It is hard to think of a modern musician who can boast a broader range of skills and achievements than Nitin Sawhney. He is not only a classically-trained pianist and flamenco guitarist but also a cutting-edge club DJ and producer, which may explain why he is the only artist ever to have been invited to play both the BBC Electric Proms and the "real" Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. He has composed numerous orchestral symphonies and soundtracks for clients ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Ballet of China to Sony Playstation 3. He has been showered with arts awards and is the recipient of several honorary degrees. He is also a cultural and current affairs commentator on television and in the print media, a patron of the arts and a respected community leader.
Since starting out in the back of a van more than 20 years ago as a touring member of the James Taylor Quartet, Sawhney has travelled the world both with his own band and various orchestras. At the core of his illustrious career are seven pioneering studio albums, the most celebrated of which, Beyond Skin (1999), was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize and won the South Bank Show Award.
His eighth album, London Undersound, scheduled for release on October 13, is another work of extraordinary variety and vitality. Featuring a cast of guest contributors that includes Natty, Reena Bhardwaj, Ojos de Brujo, Anoushka Shankar, Roxanne Tataei, Tina Grace, Aruba Red, Imogen Heap, Faheem Mazhar and Paul McCartney, the album embraces a far-flung range of musical and cultural influences, to put it mildly. And yet the collection is deftly bound together by Sawhney's masterful production, and a narrative subtext which runs through the diverse strands of music like a thread of steel.
"London Undersound is about how London's changed since 9/11 and how I and other people perceive that change," Sawhney explains. "I don't recognize London as the same place it was ten years ago. The change has been quite subliminal and insidious. But it is massively different. London has become polarised in a way that I find uncomfortable and threatening, especially as an Asian person. I wanted to explore through my music the dynamic of a city which is going through a major transition."
The scene is set on Days Of Fire, the album's opening number, featuring the North London singer and rapper Natty. Over a deceptively up beat rhythm track, designed to suggest the movement of a train, Natty relates his personal experiences of being caught up in the aftermath of the killing of Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man mistaken for a suicide bomber and shot dead at Stockwell Tube station by the Metropolitan Police: "On these streets where I played and these trains that I take/I saw fire/But now I've seen the city change in oh so many ways/Since the days of fire." Along with a sense of loss and confusion, the track also evokes a mood of nostalgia for a London that disappeared almost overnight.
"I talked to each of the collaborators on this album for quite a while about what they felt about London," Sawhney says. "Natty was in Tavistock Square on 7/7 when the bus exploded in front of him and by a bizarre coincidence, two weeks later he was a couple of train carriages behind Charles de Menezes when he got shot. In a two week period the whole concept of London was overturned. And for me, it's remained overturned."
Towards the end of the album, Sawhney returns to the sounds and rhythms of the tube system for Last Train to Midnight, a heavy, dubstep number featuring the singer Aruba Red, otherwise known as Natasha Bruce, daughter of bass player Jack Bruce.
"She talked to me about the sense of threat that she feels as a woman travelling late at night on the train," Sawhney says, "And so I wanted to suggest a mood that is sinister and shadowy with things looming out of the dark." Even darker still is Transmission, a song with an almost satanic vibe featuring the Brazilian-Spanish singer Tina Grace, that visits the deep trip hop territory that Tricky used to inhabit in the company of Martina Topley-Bird. "It's about the way in which we are bombarded with vacuous radio and TV commentary about stuff that is devoid of any heart or meaning," Sawhney says. "Radio waves are beaming this shit directly into our heads all the time and you can't escape it. The song goes: 'Feel the sunshine from the radio'. In other words, Isn't everything great and wonderful? It's what John Pilger described as 'weapons of mass distraction'. We're not able to focus on reality. People are dying in other countries but we are robbed of all perspective and priority. We've been mugged by commercialism."
One of the key conversations that informed Sawhney's thoughts and feelings as he developed the narrative structure of London Undersound, took place with Ronald Gray, a Second World War veteran, who in his later years ran Hammersmith Books, a socialist bookshop, frequented by one of Sawhney's enduring political heroes, Tony Benn.
"I talked to Ronald Gray for hours and it was fascinating to hear his perspective on war," Sawhney says. "He knew every single book about international history on his shelves and he had an incredible understanding of global politics." Gray, who is featured on the album in one of the various spoken interludes that are peppered between the musical tracks, has since passed away, and, sad to say, will not be on hand to celebrate the release of an album to which he would undoubtedly have been proud to have made such an important contribution.
Sawhney has worked with Paul McCartney before, on his Fireman Project, but it was still a pretty special moment when the former Beatle arrived at Sawhney's home studio in Wandsworth to record his track My Soul. "The day he came, it was all over the front pages of the newspapers that he was seeing someone in America or whatever," Sawhney recalls. "He was just amazed at how they'd managed to photograph him, because he couldn't figure out where they'd been." The track, which is a lovely, frustrated love song, is prefaced by McCartney referring to the people who take such photographs as having "stolen your soul" - an idea once written off as superstition, which has gained new currency in the era of celebrity culture and the concomitant rise of the paparazzi.
The album explores some difficult themes. But London Undersound is certainly not a negative polemic against London, the city which, after twenty years, Sawhney still calls home.
Perhaps the most upbeat track is Daybreak, a collaboration with the Pakistani singer Faheem Mazhar who performs with a unique vocal tone and tremendous rhythmic agility.
"I wanted to create something that was very optimistic, so I tried to capture how I feel when I wake up, which is a very active time for me," Sawhney says. "I like to train. Maybe go for a run, kick-box or do some yoga. The song is written as a traditional form of Indian classical music. I love the tone of Faheem's voice. It reminds me of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who was one of my great heroes."
Bring it Home, featuring Imogen Heap, is another track with a distinctly celebratory tone. Built around a drum and bass track in an unusual 6/8 time signature, the song was recorded in a one-day odyssey around the capital.
"Imogen and I thought it would be great to have a single human breath travelling around London," Sawhney says. “So we recorded the song in four phases, starting off at Billingsgate Fish Market at 6am. By midday we were at a Battersea Children's farm, then in the evening we went to Southall, where there is a large Asian community and she sang the phrase 'Equal and opposite,' which I liked. At midnight we went to Camden, where we recorded a load of people shouting 'Bring it home!' I think most of them were pissed by then, but it worked really well. It was a fantastic day which was all about tuning in to the different aspects of what London represents."
One of the most immediately engaging tracks on the album is Distant Dreams, featuring Roxanne Tatei, a young singer, who graduated from the Brits school at the same time as Adele, and whose voice has echoes of the Amy Winehouse style of London soul.
"Rox told me about how, when she is on the tube, she just dreams about her holidays," Sawhney says. "Her mind was always elsewhere. I wanted to capture that sense of escapism. I orchestrated the strings in a kind of old-school Hollywood way and I got an amazing trumpet player, Carlitos from Cuba and recorded him in Spain to get across that mariachi feel." The result is a track with tremendous mainstream appeal, that has hit single written all over it.
October Daze, another song featuring Tina Grace, has a similarly mesmerizing quality, and finds Sawhney in a rather wistful mood as he sees a rather drowsy wasp flying around in October. "It made me think. All the rest of the wasps had gone and it was left on its own. It's a metaphor for the isolation that gradually takes over as you get older."
In a comparable emotional vein, but using a completely different musical palette, Shadowland is an instrumental track (with voices used as an instrument), which features Ojos De Brujo, the nine-piece band from Barcelona who featured on Sawhney's last album, Philtre. According to Sawhney the track works really well when he is DJ-ing in clubs, although he is quick to point out that this is not a club album.
"I've done club mixes of some of these tracks, with full-on drum and bass. So sometimes I might just drop in a dubbier verion during a soundcheck in a club," Sawhney says. "The point is I like doing lots of different things which challenge me in different ways and allow me to explore the language of music and how you can express different ideas through that language."
His point is underlined by the two exquisite pieces of instrumental music which end the album. Firmament is a composition orchestrated for acoustic guitar, flute and cello which fuses the classical music of East and West with a natural brilliance that it is difficult to imagine any other composer being capable of. The number was inspired by a structure of the same name on display at the White Cube gallery in Central London by the acclaimed British sculptor Antony Gormley, who has also contributed a series of drawings for the artwork of London Undersound. Sawhney is flattered and thrilled that Gormley should have done this, and proudly shows off the series of evocative line drawings on his laptop - one to illustrate each track.
The album ends with Charu Keshi Rain a new arrangement of a raag popularised by the sitar player Ravi Shankar and here featuring the virtuoso playing of his daughter Anoushka Shankar.
"It was called Charu Keshi Rain because when Anoushka came to the studio in Wandsworth it was during those floods last year, so it seemed appropriate," Sawhney says.
So do we now have to add floods to all the other woes that Londoners are currently having to face?
"I don't want it to be all doom and gloom," Sawhney says, smiling. "And I certainly don't think of London in that way. The piece was meant to be purifying as well. It's music that washes away all the impurities that can populate your mind."
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