One song a day to sing the pandemic blues
* I just wasn’t in a good space in my head. I woke up every morning in rage feeling hopeless and helpless
* Once I got into the flow of things it got pretty straightforward. The songs were hanging around, I just had to pick them up
* The musician is now in charge of the final mastering of his song-a-day album which will soon be released on online platforms
Most of us have been there in the past year – waking up with teary and belligerent eyes, fuming and raging, desperate to break free from the clutches of a global pandemic. Anguish peaked for Bengaluru-based songwriter-guitarist Bruce Lee Mani when his two children tested positive for Covid-19 in April. Although they remained asymptomatic, anxiety took its toll on Mani.
“Looking around and seeing what was going on, having so many friends and relatives falling with Covid-19, had a negative impact on me. I just wasn’t in a good space in my head. I would wake up every morning angry, feeling hopeless and helpless, ”Mani recalls.
It was then that his wife Bindu stepped in and urged him to channel his emotions creatively. This led to “A Song A Day,” a project where he composed, recorded and posted a song in video format to social media for 30 consecutive days. The project started on May 3 and finished it exactly one month later.
It was a new approach for the musician. “I had never done anything like this before, so it put a lot of pressure on me.” But the prospect of failure did not deter him; it was a challenge he had set himself. “The first song was when the West Bengal election was held, so I used that [as the theme]. Once I got into the flow of things it got pretty straightforward. The songs were hanging around, I just had to pick them up, ”the 44-year-old musician laughs.
What Mani fails to mention is that he is somewhat of a songwriting prodigy and has spent the past 25 years making original music and touring with his band Thermal And A Quarter. The group have released eight full studio albums and are set to record their ninth. They have composed over 140 songs which belong to a separate genre: Bangalore Rock.
“Apart from one song, which I struggled with a bit, I surprised myself during the 30 days. I haven’t really struggled much every day. And so flowed blues and rock, acapella and soul, ballads and ditties in a genre-folding compositional frenzy.
The new approach took Mani away from his usual method of creating music, letting influences and ideas seep in for weeks before they morph into words and music honed together with his bandmates. This time the process has undergone an overhaul. “I didn’t sit down and didn’t think deeply about it at all. There was no planning and concern for results. Instead, I felt liberated, having no accountability to anyone or anything. I had, of course, to write the lyrics, compose the melody, learn to interpret it, record, mix, master, shoot the video and edit it myself. And I only had 2-3 hours a day to do it while I was working and I have over 15 classes to teach per week besides running Taaqademy (his music school). In order to fit the project into his busy schedule, Mani woke up at 4.30am.
Almost all of the songs were composed and recorded on a special acoustic guitar, the Kepma Transacoustic, sent from a local music store. “It’s one of those guitars you play it in and it feels good!” I would pick it up and there would be ideas. He was well supported by a range of collaborators, including those who contacted social media as the project gained momentum. Writers such as Jayaprakash Satyamurthy and Rajeev Ravindranathan (with whom he composed two songs) participated, and well-known musicians from Bengaluru Vasundhara Vee, MD Pallavi, Sumana and former TAAQ band member Sunil Chandy also lent a hand. . Even though he wanted it to be a solo venture, the collaborations evolved organically.
“People would text me and ask ‘Would you like to do something together?’ or I would ask them. And we would. It was crazy because there was no time for regular collaboration. Vasundhara and I did the song in two days, the same with Pallavi, who was also taking care of a small child. We weren’t wondering what or how we were going to do it. It was just ‘Here’s the chords, here’s the music, send me what you like’; there is no judgment, no specification, no guidance. It was just – ‘Go on’.
Even for someone as experienced in practice and pedagogy as Mani, the exercise provided profound learnings, some reminiscent of the concept of the beginner mind of American cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Mani gained insight into his own mind. “As a process it has been enlightening. I had to trust my instincts because I just didn’t have time to wait for the third or fourth idea. That was pretty much the first or second idea you just have to go with. So most of the songs were jams, I jam through chord progressions, through vocals, or through a solo, and it’s the second or third take or the first take sometimes, and that’s made ! I also had to produce and didn’t have time to sit down with 20 different EQs or go into the little details. It was just save, throw, try, go.
Action can be liberating, especially when most of the world is decidedly blocked. In an age when many have found themselves on the precipice of sanity, creative effort can go a long way in ensuring a soft landing. American comic and musician Bo Burnham discovered that during the making of his now epic comedy special Inside. He says it saved his life, literally and figuratively. Mani too.
The musician is now busy with the final mastering of his song-a-day album which will soon be released on online platforms. He wants to keep the momentum going and aims to release a song every week. Meanwhile, there are darling takeaways. The musician now knows that the rhythm that will save him is within him. It’s about launching the song.
Hari Adivarekar is a freelance photojournalist based in Bangalore and Mumbai