A/V Room









Nitin Sawhney - Up close and personal

Interview & feature by: Jack Foley

FOR a man who faced such a difficult upbringing, surrounded by racism, Nitin Sawhney has a refreshingly upbeat and honest approach to life.

But then everything about this talented musician is amazing - from the music he creates, to the list of people he has worked with, right down to the way in which he has triumphed against adversity to become one of the most widely-respected artists working in music today.

Spending time with him prior to the release of his third studio album, Human, it is easy to see why he is so highly thought of.

Human marks his most personal work to date, a sort of life story, related in music, which provides a fascinating insight into a remarkable life.

So what was it that made him decide to look back now?

"I suppose it's kind of feeling like I wanted to try and re-focus my thinking as a person, after feeling like I was having my head pushed around by a lot of bullshit coming from politicians and the media, really," he told me.

"I don't understand any of the thinking that's going on in the world right now, where people think it's alright to go around murdering people on the basis that they just need money and oil off them... and that we actually think that's ok. I can't really understand that, and I don't really relate to that society.

"So, I kind of wanted to make an album where I wanted to try and figure out who I was, and what exactly I'm supposed to feel in relation to everything that is going on around me."

That’s not to say the album represents a rant against the injustices of the world as he sees it. More, it is an internal look at his place in it, which should force people to think about themselves as well.

His music, in short, is inspiring, particularly when listening to tracks such as Falling, which recalls the difficulty he faced while at school from racism.

"It was quite a racist time," he explains, when talking about the motivation for Falling.

"I mean, the National Front used to be outside the school gates all the time with a van, shouting stuff at me as I would walk home from school.

"I would also have National Front leaflets passed round to all my mates, or I'd get attacked quite frequently. I was the only Asian person around, and I was banned from the school music rooms by a racist music teacher, who didn't let me in the music rooms for six years.

"There was all kinds of stuff, it's just racist times. I once drove into a National Front march when I was 12, by accident, so there was all kinds of mad shit that was happening around then."

But such incidents have not allowed him to regress as a person and he wouldn’t attempt to force his views, his religion, or even his race, upon anyone, speaks candidly about the ills of patriotism.

"I just tend to think that nationality is just such a load of rubbish; it doesn't really mean anything at all. It's just so meaningless.

"It's incredible how much priority and how much meaning is placed on the idea of nationality when people say they are proud to be Asian, proud to be English, American, or whatever. It doesn't make any sense, because at the end of the day, it's not something you've achieved, it's something that you just happened to be born into by chance.

"I don't really understand the notion of being proud of something that really happened to you by chance.

"And, also, it seems to be a bit of an excuse to be a complete bastard to other people, whether that's on one side of the world or the other. It just seems like nationality is always used as an excuse by politicians to get people to do all kinds of disgusting, and unacceptable things that they want them to do."

It is an outlook which has helped Sawhney to collaborate with a diverse variety of musicians, from all corners of the globe.

For his last album, Prophesy, he travelled from Australia to Soweto and New York, working with people such as aborigines, Soweto schoolchildren and even a New York taxi driver.

And then there was the meeting with Nelson Mandela, to take a sample of his voice for another of his tracks. What was meeting such an iconic free-thinker like?

"Incredible, I mean Nelson Mandela is the epitomy of everything that is balanced and kind of in tune about people," he enthuses. "He respects himself, he respects what's around him, he's honest and he has a sense of equality for people that isn't derived from seeking power; he just seeks justice and balance and respect for everyone. So I think he is a really admirable bloke."

For Human, Sawhney has continued to use samples from some of the leading figures in history, with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell and Martin Luther King appearing at certain points.

How does he got about selecting such samples, and what does he feel they bring to his music?

"With this album it was very much more about chronology, because I was trying to contextualise various tracks. Particularly with Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell, that was about 1968, and that was the climate that the track was written in, or that idea comes from, much as Nixon talking establishes that was 1972, and Thatcher establishes the 80s and materialism.

"It's just floating around and establishing the chronology of the album, really, and using appropriate icons of the time to actually just contextualise where certain feelings came from, or certain frustrations or depressions. It's kind of like those people were very dominant in terms of my life, even if I didn't necessarily want them there."

Needless to say, Sawhney remains very proud of the album and is looking forward to its release on July 14. As well as marking a personal work, it should bring an emerging sound of London to a wider listening base, given the variety of new artists he has collaborated with.

"Working with, say, Matt Hales [Aqualung], was fantastic, but they're all great," he said. "And it's also nice to work with a load of unsigned talent.

"In fact, I think Matt Hales is the only signed artist, apart from me, on the whole album, which is really cool. I think it's quite nice that there is a real range of people that are unsigned and fresh.... And it's very London-based, compared to other albums I've done.

"But I like that as well, because I like the diversity that actually already exists in London, and it's also a nice static point to look back on your whole life."

The resulting journey through life is one that is well worth taking and we would urge you to do so.

Follow the links for a track by track explanation from Sawhney, as well as the full Q&A from this exclusive interview.

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