Spotify Spotlight: Of Writer's Block, 2000s Pop Music And Playing Air Guitar In Boxers
STORY: Sim Ding En
17 October 2022
Like anyone who’s lived in Singapore for the majority of their lives, then making the decision to pack up and move to another country for work, Rahul Advani misses the food, “especially char kway teow, carrot cake (black ftw), popiah, nasi lemak, pulut hitam, and of course, ice Milo”.
The 32-year-old - who is based in Bangalore, India, and whose day job involves creating strategies and developing insights for brands - adds that he also misses nature spots he used to frequent in Singapore (Botanic Gardens, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the Zoo and Bird Park) as well as “spending weekends at Holland Village where I’d browse the Thambi Magazine Store’s collection and grab a bite at the Holland Village Market & Food Centre”, and popping by Serangoon for “Mustafa shopping sprees”.
Nevertheless, Rahul is quick to point out that he has stayed true to himself by remaining connected to both his Singapore and India roots.
“Both countries are integral to my identity, and while I’m no longer based in Singapore, I hope to keep celebrating both cultures in everything I do, from the clothes I wear (I love batik shirts and the artwork they contain) to the stories I tell,” says Rahul, whose single “Ready To Breathe” is all about finding the courage to live life on one’s own terms.
We speak to the singer-songwriter about taking the POV of a call-centre employee in the song’s music video, performing solo for the President of Singapore, and geeking out over 2000s pop music.
Tell us about “Ready To Breathe” - who or what inspired it?
“Ready To Breathe” was the first song I had written after experiencing a long period of writer’s block following the completion of my first EP. I think I had put a lot of pressure on myself to write that it felt difficult to come up with anything.
When I finally let myself have fun with the writing process, I penned this song which was about feeling stuck in a relationship filled with expectations, and taking the leap to feel alive again. In many ways, the lyrics of the song mirrored my relationship with songwriting at the time. I also tapped into a slightly different sound from what I had been writing earlier, leaning into a more soulful and rockier sound that was just so much fun to play around with.
The single is about finding the courage to live life on one's own terms. In what ways do you live life on your own terms?
I suppose my life has been a serious of unconventional choices – from initially pursuing Law during my undergrad to becoming fascinated with the study of India, and eventually focusing on Anthropology and later moving to India, while at the same time never giving up on performing and writing music.
How did you come up with the concept of a call-centre employee stuck at home?
The track was finished during the start of lockdown, and so I had to re-think completely how a music video could be achieved since it was no longer possible to go outside or meet other people.
One day I had the idea of a person stuck in his room who feels pressured by work calls and social media. He dives himself fully into his work and takes up numerous hobbies to “keep up” with how others are spending the lockdown. As the song is about breaking free of expectations, I thought it would be fun to see him eventually discover that it’s okay to not always “achieve” in the way others expect you to, and to instead go at your own pace and do what makes you feel comfortable - in this case it was rocking out on the air guitar in his favourite pair of boxers!
I needed someone who could really take the viewer through the character’s journey. I reached out to actor Vidyuth Gargi whom I had met in Mumbai just prior to the pandemic where I saw him in a wonderful play directed by playwright Shiv Tandan (another Singapore connection whom I knew from my time at NUS).
Vidyuth and I had been in touch since that play, and when I told him about the music video and the concept for it, he was game. I’m really pleased with how it turned out – it was a lot of fun experimenting with a completely new medium like Zoom, and I love the humour and heart that Vidyuth infused into the role.
How did your musical journey begin?
My first memory of music was when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was picked to play the lead in a school production of the musical “Oliver!” I was a painfully shy kid, but it was through singing that I felt comfortable expressing myself. I continued to sing in talent shows, recitals, productions, and in my last year of school, I got the chance to audition and perform in the Straits Times and Business Times ChildAid charity concert where I sang solo before the President of Singapore.
That was also the first time I got meet musicians and artists from across Singapore. After that, I began to perform whenever I got the chance – from bars, pubs and shopping malls to eventually playing at venues like the Esplanade. I also immersed myself into the Singapore indie music scene, following bands and artists like Gentle Bones, M1LDL1FE, Enec.e, Arajua and stillsunrise as well as writing gig reviews and even interviewing bands for Baybeats one year.
You won a singing competition while in India – congrats! Tell us about your journey to the crown.
I had just moved to the city of Pune (a few hours by car from Mumbai) in the end of 2016 for my PhD fieldwork when I found out about an annual singing competition in the city called “High Idol”. When I tried to take part, I was told that registrations for the competition had closed, leaving me gutted. A few weeks later, I got a phone call from one of the organisers – a contestant had dropped out at the last minute and there was a free slot.
I rushed to the venue, got through the first round, and several weeks later, ended up winning. Even though I was a newcomer to the city, it felt wonderful to be greeted so warmly. After the competition, one of the judges – a Mumbai-based musician called Tejas Menon whom I was already a big fan of – asked if I was writing any original music of my own. When I shared with him a rough scratch of “Ready To Breathe”, he told me that I needed to get into the studio and record it.
To quote “High School Musical”, that night was the start of something new. Through Tejas, I began visiting Mumbai where I discovered the city’s thriving music scene and played at house concerts there, rebuilding my confidence as a performer.
When it came time to record “Ready To Breathe” in Singapore, Tejas provided the song’s backing vocals – recording them from Mumbai – and so it felt special to have him on the track as he played such an instrumental role early on in the journey of the song.
The track is produced by Bani Hidir. What was the creative process like?
Recording with Bani was honestly one of the best experiences of my life. I knew of Bani from his work with local singer-songwriters Joie Tan and lewloh, and I was also a fan of him ever before I knew him because I remember downloading the song “Falling Into You” by 53A on iTunes back in 2010. If only I knew that almost 10 years later, I’d be working with one of the people behind that song!
I had written “Ready To Breathe” in 2016 and performed it that year at the Esplanade with a band in which schoolmate Rishabh Sharma played the guitar and my brother Rohan was on the bass. When I started recording the track with Bani, I brought back Rishabh and Rohan to track their parts, capturing the feel of the song’s original arrangement, while Bani built up the song’s sound by adding drums, his own guitars, organs and other instruments.
He immediately understood my vision for the song, as we sat together in the studio every week sharing different musical references from John Mayer and Sara Bareilles to New Zealand Band Six60 and Indonesian artist Ello. We had so much fun in the studio bouncing ideas off each other and geeking out over 2000s pop songs, and that energy shaped the sound of “Ready To Breathe”.
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