He may be known globally for the incredible number of hit songs he has delivered and accolades including a stunning double Oscar win, but AR Rahman is also one of the finest live performers in the world.
His sell-out concerts are full of power, grace and hit songs that have turned the south Indian sensation into a global box-office draw. That is why there is major excitement about his forthcoming UK Intimate Tour next month, which includes concerts in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
Eastern Eye caught up with the softly spoken singer, songwriter and composer in central London to talk about music, his forthcoming tour, inspirations, how new talent can impress him, his new passion and more.
The expectations around you are probably higher than any other musicians. Does that pressure on you?
No, it doesn’t really put pressure on me. Sometimes I do have moments, but the great thing about music nowadays is you can pretty much do anything. The most simple thing musically can move you. It’s not about having 1,000 violins or a brass section to do an impactful score. The simplest songs can take over the world and it is so fascinating to see that. It’s about that process or song which brings peace to you, consoles you in some way or makes you happy, so I feel like I’m always in a discovery mode rather than being a know-it-all. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing.
Have you had a chance to look back on your remarkable journey in music?
(Laughs) No, I sort of forget it and go beyond, and look forward. I think the moment you start looking back on your achievements, a sense of complacency comes in. So every day is about, ‘what am I going to do next?’ Since I have my own music conservatory, I feel the necessity and drive to do something good, and to be an inspiration.
Whenever I have met you in the past 15 years you haven’t changed one bit. What keeps you so grounded?
I don’t know. That is just how I am made, I think.
Everybody, from aspiring singers to major filmmakers, want to work with you, but how do you decide who to work with?
I look at the whole set up, the production and what they are doing. Will it be compelling enough to spend my time to do the songs when I am torn between the west and east, right now? So that decides that.
And what about choosing the singers you work with?
If I find something unique about their voice and if I feel I can write a song for that voice to add even more shine; that’s one of the theories behind that. I don’t want a singer to just sing a song – I want them to shine. I want them to sing the best possible way a song can be portrayed.
You used to almost exclusively work at night. Is that still the case?
(Laughs) Now I work any time of the day, Asjad, I have no choice. I work morning, night and afternoon – it all depends on my jetlag.
How much has performing live helped you as a musician?
Not just performing, I think watching a performer or a band is inspiring; like a Ranjit Barot, or a Mohini Dey. When you watch them perform, you relive the musicality within you. When I am writing a song, I can feel that this guy is playing the drum groove or Mohini Dey is doing the baseline, so they actually inspire me in some way. And then when you are performing, you get the crowd going and feeding energy back to you, extending the bars of a certain section, so it’s pretty complimentary in inspiring me.
How much are you looking forward to your UK tour in September?
I am very excited and at this point of time, with all the Brexit stuff happening, it is needed. I hope this tour brings a lot of joy, happiness and love to bond us all together.
You have a great versatility on stage. What can we expect this time?
I think the reason why we are doing this now is that it was so successful last year and people loved it so much. Rather than having the big, 40 dancers on stage type of show audiences see every time, we went back to the style of performing that people enjoy.
These shows will bring back the joy of hearing somebody live. It will be all about the music. There will, of course, be stopping and starting, joking and having a great connection with the audience. It is an interactive experience, rather than just a cold, this is the next number and the next, kind of show.
Is the biggest challenge deciding which of the songs from your huge back catalogue to sing?
We actually pick the songs that stand the test of time on stage melody wise. In movies we have certain songs that are very produced – they don’t work well on stage and for performing, but are good to listen to. We pick the ones that are very good to perform as well as listen to.
I love that you put a unique spin on each of your hits when you perform. Is that a conscious decision?
That is the whole point. When you come to a live performance, you hear a new interpretation of songs you love. Otherwise you might as well just listen to a CD. (Laughs) I am the producer and the composer, so I have the right to change it in any way, not anybody else.
I also love it when you sing the Sufi stuff. Is there any song that you enjoy performing more than any other?
Of course I love the Sufi songs, but unfortunately today, religion is becoming the baddie of humanity rather than uniting it. People are just using the wrong interpretation and wrong state of mind (with religion). There is a polarisation of everything. We just wanna go fully into music and love and that brings a divinity itself.
So which song do you love to perform the most?
Right now, off the top of my head, I can’t think of one because I love performing all of them. We select every song to have the optimum quality on stage. If a song goes a bit strange, we won’t include it in the set. I will sing some songs and we have other talented singers and musicians too on stage.
What are your biggest unfulfilled ambitions today?
I am writing a movie now and that is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I am writing my own stories and hope they can be made. It is a big question mark right now, but we are all really happy. Whether it will be accepted by people or not, I don’t know. That would probably propel me to do more on the lines of a wholesale creative thing, rather than just being a composer. I want to create a platform for the music to go even deeper. So that is my next big task.
What about directing films?
Directing requires undivided attention. It is better to have a master for that. To fill his mind with our vision, that is what I am doing and have got a director to fulfil my vision. He is also a musician himself. He has directed before and seems very promising, and very receptive to the idea.
You must like that you have built a bridge between India and the rest of the world with your music?
For me music is a whole universal thing and under that umbrella of music we are all united. In a way it has been a dream come true that I have been able to build these bridges. It was a long-held dream actually to unite people. But there is still a very long way to go.
Newcomers always say to me that they want to sing for you. How can they get in touch with you?
A newcomer has to put a YouTube video online that people should like. Then if I like it too, I will call them. Many people have seen the confidence of so many singers on YouTube in the east and west, and just called them and given them a big break. I have done that and many are part of my musical clan now.
What are your big passions away from music?
Now it is definitely the whole filmmaking thing. Being a part of all that stuff is pretty exhausting, but very fulfilling too.
Where do you draw your inspirations from today?
I draw inspiration from goodness. It still exists. Kindness, goodness and love. Whether it’s from the past or from the little things people do every day, goodness and love brings hope to me. It tells me loudly that life is worth living.
Finally, why should we come to the shows?
Because you all need to support me. Without you guys I am not there.
AR Rahman UK Intimate Tour dates: London SSE Arena (September 22), Birmingham Barclaycard Arena (Sept 24), Leeds First Direct Arena (Sept 29) and Manchester Arena (Sept 30). Log onto www.ticketmaster.co.uk and www.robomagiclive.com for more.