ONE of the best album releases of 2018 was the superb 7 Billion by Kiran Ahluwalia. The recently released magnificent masterpiece from the multi-award winning Indian/Canadian is a collection of deeply personal Urdu language songs that incorporate a number of interesting musical influences including r’n’b, rock and jazz.
The latest release from a widely acclaimed singersongwriter used to re-inventing musical tradition has that perfect combination of emotion, artistry and real commercial appeal. Eastern Eye caught up with Kiran to talk about her musical journey, new album, inspirations, live performance, success and more.
How do you look back on your amazing musical journey?
I started music at the age of five when I was in India. Then when we immigrated to Canada my parents found an Indian music teacher in Toronto for me to continue with. Throughout school, university and my first 9-to-5 job, music was a strong passion, but a part-time one. So after working for two years, I made the decision to quit my job and go back to India to be a fulltime music student for one year. (Laughs). Everyone said I was crazy, and they were right, I was.
What happened next?
When I came back to Canada I didn’t feel like going back to a job so I went to an MBA school and studied finance. I ended up trading bonds on Bay Street, but that didn’t last long. For the following 10 years I bounced back and forth between music studies in India and contract work in the cultural industry back home in Toronto. I would spend a year studying music in India – then return to Toronto to work for a year in radio, TV or a record label, then I would go back to India for a year to do music. This happened until 2000 when I recorded my first commercial album. Then I got a manager and an agent and started touring. Now I’ve released my seventh album called 7 Billion. When I look back , I’m really glad I was crazy enough to quit my first ‘good’ job and take the leap to pursue music.
What led you towards your latest album?
The process of the album started with the song Saat, which means seven in Urdu and I wrote this song about cultural intolerance among the seven billion people on earth today. I was hearing repeated stories about hate crimes towards visible minorities and at the same time, I was also hearing about people within the same religion fighting over the correct methods of praying. All of this focus on our differences neglects a central reality – that we are all united by the fact that we are all different and unique. There are seven billion of us now on earth and every person has their own unique perspective and set of experiences. Each of us have our own way of dealing with things, of hearing things, of moving through life – there is no one right way. These are the notions that compelled me to write most of the songs on the album.
Tell us more about the album?
In 7 Billion, I’ve taken aesthetics I love such as blues, African (Malian) music, and Indian forms and mashed them together in my own way. My lyrics are about cultural intolerance and the loss of brotherhood within the seven billion people on earth. The song We Sinful Women is about strong women being labelled nasty (the lyrics for this song are written by Pakistani feminist poet Kishwar Naheed). I wrote Khafa about the middlemen of religion who hijack the direct relationship we can have with God (or the universe). Kuch Aur is a song I wrote about feeling like I never learned how to live and my favourite lines in that song translate as, ‘I’ve been doing it all wrong / been living this life so badly all along’.
What was the biggest challenge of putting the album together? It’s getting harder and harder to make money with albums. People want their music and their news for free, so funding is the hardest challenge.
Who are you hoping connects with the songs?
Everyone. Even if we don’t speak the same language we all connect to the emotional release that music brings and via that emotion, we can all connect with each other.
Which of the songs on the album is closest to your heart? I like Jhoomo. I wrote it for a love scene for a film. The scene is about a woman seducing a shy lover. I like it because it’s about sex and I don’t often write about sex. I usually write about the world being a toilet, so it was good that the film director said, ‘hey I need a song about sex’. It was so much fun to write and sing.
How much does the fact you are a great live performer influence you when you are creating songs in the studio?
It all goes hand in hand for me, but generally, when I’m in the studio I’m concentrated on getting what I want at that moment. With an audience, I definitely enjoy sharing the music and enjoy their response to the tunes.
What has been the most memorable concert?
At the UK’s Shambala Festival. We were on tour and that day we had concerts at two different festivals, and it was raining. We did a concert at 7 pm at a festival and then got in our van to drive to Shamabala for our concert that started around midnight. It was treacherous. We were wet, there was a tent full of people waiting for us to perform, but the sound equipment had some problem. Finally, we got it all sorted and I started singing. Within minutes everyone was on their feet and swaying to the music. I usually explain a few of my lyrics before each song, but everyone was in a special zone all ‘safe’ in our big tent while it rained outside. The air was so magical that I just sang song after song. It was a very special night.
What inspires you as a songwriter?
I’m inspired by other good art like great movies, songs, dance and photography. I’m also inspired by my own emotions. My music is an emotional release for myself and so whatever I’m feeling finds solace in my music.
What is your greatest unfulfilled ambition?
To share my music with even more people all over the world.
Where is the strangest place you have come up with an idea for a song?
While I was skydiving.
You generate a lot of emotion in your voice, where does that come from?
My own life experience and experiences I’ve lived through stories, books and films about other people.
Will you be making a new year resolution?
Not really. I generally make resolutions here and there, but do not necessarily time it out with New Years.
What kind of music dominates your personal playlist?
In Indian music, it is contemporary, Punjabi folk, qawwali, thumri, classical, Bollywood. Also Mailan and West African music and in jazz, I like my partner Rez Abbasi’s albums.
If you could learn something new what would it be? Hip-hop dance.
What is the best advice you ever got?
Success is based on your ability to tolerate bad behaviour.
If you could ask any singer alive or dead a question, who would it be and what would you ask?
I would ask Begum Akhtar to show me how to do one of her vocal ornaments.
What can we expect next from you?
I’ll be releasing videos of many of the songs on 7 Billion.
Why should we pick up your new album 7 Billion?
If you like the music why wouldn’t you pick it up?
And finally, why do you love music?
It’s hard to put in words. Music makes me feel good. Sometimes our emotions can’t be summed up in words. But whatever the emotion whether it be euphoria or melancholy – it can find release in a certain pattern of notes or a certain rhythm.