Fariha Sabir catches up with AR Rahman ahead of his Intimate Tour...
If anyone has taken Bollywood music to new and innovative heights, it’s without a doubt the gifted musician, songwriter and singer AR Rahman. His voice and sounds are so distinct unique to him and that’s precisely what sets him apart from other artists. His magical and mystical scores are so mesmerisingly hypnotic and his lyrics so soul stirring, they will resonate with you forever. In my interview with this musical genius, I was amazed at how humble he is, despite his vast success. I find out more behind the Sufi undertones and lyrics in much of his music that very much reflects him, as AR Rahman revealed to me in his soft spoken voice, his spiritual core and musings, his inspirations and how for this extraordinary talent, it goes way beyond just the music…
At what point in your life did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in music?
From childhood, since the age of about 11. My father was a composer and my mother wanted me to pursue music. I was learning music and working on TV from the age of 13. When I finished school, my mother said now you have to start working. So I had to leave high school, when I didn’t really want to. But then I had a lot of fun with music and found myself in music.
What did you grow up listening to?
In school bands, we used to play Pink Floyd and jazz music.
Where do you draw your inspirations from when you create your music?
My inspirations come from the script, nature, acts of kindness, beautiful things I see.
Much of your music has a lot of Sufi influences and your mystical scores are so magical and some of your most popular. Where does that inspiration come from?
Around the late 80’s, I met my spiritual teacher and he blessed me. When I built my studio before he passed away, it was based on the principal of spreading goodness and it transformed me as a person, as a musician. I took a vow that whatever comes out of this studio, should be pure and beautiful and should remind you of the beauty of God. That is the intention and music is actually a messenger of goodness, unity and peace.
You often tweet Rumi quotes, are there any particular quotes that resonate with you?
Many quotes actually. First of all, the best quote for this generation is the quote that I used in Rockstar which is ‘let me meet you in a place, beyond the good things and bad things. There’s a place beyond good things and bad things, I’ll see you there’, which is about how we are judging each other nowadays, how we’re killing each other in the name of good or bad, honour or religion. We’re all judging what we think God wants. That actually defines the space of amazing wisdom, that you just do your duty as best as you can. Everyone wants to polarize people, for example in America with the blacks and whites, Wahabis or Sufis.
Music is such a beautiful form of expression. Recently, music has come under attack by religious extremists, for example in Pakistan, the legendary Amjad Sabri was murdered by the Taliban. What are your views on this and if you could convey a message to people who share such radical views about music, what would it be?
They’re missing people who could be their real guides. There’s a very famous quote of (Ghous Pak) Abdul Qadir Jilani that says ‘Any believer should find a teacher. If you don’t find a teacher, take me as a teacher’. Without guidance, everything would become ridiculous and everybody would take things out of context. That’s one of my favourite things that means, it’s not what you see - there are many levels of understanding in many things. It’s not just like a book to read. You need guidance for everything. And those teachers are slowly disappearing. Before they disappear, go catch them and spread the message of unity again. There’s too much self-destruction out there.
On a lighter note, when I interviewed Farah Khan last year, she was all praises for you but she did reveal that you have the tendency to finish your songs very last minute, which she wasn’t too happy about as you left her hardly any time to choreograph the songs! Is this true and what is this, an artistic quirk of yours?
It’s nothing like that, it’s just that you’re constantly refining. Some of the movies she worked on ended up being last minute, but that doesn’t mean that everything I do is last minute! I usually keep to deadlines much before, because I’m traveling a lot too.
I witnessed you in concert for the first time last year and was absolutely mesmerised. What can your fans expect from the Intimate Tour this year?
It’s an extension of what fans saw in my last concert at the O2, but we have a lot of new songs and new ideas. When I go to a concert, I don’t look for hit songs or anything like that, I look at the artistry. For example, I went on a very special secret cruise a couple of months back, where I witnessed Stevie Wonder perform on stage. So he was singing a lot of classic songs that were not his own and it was so fascinating to see an artist like him. So I just want to be myself, with my band, be at ease and have the warmth of speaking to my fans directly - performing and communicating with them.
You have created some of the most iconic music in the industry and we all have our favourites – is there any album or song of yours which is particularly close to your heart?
I don’t have any favourites, because when you’re writing – the moment you have favourites, you start repeating yourself. So when I finish a song, I’m like a clean slate which is very important. Otherwise it’s like oh I like this, people like this so let me do it again.
You have shown your versatility by working with a diversity of artists including the likes of Mick Jagger and Will.i.am – how was that experience?
They’re all musicians and there’s mutual admiration with everyone, because what they can do I don’t do and what I can do, maybe they can’t do. It’s nice to collaborate with certain people. When I think about it, even meeting Michael Jackson or working with Mick Jagger seems like a dream. But music is such a common umbrella or space, where everyone is equal. I learnt a lot from Mick Jagger - he warms up his voice for an hour before he goes on stage and that fascinated me, that he’s such a legend who can just sing like that. But the fact that he takes it so seriously was so bizarre to me. Even Lata Mangeshkar before every concert, she goes and practices for half an hour. And then you feel so small - I should probably go and practice now! It’s a good thing that the new generation of musicians can definitely learn from. Even if you can sing, you can do better and you have to take it seriously.
What other artists would you like to collaborate with?
I don’t have anybody in mind, but I’m open to new possibilities.
What are the top 5 tracks or artists you are listening to on your ipod right now? Although I can’t imagine you listening to music on an ipod – you’re way classier than that, I can picture you with a golden, gramophone or something!
It’s so varied. Of course Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would be on my list and Mehdi Hassan. In the West, there would be Nat King Cole, in South India it would be Ravi Saab.
How did you feel knowing that your music is appreciated by a global and mainstream audience when you won the Grammys and other internationally acclaimed awards?
It was very spiritual for me, I went numb. I felt like it was not for me, it’s not for my work. It is for the aspirations for the whole Indian continent of people who are always thinking so highly about prestigious awards. I felt like this is an example God has given, for them to achieve bigger and reach new heights where everything is possible if you have the passion and the target in mind. There’s a divine force which acts and helps you get what you want.
Witness A.R Rahman live in concert on these dates during his 'Intimate' Tour:
SSE Arena Wembley, London on 22nd September 2016
Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham on 24th September 2016
First Direct Arena, Leeds on 29th September 2016
Manchester Arena on 30th September 2016
Buy tickets here
Interview by Fariha Sabir