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
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
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."
Thats 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 wouldnt attempt to force his views, his religion,
or even his race, upon anyone, speaks candidly about the ills
"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
"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
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
"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.