I am always under pressure: Swetha Mohan on her 12-year-long musical journey

Shwetha Mohan
Shwetha says Ouseppachan was upset that her mother Sujatha didn't tell him that her daughter could sing. Photos: Instagram

Shwetha Mohan is that student in class who quietly found a place for herself amidst the pandemonium. She is busy with music lessons, live shows, and regular music albums. Shwetha recently sang some melodies for AR Rahman and was also part of his musical live shows. The singer shares her musical ambitions and other interesting developments with Manorama online.

Everything took time

It’s been 12 years since music has become my profession. I was very sure I didn’t want a corporate job. And to this day I have been able to enjoy every minute of my musical journey. I am someone who takes my career very seriously but without the burden of over-expectations or hopes. Perhaps that’s why at the end of the day, after every studio or stage visit, I am able to relax and be at peace with myself. Even during my earlier days, it was like that. Even when I decided to make music as my career, I was pretty sure my days should unwind like this. Honestly, I never hankered after awards, fame, endless songs, or chartbusters.

 And my graph also went that way. I never had a sensational chartbuster hit like a ‘Lajjavathiye’ or a ‘Nenjukkulle.’ Similarly, it never saw spectacular highs or lows and seems to be running smoothly. I am looking forward to gradual growth. Because I feel that will help us in bettering ourselves as well as in learning all the essentials of music without any pressure. I am trying my best to learn music now. I want to do a lot more things though. I have been blessed to connect with a lot of people through my music. That gives me so much happiness. I have always yearned for a musically enriched life.  I want to be part of good projects and stages and studios and move forward in life. Nothing more than that.

About being your mother’s daughter

My mother is the reason why I am flooded with so much love from the world of music as well as from the outside world. Malayalees especially are simply extending their love for my mother to me. It was AR Rahman sir who first recorded my voice. I was one of the children’s choruses in the ‘Kuchi Kuchi Rakkamma song.’ Of course, he called me because of my mother. Later I got my first playback singing opportunity from Ilayaraja’s son Karthik Raja. And that had something to do with my visit to Bhavatharani akka’s (Ilayaraja’s daughter) home for Navaratri. Even that invitation came because I am my mother’s daughter. There Karthik sir said since you are Sujatha’s daughter you will surely sing and suggested we give it a shot.

That’s how I sang for ‘Three Roses.’ In Malayalam, I first sang for Deepak Dev. When my mother passed him a CD consisting of my songs which we had kept for music directors, Deepu chettan was sweet enough to listen to it then and there. It was through singer Tipu that Raja sir came to know that I can sing. He had heard me sing at a competition and conveyed that to Raja sir. Since Raja sir has seen my mother from a young age, in his mind she is still young. So he found it amusing that her adult daughter can sing playback now. Ousepachan sir was upset that my mother never told him that I could sing. Rahman sir immediately called me to his studio after listening to the CD and made me sing a song as well. Jayachandran sir initially called my mother to sing the superhit song ‘Kolakuzhal viliketto.’  It was my mother who suggested that it would be better if I sang the song along with Vijay Yesudas instead of her. All these happened not because I am someone special but because of the trust and love they have for my mother.

But I am equally confident

I haven’t really struggled compared to artists who come without a background in music or cinema. And it is all thanks to my mom. But having said that to gain acceptance here or to have a career you need to have talent and confidence and a willingness to work hard. I think my mother’s legacy will always cloud me. And that pressure will always be with you, throughout your career. I am also facing that but in a positive way. When I am singing in front of my mother’s listeners, their love automatically flows in my direction. That love transcends comparison and the pressures of fulfilling their expectations. And that gives me so much energy.

I am aware of what I had signed up for

I do think about my future. After all one can’t stop thinking about one’s survival. But that has never affected me negatively. I think every singer/musician gets into this profession aware of the uncertainties surrounding them and that they won’t get programmes and songs every month. I keep reminding myself that I need to learn about music and my field more closely and that I need to keep an open mind about the opportunities that come my way. And that’s exactly what I am doing.

My policy is that as long as you remain a good singer and maintain consistency in your voice, opportunities will keep coming your way. At least that’s what my experiences have taught me. As long as there are listeners for music any singer who has dedication confidence and a good voice will always get songs.

Stage shows

You realise your potential as a singer when you are on stage. You can't go for retakes on stage. Especially in today’s time when you have the kind of technology that can even turn a casual talk into a song. Being on stage not only helps in enhancing your skills as a singer but also as an entertainer. When you bring these two facets together it looks beautiful on stage. As long as I achieve this feat I will be known as a good singer and it will also help in creating a dedicated audience for me.

I have had the opportunity to share a live stage with AR Rahman, Ilayaraja and Yuvan Sankar Raja. They are all unforgettable experiences in my musical career as well as my personal life. When I share a live stage with Raja sir each rehearsal will be like a great musical class. He will pick each word of the song and help you to sing it in different ways, including where to start your breath and where to stop. I give a lot of importance to the melodies he composed in the 70s. When you sing those songs which were recorded live with orchestra and vocals together, it is almost like being part of that great musical tradition of the time. I often tell this to the participants of reality shows. That there is nothing wrong in trying to imitate the songs of those days. The orchestration and recording of that time were so enriching.

Rahman works in a different way. His method is different when it comes to recordings and appearing live. If he thinks that we are tense during recording, he relaxes us. And when he comes on live, he will mostly be improvising his own songs. That decision will be made then and there. But when we sing along with that it is quite an experience. Rahman sir’s live performances are unforgettable. When I sang his father’s song and my mother’s humming in Roja on stage that was much appreciated. But those were impromptu decisions from him. Just the fact that he gave me that opportunity and I was able to do justice to it was a proud moment for me. That gives me so much satisfaction. He can spot even minor irritants in the chorus in the first hearing. I consider it a privilege to work with such talents.

Then mother, now me

Recently I sang two songs for Rahman. And both got noticed. The song in ‘Malayankunju’ was an important song in my career. Because I was able to be part of a Malayalam film that was composed by Rahman after three decades. During his earlier collaboration in Malayalam, my mother and Dasammama (Yesudas) were able to sing for him. I found it such a happy coincidence. During the song’s recording and live performance, I sang the song with so much joy. During Abu Dhabi’s live event there were so many Malayalees present there. There was a terrific vibe when they also sang with me. It was as if I was singing in front of a small gathering of friends.

They are so important

I can never forget the sound engineers. At times we say that we have the same wavelength and vibe. It is when such a wavelength occurs between a singer and sound engineer that songs get beautifully recorded. If there is an audio engineer who can correctly gauge your strengths and weaknesses, you can confidently sing. Every great music director will have an equally great audio engineer with him. One cannot forget their contribution during live shows and recordings. Sometimes I myself have wondered if I am able to sing this well. That happens with the right amalgamation of two talents, that of the singer and the audio engineer. Similarly, the contribution of live show engineers are as crucial as that of studio engineers. For certain shows, I have sung when I have been unwell. But no one will be able to figure out the flaws in our singing. Thanks to the sound engineers, our voice will be coming out with such precision.

Life in Chennai

I was born and brought up in Chennai and I am currently living in the city. I have always felt that the musical culture of a city will play a key role in shaping your aesthetics. And Chennai offers a special energy to those who learn Carnatic music as well as film music. The city is rich with connoisseurs of music as well as those who appreciate music. The yearly Margazhi festival is a Chennai specialty. There are great avenues, roots, and connoisseurs for classical music, film music and folk music in Chennai today. A day doesn’t pass without some musical event in the city. Such an atmosphere keeps us alive.

Right now the biggest problem in my life is time management. When I go for recordings and stage shows my mom, grandmom and dad are there to take care of my daughter. But that doesn’t completely allow me to be free of responsibilities. Earlier I had all the time in the world to make time for my profession. Not anymore. Now it is all about making the most of the available time to finish as much work as you can. Having said that I am able to do all the things I want.

Loving the independent space

A lot of singers want to do independent albums. I think the 90s were the golden period of parallel music. Even now that field is quite active. But I don’t know how much our market and audiences are noticing it. A recent chartbuster album was Enjoi Enjaami. There are a lot more albums released but they somehow go unnoticed. Sometimes a producer who invests so much money in an album does not get any returns. It's not just quality. The theme of the song may not be a popular one either. So it doesn't get enough attention. There will come a time when parallel music will be taken as seriously as film music.

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