GRAMMY® Award nominated composer and record producer ARUN SHENOY’S versatile production style spans genres as wide as rock and funk, to jazz and world music. Born and brought up in Karnataka, India Arun is currently based in Singapore. His debut world fusion production titled Rumbadoodle released in 2012 was nominated at the 55th Annual GRAMMY® Awards. The album also peaked at #4 on the ZMR Radio Airplay Charts and was #14 on ZMRs Top 100 Airplay Charts for 2013.
Arun writes and produces music released as solo productions under his own name, as well as for other bands and solo artists. He is the founder and CEO of publishing firm Arun Shenoy Music Publishing and record label Narked Records.
Arun is also a Breedlove artist, a showcase artist of SONY for their audio production suite, and endorses PreSonus, the premier American manufacturer of live and studio sound equipment.
Amongst all this, Arun was ever so kind to take some time out from his busy schedule to chat with Of Indian Origin.
So, tell us how it all started. How did music get introduced to you and when did you decide you wanted to become an engineer?
I suppose it all began in the summer of 1993 when I enrolled for a few guitar lessons. I have to admit it was a rather bad start given that we (the students) were not taught any of the fundamentals such as basic theory, or even how to tune the guitar. Rather, it was based on memorizing patterns of popular songs using a number based system, with no indication of a musical context whatsoever. But was a start nevertheless, and soon after I found myself meeting many more musicians, who introduced me to a whole new world of music I had never heard of before, not to mention helping me improve my skills on the guitar. Was an interesting period of my life dominated largely by hard rock and heavy metal bands and artists (for instance Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Extreme, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, Metallica, Iron Maiden and so many more). Before this time a large part of my musical education was based on my dad’s rather lovely LP collection made up of the Beatles, Boney M, ABBA etc and tapes of bands like the Eagles.
The Engineering aspect… well I guess it just happened. Growing up in India at the time the choices were rather limited, focused primarily on either an education in Medicine or Engineering. I never took to Biology, so Engineering it was. I spent 4 years completing my degree in Computer Engineering at MIT, Manipal. Some of my best memories are actually from that time. And being in a band during this period, life was just a journey from one rock show to the next, with some lectures in between. Ha-ha. I was a good student though and worked very hard on my education.
Other than the Grammy Nomination what has been your most memorable moment so far in your musical journey?
You did mention the “journey” aspect in your question. So in many ways I see the Grammy nod as a kind of destination that I reached as part of this journey. After I moved to Singapore, I suddenly felt the urge to work on all original material of my own. So I guess close to a decade after that was spent toiling in obscurity, trying to balance a career in Investment Banking with music. I worked on a handful of project that really went nowhere. In 2010, I produced the hard rock EP for American singer Tanadra whom I had met online and later in the year an EP of my own (which was the seed for the Flamenco infused world fusion music in the years that followed). Then in 2011, I also released a handful of re-mastered Hindi Pop-Rock recordings I had worked on many years before (in 2002 to be exact, which was also the year I was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident) with a very talented friend of mine, Avinash Acharya. The project was titled Kalinga and for some reason we never did release the music at the time.
A few years during this period were also spent with the band Sage that I had formed with a very talented composer and guitar player named Sridhar. Again, some wonderful times writing a whole lot of music together, but some things were just not meant to be. After what seemed like a never end change in the line-up of the band, and creative differences, the band split without having released even a single. (Sridhar and me have re-grouped though in 2014 and have already released 2 alternative rock singles. We are working on a lot of new material and have plans for more singles, an album and even a tour. Let’s see how that works out)
Anyways, getting back on track, in 2012, Rumbadoodle happened. Life thereafter took on a whole new course with the critical acclaim the music received and the Grammy nomination in December of the same year.
The journey till this time has always been full of ups and downs. Nothing out of the ordinary in that sense as this is a journey that most musicians and artists are on. And that fire within all of us to keep creating music and the aspirations and dreams we build around the art we create…helps keep us moving along. Of course a lot of it would not have been possible without a lot of the wonderful people you meet along the way who end becoming a big part of your world… in music and in the life outside of it. So the friendships we build and the memories we create are quite priceless.
How did the Grammy nomination change things for you?
The Grammy nomination was quite incredible and I am very grateful to the Recording Academy for this honour. What it did, in addition to a lot of publicity for me and interest in my work (curiosity more like from many listeners who had never heard of me till that time), was also the massive boost in credibility as an artist and as a producer. It also helped me connect with other members of the American music community, many of whom I have collaborated with since then. So in all sincerity I can say that this has been the turning point in my music career.
How did you get drawn towards world fusion?
I have always enjoyed all styles of music, from Techno and Club to New Age, World and Lounge. I remember there was a time when I loved the music of Engima, which likely set the spark for my own world fusion adventure, though it was the inspiration I drew from Yanni’s work (specifically the live albums at the Acropolis and The Taj/Forbidden City) that actually set the wheels in motion. I remember there was a time when I found myself completely mesmerized by his work – not just by the music but the whole visual aspect of the live performances. I was fortunate enough to have owned the DVDs for the shows at the time. What I have always enjoyed about World Fusion as a genre is the experimentation with the fusion of various elements, traditional and contemporary, with wide ranging western styles ranging from Pop and Rock to Classical, to try and create interesting new possibilities and sounds.
How do you write your songs? Do you need to listen to a melody first; do you have a favourite time or place to write? Tell us a bit about your creative process.
It depends. I am basically a composer focused more on the musical elements, rather than a songwriter (like Sridhar for instance) who pen lyrics and vocal melodies too. Very often I draw inspiration from some vocal lines/ melodies that are brought to me, and at other times I initiate the process with some song writing scratches of harmonies, chord progressions and instrumental hooks in various styles that often serve as inspiration for singers to build vocal melodies on.
What does music production involve?
This whole concept of music production appears to be shrouded in some sort of mystery. I also observe that a lot of folks have rather different views on what it involves…. from being a financier, to being a term used to also loosely refer to a composer or a performing artist. And in today’s age of independent artists, very many of whom are self-produced, just helps make it all the more confusing.
So let me break it down with a simple example. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but it should help lay down the fundamentals. Music production encapsulates the big picture of the music and the producer is the person in charge of this process. The producer is the person who works with songwriters, musicians, arrangers, engineers, etc to realize a vision and create a shelf ready finished product.
Let us take an example to help break it down. A rather common one. You are a solo singer/ songwriter and you have penned a few songs. Assume some simple demos of you singing over a guitar or piano performance. You have a good voice and believe your songs could be a hit. So you approach a producer to try and take your simple demos to the next step. The first thing a producer will do (after listening to the music and seeing potential in it) is try and understand your vision for the music and of yourself as an artist. Of course the demos serve as a basic guide, but do you see yourself more as a pop idol like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, or maybe identify more with the likes of Madonna and Pink.
Very often artists are very sure of where they see themselves headed ; and often not so much, in which case the producer often sets the vision for how end music would eventually sound like based on the various strong qualities of the artist.
The next step is of course the music. The idea of a song is to not simply re-record the artist’s demo “professionally”. Rather, to use the producer ear to try and find a hit. This could very well work with the music the artist has written; or in many cases finding professional songwriters to help co-write and craft the hits.
Once this has been established the next step is laying it down. And this involves hiring the right studio session musicians who will play the required instruments in the required style of the music. Be it a rock song or a more pop oriented boy band format.
The song always tells a story and this is the part about arrangements; about taking the listener on a journey and the dynamics of all of this is crafted by an arranger who puts all of the recordings together the structure for the song. Of course the all-important engineers at every step of the process that capture the essence of the music… right from the recording engineers to the mixing and mastering engineers.
Being a producer does not require one to be proficient at an instrument (though most producers typically are), but they are people who typically have a fair understanding of the entire process and are involved at every step of the process. For me this translates into extensive co-writing and arranging the music in the production process. As far as the recording go, I tend to often write demos on the guitar but on the actual recording I tend to work with top tier studio session pros that are far more proficient at the instrument than I am. This also helps me disconnect from the guitar and focus on the bigger picture of the music.
Then of course you have the various other scenarios. For instance, recording/ performing artists who have great voices and on stage persona but are unable to write any music, in which case there is more extensive involvement of professional songwriters (for instance the boy bands).
Then you have the songwriters, who pen great songs but are unable to perform the music. In this case their representatives (aka the publishers) would shop the music to producers who would potentially be looking for songs for the aforementioned recording artists.
Each of these roles is very important, be it the recording artist, or the songwriters, or the studio musicians and the engineers… and are all very integral to the big picture of the music. And the producer helps bring it all together.
Artists can try and engage producers themselves to either cut a demo or an album, or alternately a producer can be engaged by a record label. The latter is a situation where a label has decided to sign an artist who has been discovered by the label’s A&R team. Other times, producers themselves will use their connections to shop an artist’s music to a label.
I hope that helps!
Wow! That really helped in understanding the industry better. Thank you so much. So how does a songwriter get discovered by you?
Songwriters and recording artists alike connect with me largely over social media or from my website.
What are the options available to a young musician to sustain his living?
At this point in time, a vast majority of the young artists I know have a day job to help sustain their art. Perseverance, often against all odds, is the key to getting the break.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in today’s music space?
The constantly evolving landscape of the music business is a rather interesting challenge. Of course technology is a big part of it. Not so much in terms of the way music is created but rather in the way it is consumed. Right from the evolution of mp3s and the portable players to carry them that marked a huge shift, to the more recent mainstream adoption of streaming formats popularized by the likes of Spotify and Pandora. Then of course, the responsibilities that come with being an independent artist/ label of having to wear many hats at once. Can be quite tiring to keep up with all of it really. I do find myself struggling quite a bit at times to be “everywhere”.
Do you feel that streaming services like Spotify are beneficial or detrimental for today’s musicians? Do you feel your record sales would do better without these services? Or does the promotional and/or discovery value outweigh any potential record sales?
Oh well, love it or hate it, but technology has brought with it a whole lot of changes and in the bigger scheme of things I believe change is always good. So I do try and embrace anything new that comes out. I am still rather divided about the pros vs cons of these Spotify styled services. As you rightly indicated, there is the promotional or discovery element, but in the end the objective is to translate this into paying customers in some form… either of the music or maybe concert goers. It appears to work for some, but not for most. At least based on my personal experience and what I read in the press. But we shall see how it evolves in the near future. At the end of the day, we as the content creators have to figure out a way to make it work for us.
And what do you think of the significance of the labels in today’s music landscape?
Well, I have always maintained the fact that the labels, major or independent, are as significant today as they have been in the past.
A good label can commission all the creative people, ranging from producers to engineers, to help you craft a professional recording. Even if you already have this area covered with a fully produced album ready to go, being on a label would (typically) give you access to their connections with industry professionals — publicists, marketing teams, managers, concert promoters, booking agents, distributors, radio promoters etc. Additionally, the labels also serve to mentor, groom and nurture their artists. For an independent artist with little interest in the business, and often a small budget (that tends to inevitably get used almost entirely for creating music), this can be a very valuable partnership.
Of course, whether it is a publishing firm working hard to monetize the song copyright of its writers, or a label looking to promote the sound recordings of its artists; they do take on a significant amount of risk. So understanding the whole aspect of copyright and working out a deal seen as fair by the artist and the label is quite important. This also extends to ensuring that you as the artist have the desired amount of creative control.
In the end, there is no right or wrong. It is a decision that every artist will make when such time comes – on whether to stay independent, or consider what they could achieve with the support of a label.
Tell us about the 2 companies you have setup in recent times?
Arun Shenoy Music Publishing (ASMP for short) was a publishing firm I had established a few years ago to assign, manage and administer the song copyrights for all of my work. But over the course of time, I realized that the role of ASMP had kind of expanded to undertake the work traditionally done by record labels – produce, record, promote and distribute artists. This can be quite confusing too. So I decided to setup Narked Records to have a clear separation of the publishing and label roles. The vision I had was to slowly build the catalogue of both firms–through the discovery and development of writers under the ASMP umbrella, and of recording artists via Narked Records. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I am happy with the slow but fairly steady progress I am makingIt does tend to get rather stressful at times, but having embarked on this journey, there is no looking back I guess. So on we go.
So what’s happening next? What projects are you looking to work on?
Currently, I am busy with 2 projects.
The first one is an alternative rock collaboration with Sridhar (which I had spoken about earlier). Titled Sridhar & Arun Shenoy, the project has a strong focus on song writing and melodies that draws inspiration from styles as wide ranging as Disco and Retro to Classic and Modern rock. We have released 2 singles in 2014 and have a lot planned for the future.
The second one is a band project called Soul’d, and something I have put together with my long-time collaborator Duke Purisima and with Ravichandra Kulur, who I have worked with more recently. The project is an instrumental fusion of Funk and Smooth Jazz (based on songs largely penned by Duke), with a spicy dash of World influences (with Ravi’s blazing Indian Flute work). A style we call “Bansuri Funk”. We have released a self-titled debut single in 2014 to introduce the band and the sound and are currently working on the full length follow up album.
Both of these projects also mark my return to the performance space, something I had stepped away from for some time now.
How lovely! Apart from music, what else do you like to do?
Simple pleasures in life. Kite flying for instance (which served as the inspiration for the cover art for “Blue Sky Happiness” from Rumbadoodle). Then of course my motorcycle. I have never owned a car in my life. Like they say – 4 wheels move the body. 2 wheels move the soul. And I am all Soul’d. Ha-ha.
I used to be a fitness freak too for a long time, albeit significantly less at this time. I do love to travel and see the world too.
Great! Lastly, your advice to aspiring music composers or record producers?
Perseverance is the key. Always remember that what you often see as an “overnight success” in the media, is many years of hard work. Hard work you never saw the artist do, which leads one to believe in lucky breaks. Don’t believe in luck. Luck comes to those who never needed it in the first place. And don’t get carried away by fads or the pressure to keep up. Don’t obsess over trying to create that one hit song. Rather work consistently and eventually it will pay off, more often than not, in unexpected ways. Try to focus on what you think you can do best. For instance I found myself struggling for years trying to be the next Slash or Joe Satriani, in terms of proficiency on the guitar that is, only to discover much later on my true passion for producing and arranging music. So work hard on your core competency. Set your heart on it and give it all you got.
Thanks for having me Nisha!
Thank you very much Arun, I am sure many of our readers will benefit from your advice.