‘Aikon Baikon’ got me Margarita, With A Straw – Joi Barua
After winning over more music buffs with Dev D and Udaan, singer, songwriter, composer and rock artist Joi Barua creates his first film song, ‘Dusokute’, for the much-awaited Margarita, With A Straw. In an exclusive interview with Pandolin, the talented musician speaks about his musical journey to the mystical land of movies.
This is the first time you have composed and sung for a movie. How did Margarita, With A Straw (MWAS) happen?
Shonali (Bose, director) heard the original ‘Dusokute’, in Assamese, from my album (Joi- Looking Out of the Window) through lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya. I had made this album in 2010. Mikey McCleary had already been signed for MWAS but when Shonali heard the song she loved the anthem feel and the energy of the song. So, we just changed the lyrics (by Prasoon Joshi) to suit the movie’s situation.
In MWAS, ‘Dusokute’ is about a girl falling in love. What about the original track? Where did you get inspiration for it?
I did my graduation from Guwahati Commerce College (GCC). It was by the side of Assam’s first flyover and back then it was a big thing. In fact I went to GCC because of the flyover. Initially, I wanted to do my major in mathematics from Delhi’s Hindu College. But because the results in Assam come out a month after they come out in Delhi, I couldn’t meet the admission deadlines. Then I went to the Cotton College, the best in Assam, where I’d applied for maths. As I was new to Guwahati (he earlier lived in Shillong) I decided to walk around in the city. And that’s how I walked the flyover that was next to GCC and loved the whole vibe around the college.
I wanted the three years of college life to have the ‘right’ feel and so decided to shift to GCC. Every morning after waking up – I lived in the on-campus hostel – I would go have tea from a small dhaba next to the flyover. I would sip my tea and watch the sun rise over the flyover, it was such a beautiful experience. In 2008-09, when I wrote ‘Dusokute’ (meaning in your eyes), I was reminiscing college days and wondering what had really moved me back then. Watching the flyover would give me a heady rush and leave me with a lot of nervous energy to get up and go run in the city. So that was the inspiration behind ‘Dusokute’.
How did you transform that feeling into a love song?
Every song is about love essentially, you just play on the different variants of love. In MWAS, the parameters of the ‘Dusokute’ were different, it is a song written by Kalki’s character who is falling in love. So we changed the lyrics. In the film the band is performing this song in a college auditorium. Accordingly, we brought in instruments like the trumpet (the original song had the guitar) and we included female vocals.
You have also composed the entire soundtrack for John Abraham’s production. Can you tell us about that project?
Actually both MWAS and John’s film came to me because of a different song from my rock album – ‘Aikon Baikon’. John’s film is directed by Sajid Ali, Imtiaz Ali’s youngest brother. He heard the song and loved it. Sajid is a very keen listener, methodical and has a great understanding of music. He envisioned ‘Aikon Baikon’ as the opening song of his film. So, he gave me the script and asked me to write an opening song. The film has eight song situations and he intended to get a new composer for each. But after hearing my rock album, he told me to compose for his entire movie. It was quite a jump for me. I had a few tunes and melodies, just some bits and parts, which he really liked. Sajid felt it perfectly resonated with his film.
You have done vocal arrangements for mainstream movies like Jab We Met, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Jannat 2, sung for new-age movies like Dev D and Udaan and composed a rock song for your first film assignment. That’s such a diverse choice of work.
I have always loved rock, but I have sung other kinds of songs too. Probably those movies weren’t as big. In terms of Jab We Met and those films I was part of the vocal arrangement, which means singing parts except the main song, like choruses, harmonizing, adding hip hop and pop parts etc. That’s how I started my journey in Bombay. Then I started singing ad jingles and eventually found my way to Amit Trivedi and that kind of music. I sang Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’s title track, a full-on thumping rock. I also sang Raghu Dixit’s ‘Baatein shuru’ (Bewakoofiyan).
For some reason I like singing rock. But composing for movies is another thing. I compose differently. My personal music will always be rock. Probably, it will be a fusion thing later. A little after ZNMD, I launched my album Joi and it became very popular. Both the films (MWAS and John’s production) came to me on the basis of the album. And luckily both movies wanted that rock feel, Shonali definitely wanted it. The other film’s music is story based but the foundation is rock.
Would you say rock and alternative defines your music style?
I have grown up in Assam so I have listened to very different artists. Bhupen Hazarika has been as strong an influence as John Lennon or Sting. In terms of song writing and music influences, there are many. The music that I make for myself with my band (Joi) will be rock based. It will have a hint of other things but the rock influence will be very strong.
Can you take us back in time and tells us about your journey from Assam to Mumbai? And how has the ride been so far?
Bombay is a magical land if you have the perseverance, talent and very honest application of it. After my graduation, I moved to Delhi. There is no freedom like Mumbai, especially for an artistic person. And coming to Mumbai made me feel liberated. This is a different culture. For someone who has come to Bombay for the first time, this openness and freedom is what strikes you. Back in Delhi, I was doing odd things to survive. I was literally sinking into an abyss. Then one day – which was ten years ago – I called my friend Zubeen (Garg, singer) who had become hugely popular with ‘Ya Ali’ (Gangster). I told him I needed help and he told me to come over and stay with him. He is a very big musician in North East and has done a lot of work in Bombay. I stayed with him for six months and he actually saved my life. I started working within the first 10 days of coming to the city.
Zubeen introduced me to Jatin Sharma, who I consider my guru. He is a big programmer / arranger and worked with Anu Malik. At that time, they were working on the soundtrack of Munnabhai MBBS. The song ‘Dekh ke seekh le’ in the movie is a slow song. They didn’t know how to promote the music, so Anu Malik suggested to make a club mix version. That way it could be played on the radio and at discotheques. Jatin is well-known for his club mixes. There are English verses in the song that I sang. It was my first job. I also did bits for ‘Sajana hai mujhe’, original remixed with a Shaggy song. Both songs became very big. I became known as this guy who could write in English, sing those English lines and frame it beautifully. And that’s how I started singing small hooks, English parts, harmonies, etc. for film music directors.
So you went back to Assam and made your album Joi? Why did you make it in Assamese?
I didn’t go back, I made it in Bombay. I have grown up singing in English first and then Assamese. I think in English. But for a long time I was toying with the thought of which language I should make my songs in. I sounded the most honest, in terms of feel, when I sang in Assamese, even though my Assamese has been patchy. But then I decided not to worry as it was my mother tongue, who’s there to judge? My band members thought it was a great idea because the music was very different from what was being made. And we felt we should give something back to Assam. Another reason we opted for Assamese is because it’s a very sweet language. More than understanding, one should feel songs, right na? We felt the songs were far superior in Assamese. The day we think we have enough number of good English songs we shall make that too.
Any rock concerts with your band Joi in the offing?
I have done very few concerts in the last six months as I have been tied up with the soundtrack of the second movie.
Will you continue singing for other composers?
I will sing and definitely compose and produce music, if not movies then I will do it for my own albums.
Composing for a film is different from jingles or band albums. How did you approach each kind of music?
My personal albums are different from everything else. It is storytelling from my point of view and very simply told. I’ll give you a hint of what I feel or felt and less details of what was going on, like with ‘Dusokute’. Movies are someone else’s story. I really have to empathise with and understand what the director wants. Ads are a more condensed form of story-telling which is also fun.
What kind of films would you like to compose for?
There is no particular kind of film that I am seeking. But like these two movies, I am looking at opportunities that let me honestly do what needs to be done. Both films were very close to the albums I have done. But that may not be the case in future. So, as long as people have faith in my sensibilities and let me work it out, is what I am looking at. There are no brands or directors that I have to work with. Sometimes the best combinations have failed. You have the greatest film and worst music or vice versa. So, you really can’t say.
What’s your opinion on the current music scene in the Hindi film industry?
There has been a pre and post Dev D and Udaan phase. Things have never been the same. A lot of people suddenly got the power to think differently. Musicians like Amit Trivedi brought in another kind of music. Lyricists like Amitabh Bhattacharya got in another style of writing. I think there is a lot of talent that is being showcased. Getting a song out is a lot of decisions, it’s just not about an artist. It also means that you have to convince the director that it is right. Just creating a song in isolation is nothing.
If it’s for your own album, people who come to hear it, have to like it. If it is playing on radio there is an option to turn it off. If the audience is listening to an AR Rahman song on the radio and my song is played next, I need to make sure it appeals enough to the same audience and they don’t turn off the radio. It’s a very open world and it requires a lot of courage to be here. So, it is exciting times. And Indian music is representative of a lot of people. It’s not just eastern or Punjabi or South Indian music. Shonali comes from Los Angeles, she made a movie set in Delhi and NY, there is North Eastern character in it and the film has an Assamese song. And the beauty is that all this is meshing well. What could be more exciting than this?