In recent years, Americana has become all the rage with foreign-born artists like Mumford & Sons chewing up and spitting out what traditionally was localized to the United States. In that same vein, meet Ajay Mathur, an Indian-born musician now residing in Switzerland. His unique sound takes Americana and blends it with some ’60s-caliber psychedelia for a new album that’s as much a treat for the ears as throwing on a 180-gram Zeppelin reissue. (For those who like that kind of thing.)
Recently, we had a chance to pick Mathur’s brain about said album (entitled 9 to 3), his songwriting process, and, to stick with the Zeppelin theme, jamming with Jimmy Page.
POPDOSE: Your music certainly holds a lot of world influence with diverse instruments like the sitar, though it also has a distinct Western flavor and recalls bands like Led Zeppelin and artists like Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Who are your influences, and how did you go about blending together this intriguing sound?
AJAY MATHUR: Thank you for having me here. Yes, that’s true. I’ve always loved rock music and grew up listening to these artists that you mention. I guess the world influence comes from my Indian heritage. Growing up in India, I had the advantage of having been exposed to instruments that other songwriters might not have. I am intrigued by the combinations of instruments that might not normally fit together. I love to experiment. I try to create a sound that would best build up the energy and the mood of the song and also capture the atmosphere of the topic. I mix, cross, and morph different genres to get there. This mostly happens unconsciously. I guess that’s the reason why my sound is a combination of many different styles. If I were to put together all the genres mentioned in the album reviews so far, they would probably add up to #PsychedelicAmericanaUrbanJazzWorldCountryRock.
If I were to name a few of my favorite songwriters, they would be Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Lennon/McCartney, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy, Beck, and Adele. The musical craftsmanship of musicians like the Beatles, Jack White, Steely Dan, Jonathan Wilson, Derek Trucks, Wilco, Jimi Hendrix, and many others have had a strong influence on me and have definitely left their mark on my life and on my music.
You were a finalist in the 2011 Show Me the Music Songwriting Competition and in the 2012 Unsigned Only Songwriting Competition. What were those experiences like? What did you take away from them as an artist?
I don’t see music or songwriting as a competition. There is no best musician, no best singer, and no best song. Music is a matter of personal taste and mesmerizing force of creative energy that grabs you when you listen to a song or when you’re playing it. In the early years of modern pop-rock there was lot collaboration, jamming, and experimentation going on among musicians, songwriters, and producers. This brought us some of the finest innovative music ever known. When it comes to creative arts, I’m skeptical of competitions. But I admit that songwriting contests like Unsigned Only and Show Me the Music do add to an artist’s exposure. I’m not sure about the effect that contests in general have on the creativity and the self-esteem of an artists. Isn’t it a bit like an exam? You slog the material and present it in the required format just to get the top scores. What happens if you don’t make the grade? I strongly believe that creating and enjoying music comes from playing and experimenting and especially from collaborating with other musicians.
The songs on 9 to 3 run the gamut of being humorous and lovely, heartbreaking and hopeful. How do you write a song? What inspires you?
Yes there’s a verity of moods and messages in 9 to 3. A lot of the songs from 9 to 3 relate to my own life’s experience. My lyrical themes span from personal, romantic, and circumstantial to social and political. All my songs have an element of my own experience. In my opinion, the combination of music and message play a huge role when it comes to opening up new perspectives in the minds of listeners. Music helps to make us dream, give us hope, make us feel strong and even loved. Music can evoke powerful emotions. I am a part of the society we live in and everything that happens in this society effects me and inspires me, directly or indirectly. I write and sing about what’s going on around me or inside me.
When I write a song, it’s always an inspiration that comes to me first as a melody. It generally comes with the theme of the song, sometimes even with big chunks of lyrics. I play it on my guitar and sing it till I get to a key that feels good. What happens next is that I try not to record, write, or save the song right away. I let it rest for a couple of days. If it still sticks in my head after these couple of days, then I know that this could be a song. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t worth pursuing anyway. I then record the song and whatever pieces of lyrics I have on my phone. This is basically the creative part of songwriting.
My way of working out arrangements, final lyrics, grooves, and licks, etc. varies from song to song. I approach my production song by song and work towards whatever brings me closer to my concept of the essence and the atmosphere of that song, regardless of a style or a genre. When I work on a particular song, it becomes the centre of my universe and gets my undivided attention until it’s finished. Then I move on to the next one. I try to create a sound that would best build up the energy and the mood of the song and also captures the atmosphere of the topic. I mix, cross, and morph different genres to get there. This mostly happens unconsciously. I guess that’s the reason why my sound is a combination of many different styles.
It’s often said that artists are impacted by their geographical locations. Though you’re originally from India, you now reside in Switzerland. What is it about the country that speaks to you as a songwriter?
Yes, Switzerland is my home, and I love living and working here. I cherish the peace, the reliability, and the stability of the Swiss society. It offers me a good environment for creativity. The good mountain air helps, too [laughs].
You’ve jammed with Jimmy Page. You HAVE to tell us what that was like!
Oh wow, that was a long, long time back. Back in the days, there was lot collaboration, experimentation, and jamming going on among musicians. A lot of known and lesser known musicians from the west were travelling to India in search of something new. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were in Mumbai recording an Indian orchestra at a recording studio that was owned by my uncle. That’s where our music paths first crossed. Then we were lucky that they showed up one night at the club our band playing. We used to play a lot of Zeppelin songs and they kindly agreed to join in. It was an unforgettable experience but a short one because the news of them playing at the club spread fast, causing traffic havoc in the city that night.
For more about Ajay Mathur and 9 to 3, head over to his official website.