“I Think My Biggest Strength Is Also My Biggest Weakness!”
From lending his voice to many chartbusters to creating music, Clinton has done it all. Collaborating with the likes of Vishal Bhardwaj, this talented musician was discovered by the maestro AR Rahman himself while working at a music studio. Read on as STA
You belong to a family that has no musical background. Did you always aspire to get into the music industry? I come from a pretty academically oriented family. I think music was always a part of my consciousness even though, due to my family background, it took me a long time to embrace the idea. I finally decided to take music seriously when that inner voice got so loud that it became really difficult to ignore it.
Who has been the driving force in your life? I would say my wife and kids have been the driving force behind my career and life in general. My wife Dominique has always held a mirror and provided a reality check to my ambitions and yet encouraged me to be better every day.
How has your journey from being a playback singer to becoming a music composer in Bollywood been? The journey from singer to music producer to composer has felt quite natural actually
as I’ve always felt my voice has been a vehicle for my musical ideas and not the other way ‘round. The melody of a song, the orchestration, the groove, the arrangements, it attracted me. So I think the transition was inevitable.
You have worked with some of the most notable music composers. Please share your experience…
I think I’ve been lucky and blessed to have worked with some of the greatest musical minds in our country and I’ve not taken it for granted. I think the three people I’ve learnt the most from are Vishal Bhardwaj, AR Rahman and Rajat Dholakia. Each time I’ve worked with them I’ve come out richer. And I feel I had true freedom while working on their music because of which I really pushed the envelope.
Tell us about your first break in Bollywood.
I did a lot of work as a producer and arranger for Bollywood’s biggest composers but I think my first break as a composer was Jugni. It will always be special to me because it was a vocal delight and had many fantastic singers like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nakash Aziz, Rekha Bhardwaj, Javed Bashir, Neha Kakkar, Jazim Sharma, Bianca Gomes, and even Vishal Bhardwaj sang a song for me. The first time he’s ever sung for another composer other than himself. And the fact that AR Rahman also had a song in this album made it all the more special. And the icing on the cake was to have both my musical mentors AR Rahman and Vishal ji at the ‘ Jugni’ launch introducing my music.
From the release of your first song to now, is the nervousness same?
Oh, absolutely. I think you never lose that feeling. Nervousness is a part and parcel of my life and now it’s peppered with a healthy dose of acceptance. I mean acceptance of a positive or negative outcome. It’s impossible to have longevity in this career if you don’t maintain that objectivity.
Which is your most favourite music genre? As a music producer, I don’t think one can afford to have a favourite genre as versatility is the name of the game. But I would still say I’m partial to Jazz, soul and funk. I also love different folk forms from around the world. I’ve always been influenced by bands like Steely Dan and artistes like Sting, but I feel equally at home with the music of Baba Maal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or the Manganiyaars for example.
Apart from movies ,you have a band as well. Which one’s more exciting to sing for?
Well I think if the song is an exciting one then it doesn’t really matter. I’m equally excited to get behind the mic and just give it all I’ve got. As a singer you can always bring your own personality to a song. It doesn’t matter if it was written by someone else, there’s a lot you can do with it vocally and instrumentally to make it your own. I’m fortunate to have a great band comprising some of the best players in the industry. And I also regularly perform with two fantastic singers Bianca Gomes and Sudeep Jaipurwale. Sudeep brings his classical training to the table with his soaring aalaps and cutting taans while Bianca totally nails the pop, funk and soul sound. Together, we are a lethal combination.
If not a singer, what else would Clinton Cerejo be?
Definitely a food and lifestyle writer. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and I spend a fair amount of time and money each year in pursuit of culinary experiences by my favourite chefs. I’ve also recently launched an informal food blog of sorts to chronicle my experiences.
I finally decided to take music seriously when that inner voice got so loud that it became really difficult to ignore it.”
My music is a reflection of all that I absorb and imbibe on a daily basis.”
Competition in the music industry is growing day by day. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s the one thing that affects us all and affects us the most. I guess the trick is to learn not to compare yourself to others as everyone’s trajectory is different. However, it’s far easier said than done. Social media plays a huge part these days in fuelling that competitive side in all of us. Society is voyeuristic and you have to try to stay focused on who you are and what your identity is rather then looking around you and getting intimidated or bogged down.
What is your biggest strength and weakness?
I think my biggest strength is also my biggest weakness. I find it really difficult to compose something that I don’t really love to listen to myself. However, I guess it’s a strength as well in the sense that the music is always honest and comes from a place of authenticity.
Your wife Dominique is a playback singer too. Is music the reason you both met?
Yes, she’s an incredible singer and was an extremely busy vocalist when we met. We met through a common friend and soon learned that we shared a lot of common interests. We were in a relationship for five years before we finally decided to tie the knot. Musically she’s my most honest critic and also my best friend. It was not an easy choice for her to consciously decide to take a back seat as I got busier and busier, but when I see how our kids are blossoming I’m ever grateful for it.
You have sung for many wellknown faces in Bollywood. With whom was have the best experience?
I think I’ve really enjoyed singing Endrendrum Ponnagai from Alaipayuthey (the original Tamil version of OHum Dum Suniyo Re for AR Rahman, Kya Karoon for S. E. L. and Yaaram for Vishal ji. Each of these composers have such different styles but wrote such great songs that were challenging vocally.
Because musicians work behind the screen, do you think they get the deserved appreciation?
Frankly, I think a good song is its own reward. If you can adopt that line of thinking then you’ll never be “working” a day in your life. However, the flip side to that argument is that we’re all artistes and art requires an audience. This is why I’d really like to see the independent music scene grow even more in this country. We need to see a thriving pop industry where artists don’t have to lean on Bollywood to be popular.
Your favourite music composer in Bollywood?
That’s like asking me to choose a favourite city between London, Barcelona, Paris and Tokyo. I just can’t decide.
What is that one thing that you would like to change about yourself?
It would be my inability to relinquish control at every minute stage of the creative process. I guess I’d be able to work a lot faster and more efficiently if I was less of a control freak.
You have given your voice for some of the most famous romantic numbers in Bollywood, which song is the closest to your heart?
I think one that’s especially close to my heart is a song that I didn’t sing myself but one that I composed. It was sung by Arijit in the film Kahaani2 and it’s called Mehram. Another close second is a song called ‘I just want to spend my life with you’
which was composed by Salim Sulaiman in the film Neal&Nikki.
Your coke studio single Madaari went on to be a rage, how do you feel? It was such a surprise to me and the entire MTV team actually when that happened. Honestly, no one expected that song to be such a runaway hit, but when it happened I was really happy it did. I think there was something special about the way all the elements came together that day on the set that made that song really special. The lyrics by Manoj Yadav, the voices of Vishal Dadlani and Sonu Kakkar and also the way the band played it with so much magic.
You made Amitabh Bachchan sing for TE3N. Please share your experience… It was an absolute honour to have Mr Bachchan sing a song that I composed. I went over to his house to go over the melody with him and realised how passionate about music he is. He has a music room in his house with a state of the art digital piano. He turned it on and was giving me an overview of how it works. It was a pretty unforgettable evening. I was struck by how easy it was for him to emote and get totally under the skin of the character.
What is your take on the actors who are trying their hands in singing. Isn’t that giving rise to some tough competition?
I think the people who are really secure in their art form are not afraid of competition. I mean if you’re a singer, no one’s stopping you from acting. So how can you grudge an actor who may want to try his hand at singing? Ultimately what you and I think is immaterial, it’s the audience who decides who they want to watch and listen to.
You have composed the music for several award winning commercials. Which are your most favourite and memorable ones? I’ve been composing ads for close to 18 years now and
It was an absolute honour to have Mr Bachchan sing a song that I composed.”
I’ve scored well over 2,500 commercials in this time. The ones I remember, which really made a difference, were Vodafone BlackBerry Boys commercial and the Google Reunion Ad which went viral. It also bagged the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award for best music. Also, Lifebuoy Gondappa was a landmark composition which won a Gold for music at the Abby’s (Goa Fest) and the Hyundai Ad with Arijit Singh in which I also featured in the film as myself and created a track entirely out of car sounds that I recorded. More recently, I gave music for an ad that was commissioned by the Jammu & Kashmir tourism board is one of my personal favourites especially because a month after the ad released, I visited Kashmir myself with my family and experienced the warmth of the people of that land. My biggest reward was when the Chief Minister Smt. Mehbooba Mufti had tears in her eyes at the screening.
What do you enjoy more – concerts or playback singing?
I think they’re two sides of the same coin. When you sing a song in the studio, you sing it with the view that it gets popular and you end up performing it on stage to a receptive audience. I think I like them both equally. It really helps having a rocking band that drives you on stage to push yourself and give the audience a hundred percent.
You recently featured with your band on the TED Talks on Star Plus. Tell us your experience.
I was extremely honoured that the Clinton Cerejo Band was invited to perform on the first edition of TED Talks India. I composed a song Lafzon Ka Kaafila especially for the occasion Meeting SRK in his green room post shoot was awesome and I had a bit of a fanboy moment. It was also a great honour to receive a personal mail from Juliet Blake, the British film director who now is the curator at TED worldwide in NYC.
You were the first contemporary Indian composer to be invited by the Berklee College of Music to conduct a Master Class and mentor the students. How was the experience? It was honestly a huge honour for me and a true testament to the fact that music sometimes speaks for itself. I conducted a four day residency in Boston and was really surprised to find out how much interest and excitement there was for Indian contemporary music. They had students from Israel, Russia, Egypt and so many other parts of the world learning sargam and Indian musical concepts with so much enthusiasm. It was unbelievable.
What’s next coming up? I’ve composed the music for three songs in the latest film Three Storeys, there’s a love song Bas Tu Hai sung by Arijit Singh and Jonita Gandhi. The second track is a soothing, heart-warming number called Aazaadiyaan sung by Bianca Gomes and Yours Truly. And the third number is a pop funk composition titled Zaroori Bewakoofi, featuring Mohit Chauhan’s vocals.
Meeting SRK post shoot, made me had a fanboy moment.”
With Roger Brown, Berklee College of Music
With Amitabh Bachchan