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Saturday, 6 August 2011
Sonu Nigam Interview: 'I Can't Be India's Simon Cowell'
Sonu Nigam has been established as a playback singer for 20 years, providing the voice to some of the biggest stars in Indian cinema. He became a household name in India following his success as the host of the popular music show Sa Re Ga Ma and has released several Indi-pop albums and performed at concerts around the world. A judge on Indian Idol, he most recently joined the lineup for India's X Factor. Meanwhile, he has been collaborating with Western acts including Kylie Minogue, Jermaine Jackson and Britney Spears and is rumoured to be releasing a track with Lady GaGa next month. Digital Spy chatted with the singing star about his life, career and collaborating with Britney.
You recently collaborated with Britney Spears for the song 'I Wanna Go.' How did this collaboration come about?
"I have a very close friend who has been instrumental in getting a lot of collaborations done. We've got to know each other personally in the last two years. We were waiting for the right opportunity. When they told me about the song I said, 'Of course, it would be a pleasure'. So we worked on the song with DJ Lloyd. We completely changed the sound and added everything to the song except for Britney's vocal."
Did you work in the studio with her?
"I wish I could have worked in the studio with her, but I was in India. This was a collaboration that had to be done as soon as possible so they sent us the song and I, my engineer and DJ Lloyd worked on the song together in my studio. I was told at one point that Britney wants to tweet you and that she loved the song and said it's sounding great."
We're increasingly finding Indian stars collaborating with Western artists. Why do you think there is this interest in Indian acts in the West and why is it important to you to record with Western artists?
"You reach a point in life when you don't work for money and you don't work for fame. You work to make a legacy. When I came to Bombay from Delhi to become a singer 20 years ago, my aim was to become just a singer and primarily a playback singer. As a singer I thought I would be popular and people would recognise me all over the world and just being a singer I enjoyed the stardom of any other superstar in the world. I have been able to do such a variety of work and travel the world with it so God has been really kind to me. People have been really kind to me. I have built my career on this desire to do different things. The real learning and the legacy lies in trying out new things. I have done so much television. I pioneered television in India. Right now I'm doing the biggest show in India, The X Factor. I have worked on films. I'm cutting an album right now. I have the collaboration with Jermaine Jackson. Even though this is the beginning, India is going to collaborate with the world. Our sound has really gone leaps ahead from where we were five years back and India is definitely a great market for the world."
You recently collaborated with Jermaine Jackson in a tribute song for Michael. How did Michael Jackson influence you musically?
"All true artists in the world from all countries and all genres are influenced by Michael Jackson. There were music videos before Michael Jackson and there were music videos after Michael Jackson. He brought such a huge change in the marketing and positioning of the music video. His contribution was unparalleled. He passed away and we were all very saddened. I remember around that time I felt that I wanted to write a song in his memory... I would be honoured to collaborate with Michael Jackson's brother on that. Everything fell into place automatically. I didn't have to really work for it."
You stole the show at the IIFA Rocks event. What was it like performing with Jermaine Jackson?
"It was really good. I don't know if you know but I was really, really unwell. I was burning with fever and the doctors told me not to perform, but it was Michael Jackson's death anniversary and Jermaine Jackson flew all the way to Toronto to perform and I thought, I can't let him down. Despite being ill, it was a very, very memorable performance, both singing with Jermaine and the rock qawaali."
How are you finding the experience of being a judge on The X Factor?
"I was the first judge in the Indian Idol format. The biggest risk when you adapt a format from country in the West is how to make it your own, so I remember at the press conference for Indian X Factor, the press would ask 'Who is Simon Cowell?' And I said 'Why don't you ask Simon Cowell who is Sonu Nigam?' Every person in the world has their own temperament. I can't be Simon Cowell and he can't be me. You have to find your own identity. If you're not happy with your own self that's when you want to be someone else. So what I do in all the shows I have been a part of, I make those shows a part of me. I colour it my way. So Sanjay [Leela Bhansali], Shreya [Gaushal] and I decided how we would make this show our own. We are trying our best not to be petty. There comes a point when you want to be partial and a bit biased towards your own contestant. The show has to be all about talent, nothing else. No controversy. No manipulations."
How would you define the X factor?
"You don't have to be the sexiest girl or the most talented person to have the X factor. X factor is something you are born with that is your own. And the moment that you realise how to tap into that quality that you have within, and how to bring that individuality out of yourself, that is when you discover the X factor. A simple girl clad in a white sari, with long flowing hair, not dancing at all, is like an angel. She would probably have much more X factor than somebody in a bikini flaunting themselves. People who have the X factor know what they have."
We have seen a change in Indian cinema with youth films such as Delhi Belly. What do you feel about the changing trends and the direction Indian cinema is taking?
"Change is the only constant in life and we have to accept all kinds of change whether its music or in cinema or in artistic expression or thinking. There has to be a place for good or bad cinema, good music, bad music. I haven't seen Delhi Belly but I have heard it's a very different kind of movie. At the same time I'm okay with everybody's volume of work. For me, as long as I can continue to bring about changes in society or the expression of the art form, what everyone does is fine for me."
Are you concerned that more actors are taking to singing their own songs in films?
"Everybody's entitled to do whatever they feel and there is so much recording technology you can make a non-singer sound like a singer, so why not take advantage of such technology? There are lots of non-singers worldwide, not just in India. There are a lot of singers who cannot sing to save their lives. We have to accept it, but thank God there is such a thing as live shows. It's only when people are faced with live shows that the world gets to know how good or how bad they are."
What is next for you?
"I'm doing an album of mantras and Jermaine Jackson is coming to India to shoot the music video for the Michael Jackson tribute song. They are some other collaborations but I'm not allowed to talk about those. The X Factor is going on so as I said my hands are really full."