Ask most Bollywood fans who the greatest male playback singer of the modern era is, and most will say Sonu Nigam.
That is because the versatile vocalist has delighted fans since the 1990s with an endless supply of hit songs which have touched upon different emotions. They have helped Indian cinema grow internationally and in the process got him a global fan base, who regularly flock to see him perform live.
The singing star has also released pop albums, sung in various languages and done interesting international collaborations.
The multi-award-winning singer and musician is returning to perform in London this week with a concert at SSE Arena on Sunday (1). Not surprisingly, Sonu is excited about reconnecting with his UK fans again and was in good spirits when Eastern Eye caught up with him to talk about his musical journey, live show, motivation, unfulfilled ambitions, considerable fan base, musical hero and more.
Have you ever looked back on your remarkable achievements?
Life is a very humbling experience for me. I do look back, often in reverence and in gratitude for all that the Almighty has bestowed upon me. I merely wanted to become a playback singer. Never did I ever fathom this kind of love, appreciation, reverence, relevance, scrutiny, loyalty, envy, support, opposition and most of all, enlightenment.
So is there one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
I have generally been a happy soul, but I would like to caution myself about even the slightest negativity that would have ever dawned on me through the ups and downs of life. It’s not easy being on the fast track and that too coming from as modest an upbringing as mine. You better learn as you grow.
You have achieved a lot. What motivates you today to maintain such an incredibly high standard?
Self-respect. And music is not just my profession, it’s the by-product of my spiritual state of mind. And I love being a musician. I love being loved like this. Who wants to let go of something this divine?
Is it fair to say you are very picky in terms of the songs you choose to sing for films now?
Actually, I have been around for such a long time that perhaps people only approach me for specialist songs. There are a lot more options today due to advancements in technology. Also, new composers come with their own team. I am also aware that new composers could find working with me intimidating, considering my repertoire. And I’m okay with the changing scenario. I visit studios today like businessmen visit golf courses. It is more for the passion of the craft. In the process, some songs become legacies, and I cherish that. God is kind.
Can you tell if a song will be a hit when you are recording it in the studio?
(Smiles) Unfortunately I can’t. Sometimes incredible songs disappear without a trace. And sometimes, random songs hit the bull’s eye. But one can’t deny the fact that the higher the profile of the film, the greater the chances for the song hitting the charts, irrespective of its calibre.
Is it difficult for you as a composer to switch off when you record a song for someone else?
I think being a composer has opened another dimension for me as a singer. Not that I took time getting a composition right earlier; in fact, I’m known to pick up a tune like lightning. But I have been able to step more into the shoes of the composer and understand his perspective.
How much have live performances around the world helped you as an artist?
Exposure to other countries, audiences, cultures, makes the artist grow as a person. Obviously it also depends upon how keen a learner the artist himself is. In places like Holland, Trinidad and South Africa sometimes people request for some really amazing, but unpopular songs. I love it when someone asks for a song that I don’t remember offhand because it’s not famous in India.
How much are you looking forward to your London show?
Bringing Klose To My Heart (KTMH) to the UK had been a dream that I have cherished since 2012; the year when I conceptualised KTMH and toured America and the Middle East with it. KTMH actually revolutionised showbiz in the subcontinent. I would like to humbly state that it’s because of KTMH that today most singers are touring with bigger orchestras. I have witnessed people weeping, laughing and overwhelmed in the audience. I had no reference point when we were making the very first promo for the American KTMH concert because nothing like that had ever happened before. It turned out to be the most fulfilling experience of my life until Klose To My Soul happened in 2014. (Smiles) Of course, the UK will get KTMS after KTMH. One has to see KTMH to enjoy KTMS.
How do audiences in Britain compare to others around the world?
I did the first tour of my Symphony concerts, Rafi Resurrected, here in 2008. That speaks for the audience. They are passionate, appreciative and really good looking!
What is the secret of a great live performance?
Sing live, sing well, sing earnestly and respect the audience. God takes care of the rest.
Do you prefer singing the slower emotional ballads or the big dance numbers?
It’s like choosing between salt and sugar. Each compliments the other. I guess people love Kal Ho Naa Ho and Bijuriya equally.
You put a lot of feeling into the slower songs. Do any of them ever affect you emotionally?
Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin affects me devastatingly. I cry sometimes profusely listening to or singing it. I feel it was my mother’s parting gift to me.
The expectations around your concerts are sky high. Do you get nervous before a show?
(Laughs) Yes, I do. I am human, after all.
What advice would you give aspiring artists?
Respect all kinds of music. Badmouth none and disrespect none. Assessment doesn’t mean criticism. When the Lord choses someone for stardom, there is a bigger and deeper reason behind it. So don’t waste your time in scrutinising God; hone your own skills and bless everyone.
You are a hero to millions of fans, but who is your musical hero?
Mohd Rafi saab. My musical father, my idol, my love and my spiritual guide.
What is your biggest unfulfilled musical ambition?
Well, one of them is working with Elton John.
If you could sing a duet with anyone in the world, who would it be?
I want to sing a proper duet with my father Agam Kumar Nigam. Soon maybe it will happen.
How much do your fans mean to you?
Fans are extended family to me. But I respect those who stick by you through thick and thin; for them I am not a seasonal flavour. They take pride in me and vice versa. And I’m fortunate to have many such angels around me.
What are your biggest passions away from work?
Collecting books, fitness, travelling, trekking, safaris, spending alone time and spending time with my family, especially my son.
Why do you love music?
I have no option. Life couldn’t have been otherwise. I dread the day when I will have music in my head, but no voice to translate and manifest it due to old age. It happens to everyone. I’ll have to have a lot of grace to go through such a scenario.
Finally, why do you think no one should miss your concert in London?
Because I bring KTMH with all my heart, love and devotion. Respect!
Perfect Harmony Productions, Rock On Music and Gift A Smile present the Sonu Nigam: Klose To My Heart concert at SSE Arena in London on November 1. Log onto www.rockonmusicuk.com to find out more.