Meet 28-year old Harish Budhwani. A software engineer/developer during the day, kickass musician at all other hours. We've met many engineer-musicians in our lives, actually so many that it borders on cliché. But there's a lot that's different about Harish. Perhaps because he's disciplined and therefore successful as both. A pragmatic fellow, if there ever was one, who continues with his career in engineering.
Harish has numbers on his side, and don't we all know the value of numbers in today's world. Before I move on to his latest release Zinda, I probe a little. Here's the lowdown: His January release has had 1.2 Million views on Instagram, nearly 100,000 on Youtube, 75,000 listens on Spotify, and a hundred odd thousand cumulatively across other platforms. All of these have been organic. So did he simply burst on to the scene from nowhere, I wonder? Nope, absolutely not. Like any serious artist, Harish has been at it for years.
"I love performing live," came his reply, almost as if he knew that was a scale I used to determine the worth of an artist (which I most definitely do!). Having gone through two decades or more of organising and attending live performances, it's the only scale I use to judge an artist. One may get a hundred thousand hits online, but can one pull in an actual crowd of a hundred even? In 2009, if 79 people RSVPed to a Facebook Event, 70 would turn up for it. By 2015, I noticed the ten percent rule applied almost everything online. You needed seven hundred-odd RSVPs for a safe figure of anything over seventy to actually show up. Harish quickly put my concerns to rest - "I have over a hundred live shows under my belt. From small venues, to bigger ones like Hard Rock Cafe. I've even performed an Insta live show with Myntra Roadster!"
What impressed me even more is the ease with which he's juggled his work life with his music life.
"In 2019, I toured fifteen cities with Motojojo as part of their Ghumakkadi Kalakaar Tour... It was a high octane scene! I'd worked during the week and then each weekend I'd fly to say, Chandigarh, perform live, then on to Gurgaon and then New Delhi, after which I'd fly back to Pune and resume work on Monday," he beams.
Here is one of the many phenomenal Motojojo performances:
"Sahi hai boss," I was thinking to myself now. Don't we all know folk who lack the discipline to be consistently creative on a daily basis. We all get into those manic zones, where we lock ourselves up for a couple of weeks, skip the eating, sleeping and showering and emerge with the most beautiful piece of piece of work. But then for a year, nothing much happens! No ideas, no inspiration and zero will to continue.
"My day job helps with a lot more than just paying the bills. It gives me that motivation to want to look forward to returning to my music each evening. Time away keeps my mind fresh and no matter how tired I am, I always muster the strength and energy for my music. In fact, I know so many artists who are doing music day-in and day-out and by the end of it they, themselves, can't stand it any longer. I would love for nothing more than music being my primary and only job, that's the dream. But I fear the day my work is dictated by labels and companies and I'm not able to just be myself and write about exactly what I want to and what I'm feeling."
The life of an artist is rife with few albums and singles that do well and a plethora that don't. Often, the ones that the artist has invested the most in, emotionally and otherwise, end up not doing as well with audiences as one would expect. The trick is to move forward, to take it in ones stride and continue working. In a sense, one must learn to love all their children equally. Exhausting as it may be, artists must always find it in them to soldier on, especially in today's world of over-saturated digital markets.
"I do the best I can, I share my music on my networks, I contact journalists etc. That's all I can do. By the end of it, the audiences are the ones who really decide your worth. So rather than a million hits, I'd prefer a fraction who listen to my songs more than once, because they like them. One can't pay to push their songs onto audiences. That won't work all the time, audiences must like the song too."
Harish makes a strong point. What will happen once the lockdown really ends? We're all rushing to capitalise on the fact that this is the 'new normal'. Once live performances pick up and reach earlier levels, will many of this year's bedroom-producers continue to thrive? Will they really be able to perform their severely edited and processed tracks outside their bedrooms? It's difficult to tell. But what I can say, is without the backing of real musicians that can emulate those sounds, it simply becomes karaoke. Apart from a few genres like hip-hop and maybe electronic fusion, I don't see a lot of them surviving beyond the instant gratification of the online world we have come to know today. In urban areas, we can barely wait for five minutes at a red-light, we cannot wait a year or two for organic growth of a venture, and we want our news in 280 characters or less. In this sense, music, and especially singing, is not only about the ability to keep a tune, it involves expert control over ones breathing. This comes with practice and patience, not editing and autotune.
"I listen to a lot of older artists, even from the 1960s. In those days if artists messed a part up when recording, they'd have to go back to the beginning and do it again," He tells me. "It's why they could perform their music live just as well as they did in the studio."
"I know so many artists who started singing at the age of four and five. I had no such background. I didn't have that exposure at home and a lot of my family members were focussed on dance rather than music. My journey really began in my teens, and it was instant. Before that, I had no special inclination to music. One day it just happened that I heard a song and what I was feeling was contained in the lyrics of that song. I was actually shy and not very expressive, but that experience made music a personal aspect in my life. Later on, I composed a song for fun, complete with lyrics and a melody... everything from start to end but without actual instruments. My cousin heard the song and he really liked it. He asked me whose song this is, and when I told him it was mine, he couldn't believe it. It encouraged me to compose more such songs. However, it was only in my college days that I looked for musicians to team up with."
Harish initially suffered stage-fright. To add to it, he managed to find a guitarist in the last moments before a college competition and they had less than half an hour to practice. Though the show went well, Harish realised the he couldn't have a dependency like that. Thus began his journey learning the guitar.
"I'm entirely self-taught. Whenever I got the chance I'd ask guitarist-friends to show me chords and scales. I'd write down what people told me and practice for months. I fell in love with the guitar and I truly felt that it's an instrument that was made for me. Once I was fairly good with the guitar, I began composing instrumental pieces. Today, I also preform instrumentals live!"
During his college days, Harish won several prizes, including at IIT. After college, he began work at Tata Consultancy Services where a music group of company employees wanted to enter an internal competition and were looking for a guitarist. Initially, a band was formed solely for this competition, but when they won and received a glorious response, they decided to go professional and perform at other venues in and around Pune. They made it to the top five bands at Searock, one of the prime band competitions in India, a part of the three day long cultural fest, Waves, BITS Pilani Goa. Later, they were also part of a reality show Dil Hai Hindustani.
"The three years that we performed together were great. I learned a lot and it was a very practical journey. Unlike many other musicians, who went from theory to practicals, I went the opposite way. I eventually learned theory because I wanted to teach guitar. But I was not getting to sing, something I aspired to. So when the band got disengaged and members went their own ways, it was an opportunity for me to focus on my singing as well. I tried forming a new band, but that didn't happen. The one thing that helped was that all these years I was composing original songs on the side, songs I'd never performed but were sitting with me. When you're part of a band, you have that rich sound because five or six members are playing instruments. Now, I had to begin a journey with just my voice and a single instrument. I felt empty and thought no one would be interested in listening to just me and my guitar. However, in 2018, I decided it was now or never. I went to an open mic and performed two of my songs. It was the positive response that made me now want to be a part this community of indie musicians."
Four open mics later, Harish received the much-awaited, though unexpected phone call from Motojojo gatherings to perform for them. It was also the point where he began breaking into the indie scene, what he describes as his turning point. He eventually became the community lead for Motojojo in Pune and began managing their gatherings. The founder of Motojojo noticed Harish's talents and gave him the opportunity to perform on a national level, touring fifteen cities.
The audiences had already fallen in love with Harish's songs by then and were looking for recordings that they could listen to. Thus, in January 2020, he released the widely-appreciated Saari Umar.
"I love nature. I always have. In the spirit of people wanting travel and explore the beauty of the outdoors, now more than ever, I'm releasing my new single Zinda. This song describes how beautiful nature and its elements around us are and how a guy is deeply connected to it but finds himself alone because people value the materialistic world more. But in the end, he finds someone, who feels the same and resonates with nature."
What I love about Zinda is that the intellectuality lies in its artful simplicity; one voice and one guitar. And yet creates transcendence, married to a single haunting melody. His crystal-clear vocals are at the forefront of the plucking rather than buried behind a barrage of sounds. If I had to wager a comparison, I'd say Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman without a doubt. It's hard to come by such acoustic simplicity today, especially with Harish leaving in some of his breathing, quite strategically if you ask me. His hitting of the high notes, contained and without going into a falsetto is satisfying as hell. One could easily imagine the exact experience of this at his live shows. It's this feature that matches an artist's live performances to studio recordings.
Zinda releases on December 11th. Pre-save the release here.