teaching in Kensington Olympia and travelled to have lessons with him.

‘I was also in a punk band, funk band, rock band – I was in all kinds of things. I played tabla as well and bit of sitar… to make up for my dad…’, Nitin laughs.

As a child, Nitin never had any awareness of being unusual in his love of music.

‘I was quite passionate about all music. It was quite easy to apply the theory learnt through piano playing to guitar playing. I got into jazz young – I started improvising on Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and learnt blues scales. I listened to Miles Davis and Ravi Shankar from a young age. My dad loved a lot of Cuban music and my mum was predominately into Indian classical,’ Nitin explains.

He continues, ‘I used to fall asleep listening to the Top 30 on Radio Caroline (a pirate radio station that never became legal) and became acquainted with lots of different types of music that people would send in.’

‘I had a lot of different influences all the time.’

Before devoting himself to music full time, Nitin briefly studied law before training as an accountant. A lack of role models – in particular, Asian musicians who made a living out of composing – changed his focus temporarily. But a chance opportunity with the James Taylor Quartet saw Nitin walking out of his job as Finance Controller in a hotel. He has never looked back. ‘Once you walk off that precipice, there’s no going back. I did think that I could go back if it went wrong, but it never occurred to me to do that. Finally, I had taken the plunge and it was very exciting. You want to go further. There’s not much to entice you back from that world once you’re in it.’

Historically, Nitin’s work has been as an album artist and film composer, but different strands of works and interests blossomed into theatre and dance work at Sadler’s Wells. Collaboration has been key to the development of his career, and Nitin’s advice to those wanting to follow in his footsteps is to be open to collaboration.

‘Be open to learning, always,’ Nitin explains, ‘Never have the impression you know how to do everything. I have skills that I have learnt over the years in different ways but if I walk into a project, I empty my mind and think “how do we approach this?” and “how do we build a musical vocabulary that is specific to this project?”. When you do this with many people, you learn from them and that helps you get into other ways of thinking and styles. Be open-minded – music isn’t a place for insecurity, it’s a place of exploration and self-discovery.’

With such a vast body of work spanning many artforms over nearly three decades, I probe Nitin about his creative processes and how they might have changed.

‘If you are making your own album, it’s about soul-searching; it’s what you are passionate about at that time and what you need to say or express and turning that into sound. If you are working with a director of a film, you are trying to realise their vision – so you have to work with their psychology and the narrative of the film.’

Nitin has scored over 50 films, including the recently released Breathe, starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield which is Andy Serkis’ directorial debut. Nitin is currently scoring again for Andy Serkis for the Warner Bros’ film Jungle Book, due for release in 2018.

‘You have to use every part of your brain to make a film score,’ Nitin tells me, ‘orchestration is different to sitting down and expressing something on the guitar or piano. My question when composing for film is “what am I adding?” – am I literally underlining what is already happening, or have I created something that could be related to something that happens later?’

Composing music for film in the past, Nitin tells me, started with a process called ‘spotting’, which is a meeting between director and composer where both watch the film together so the composer can create musical concepts.

‘Nowadays I read the script before shooting starts and then I would watch rough footage,’ Nitin explains further. ‘I would then drag the film to Logic and mock up some cues – once they are approved, I would transfer the lot to Sibelius, re-notate and get it ready for recording.’

Given his impressive number of studio albums, I ask Nitin if he ever felt pressure to put music out. He replies, ‘I don’t ever know if I will make another album – I only make them if I’ve got something to say.’

A high-pressure job Nitin recalls – and what he says is perhaps his biggest achievement musically – is when he was commissioned to write music for BBC’s Human Planet. ‘I had to write for eight episodes, which is 50 minutes’ worth of music per week. That’s an album of orchestral music per week for eight weeks. That’s a serious marathon. To write it, record it and to make it work for broadcast under ridiculous pressure from producers and directors – who wanted different things – and to make it a success was difficult. The fact it was such a fantastic series is what kept me going.’

Earlier this year, Nitin received the Lifetime Achievement award at the Ivor Novellos – ‘Award-wise, this was my greatest achievement, especially when seeing the names that preceded mine’ – but winning awards (he turned down an OBE in 2007) is not how he measures his success.

‘I am not a goal-orientated person. I enjoy processes’, Nitin explains to me. ‘My greatest achievement is probably learning to use my fingers instead of my whole hands on the piano, because that told me that this was something I was always going to want to do.’

‘I’ve had incredible moments – I’ve conducted the LSO to a sold-out audience, playing my own music to a Hitchcock movie. Playing at the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican to sold-out audiences with my own band and having my own BBC Prom and Electric Prom (and I might be the only one who has had one of each). I want to pinch myself sometimes because at the end of the day, I am a guitarist/piano player who kind of wandered in lots of different directions.’

‘I don’t see being a musician as a job, it’s an honour and privilege every day.’

Francesca Treadaway, Communications Manager, ISM

This feature first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of ISM Music Journal.