Over the past 30 years ago, Clinton Cerejo sung jingles, moved on to producing some of Vishal Bhardwaj’s finest soundtracks, and then became a fusion rock expert with Coke Studio India, delivering some of its most angst-bitten songs such as Baina and Mauje Naina.
Cerejo’s latest avatar is as the frontman of the electropop duo Shor Police alongside regular collaborator, the singer Bianca Gomes. Shor Police’s music is unlike Cerejo’s previous work. Its Hindi and English tracks make for bouncy pop that rarely run over four minutes. Two am party music is a good description for what Shor Police does.
This isn’t new territory for Cerejo, who said his production work on Beedi Jalaile (Omkara) and Dhan Te Nan (Kaminey), was “as pop as it could get”. His short-lived band Ananthaal, of which Gomes was a member, attempted to condense the sweeping passion of his Coke Studio sound into crisp radio-friendly tunes.
“Guys who grew up listening to Coke Studio were in college then and now they have moved on to jobs,” Cerejo said. “Shor Police is an opportunity to present a new avatar of me. Bianca’s compositional sense in pop also helped me take the plunge.”
Gomes added, “We grew up on classic rock, pop and R&B, so all of those finally come together here.”
The most views on YouTube are for their covers, including a fun version the Game of Thrones tune Power is Power, featuring a section composed and sung by Rajasthani folk singer Mame Khan. The original compositions include the funky Anjaana and the tongue-in-cheek Whatcha Doin’ To Me?
Between Coke Studio India and Shor Police, what explains Clinton Cerejo’s contrasting personalities as a composer-producer?
“I was always a soft music kind of person who was into R&B and jazz, and very much loved pop, while my wife [singer] Dominique Cerejo was actually the rocker,” he said. “A part of me loved the sheer power of rock. While rock appears simpler than other forms, trying to achieve that sound is harder than looks. I’m not an angsty person. You could say the angst in any of my music is completely manufactured.”
Case in point: the face-melting coda of Saathi Salaam, in which a wall of guitars and drums crashes under Sawan Khan’s improvisations. Not much thought went into it, Cerejo said. It became a part of the song because it sounded cool: “After Saathi Salaam rehearsals ended, I just played this riff with the guitar still plugged in, and then everyone, include Sawan Khan, joined in. I realised this has to somehow come into the song.”
The seductive but emotional Mauje Naina combined a rejected English advertising jingle rendered by Gomes and a Hindi section cooked up on deadline 10 days before the Coke Studio shoot.
“The words mauje naina [eyes in whimsy], although grammatically incorrect, came to me first with the tune,” Cerejo recalled. “Lyricist Manoj Yadav protested, but I asked him to weave lyrics that justify the words mauje naina.”
This had previously happened with Anathaal’s Thukraaye. Cerejo got lyricist Siddhant Kaushal to create a life-affirming song from the word “thukraaye”, which means rejection. “Interesting things can happen if you box yourself into a corner and try to work your way around it,” Cerejo observed.
It was equally difficult to organise live recordings of six tunes for Coke Studio India season two in a single day. Cerejo credits their pristine audio quality to Irish music producer Steve Fitzmaurice, whom Cerejo “fought for” because “this was a music show without movie stars so I had to get the best technicians and pay them well”.
Fitzmaurice has worked with Depeche Mode, U2 and Sam Smith. He first collaborated with Cerejo on the Omkara soundtrack, composed by Vishal Bhardwaj. Between Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014), Cerejo’s production brought an edge to Bhardwaj’s melodies, which has arguably been missing ever since Cerejo began focusing on his solo career.
“In this industry, if you are a good technician, you won’t be able to shine as anything else, so you need to move out,” Cerejo said. “With Vishal, and fellow producer Hitesh Sonik, we had a creatively incestuous relationship, where I tried to pull Vishal into my world and Hitesh tried pulling me into his. Vishal took the best risks then because he knew if he jumped off the cliff, we would catch him.”
Less known are Cerejo’s compositions in films such as Jugni (2016), which features both his mentors AR Rahman and Vishal Bhardwaj on vocals. A favourite among his Bollywood tunes is Rootha from Te3n. It is, once again, an angst-bitten song, but held together by unlikely production.
“Since I was doing the score for Te3n, I got the sync sound guys to send me dhak sounds from Durga puja in Kolkata,” Cerejo explained. “I found some bits so fascinating, I joined two together, which sounded like a Timbaland-ish groove, added a hip-hop beat. Benny Dayal brought his polished pop vocals, which contrasted with Divya Kumar’s grain. And Bianca’s breathy voice was like a balm, like the calm sea after a raging river.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic has stopped live shows, Cerejo and Gomes have had to take up any and all work coming their way. “The idea is to monetise every talent you have,” Cerejo argued. “Now, everyone’s trying to make it, so we will take up offers for corporate shows and shaadi gigs, if need be.” Gomes, for instance, has been busy doing voiceovers for television commercials.
Shor Police also has a couple of film soundtracks lined up. Cerejo thinks that the popularity of Karsh Kale and Salvage Audio Collective’s work for Gully Boy opened doors for “indie” music in Hindi movie soundtracks. But can Indian indie music go global?
“We can’t make music in India in a small pond, we need to jump into the ocean,” Cerejo said. “We are too far behind in marketing. The labels with the power to do it have no vision and are dipping their feet into the sea too slowly. The artists are ready. The suits are cautious. Even Indians can create a phenomenon like K-pop.”