Singer Shakthisree Gopalan has turned out yet another doozy for director Mani Ratnam and composer AR Rahman for the September 27 release Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Bhoomi Bhoomi is to the soundtrack of Ratnam’s family drama what Nenjukkule was to the director’s 2013 release Kadal: a memorable tune with poetic lyrics rendered in Gopalan’s powerful, let-it-rip voice. Apart from also singing the track in the Telugu version, Nawab, Gopalan matches Rahman’s trademark musicianship with raw energy and emotion for Kalla Kalavaani in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.

Gopalan trained as an architect and has a parallel existence as an independent singer and song-writer. She made her debut as a playback singer in 2008 with Sorgam Madhuviley from TN 07 AL 4777 and is the voice behind such tracks as En Uchimandai from Vettaikkaran (2009), Makkayala from Naan (2011) and the title track of Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012).

Trained in the Carnatic tradition, the Chennai-based singer sings for Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films, apart from producing her own music. She has also designed the KM College of Music and Technology, the music school set up by Rahman in Chennai in 2008. Excerpts from an interview.

Can you take us back to when you recorded the first song for ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’?
Usually, when we get a call from AR sir’s studio, until we go into the studio, we never know what we’re going to record, what language it is going to be in, what movie it is for, who the actor or director is.

Similarly, I got a call from AR sir’s studio. That’s when I learnt that we were going to record Bhaga Bhaga [the Telugu version of Bhoomi Bhoomi]. Lyricist Rakendu Mouli was there and the lyrics were being finalised that evening. I understand very little of Telugu. So I wrote down the lyrics and asked him for a word-by-word translation.

When I wrote down the translation, I was like, oh my god, this is heavy-duty stuff. For instance, there are two lines that translate to something like this: like comets that are falling from the sky, these teardrops are falling from my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. You’re literally at war with your own heart, questioning why there is this desire to be violent. I thought the lyrics were mind-blowing.

Bhoomi Bhoomi, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018).

How different was it to sing the Tamil version ‘Bhoomi Bhoomi’?
I had internalised the song, the melody, the metering and its spirit by the time we recorded the Tamil version. Even the Tamil lyrics are so wonderful and poetic and containing equally heavy-duty ideas.

[Rahman] Sir told me he wanted a certain vibe. There is that portion “idhayam thangumaa”, when it just takes off into the higher notes. Rahman sir sang it for me to show me what he wanted. I picked up on the vibe.

Generally, I love it when I don’t have to look at the lyrics and sing. If I could, I would close my eyes and be transported to the world that the music creates. Internalising the melody and the words allows me to give all my attention and energy to the emotions, in addition to the musical and technical aspects.

‘Kalla Kalavaani’ has an unusual arrangement. Your voice reaches the ear like a bullet and then settles into a completely different mood.
We recorded the Tamil version first. We recorded a whole bunch of different portions, but I honestly did not predict the high bit that we hear in the beginning as the opening portion. We were playing around with the composition and sir was asking me to sing many different sections. I couldn’t imagine how it was all going to tie up together.

But this is what I mean. He’s in a particular stream of consciousness when he’s working. Like, for instance, if I’d sung that opening bit in a lower octave, it wouldn’t have matched up to the energy or that sense of pure power that is there in the final version. As a musician you think, okay, maybe this composition will go in this direction after this particular section, but nope, he just surprises you.

Kalla Kalavaani, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018).

Vairamuthu’s Tamil lyrics can be quite complicated for a singer.
In Bhoomi Bhoomi and Kalla Kalavaani, there are some really unconventional choices of words. Some of them are a little tricky, but that’s what’s beautiful.

I love to hear sounds and words that are new, that are not so over-exposed. It is amazing that even after writing all these songs, Vairamuthu is still able to find new words and expressions. Like in Kalavaani, there is this line “Thirandha kannilae imayai thirudum”, which translates into, she is ready to steal your heart even if you’re holding on to it. It’s just so good, that line.

Would it be fair to say that ‘Bhoomi Bhoomi’ and ‘Kalla Kalavaani’ have unleashed the potential of your voice in a way that hasn’t been done before?
I think Rahman sir definitely pushes boundaries, not just for himself, but for the people he’s working with as well. That’s also why he’s always doing new things. I don’t think he is ever complacent. With Bhoomi Bhoomi and Kalavaani, I got the opportunity to explore vocal spaces that I’ve never got to explore to this extent with other compositions.

Before Nenjukkule, a lot of the tracks that I had the opportunity to sing lead vocals for were mostly in the lower registers, closer to my speaking range and funnily enough, mostly oomph songs. Because most people tend to size up my singing range by my speaking voice.

With Anirudh’s [Ravichander] Kadhal Kan Kattudhe, for instance, I got to explore the higher range of power vocals. I used to sing with a rock band back in my college days. And the inputs he gave me were spot-on. He said he wanted this full powerful rock vocal kind of vibe. When it begins, the song is mellow and intimate but then it just breaks out into this power vocal chorus only to die down into this super folk-y space. It was awesome that he got me to explore completely different vocal dynamics in one song.

Kaaki Sattai, Kadhal Kan Kattudhe (2017).

Female playback singers in Tamil cinema usually have ultra-feminine, tremulous voices. Your voice doesn’t fall in that category.
I’ve wondered why there is a stereotypical, conventional projection of the female voice in movie soundtracks. But maybe I should also think about why female characters are being projected this way, right? That’s what sets the parameters.

In general, if you look at how female characters are being portrayed in movies, there is a certain conventional idea of the female lead character. So it sets the template for what their voice in a song should sound like. Because these songs are made for these characters in these scripts. So for this to change, that should also change.

Back in the day, LR Eshwari songs like Palinginal Oru Maligai had the vibe of old-school jazz songs. I loved that. It is an oomph song in its own way, and it is so beautiful. That’s also a great way to project voices that are bold and bass-heavy. Because there is no one type of woman. There seems to be a general idea of what the ideal woman should be like, and that comes across even in terms of the preferred skin colour for the screen. I wish more diversity would be showcased.

But I think things are certainly starting to change.

‘Nenjukkule’ happened around the time you designed Rahman’s music school, the KM Music Conservatory. How did you get involved?
AR sir was on the lookout for a young architect to design the music school at the time. He had spoken to Abe Thomas in California about it, who connected us. He knew I was a musician and that I was also an architect. I had also done a lot of extensive research into music schools and spaces that involved music for my thesis in college.

The building used to be a textile warehouse. We did away with all the internal walls and retained the basic framework. I redesigned the layouts because the pattern of moving through a space is important to experiencing the space. I also designed the interiors. Emmy Paul was the acoustic consultant.

I wanted to retain the spirit of what the building used to be, so all the common spaces have an industrial treatment with pop-art inspired vibes. The interior spaces are minimal, modern and have a clean design kind of aesthetic, very functional. Music, when you study, has a huge clinical aspect to it but there’s also a sense of play that is vital to the learning process. I wanted the space to be able to reflect that.

For me, designing a music school is a dream. Period. Designing one for AR Rahman sir was a mega, mega dream come true.

KM College of Music and Technology. Courtesy Ravikiran Vissa.

How did ‘Nenjukkule’ help you break away from the songs you were being offered?
I used to put up my independent original compositions online on Reverbnation, and that’s how I got my initial few recording opportunities. On my demo series, there are a bunch of songs from different genres from pop to jazz to Carnatic, songs that I composed with my friends. I gave this demo to Rahman sir around the time that I designed his school. He went inside, heard the songs and came back and told me, man, you sound amazing. I was like, god, please take me now, this is all I wanted to hear.

That’s also when he told me that there is a folk song that we’ll try out. The brief he gave me for Nenjikulle was that he wanted to hear only love. It needs to feel like a young teenage kid falling in love. Nenjukkule was the first song I recorded, but Jab Tak Hai Jaan came out first.

Then came the lovely ‘Enga Pona Raasa’ from Bharat Bala’s ‘Maryan’ (2013).
AR sir was playing the piano. He asked Keba Jeremiah to play certain chords. Kutti Revathi [Dr S Revathi] was there writing the lyrics as we were recording. And Bharat Bala sir was also there. He told me he wanted the song to feel like someone was walking barefoot on the beach.

While Keba was playing, Rahman sir would explain the tune and then Kutti Revathi would come up with lines for the melody and sir would ask me to sing it out. Then AR sir would again work out some chords and he’d be like, can you guys try this.

We finally had one version that day, but when we came to record the final version the next evening, he suddenly changed the time signature. The song was in four and he changed it to seven and it felt like the song was meant to be in seven all along. It felt just right.

Enga Pona Raasa, Maryan (2013).

You’ve also worked with other composers such Santosh Narayanan (‘Naan Nee’) and Aniruddh Ravichander (‘Yaanji’).
Santosh Narayanan is a musician with a quirky vision, whether it is the sounds he uses in his music, the voices and vocal treatment, or his sense of humour. When I heard Naan Nee for the first time, I immediately connected to the music and the lyric. Uma Devi’s poetic visualisation is absolutely beautiful, and she found a way to put words to feelings that are hard to express. There was an instant special connect with this song, and I had a great time recording this one in the studio. I love the soundscaping and the overall treatment of sounds in his music.

And it’s really exciting to work with Anirudh. He’s an amazing producer and composer. He is very dedicated and hardworking. And when it comes to creative vision, he definitely knows what he wants. Even on stage, he’s got this super electrifying energy.

Let’s talk about your own compositions. There’s ‘Phir Wahin’, which was released this year. It’s a song you have written, composed, sung and produced. It has a 1990s Hindi pop vibe but is also contemporary.
As a ’90s kid, I remember a time when Indi-pop music videos started appearing on TV. I remember how a Lucky Ali video would pop up and I would stop whatever I was doing and stay glued to the screen.

I love music videos and I remember being fascinated with all the Hindi-pop independent music videos of the ’90s – Alisha Chinai’s Made in India, Colonial Cousins’ Krishna, Silk Route’s Dooba Dooba. I was definitely inspired and influenced by that era, and in some ways, we did consciously try to incorporate a sense of that vibe in the music video.

Phir Wahin is a song I wrote sometime ago. It was an interesting process for me to record and release the song earlier this year because I had evolved so much in my personal and artistic journey. But I could still relate to the spirit of the song and the story it tells. So I went about producing it. I feel songs are like snapshots of a certain time and a certain frame of mind.

This was also my first time writing lyrics in Hindi. So it’s special. It also features some additional lyrics by the very talented Bollywood singer and friend, Nakash Aziz. This song was also released in Tamil as Neeyaai Naan and was written by the talented Madhan Karky – another first for me as this was my first ever independent Tamil release.

Phir Wahin (2018).

You’ve also created the intense and fierce ‘Shakthi’, which came out in 2017. Then there’s ‘Voices’ (2012), which seems to fall somewhere in the middle. How would you define your style?
Did Shakthi seem fierce? Interesting. Intense for sure, fierce I don’t know.

Honestly, I don’t know how I would define or describe my musical style on the whole. To me, it’s more like I’ve been travelling through different phases at different times, incorporating varying degrees of various musical influences, sometimes revisiting some spaces, but at other times just moving past them. I think I’m an explorer at heart trying to find different ways of expression, and I will keep exploring. I have been in the process of discovering a balance – of different sounds, vocal styles and musical treatments that bring together my musical influences – for the songs that I have currently been working on.

Voices was the first of the few solo projects that I had independently produced at the time. I used to play the song on the guitar and sing along for almost two years before I finally hit the studio and recorded the song.