Hindi film music’s latest find is Abhay Jodhpurkar, the voice behind Mere Naam Tu from Aanand L Rai’s December 21 release Zero. Jodhpurkar’s rendition of the operatic romantic track composed by Ajay-Atul reveals a microphone-ready voice that is as smooth as a veteran and yet has a new texture.

But Jodhpurkar is no debutant. A graduate of AR Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory in Chennai, Jodhpurkar has worked as a playback singer since 2011, singing in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Marathi. He made his debut in 2012 with three songs in AR Rahman’s soundtrack for the Kannada film Godfather: Aalapane Mellane, Deepavali and Neene Ee Kanna Honganasu. The song that catapulted him to fame was Moongil Thottam from Kadal (2013), another Rahman album. In an interview, the 27-year-old singer talks about setting aside a potential career in engineering and his collaborations with various composers.

How did you end up collaborating with composers Ajay-Atul for ‘Mere Naam Tu’?
Three years ago, I had sung a cover of Ajay-Atul’s National Film Award-winning song Jiv Rangala from Jogwa as part of a medley. I had uploaded the track on my YouTube channel, and Ajay sir happened to listen to it. He told me that he really loved it and that he wanted to work with me.

Before Mere Naam Tu, he wanted me to sing Sapna Jahan from Brothers, but that didn’t work out because I was not in Mumbai at that time. Last year, on October 20, Ajay sir called me to check if I was around to dub or try out something. I was at a temple in Ujjain and told him that I could only reach the studio the next day. That was it. We recorded Mere Naam Tu on October 21.

Could you take us through the recording of the song?
Aanand [Aanand L Rai] sir, lyricist Irshad Kamil sir and three people from the production team of Zero were there with Ajay sir in the studio. They said they wanted to test my voice.

I was quite stressed about the recording, but they made me feel at ease. Ajay sir gave me the first four lines. They tried my voice in different textures. Then they got into a huddle for about five to ten minutes. We recorded the first antara, followed by the hookline.

We were halfway through the recording, and I remember Aanand sir and I were both very hungry. But Ajay sir insisted that we finish the recording first. He told me, your voice is shining right now and I don’t want to give it a break. The second antara is full of high notes, and I sang that on an empty stomach.

After the recording was done, we finally sat down and ate together. I had already recorded for Aanand sir once during Raanjhanaa. I had done some humming for the background score thanks to Rahman sir.

When the team went to shoot the song, that’s when the whole cast and crew heard it, including Shah Rukh sir. Everyone felt my voice matched his. It was just meant to be, I guess.

Mere Naam Tu, Zero (2018).

How different was ‘Mere Naam Tu’ from the other romantic songs you’ve sung?
Mere Naam Tu was a revelation. I was getting a chance to explore my vocal potential. The song was in a higher register than what I am generally used to. I ideally sing in C, and this was in C sharp. The track helped me push myself to go beyond what I thought were my boundaries. It helped me explore and experiment, in a way, and this happens only when you’re singing with a composer who doesn’t know you or with somebody who is working with you for the first time.

It was a similar experience with Rahman sir’s Moongil Thottam for Kadal. Like Mere Naam Tu, I didn’t know I could pull that off so well. I’m not praising myself, but I was surprised with what the song brought out of me. It’s also a function of great composers like Rahman sir and Ajay-Atul. These are people who know how to extract the best out of an artist.

The other aspect was that I emoted really well during the recording. One of the reasons was the fact that I was suffering from depression and heartbreak back then. I had moved to Mumbai after things had become a little saturated in the South, especially after working there for six years. I had started to question where I was headed. So, that’s when this song happened. I poured all my vulnerabilities into the track. There is this emotional tenderness and honesty in the song, and I really connected with that.

‘Moongil Thottam’ was the first song you ever recorded. How did you come to be a student of Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory?
Music had always been there in my life right since my childhood days. My grandfather used to teach me Hindustani classical music. I remember participating in all the school competitions and winning them.

But I was always aware that pursuing music as my primary career was going to be tough. India has so much talent and is teeming with musicians trying to eke out a living. So I decided to pursue it on the side alongside my academics.

When I went to Chennai to pursue a B Tech degree, I was exposed to Carnatic music, and it blew my mind. It was a different world of music. I felt it was my ultimate calling. It was with that intent that I joined KM Conservatory.

What began as a part-time obsession soon became the only focus. This happened during the second year of school at KM. I decided to dedicate myself completely to music and forgot about the B Tech part of my life.

Moongil Thattam, Kadal (2013).

How did AR Rahman pick you for ‘Moongil Thottam’?
Rahman sir called me after he listened to a qawwali that we had sung at the school. I was a part of a group of 15 people, but there was one line that I had sung that had stayed with him. He tried my voice for a couple of devotional numbers and we recorded some scratches.

Later, after my semester exams, I went to him to ask if I could go back home. That’s when he said that he had a song for me and asked me to stay back. On December 4, 2011, we recorded Moongil Thottam. I didn’t know the meaning of the lyrics. Rahman sir said, just feel the melody and emote well.

Moongil Thottam was recorded first, but the songs that were released first were from Godfather.

After ‘Moongil Thottam’, you went on to sing songs in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. How do you sing in languages you are not familiar with?
What you have to do is keep working on your singing, continue your practice and people will call. All I did was make sure that I was available to composers.

After Moongil Thottam, I remember Saamy Anna, who is Rahman sir’s manager, asking me if it is okay to share my number to composers who were asking for it. He started giving out my number to composers and within six months, I began getting calls from the best in the industry.

Social media was another space that helped me network with composers. Facebook is where GV Prakash approached me. As did Nivas Prasanna.

I also made it a point to listen to music from the four main languages of the South. That’s how I picked up some of the nuances. But a big share of credit also has to go to the lyricists who mentored me during recordings. Since I don’t know the language, I’d have to be told if I was pronouncing something wrong. I couldn’t have done justice to compositions without the help of those lyricists.

Ee Sanje, Rangitaranga (2015).

You’ve mostly sung romantic numbers throughout your career. Is that a conscious choice?
Not really. The only thing I ensure is that my voice has to suit the song I’m planning to sing. Having said that, romantic songs are indeed my forte. I’m a romantic person, I guess. So, that reflects in my singing. Comfort zone-wise too, I’m more of a melody singer. But I’ve sung other genres as well – some dance numbers, some gaana songs. A song like Adiye Enna Ragam is a mix of many genres, a medley but essentially folk. Halena has a western touch.

The composer of ‘Halena’, Harris Jayaraj, is another frequent collaborator. What is his working style like?
He is a composer whose thought process is very firm. He knows what he wants and is not someone who will settle for something that is not in his genre of music.

There’s also always a sense of direction, and you know where the composition is headed. Whereas with Rahman sir for instance, you have no idea what to expect. Exploring these different schools or styles of music is a very good training process.

Halena, Iru Mugan (2016).

What does a playback singer have to bring to the table today?
Playback changes every year, actually. The ideology or the theory behind interpreting a song changes constantly and evolves with the changes in world music. So, as a singer, you have to be able to rise up to that challenge and adapt with time. You cannot always sound the same. People do get bored.

In spite of you having the same voice, you can still experiment by modulating that voice. Arijit Singh is a good example of someone who has been versatile and is constantly evolving. Give him any genre and he will do justice to that. I would similarly like to explore newer genres and give my best.

Playback is like acting, in that sense. Your approach has to change based on the song. If it is a fisherman’s song, it should sound like one. I personally also explore other art forms like photography and painting. These art forms give you experiences that can then be incorporated in your singing. It’s a never-ending process of learning.

What is your take on remixes?
Remixes are fine, but I think people should also compose original songs. I don’t see any creativity with remixes because you’re not offering anything new. It is easy and yes, people love the quick results of these shortcuts. But there’s a limit to how far it can be taken or how much longer they can go on. The more challenging part is to create something fresh, which is as good as these songs that are being remixed.

Minnaminni, Koode (2018).

You’ve done many covers of old Hindi songs on your YouTube channel.
I love old Hindi music. I’m an old soul, actually. I find old Hindi songs timeless. They weren’t songs that were created for the commercial aspect of numbers or YouTube views. The whole idea was to just create something that is musically good, and that thought is pure and unadulterated. That purest form of music moves you, makes you cry, laugh and somehow touches you. Since we are in the EDM world today, I want to bring that world back.

Mere Naam Tu, in that respect, is revolutionary because you rarely hear a melody song mounted on such a grand scale today. I hope this song helps us revisit a whole era of golden music that we once had.

Do you have plans to compose music as well?
I try to compose, but I’m still a novice. I’ve also been so caught up in juggling all the different music industries. I would love to end up as an independent musician but for that, I think I need to learn more.

A tribute to Mohammed Rafi.