What did Sheryl Crow, Andrea Bocelli, Leonard Cohen, Susan Boyle and Scatman John have in common? Unlike their contemporaries, they all got their big breaks late in life. In fact, the late Scatman John (John Paul Larkin) had been a prolific jazz pianist for decades before he eventually achieved worldwide success at 53! This would make him one of the oldest chart-topping debutants, and a worldwide star at that.
Closer to home, I had the pleasure of speaking to the forty-something debutant from Kolkata, Raj Goon. The singer-songwriter has recently released his aptly titled six-track debut EP It’s Never Too Late. With half a lifetime dedicated to being a ‘listener of music’ and, consequently, an enthusiastic learner, Goon couldn’t have chosen a more organic trajectory.
“Let me tell you an interesting anecdote,” He begins, “I had this strange fantasy of getting on a train to Bombay with nothing in my pockets. I was a big fan of Kumar Sanu in those days and after listening to his songs, especially cheesy hits like 'Loveria Hua', I literally wanted to sleep on the street in front of his home hoping he’d feel bad for me and give me a break!”
Of course, none of this materialised, and Goon joined an engineering college. A story is as typical as can be. Nearly half the artists I speak to these days are engineers-turned-musicians. Maybe one day a PhD candidate might adopt this subject for a socio-cultural study, who knows?
“When I look back at my life, join the dots backwards if you will, there have been many near-turning points that should have been sure shot signs I was headed to a career in music, but sadly, none of them were. The epiphany just never seemed to come.” He chuckles. “First, my mum has been an excellent singer. I reckon I inherited my voice from her. In fact, I grew up listening to a range of Bengali and Hindi genres at home. Second, in school, my music teacher handpicked me to sing in the Choir. I was a regular part of inter-class competitions and a prize-winner too. Third, during my engineering days in Sikkim, where they have a rich culture of music, I had the advantage of not only being surrounded by budding musicians but also the eventual learning of the Guitar! And yet I felt no conscious calling. Imagine that!”
Goon’s real calling only came at what I can only describe as the most awkward of times. After he’d taken on a corporate job and was sent to Canada on an assignment. There, he had the chance to watch a reality TV show unfold and was awestruck by one contestant.
“He had such a splendid voice,” Goon beams. “He was going from the lowers to the uppers and playing around in the mids. It was at that very moment I knew I wanted to dig into the roots of my own singing. To magnify and glorify what I had.”
On his return to India, Goon immediately began pursuing vocal training. Rather than entering the Bollywood space, it was independent singers and composers like Papon and Raghu Dixit who inspired him.
“This led to my first song 'Antaratma', which I both penned and scored. Except, I didn’t know what to do with it. Apart from playing it to friends and colleagues all it was doing was really sitting on my writing pad and Guitar.”
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE: MEETING PRAVIN MANI AND A WIND OF CHANGE
Goon was back in Toronto, again on work, when he connected with a musician and long-term associate of A. R. Rahman, Pravin Mani.
“Pravin had heard 'Antaratma' and told me he had a bank of songs for which he needed someone to pen Hindi lyrics to. In due course, I’d also begun writing songs like 'Rang Rasiya' and 'I Love You'. Pravin and I spent a lot of time understanding the dynamics of these songs and, thankfully, he really liked them. Coming from him, that was great! He then began arranging these songs for me.”
Of his six songs, 'Rang Rasiya' is the one Goon recommends everyone listen to.
“I am a big fan of Carnatic classical music, of the Violin and the Mridangam. One doesn’t come across these instruments elsewhere in Indian classical music. I especially fancy how the violin, a European instrument, is used to play ragas. I told Pravin I wanted to explore anything that was South Indian in 'Rang Rasiya'. When I closed my eyes, it was the only sound that came to mind, even before the song was produced.”
It took Goon a whopping six years to complete the album with each song contrasting the other and simultaneously displaying Goon’s own musical idiosyncrasies.
“My song ‘I Love You’, produced by Toronto-based composer, producer and music educator, Justin Gray, has no instrumentation besides the piano. I was very particular about not having anything else. No drums, no bass, no brass section. Nothing but keys. Sometimes the only thing that comes to me is a mere word. Nothing else. This was the case with ‘Kalavati’. I was sitting with that one word for the longest time, not knowing what to do with it. Same with ‘Nanhe Farishtey’, arranged by Kolkata-based arranger producer John Paul, inspired by a Reuters report where, during the lockdown, where a man was carrying his daughter on his shoulders and walking home. What really moved me was the child’s face. I built this song around it.”
By the end of our talk, I asked Goon what I ask any debutant. What were his next steps, now that he’s finally ‘found’ himself?
“I’m dying to perform live. I would really like to travel across the country singing to diverse audiences. But, given the current conditions, it might take a while to materialise. So instead, I have my first Bengali single coming out in July. In fact, I’m recording it as we speak!”