A smiling Raghav Meattle spoke to QMT about his career as a singer-songwriter, making the big move, finding his voice and what it means to be an artist in Mumbai. He grew up and studied in New Delhi, though he shifted base to Mumbai to pursue his career in music. There was a time he could have pursued his studies in History, but decided against it, in favour of being the musician we find in him today. He played in a couple of rock and metal bands before, during the time he was attending university at New Delhi’s reputed St. Stephen’s College, at Delhi University. The most successful act he’s had so far as been as a solo artist. He made his first appearance on national television on the show The Stage, to consistent acclaim and heaps of love. Since then, he’s done numerous gigs all over the subcontinent of India. Raghav has gained quite the momentum, having accrued success in quite a short time, to crowds of swooning women giggling over his green eyes (no joke, find him on Instagram) and popular admiration.
The waxy texture of RM’s voice, a seamless poetic simplicity in his lyrics, coupled with the resonant and clear tone of his guitar, plus his effortless ease on the stage are what make his performances a good listening experience. We had a little chat about what’s changed in the last few years, and he happily obliged despite being in the middle of a storm (moving, traveling, writing, you know how it goes). His album ‘Songs From a Matchbox’ is available across platforms. For the purpose of ease and global access, all links included in the interview are youtube links.
Well, your press kit says you like George Ezra and John Mayer. Do you like Donovan and Dylan?
Dylan and Donovan are the probably the most prolific songwriters for me; in terms of voice, of being able to create resonance for their audience. Some of my songs have no structure (like Dylan’s) because I end up writing a whole song without setting a melody, or having a hook in mind. I really vibe with George Ezra’s happy-go-lucky style of songwriting too. I like to keep my music simple, and easy to listen to, while setting the lyrics as an undertone to the overall song.
Being a singer-songwriter is a riskier road to take these days, wouldn’t you say? People flock to techno, house and electro gigs with more zeal. You’ve made this choice for some reason, or was it a choice at all?
To be honest, I don’t think it was a choice. I learnt to play the guitar to set a lot of my poems to music. It’s all about what I’m saying through words and melodies. For now, I’m doing it with a guitar. I’ve grown up listening to live bands and instruments – and that’s what really excites me.
Back To The Known has a wistful, sombre vibe. It’s a way apart from your earlier, more upbeat songs. I hear a bit what we call the burden of influence; Thom Yorke comes to mind, at least in terms of mood (Creep, Fake Plastic Trees etc.). Tell me how the song came to be. “Since the day I trace my world, back to the known” is rather poetic, what prompted you to write this down? The song ends with it too, why did you place it there?’’
Actually, it’s one of the first few songs I wrote when I moved to Mumbai, but it was very different from the rest of the music I was writing at the time. That’s probably why it didn’t make it to the album (I just finished recording the song – releasing as a single soon).
Back to the Known is about being homesick, and I wrote it at a time when I was questioning my decisions – leaving home, and everything that was familiar or known to me. Those particular lines, are about the uncertainty of trying to make something of this new life (moving cities to do music more seriously), while constantly keeping in touch with everything that I’d left behind. It’s that repeated push-and-pull of home, is why I decided to put it a couple of times in the song. As far as the Radiohead reference is concerned, it wasn’t something that happened consciously, but that’s definitely a band that constantly pushes boundaries.
We are more drawn to your brooding, inward songs such as Back to the Known and Back in Time. You’ve let the sounds of the mountain breeze be, what was the reason behind that choice? Where was the video shot? Rather unconventional to have only one setting throughout a music video, wouldn’t you say? It works well, though.
Thank you! Back in Time was one of those songs that I didn’t want to add more elements to. Just guitar and voice worked for the song I felt. I wrote Back in Time when my girlfriend was leaving for a month-long trip to the hills. I wanted to write a song about how I felt about it, though ironically, she never ended up going for it. I narrated the incident to my filmmaker friend, Jaskunwar Kohli and he decided to shoot a video for it around the premise of the song. He had the location in mind all along – a remote hilltop in the Ahmednagar district of Maharasthra, India. We just hiked up the hill with my guitar and a drone, spent the night in a cave and the video is what we got at the end of it!
There is a visible progression in mood and feeling: from the high energy Stood Up & Fried, I’m Always Right, to the more surrendering Bar Talk, Better Than It All, to austere seeming singles such as Back to the Known, Back in Time, and Two Left Feet. Do you see yourself becoming a quieter, more serious person as you get older?
Definitely! I’m just exploring different styles of songwriting, it’s still a fairly new thing for me. I’m discovering more things that I feel strongly about and manage to express them differently. Though yes, the music is gradually becoming softer. I find myself paying more attention to detail as I get better at the craft.
What are you listening to these days? Give us a run through of your current playlist?
I’ve been listening to a lot of singer-songwriters lately. Here’s what’s really had an impact on me in the last couple of months:
Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
Hollow Coves – Wanderlust
Sean Rowe – New Lore
Ben Howard – Noonday Dream
The National – I Am Easy To Find
On I’m Always Right: There’a saying among engineers in India, “You first become an engineer, then you decide what you want to be when you grow up.” This song captures the frustrated anxiety of an Indian kid who’s been shot down at each point, whether it’s at home, or school, whenever they express the desire for an artistic career. Now, we’re not asking for a sociological low-down on the plight of Indian kids and their struggles with their creative aspirations, but would you consider yourself lucky? Something about your own experience is perhaps somewhere in this song. What is it?
I think it started with how music was taught to us when I was growing up. I wish somebody had told me to write a song instead of learning music theory. I’d have learnt the theory bit along the way to write better songs, because it’s always better when you get some context. I thought about how my parents reacted to certain things while growing up (like bringing a girl home to hang out) and most of the lines from the song are what I’d actually heard from them. Since it was a social commentary, I also thought about how as a grown-up, religion and politics also try to brainwash you into thinking certain things. Over time, I just realised that most of these things are internalised and the constant rhetoric you hear from teachers/parents/govt./priests is “I don’t want to hold you back”.
Love songs: She Can, Please Come Back to Me and maybe Bar Talk too. People don’t say certain things out loud, things that we hear in love songs and cinema. Music, art, poetry, all these things, do you feel, give one permission to say things that would otherwise sound (and forgive me for saying this) corny?
For sure! I’m really bad at expressing emotion, and songwriting just becomes an easier way to do it. For example: She Can is a special song because I wrote it for my sister’s wedding – even though we’re really close, I don’t think I’d want to just say those things to her. Writing a song is a special way to emote, something that stands the test of time and that’s what makes it all the more special.
You don’t shy away from talking about politics, and the rising right wing nationalism in our country (One Sided Stories – Wonderful video! and Woh Din Kahan Gaye), so this question really is about art and politics, and its relationship to our lives. Tell me more.
I’m just writing about things that I feel strongly about – politics, definitely is one of them. You read so much about censorship around the world, and in our country too. That bothers me the most – the fear amongst people to question and say things which might be anti-establishment. As an artist, I want to express opinions without fearing systemic backlash. One-sided Stories is specifically about how most of us live in an echo chamber and aren’t able to understand varying ideologies. It’s about the need to discuss things!
Woh Din Kahan Gaye is in Hindi. A segue from English to Hindi. Do we see more Hindi singles in the future?
Yes, I think it’s a skill that I’m developing and I hope to get better with time. I’m more comfortable writing in English because I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. With Hindi, I can reach a lot more people in India – it’s important, since I’m writing about the things that I experience over here.
On collaboration: Is Meattle and Malik coming back? Do you see yourself collaborating with your contemporaries? Who would you like to work with in the industry?
Nikhil (Malik) and I are still good friends – he’s been doing this [music and production] for a lot longer than I have been, so he really helps me with things. We’re just busy doing our own things, for now. I’ve been working with a couple of people from the independent music scene, actually. Recently, I sang on Vernon Noronha’s single, Dream Sandwich. I also wrote a song with singer-songwriter, Kamakshi Khanna. It’s a fun song about breaking gender stereotypes, called Upside Down.
I admire a host of musicians around me, and I’ve slowly been making artistic acquaintances to collaborate more! I’d love to work with Parekh & Singh, the F16s and Peter Cat Recording Company from the Indian Independent music circuit. Internationally, Lucy Rose and Ben Howard – hopefully, that’ll happen someday. :)
On crowdfunding: you managed to rake up quite a sum, to get the album mastered at the prestigious Abbey Road Studios. It’s quite a feat. What advice do you have for musicians struggling with funds? Bollywood is a giant of competitor to go up against as an independent. What are your views on this?
Yeah, the support from a hundred and seventy backers to the campaign was really humbling, it made me work harder to make something substantial, to be proud of, ahead in the future! Getting the funds was a crucial step towards the album, but there’s a lot more that went into the crowdfunding campaign.
Crowdfunding campaigns, and Patreon are great ways to raise money for an album but they require a lot of planning too. Here’s what I did to make it happen: A year earlier, I played about eighty gigs to ensure enough time for work on these songs, narrowed down and chose a producer, worked with him for a single (Better Than it All) to make sure we were on the same page for the album. Shot a music video for the single, to launch the crowdfunding campaign.
As an independent artist in India, I think there’s space for a lot more music to exist – apart from Bollywood at the moment. It’s just that Bollywood is ubiquitous and slowly, with the internet – more spaces are opening up for independent music too – OTT platforms, streaming services, YouTube and so on.
There was barely a stand-up scene in India, but that’s blown up. I’m talking about things which a twenty seven year old Indian should be able to identify with too, but yes, it’s a gradual process. The biggest challenge as an indie musician is the distribution, because without that, one is not really giving themselves a chance out here. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’ve been trying to open up different avenues for myself and the music – but yes, it’s really hard. People don’t respond to mails, and it’s generally hard being an independent artist. I’m still trying though, because it’s all about building an audience at the end of the day and keeping them hooked!
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.