On the Forefront of Innovation, Anuj Rastogi

One o f the best things about music today is the innovation and creativity that we have been bles se d with due to some of the younger artists coming out today. They may not necessarily be mainstream but their music inspires one to resurrect and reinvent, be it musically, personally, or in any other sphere of life. One of th e men who force us to think outside the bubble is music artist Anuj Rastogi.

Now you're a composer, produ cer, and musician. Tell us abo ut what the different roles demand and what you enjoy the most.

Well, they are three different hats, but in some obvious ways, the three are interrelated. I’ve spent most of my time being a musician. I’ve been playing a variety of instruments…I’d say about eleven or twelve. I began on the keyboard and piano .Then, in junior high, I began playing the drum and the tuba. A few years ago, I tried the tenure and soprano saxophone. I dabbled with the guitar and a little bit more with the tabla. I basically tried whatever I could get my hands on. But my main instruments are the piano and keyboard; and they are my main compositional tools. So I guess the music bug caught me early on. 

As a composer, I always have musical ideas and I found different styles of music very inspirational. I always had music in my head and I could usually direct and reinvent a melody or song in my head. At the time, it wasn`t something I was cultivating. I just thought of everything around me; it could come from a conversation with anyone, to passing a car with music, or walking down the street. Ideas come out of nothing and sometimes I come up with a sonic structure, a sort of idea I want to articulate as opposed to specific arrangements. I go with a particular piece in my head and see how the different artists can fit together, and that`s where my production side comes in.

I think when it comes to production, the term is used so loosely that nobody outside the music industry really understands what a producer really does. I think a producer in my mind, from a technical standpoint, pulls together the pieces in creating a finished set of music, from sound design to sampling, from understanding where instruments will complement each other to software applications. I get to figure out how a song should be structured, the chord progressions and just bring everything together into a more of a finished piece.With this hat, I get to manifest my ideas and put them out there for people to hear.

I'm aware that you are the founder of Omnesia. Tell us about it.

I think by 2002, I had gotten to a point where I had spent enough time working on my own original material. I was fortunate enough to meet different artists and heard different types of music so I wanted to fuse that together because that was the type of music I wished I could have heard when I was a kid. So, Omnesia Records started off as a pet project to get my music together. Instead of going on the major label route, I decided to make this my platform to get my own material out and work collaboratively to get other artists to get their names out who are good in their own right but may not have had their voices and instruments heard by a large record company.

I didn’t have plans to take over the world. I just wanted to release enjoyable music and my own pieces so I came out with my debut album, called “Omnesia” and did Dark Matter, a 5 Track EP, this past July I do have my second full length album in the works, which is a remix project with other producers. I want to be putting out innovative, cutting-edge music people enjoy and produce a number of events under the banner. I want to give the newer music recognition that it stands for...quality, integrity, innovation, and music that’s taking a life of its own. It will be a long process but it’s coming along.

What do you think the music industry lacks today and what do you think it has that it did not have previously?

Ahh, that’s a dangerous question to ask me. I think personally, I cannot listen to mainstream music for more than twenty minutes because one of the five songs will be played over again, which is very painful for me. The radio and television were originally supposed to open up the mind and encourage fresh, new thinking but I think the media has gone totally backward. They claim to be edgy yet are only paying lip service. They just present stuff that is easy to sell, like sex, money, drugs, or violence and aren’t willing to take risks on new artists unless they’re a lot like somebody else.

I mean, I’m not going to be a hypocrite...some music is good. I like some of the hard rock, pop, soul and r&b. If you’re not naturally experimental, then it’s next to impossible to be exposed to something fresh and new, particularly in North America; I mean, you don’t even get a second look unless these artists have made it somewhere else before, be it the U.K., Pakistan, India. Nobody pays attention to you here. We consume everyone else’s music especially from the U.S. but we don’t create our own. I mean, the U.S. is the big country of the world and if you’re on the Top 40 there, you have to automatically be aired in Canada then but our own artists aren’t our own then.

There’s Avril Lavigne, Sum 41, who did not make here until they made it in the U.S. Raghav went to the U.K. and made it big there – and believe me, none of these kinds of artists have had an overnight success; they’ve worked hard. Even Parichay, who I’ve worked with on three remixes, who is a great guy and a fantastic artist, he’s breaking the glass ceiling here once he propelled somewhere else. Debra Cox, who is arguably the greatest soul r&b voices there is, better than even Whitney Houston, in my opinion, didn’t even crack that ceiling. Nowadays, there are very few and far between mainstream artists that deliver quality music, but most is mediocre at best. The conventional radio channels are failing. They need to reflect and cultivate culture and that’s not happening.

The good thing is that on the non-conventional channels, it’s happening. There’s more technology available, which can be mastered over the internet. Anybody can get their music up on I-Tunes thanks to some media conglomerates, who have provided this access to music because the labels have fallen short. Now, the main radio stations and media channels are trying to claw back control because the democratization of data and music is taking over. With I-Tunes, the best part is that someone, somewhere in the world will be interested. You can have someone in the U.K., Japan, New Zealand, or Australia who loves your song. I know for me, somebody in South Africa fumbled across my music and really enjoyed it, and that to me is great, because they’re not just listening to mainstream music and the top 40.

Another place this is strong is on college radio...like 89.5, with Richard the Medicine Man who does No Man’s Land on Wednesdays. The radio show goes on based on listener support and donations, and it’s still going strong so college radio is fitting that bill and fitting those audiences who want to listen to reggae, dub, flamenco, Tamil, and Hindi and stuff.

Canadian artists are jumping into the game, especially young South Asian Canadians. What are some tips and advice you would put out for them? I mean, how could they define what is successful, the media or just be successful in their own right.

I think the most important thing, and you said it, is for them to be successful in their own right. Don’t define success with someone else’s definition but what it means for yourself. There are so many people who may have a computer sitting around, and they start up their own basic studio, food around with software, and start recording. They might have a knack for it. You may be an Indian Classical artist, and I think classical music is great, and you just have to it on your own right. You need to do what is real for you and be honest with yourself. Do what you do, don’t imitate and what not...and don’t pay lip service to music.

There are some people that play around with software to tune their voices and that’s not the way to go about it. The universe is weeding out the mediocre and the best things will eventually rise to the top. Do what you enjoy, what resonates with yourself and who you are. I mean, if you want to be on the Top 40, there’s nothing wrong with that but don’t just write a song just so it sounds like another Top 40 hit and milk it to get there. Lasting art and craft needs an investment of time, tools, and working with people who know what they’re doing. Overnight success will be follow by overnight failure. Anyone who has lasted ten years was not because of overnight success – they were working five or six years before they made it big.

You have Omnesia-Live coming up. Tell us about that.

Omnesia-Live is a project that has been in conception since I moved out to Toronto in 2004. I used to live in Edmoton and before moving, I put together a concert, a grand event called Omnesia Travels, which got an overwhelming audience response. When I moved here, I had to build new networks, meet new people in order to do that type of a concert, but one probably not on that big of a scale. Omnesia-Live is basically what I have been working on for many years put on stage in a two hour, multimedia, multi-instrumental, multidimensional performance and I am very lucky and fortunate that everything has come together magically. 

We have Cassius Khan from Vancouver, who is arguably the one of the best players in North America. He sings complex ghazals and plays the tabla simultaneously, which is just a whole different confidence level. He mastered both of them at a very young age and nobody believes it until they see it.

I also have a great friend and a major anchor, Amika, his (Cassius') wife, who will be a real treat for Toronto as she is a harmonium player and will be doing kathak dancing to select pieces as well.

I also came across a gem, a girl named Sandra Chibuluzo, who I met through mutual friends. We have been working together on a song called “Jaane Do”, which is one of the highlights on the debut album. She has great command, phenomenal pitch, and is open-minded to experimenting.

Falitaa Chhabra is a great vocalist; Jay Banerjee; Sunny Ray, who is an incredible soul singer; all of them are coming. Branko Boras, who is a Yugoslavian guitarist...I heard his song about turmoil and lost love and although I didn’t understand the lyrics, I could hear the story...he is also an important part of the show.

Hasheel Lodhia is our bansoori player and a classical vocalist. His command on the Indian flute is incredible. He’s been training since about nine and spent some time in India with Hari Prasad Chaurasya, who is the most incredible in the world.

We’ll be performing all original material, about three-quarters of the first album and some tracks off the EP. I will also be performing some of my side projects. A piece I worked on with my wife, based on the victims of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, will also be performed.

The show will bring together Indian classical influences, soul, r&b, rock, and there will be a cinematic sonic character and electronic feel to the performances. The sounds will come together, set against the backdrop of live visuals, which will be running simultaneously onstage with us. I tend to be a very visual person so I came up with video concepts that will show the audience what was happening in my mind when the songs were made.

In the spirit of music, I’m lucky to be bringing together different people for the 8th Annual Small World Music Festival which is presented in association with the Hindu Canadian Alliance and Faiths Act. It’s supporting a great cause: Canada’s “Spread the Net” campaign focuses on raising funds to purchase 500,000 insecticide-treated bed nets to protect children and families in Liberia and Rwanda against malaria.

We’re trying to build strong community relationships for a common cause and it’s great because the music is so eclectic and diverse. It may be idealistic on my end maybe but I want to bring people together because I think nothing transcends borders like the same music which can have a positive influence on people and bring them closer and bring the world closer as a whole. I think it’s my calling to put something fresh out there, to the city of Toronto.

What can we expect in the future from Anuj Rastogi?

What you can expect from me is hopefully is more innovative music. I can’t say there is a specific style or direction. There are so many different types of artists I want to work with. I will continue to tell stories with my music; be it with social undercurrents or political overtones. They can be intimate as a long song or abo

 

ut loss or gain – basically, on any number of things that one goes through life...the human experience. A lot of things in my environment frustrate me like war, famine, and sheer ignorance in day-to-day life...these things can make me tick and inspire me. I don’t want to bore people; I just want to bring innovative music over the long term and not just club music or a song you can have a glass of wine with. I want to bring music that will stand the true test of time.

I have a lot of people who have inspired me, like duo Nitin Sawhney, PM Dawn, and A.R.  Rahman, who brings so much quality music to the forefront and to a wider audience.

I want to make music that you can listen to in a club, a car, while washing dishes, with your girlfriend...it needs to speak across all contexts. I mean, I’m my own worst critic and you can call it narcissism because I can go through five or ten pieces for one piece of music and discard them because they are not where I wanted to be. This ensures I deliver quality to the audiences. I want to bring the idea to Toronto and Canada to consume and create our own culture and that we do not need to look across the border to get the most finest and innovative music around.

Be sure to check out Omnesia-Live, in support of “Spread the Net” which will take place in Toronto on September 26th, 2009. For more information, please visit www.myspace.com/omnesiarecords.

 

Asis Sethi