Was 'Chinna Chinna Aasai' from Roja your introduction to AR Rahman?
No, it was 'Pudhu Vellai Mazhai'. That sound of glass breaking… I can still remember it. It was not just the melody, but the mixing, programming and arranging were something like I had never experienced before. Rahman brought that to the forefront: music is about experiencing sounds. And that glass-breaking sound made my jaw drop. I'd listened to a lot of music but still, I remember it very clearly. It wasn't just a musical experience for me. It was almost like a trauma I'll remember throughout my life.
What are a few of your definitive Rahman songs?
'Oru Deivam Thandha Poove' from Kannathil Muthamittal: It's a wild song. It's not a normal composition. He has brought a thunder-like effect in the rhythm. And the melody is very emotional and after the interlude it goes somewhere else. I've done a cover of the song and I deliberately avoided the second half because I cannot sing that, let alone compose like it. I used to love both versions, by Chinmayi and Jayachandran. In the end, it comes back to the melody. Rahman has blended it so beautifully. That song's craft is study material for arrangement and composition.
'Thee Thee' from Thiruda Thiruda: The modulation as it alternates between rhythms is what stands out for me. I used to think that it sounded like kalaripayattu, with people shouting. I equally love 'Kannum Kannum' for it's rockish vibe.
'Kadhalikkum Pennin' from Kadhalan: It's a very commercial song but the way he served that song…there's a veena and a thavil. It's great artistry.
'Rehna Tu' from Delhi-6: It breaks patterns. You can't sing the song if you've just heard it once. You have to keep listening to it to understand its structure. And the outro solo is on another level!
There are songs that you like immediately, but as you say, you need to hear 'Rehna Tu' a few times to understand it. What makes you listen to it over and over again?
When I heard the song, I loved the mood that it created. I need something in the song that I am attracted to so I can listen to it again and again. One song that I absolutely didn't like was 'Omana Penne'. I love the song so much now!
Maybe I just didn't like the Malayalam lyrics, I thought they were odd. But after I watched the film, it became my most favorite song. I used that song as an inspiration for using nathaswaram in a different song of mine. For me, it's mostly the mood that a song creates when I hear it for the first time. I didn't like 'Nee Marilyn Monroe' from Azhagiya Tamil Magan the first time I heard it either.
What do you like so much about Santhosh Narayanan's music?
He brought in a new sound. When he does folk, it's authentic folk music. I love the singers he picks. I also love it when he sings. My most favorite song is 'Poo Avizhum Pozhudhil' which for me is one of the best songs ever made in Tamil films. I think he can do every genre like AR Rahman. For me, he's the best music director we have in the new era.