Grateful Web Interview with Ajay Mathur
GW: When did you discover that you wanted to play music and how did that come about? Was that in India or Switzerland?
AM: My love for music is probably part of my DNA. There are several musicians in my large, extended Indian family. When I was a teenager in India, we used to literally crave the opportunity to listen to 'Western music' - especially in the 60s when everything was starting to break wide open. It wasn't always easy to come by the latest albums, but when we did it was like a big, important birthday. There was a group of us that gathered together and just listened to the music. We loved the album cover art, too. I was not only inspired to be a part of all of that, but it also motivated me to paint and draw. Even though I had already started to rock and roll in the clubs in New Delhi, moving to Switzerland opened up wider opportunities for me to make music professionally.
GW: We hear some of the influence of Indian music in your songs. How much does the Indian culture play into your music, your lifestyle and world view?
AM: As they say, you can take the boy out of Delhi, but you can't take Delhi out of the boy. As I get older, I see more and more what role my heritage and culture has had in shaping not only my music, but also my personality and my world view. It hasn't always been easy to reconcile my Indian way of looking at the world with my adopted western culture, but I see it as enrichment on both sides. Only recently have I begun 'rediscover' my heritage by listening to classical Indian music - which, by the way, is amazing - but I have also had the privilege of making a life-changing spiritual pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash, a mountain in Tibet that is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus as well as several other religions. Although I am not a religious person, spirituality plays a big role in my life. Indian culture is pervaded by spiritual practices and I guess I must have soaked some of that up in my childhood and have carried around with me ever since. It seems kind of natural that this would find its way into my music.
GW: Do you play instruments other than the guitar?
AM: A lot of my songs start with my tinkling around on the piano. I also dabble with the bass guitar sometimes, but guitar is my first love. I know so many accomplished musicians who can take over the other parts that I am grateful to be able to focus on songwriting, composing, singing, playing guitar and mixing. To me, the production part of making music is a lot like painting a picture.
GW: Is there anything unique or unusual about your songwriting process?
AM: I think every musician's songwriting process is unique. It is always hard to explain what happens. The beginning of a song can come up anywhere - in the car, while I'm standing in line at the supermarket check-out, sitting outside on the patio on a warm, spring day. The music comes to me and my first step is usually to grab a guitar or sit down at the piano and try to play it. Sometimes I record the initial inspiration and come back to it later. The lyrics normally follow the music. Sometimes I write them myself; sometimes I collaborate with someone else. I guess I have a muse that helps me come up with new songs!
GW: Give me a brief history of your career as a musician, including high points/awards/etc.
AM: My first band was a small group in Delhi. I played my way through my university days with them. After I moved to Switzerland, I played with Phil Carmen and did some odd jobs as a studio musician. Things really took off when I formed my band 'Mainstreet' and started touring Europe. We had significant airplay and concert tours. Like most bands, ours was no exception in breaking up in the late 80s. After that I spent a lot of time writing and making music for myself - no pressure to produce anything to any specific deadline. I think it was then that my creativity really started to unfold. I decided a few years ago to put an album out into the world again. It has been really rewarding. I have placed in several music contests recently:
Easy – #18 on Global Rockstar Top 20 charts January, 2013
Easy – semi-finalist 2012 Unsigned Only international music competition
Rise and Shine - Song of the year 2012 competition Semi-Finalist
Easy, Rise and Shine and Granted – each made it to the #1 position (all genres) on NumberOneMusic charts in 2012
Granted – Song of the year 2011 competition runner up
Communicate – Show Me the Music 2011 song writing contest finalist
GW: Why do you think your fan base is primarily in North America?
AM: I’ve always been inspired by American music and American songwriters so my music has an American touch. It could also be the fact that my lyrics carry the message of my music and are in English. It could be that North Americans are more open to listening to different stuff and spend more time on internet radio. I do have a following in the rest of the world which is growing, but the U.S. and Canada is definitely the biggest fan group.
GW: Have you performed your current music in India? If so, what was the response like?
AM: I haven't performed live in India - although I would love to do that - but my music is starting to be noticed there. In general, people seem to really like it. I have gotten lots of really excellent reviews. Of course people are always proud when a native son does something exceptional.
GW: Several of your songs make commentary about social or political views. Tell me a little more about this. Have you always been an activist? Has that part of you always fed into your music? What are your current interests/causes that you support?
AM: I have always been socially conscious and have not been shy to voice my concerns through my music. Taking The Night Away and Mister from my album A Matter of Time, for example have a clear socio-political message. I guess that I have been watching the way things are unfolding in the world and it makes me sad. There is so much injustice. The scissor between the rich and the poor keeps opening wider and wider. There are people who don't have anything to eat while other people are becoming obese. We are depleting our natural resources at a rate that is absolutely not sustainable. The financial crisis of 2008 is just a small indication of the house of cards we've built and how vulnerable it is. The Arab spring was an uprising that showed how sick and tired people are of being oppressed. The so-called 'Iraq and Afghanistan wars' are senseless and won't accomplish anything. There is a lot of greed and some people have forgotten that there is a lot more merit in being human than in collecting things and stockpiling money.
I truly admire people like Bill Gates, Sting, Bono and many more, who have been commercially successful in their lives and are actively doing good work helping the less fortunate population and regions in the world.
I worry about people using religion as an excuse to cause damage. I have great admiration for people who don't just talk, but also take positive, lasting action. I think it is important to support legitimate organizations that are trying to help or make changes. Movements like Occupy Wallstreet are important if for no other reason than to call attention to what is going wrong and give people a platform to vent. I use my music to support World Vision because I think what is happening to children in some places is absolutely horrendous, inexcusable and does not put humankind in a very good light. Organizations like Avaaz.org are constantly gaining ground and using social media to make people aware of issues they might otherwise not know about. I have always supported Amnesty International however I can. The recent incidents in Delhi are atrocious. I can only hope that they will help women there to push for real change. I have always greatly admired people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama. It would be great if we could all be a little more like them.
GW: Since your music is so widely accepted in the United States, would you ever consider a move to the USA? If so, where do you think you’d like to live?
AM: I haven't seriously considered moving to the US because my life is in Switzerland, but if I did move there, I'd have to choose San Francisco. There is something about that city that makes my heart beat faster.
GW: Are there any key musicians on your current and new material that you can tell me about? If so, how did you connect with them?
AM: My long-time friend and cohort Richard Koechli is the master slide guitarist that you hear on many of my songs. Richi and I go way back. I consider him a real guitar maestro. Fausto Medici, the drummer, is another virtuoso. He is originally a jazz drummer and so extremely creative. He adds so much to my songs. My current bass player is Richard Huegener - a straightforward guy with a great sense of humor. Recently I've begun to include some younger musicians that I have discovered. Chris Winiker plays guitar on some of my new songs. He is an exceptionally talented young musician. I discovered a young half-Dutch, half-Indian tabla player, Rupak Pandit, at a classical Indian music concert and recruited him to work with me on some of my songs. I have had several guest musicians - saxophonist, pedal steel guitarist. Every one of these people is exceptional. It is very rewarding to work with each of them.
GW: What do you think sets you apart from other musicians both musically and personally?
AM: I think my music is unique. The songs are all different from each other. It is not easy to put my music in a dresser drawer and give it a label. As a person, I think my personal odyssey, my experiences with jobs and relationships and my outlook on life bleed into my music. Each song tells a story or states a different point of view. There is no monotony. I feel good when I write and record music. I have fun doing it. It is my passion. I think that shines through.
GW: You have watched the music industry change over the years. Do you think that things are better for Independent musicians now, or more difficult?
AM: Both. First of all, I think the technology that is available makes it easier to produce music than ever before. That being said, there is a tendency for things to all start sounding the same. Earlier it was really important to get radio play. While that is still true, there are hundreds of new channels for people to get their music 'out there'. I think for listeners it can be challenging because there is so much to choose from and often the best musicians aren't highlighted in the main stream media. The challenge is to find a way to get noticed. It is difficult for musicians to make a living from their music these days since almost everything on the internet is free.
GW: What do you feel are your key tools to marketing yourself as an Independent musician?
AM: Most of my recent success is through online music platforms, e-zines and internet radio. I use social media marketing tools - facebook, twitter, etc. as well.
GW: You cross many genres with your music. Do you feel that this is a strength or a weakness? What made you decide to be so diverse with your songs?
AM: First of all, I think my songs choose me and not the other way around. Each song is an inspiration and I don't start by considering which genre it will fit into. The upside to not 'fitting' is that diverse people are exposed to my songs. The downside is that no one knows quite what the hell to do with me!
GW: Anything else you would like to add?
AM: I think the story of my life - the demographics of it - is pretty interesting. I grew up in an India that was much different than it is today. India has become a visible entity in the past few years because of its economic success, but there are other stories hiding there. It is also interesting to get behind what happens when people emigrate. The whole transition of living in a new culture, learning a new language - the loneliness and isolation along with the thrill of starting over. There are so many people who have this dream and never manage to make it work. I have been fortunate that way. My whole chronology is reflected strongly in my music and there have been many a day when music saved me from 'going under.’
Watch for the release of Ajay Mathur’s new EP next month. In the meantime, you can purchase his current CD, “A Matter of Time” on iTunes or Amazon.com. And visit Ajay on the web at: http://www.reverbnation.com/actofchoice