Most singers move away from their roots once they get a foothold in Bollywood. Not Nikhil D’Souza, who sang a volley of hits in the early 2010s, including Sham (Aisha, 2010), Mere Bina (Crook, 2010), O Gujariya (Queen, 2014). Since 2015, however, D’Souza has had only seven Hindi playback tunes, in addition to singing Tanishk Bagchi’s non-film single Vaaste (2019).
Bollywood happened by chance for the self-trained singer and guitarist. Writing and singing ballads in English came naturally to D’Souza. “Four-five years ago, India did not have a market for original English singer-songwriters, with the major markets being the UK and the US,” D’Souza told Scroll.in. “It made sense for someone like me to move there, so I began spending a lot of time in the US, while returning to India occasionally for gigs here.”
His efforts led to a deal with the London-based Warner Music imprint East West Records. D’Souza left for the United Kingdom in 2018 and spent nearly a year there, churning out what became concert staples such as Beautiful Love and his debut EP Simple Kind of Love.
A yearning to reorient himself made D’Souza quit the label and return to India in 2019. Since then, he has been working on a solo career, producing music in English and Hindi. His new song People, recorded in both languages, is a step in that direction.
Although the song was written in London, before the biggest health crisis to hit the world in a century, its message of love and peace resonates in times of “growing divides on the basis of race, religion, colour of skin, and economic backgrounds”, D’Souza said. Now is “the right time to release it, as the divides have become more pronounced during the pandemic”, he added.
People implores everybody to live in harmony as they once did as children. “One way in which everyone could be brought together to face the problem was by making them see how we were innocent as children, with no barriers between us, as our cynicism arrived only with age,” D’Souza said. The Hindi lyrics are by Pinky Poonawala. The music video, directed by Ruhi More, features her own grandmother.
The independent release is a boost for D’Souza, who had to work around several constraints with a major record label that represented artists such as Robert Plant and Boyzone. For instance, all his “officially unreleased” recordings that existed online up till then were taken down.
These earlier songs, D’Souza said, featured a harder rock-and-roll sound, different from his current musical style. “Initially, as I performed with bands, my vocals were not the main feature of the songs as other instruments found equal, if not more, prominence,” he explained. “Much later, when I spent time making music in Nashville, Tennessee, did I learn how to create songs where my voice was upfront, with just one guitar accompanying me.”
Before D’Souza, whose growth was entirely based on Western rock and pop, could find his bearings as a solo singer-songwriter, Bollywood came knocking.
After majoring in geology from Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, D’Souza worked for three years abroad, returning to India around 2008 to pursue music full-time. He started off by singing advertising jingles. Dil Titli, sung for an Airtel campaign featuring Saif Ali Khan, caught Amit Trivedi’s attention. Looking for a “fresh voice”, Trivedi got D’Souza to sing Sham, a runaway hit that has endured over the years.
Following Sham, composers Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar recruited D’Souza for, respectively, Mere Bina and the Anjaana Anjaani (2010) title track. The three songs catapulted D’Souza to mini-stardom.
“I was quite lucky to get these songs in the same year, because if only Sham had come out, I would have been slotted as the ditty-by-the-campfire guy,” D’Souza observed. Sham, in fact, nearly saw D’Souza making his acting debut. “After finishing the recording, [Aisha] producer Rhea Kapoor, who was in the next room, asked me if I was free in November, as she wanted me to sing in the movie as well.” He wasn’t.
The Bollywood experience, D’Souza said, made him a better singer.
“In playback, you are singing each line to perfection, with someone guiding you, and so your pitching, delivery, and expression improve automatically,” he said. “With your own stuff, you’re the boss and you sing however you feel like. Also, many times I disagreed with the composer’s vision, but later realised how right they were on hearing the results.”
Hindi playback singing also got D’Souza to expand his range: “While I am comfortable with ballads, I was hesitant about singing dance-y numbers like Anjaana Anjaani and O Gujariya”.
He described his sound as having a “touch of the melancholic” – best exemplified by his unlikely but superb cover of A-ha’s 1980s synthpop hit Take On Me.
D’Souza’s vocals, moving with ease from warm overtones to smooth falsettos over sparse instrumentation, are well suited for acoustic pop. Even his best Bollywood songs, such as Sham or Bas Main Aur Tu (Akaash Vani, 2013), follow this pattern.
Meanwhile, his rock-and-roll days have made him comfortable with belting out grungy material with as much ease: the impressive remake Har Kisi Ko (Janbaaz, 1986) by composer Chirantan Bhatt for Boss (2013) is an example.
Following People, D’Souza plans to release an English-language EP, titled About Deserts and Highways, followed by a Hindi EP. These will be independent releases, which will give the composer control over rights and revenue streams. But will D’Souza be at a disadvantage since he has to promote his songs on his own?
“It takes six-seven years to build your audience in a foreign country as an independent artist, so it makes sense to sign up with a major label in that case, as then the label represents you everywhere, and people take you seriously,” D’Souza explained. “And Beautiful Mind indeed became a radio hit in the UK. But in this day and age, a number one radio hit doesn’t take you anywhere. You need a million streams on YouTube and Spotify as well. The label could push me only to an extent, and radio alone wasn’t cutting it. Meanwhile, I didn’t want to miss the bus in India’s growing streaming scene, so I had to leave.”
As for releasing an album, he isn’t sure. Music publishers don’t need albums to push singles any more, and listeners don’t seem to care either.
“An album has a theme and lets an artist tell a story,” D’Souza observed. “Additionally, with everyone focusing on only making singles everybody will like, you’ll see less experimentation. Earlier, if you made a couple of songs which only your cat liked, and you put them into an album thinking, hey, someone might like them, there was a chance that that odd song could become a hit. That situation’s gone.”