When You Hit Rock Bottom, A Line Or Idea Almost Feels Like Hope: Shashaa Tirupati

The singer-composer on how playback singing makes you a better actor, the time AR Rahman made her run before a recording, how trauma contributes to her compositions and why she sings for free, sometimes.
When You Hit Rock Bottom, A Line Or Idea Almost Feels Like Hope: Shashaa Tirupati

You're a National-Award winning singer, now creating your own music. In terms of expression, how different is it singing for yourself versus for someone else's compositions?

When you're singing for other people, you're expressing like 70 per cent. But when you're singing or creating your own music, you get to express 170 per cent. The composition is your baby and so are the songwriting and the vocals. Even if it's not your vocals, getting someone else to sing it a particular way…even that becomes your baby. I think it's because independent music is about your psyche and what you're dealing with. Film music revolves around a situation and that can be a purely fictional one. You may not have any sort of attachment with that situation. But, what film music teaches you is to become a great actor. 

How so?

Because you're standing behind the microphone, 'enacting' so many scenarios that you may potentially never be in. 

How does this process of enacting a song really work? Also, is it different for different composers?

It's a different process with different composers. For example, Raja sir {Ilaiyaraaja} sat with the harmonium and gave me the melody. And, he made sure I sang the melody exactly how he wanted it, without a note going here or there. Whereas, with Rahman sir, it's different each time. When we did 'Parandhu Sella Vaa', he just shooed me and Karthik into the studio and was creating on the spot. 'Rasaali' too was like that. But for 'Vaan Varuvaan', he made me sing first. He was first on the piano and he made me sit on the couch in his music room. They connected a microphone to the control room and an engineer was recording there. He just kept coming up with the melody, asking me to sing it. He probably came up with three different variants of 'Vaan Varuvaan', each more beautiful than the other. I wasn't even sure how he was going to choose. 

Imman sir first explains the melody, and then plays it on the piano a couple of times. He's particular about pronunciation, which is why I give him a lot of credit when people tell me that my pronunciation is spot on. He's like a one-man army. He produces, is a phenomenal singer, and he mixes and masters. I haven't seen anyone half as hard working as him. 

Speaking further about that 'acting' point, do you usually ask composers for the situation, so you can sing a song in a particular way, or do you go by your own point of view?   

It's very important to leave yourself at home when you're going to record a song. You need to forget whatever you know, how many songs you've sung and how many awards you've won. You go in and you kind of give yourself to that melody and the lyrics. That's what happens when you're doing playback, and that is half the battle won. After that, it's more about understanding the composer's psyche and what he's expecting. That is the difficult part. 

Does that learning come with time?

That may not come with time. I don't know. I really don't know if there's a set process to it or not. I remember the first song I sang with GV Prakash. Technically, the first song I sang for him didn't go through in my voice. The range was very high and I was having a hard time understanding what he wanted. But, when I sang 'Odey Odey', I got it in 20 minutes and everyone was happy. So, I don't think it's about time, it's more about vibing with a particular song. With time, you understand how to vibe with a song, even if you can't relate to it. With independent music, you don't have to vibe with your own music, because you naturally feel it.

Does knowing the 'situation' help get into the vibe?

Of course, it does. But that's the thing. With Rahman sir, he next to never tells you what the situation is. It's the way he tells you how to emote. That is what makes him this genius. Because, you have no idea what the picturisation is going to be like. Sometimes, I don't even know which movie I'm singing for. It's the way he takes you on a journey, asking you to emote through it, which means that he becomes your translator at that point.

Give me an example of how he nudges you. 

It could be anything. It could be visual descriptions. He could say, 'Imagine you are flying in the sky. How would you sing it then?' For 'Naan En Pirandhen' he said, 'Sing like an angel'. Or, he'll be like 'Show me some anger'. There was this one song where he asked me to just run! He made me jog inside the studio and kept asking me if I was out of breath. Finally, when I was out of breath, he was like, 'Now sing this line'. It's an unreleased song. That's the power of his vision. He's able to explain what he's seeing in layman's terms to get you to the point where you are carrying that vision. 

How is he through this process – calm or restless? 

I relate a lot to him. We're both Capricornians. So, there are days when he is super chilled and he'll just talk to you for seven hours, and say 'Bye, let's record tomorrow'. But then, there are also those days when you end up working like a donkey. One recording to another and another. I never feel as alive as I do when I'm working with him. Like I said, I have those moods when I'm working on my songs and I feel I'm on fire. I also have those days when I have 15 songs to complete, but end up watching a movie. 

So when does composing for your independent music happen? Do you take time off playback singing? 

I never take time off playback singing, because I am who I am because of it. That is where my followers come from. That's where the audience converges for my independent stuff. But I'm into it all the time when I'm not recording, gigging or touring. Instead of going out and wasting time, I'd rather work on something. It could be the lyrics, the melody or a sound. I'm working on an EP right now called 'Stitched', and it's all about how I am a very 'stitched' person. There are a lot of pieces to me that are kind of scattered. As you grow up and go through things, you learn to put those pieces together and stitch yourself up, every day. Because, I don't think you can ever be whole in a seamless sort of way when you go through stuff, physically or emotionally. So, in the album, I've got a song called 'Sleeping Bag', which is about safety or security. Like the whole world is in one place and you crawl into that space and zip yourself up to feel safe. When I was working on it, it first came as a feeling. Initially, I wanted to collaborate with people to create it, but suddenly, one day, something came to me and I opened Logic and connected my keyboard and I came up with this mini groove. I started producing this groove and got my friend to give me his studio for a few hours. It began with a groove and then I spent eight days producing it. The EP itself has eight songs, which includes a duet with Chinmayi. It's one song I'm dying to release. There's a beautiful message behind the song and, in Hindi, it's called 'Ruthi Huin'. I started crying in the studio today, because I heard Chinmayi singing my song. I could not believe this was happening, because she's the reason I'm here. I heard her and Rahman sir on Guru and that's what led me to this. She sung both the versions and she messaged me saying she cant get it out of her head. 

Are all the songs in the EP drawn from your life?

Yes. I've got a song in it called 'String Of Air', which is about being infatuated with someone despite knowing it has no future, and about being happy in that sad state of mind. 'Ocean's Ring' is about abuse and going through that. 'Sleeping Bag' is about going through 15 years of depression. But when you listen to them, they are not depressing. They are very Beatlesque…there is a sad theme they are talking about but, at the same time, it isn't sad. That's the conundrum. But, there's also a song I want to include in it called 'Nomad', which is something I worked on after the Nirbhaya incident. 

And you sing film music through all of this work?

Yeah. I sang two songs yesterday. There are times when I end up singing four songs a day. With Rahman sir, I've sung five songs in a day. That really tests you, and shows what you're really capable of. Usually, to retain the freshness of the voice and to maintain the right texture and tonality, for me, I think it would be three songs max. Two is perfect. 

So, when songs come to you, do you, at times, have to say no? Perhaps because you've sung too many in that genre? 

I don't think you can ever sing enough songs in a particular genre. You have to always remember that you have a fanbase. In a way, whoever you are and whatever you do is for them. At least, when it comes to independent music, you might want to do something totally different but then someone will listen to it and say, 'Nice one, but we miss your classical songs.' And I was never a classical singer to begin with. 

Do you think you've been stereotyped as a classical sort of singer? 

I think it happened after 'Naane Varugiren'. But, I'm a self-taught classical singer. There are certain composers you blindly trust. Like Rahman sir or Imman sir or Anirudh. Because Rahman sir has given me so many different kinds of songs, including 'Vaan Varuvaan'.

Was that the most abstract song you've had to sing? A song that was very difficult to comprehend?

That was, perhaps, 'Naane Varugiren'. 'Vaan', I connected with instantly. I cannot begin to tell you what I was feeling when singing that sing. Throughout the recording, I was in a lot of pain. I was holding back my tears all through and I don't even know why. 

What do you do when independent composers want you to sing for them?   

I do want to believe in a lot of musicians, and these are the people I don't charge. I really want to support them, because I didn't have that support when I started out. Which is why I'm so grateful to Chinmayi, Vishal Dadlani and Pappon, because they didn't charge me. The same way, a lot of independent artistes out there message me and ask if I would sing for them. So, I give them my mail ID and ask them to send me their songs. If I like them, I sing. Even when it's a new composer for films, I first ask them for the songs, and if I connect to them, I say yes. 

The last time we spoke, you described this fascinating concept a singer has to develop. You termed it 'soul'. Beyond skills, knowledge and a distinct voice, this 'soul' is what connects people to your voice…that's how you had described it. Now, after so many songs and connecting with so many people with your voice, what more have you learnt about this idea? Do you have to keep working at it? Is this connect something you fear might disappear one day?

I don't think the very core of who we are ever changes. I think circumstances may have affected me to create… I don't know if it was pain pain, or if I was a very emotional person to begin with. I think, eventually, everything would have affected me. That's something that comes across in my music. Even if circumstances change and I become the happiest person internally or I find a great guy who won't hurt me, I still think that there's this feeling inside that tells me that he's going to do something that will hurt me. If you're sensitive, that's how it is. But, you learn to deal with it. I try to not react to everything even if I'm bleeding inside. You may change externally or act like you change but I don't think you can change who you are. Which is why I think I went through seven years of abuse, because I thought he would change. But, he didn't. It doesn't work that way. 

Is that when music became your outlet?

Of course. But music can aggravate these feelings too. It's weird. If I'm sad, I like being in that state. Something about it makes me feel that I should be utilising this pain, and I start listening to the most depressing stuff. It's like I just want to stay and drown in it. There's this song called 'True Love Waits' by Radiohead. There's a line in it that goes, 'I'm not living. I'm just killing time'. I would trip on that one line and my whole life would flash right in front of me. There are days, especially when you're ultra depressed, when you realise you've become mechanical, because you've become a public figure. So you go about doing all these things, but you're never really there. It's a result of all the trauma I had to go through growing up, and what I've now become. But when you hit rock bottom, that is when you get a line or an idea and that's what keeps you going. It almost feels like hope.

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