Solan-based progressive rock guitarist and composer Sutej Singh, 25, is an overnight sensation whose career has been years in the making. Singh began writing and recording his debut album The Emerging, which reached number one on iTunes India’s all-genre albums chart within a day of release in May, back in 2015.
Filled with searing solos, orchestral flourishes, and heavy metal drums, it’s essentially an album that was written in the bedroom but built for a stadium. “My current goal is to perform at a big festival with the whole orchestra behind me,” said Singh, whose music bears the sonic imprint of Dream Theater and Pink Floyd – bands featuring his two biggest guitar heroes John Petrucci and David Gilmour.
Apart from their virtuosity, Singh said Petrucci and Gilmour’s “melodic playing is what I connected to the most”. His own sizeable technical skill is all the more impressive considering that he taught himself to play the guitar less than 10 years ago. Singh hadn’t heard much rock music until he was about 15, and a cousin introduced him to groups like Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Dream Theater and Pearl Jam. These acts appealed to him because of “the originality of the songwriting; there was no computerised stuff, whatever [they’re] playing [is what] you’re getting”.
Inspired and self-taught
Soon enough, he was hooked. “I started listening to them the whole day,” said Singh, whose tastes at the time were limited to the 1980s pop in his parents’ collection. A couple of years on, he asked his dad to buy him a guitar and began learning how to cover his idols’ tunes with the help of tutorials on YouTube and the software Guitar Pro.
While his music is substantially influenced by sounds from decades ago, in many ways Singh is a quintessential artist of the internet age. The Emerging features collaborations with a host of progressive rock veterans from the UK such as drummers Scott Higham from Pendragon and Raymond Hearne from Haken and bassist Kylan Amos, whom he connected with through Google and Facebook. He got in touch with American instrumentalist Gina Luciani, who plays flute and piccolo on the record, via Instagram and found Australian composer Leon Ross, who arranged the string section parts, on YouTube.
“Every single thing I learned is from the internet,” said Singh who had to cast his search over the World Wide Web because of the paucity of resources in his hometown. While there’s no dearth of talent in Solan and neighbouring towns –“I know a guy who’s a DJ, guitarist, drummer and a producer” – Singh says they lack everything from quality equipment to jam rooms and performance spots. “The closest venues are the pubs in Chandigarh, which is a two-hour drive away,” said Singh, who recorded The Emerging at Blue Olive Studio in Mohali.
Music, unsurprisingly, isn’t considered a viable career option. Apart from a few exceptions such as singer-songwriter Shubhank Sharma, most bands, which come together in college and do the competition circuit over the next few years, break up when it’s time to leave the institutions. “When you graduate, you have to look for a job and the music scene is officially over for you,” said Singh, who was part of the progressive rock band Wireweed while enrolled in a mechanical engineering course at Maharishi Markandeshwar University in Mullana between 2010 and 2014. “We [would perform] our own compositions [which] were 11 or 13 minutes long, with three-to-four minute guitar solos.”
Singh was part of the herd, too, until he realised he wanted to make music his life. “The initial two years of the degree, I was like ‘I need to get a job, I need to study hard’ but the third and fourth year were the complete opposite, I didn’t attend any classes, I would just practise my guitar in the hostel and play college gigs and travel with the band.” Luckily for him, his parents were extremely supportive.
“I had to convince [them] that this is what I want to do,” Singh said. “My father was a cricketer in his younger days. He was passionate about doing something he really liked [but] had to do something else to earn for his family. He gave me a chance [and] said, ‘You can do anything you want; you get a year.’ It’s been four years.” His folks provided both moral and financial support and are “super proud” now that the record is reaping rewards such as topping the charts and earning a surprise shout-out from Katrina Kaif on Instagram.
He wants to send the actress a CD as a token of thanks but so far, she hasn’t replied to his messages. A contact in Kaif might help Singh get a foothold in the film industry where he wants to work on background scores. That he would be quite good at it is evident in the dramatic album Revelations, which the listener could easily imagine as the theme of a period action movie. Singh wrote it as “practice for film scoring”.
Driven by emotions
Another track, Walk The Path, was originally made as part of an application for a scholarship from a music school, which he eventually did not submit. “I just ended up making a song that included a lot of complex parts and time signatures,” said Singh. “The idea of an album came from there.” Somewhere along the way, he started listening to western classical music, which he attributes to his fondness for Dream Theater. “[Some of their songs] have these huge string section moments,” he said. “I kind of fell in love with those tracks and wanted that sound in my music.”
Gradually, The Emerging transformed from a collection of tunes, inspired by themes such as heartbreak (Oceans Apart) and the relationship between a teacher and student or parent and child (Walk My Path), into a three-part concept album. The first part “shows the softer side of a person”, the darker second part “the angrier side” and the third “feelings of learning and realisation”. These varied emotions are represented in Sushant Vohra’s striking artwork for The Emerging, in which flowers surround a bovine skull.
Next, Singh aims to take the album on the road with the band he recently formed with guitarist Utkarsh Tyagi and two friends who are members of Chandigarh-based rock group That Boy Roby, bassist Ishan Sharma (who was also in Wireweed) and drummer Paarth Koser. Singh, who moved to Chandigarh recently so they could start jamming regularly, is in it for the long haul – “I’m good at nothing else. [This is] the only thing I can do.”