She is one of the finest vocalists of our times. Apart from being an accomplished singer, Shilpa Rao is a composer and musician too. She does not sing for films very often but when she does, she makes sure that the song, which she has lent her voice to, is the kind that stays with the listener for a long time. Shilpa recently won a Filmfare Award – her first – for the song ‘Ghungroo’ from the Hrithik Roshan – Tiger Shroff – Vaani Kapoor starrer ‘War’. In this exclusive interview, she talks about her journey so far, association with frequent collaborators like Vishal and Shekhar, Pritam and Mithoon, getting into self-depression mode for an Amit Trivedi composed song, female vocalists being under-utilised in Bollywood and more.
The first song you recorded for Vishal and Shekhar was Khuda Jaane from Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008). ‘Ghungroo’, your last collaboration with them fetched you your first Filmfare Award. The one line “ghungroo toot gaye…” was inspired from a traditional poem. It gelled in seamlessly with what was essentially an electronic dance number.
Actually, that one line has been used multiple times in different songs. It is just an expression that is there in the song. The rest of the song had freshly written lines by Kumaar. The lines are simple and yet, add a lot of style and elegance to the song. I have had a long-standing association with Vishal and Shekhar and director Siddharth Anand and it is always wonderful to work with them. Most of the songs I have done with them have become iconic, be it Khuda Jaane, I Feel Good and the title track of Anjaana Anjaani or Meherbaan from Bang Bang. Every album with them has been very memorable.
Tose Naina from Anwar (2007) and Saiyaan Re from Salaam – E – Ishq (2007) were among your first releases. Which was the first song you recorded?
I recorded ‘Saiyaan Re’ first but my first release was ‘Tose Naina’. Actually, both the songs released very close to each other. Mithoon is a very simple human being and a gifted composer. I have distinct memories of him playing the melody on a harmonium when I went to his studio. It is a song which has always stayed with me. The lyrics written by Hasan Kamaal and the arrangements had a lot of depth to them. I had known Shankar Mahadevan for quite some time before I moved to Mumbai. He was the one who thought I will be the right voice for Saiyaan Re. It turned out to be the first song I ever recorded for a film.
You had released a solo, non-film album titled ‘Suno’ in 2016. It was, arguably, one of the finest soundtracks to have come out of the independent music space in the last couple of years. Do you plan to work more in the non-film space in the near future?
Of course, I have always enjoyed working in this space and I will continue to do so. This year, I released a single with Anoushka Shankar and Ayanna Witter-Johnson called ‘Those Words’. It was my first international collaboration. In 2016, I had collaborated with the band Noori for the track ‘Paar Chanaa De’ which we did for Coke Studio Pakistan. I have had other memorable collaborations with Agnee, Parikrama and Karsh Kale, among others, in the non-film music space.
You had composed the song ‘Abr-E-Karam’ for the film ‘Bhopal A Prayer For Rain’ (2014). After that you did not compose again for films. Why?
‘Abr-E-Karam’ is a very special song for me because of what it stands for. Dhruv Sangari wrote some wonderful lines for it. Given the right opportunity, I would like to compose for films but right now, I am busy recording a lot of songs for other composers and it is difficult for me to branch out as a composer on my own. Though not for films, I have always liked composing and keep putting together tunes whenever I get time.
‘Ek Lau’ from ‘Aamir’ (2008) is one of the best songs you have rendered. You went into a shell and self-depressed yourself for days to get into the mould of the song.
Yes, it was a very complex song and needed a certain amount of preparation. I like to spend some time with a song before I record it. It is one of the most difficult songs I have ever recorded and one which I will always feel proud about. Actually, every song has a story behind it. I drop in a studio with an empty head and without any pre-conceived notion. Sometimes, a song is recorded in a jiffy and at times, you come across songs which require you to invest a lot of time to get the feel and the emotions right.
A lot of female singers have spoken about the lack of female voices in film soundtracks. Even a film like ‘Chhapaak’, which had a woman as the central protagonist, had all the songs in male voices and there was not a single female voice on the soundtrack.
This is something that needs to change. It is deeply disturbing to see female vocalists not getting enough opportunities to sing in films. It is getting a little monotonous with male voices singing most of the songs.
A lot of your recent songs like ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’ (‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’), ‘Kalank’ (Kalank’) and ‘Haan Tum Ho’ (‘Love Aaj Kal’) have been with Pritam. The first song you recorded for him was ‘Yaariyan’ from ‘Cocktail’ (2012).
Yes, I have done a lot of good work with him. Pritam is a very simple person who is very well-read and has a vast amount of knowledge on a variety of things. When we are in the studio, we tend to talk more about non-musical things like politics, filmmaking and even time-travel.
From younger composers like Amit Trivedi and Mithoon to veterans like Ilaiyaraja, you have worked with a wide range of composers. Is there any composer who you still long to work with?
Vishal Bhardwaj is one composer I would love to work with. I have not got the opportunity to sing for him so far but I sincerely hope I get to record with him someday soon.