Appearances can be deceiving and, in the case of musician Rachel Varghese, infinitely so. When the lithesome singer steps on stage, one expects to hear something soft and sweet, but Rachel surprises and then enthrals her audience with her deep, powerful voice and soulful music. Aside from her solo projects, Rachel has collaborated with several artists, and also performs with her band Rachel and the Plutonians. Drawing from a wide range of influences, this music chameleon skilfully changes her tune depending on who she's playing with and for, all the while staying true to her art. An illusion is like an infinity mirror, reflecting more than what is. In a field where identities are carefully constructed and niches tightly maintained, Rachel’s kaleidoscopic performances are a colourful change. Having trained herself to sing in any genre, she’s several performers rolled into one, and you never know which one you’ll see.
The Fuschia Tree: So tell us how it all started...when did you first realise you wanted to be a musician?
Rachel Varghese: It’s difficult to pinpoint one event and say, “That’s where it started!”. Growing up there weren’t too many career options for a musician, and while I was performing on and off, I never pursued it seriously. It was only once I worked a regular 9 to 5 job that I realised I couldn’t do it and embarked on my music career. Also, Channel V Launchpad happened when I was 16, and that was a landmark event for me and a pre-curser of things to come. I became more serious about making music and worked to shift it from a hobby to a career.
TFT: Has this new focus affected your creative process?
RV: At some level, it has. I can’t afford the luxury of waiting for inspiration. I have to keep working and churning music out. It becomes difficult, because making music is a very personal experience for me. My music draws from my life and experiences, and the sound differs when I work alone or with my band, but it’s still very honest music and to keep it going can be difficult. Once I’m the zone though, it’s beautiful. The words and melodies just flow out.
TFT: How much of your music is guided by commercial factors?
RV: Since this is now my career, the commercial aspect is one I can’t ignore. It’s very difficult really – trying to do the work that I love and make money out of it. Live music will never die out, but increasingly DJs and electronic music are given preference simply because of logistics – it’s more cost effective. When you’re part of a show, the time slot you get to perform depends on lots of factors like the venue, the other acts, etc. I do keep commercial viability in mind when I’m composing a track, because I want it to be something that people can relate too.
However, I can never compromise on the music itself. I went to Hong Kong recently as a part of Project Lotus, and it was a great learning experience, but I didn’t sign with the band since I didn’t particularly relate to their style of music. The entire process of making music for me is very honest and personal; my songs are almost like diary entries and are all born out of my experiences and feelings. I might add a groove because I think it will get people bobbing their heads, but I can’t really compromise on the song itself.
TFT: Do you have an onstage persona?
RV: As of now, no. My performance largely depends on what I’m playing and whether it’s a solo show or I’m with my band. As an individual I’m very reserved, but the creative process of working with my band is fun and exciting and it shows in the music and spills out into the performance. When I perform alone though, my sound is melancholic.
TFT: What does music mean to you?
RV: Personally, I believe that you should make music when you have something to say. In all my projects, whether solo or with my band or when I collaborate with other artists, all my music is drawn from my life and the people around me who inspire me. It means a lot to me when people come up to me and tell me that my songs really moved them or touched them in some way. It’s thrilling and humbling at the same time.
TFT: Take us through your creative process...
RV: It’s quite simple actually. Sometimes I hit upon the melody first and then add the lyrics, and sometimes I end up writing the lyrics first and then add the melody. It’s a trial and error process really. I started playing the piano when I was around 18 and I used to compose my melodies on that, but I recently picked up the guitar, so now I compose my music on the guitar.
TFT: How would you describe your sound?
RV: I didn’t have any formal training in music growing up. Whatever I learnt was through imitation, by ear. I listened to my favourite artists and tried to imitate their style of singing, and because of that I can sing in almost any genre. People often tell me they’re surprised because they didn’t expect the deep, husky voice, or the reserved indie singer-songwriter, or the fun, happy performer. Each of my performances is different, and yet it’s still very me. However, my own songs, the ones I write and compose myself, are melancholic, bluesy yet progressive, and have that indie singer-songwriter vibe. I think my voice has a powerful, unique texture and I use it to my advantage. Having said that, I have to say that when I’m performing, my aim is not to showcase my vocal chords and but to showcase my feelings and emotions.
TFT: You’ve talked a lot about melancholy. Do you need to be sad to write?
RV: Interestingly, no. I need to be a positive space to be able to write, create and compose music, but sadness is an emotion that I channel to write my music. It’s symbiotic because since I write about my own life and experiences, sadness is an emotion that’s powerful enough to let the words just flow out.
TFT: Which of your tracks is your own personal favourite?
RV: It changes with time. All my songs are very personal, but I think right now my favourite track would have to be ‘What man has made of me’, which I wrote three or four years ago. It was inspired by a very close friend who is an amazing person. All my music is drawn from what’s around me, but this was the first song that I managed to do entirely on my own, right from the lyrics to the melody to everything – it’s the first track I composed after picking up the guitar, and I was exhilarated once I completed it!
TFT: Which do you prefer, working alone or with a band?
RV: It’s difficult to say, both have their own advantages and disadvantages. Technically speaking, I feel like if I knew more about the theoretical aspects of music making, I would experiment more with my own sound. I recently attended Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music near Chennai. Itwas a significant experience in that it was my first time learning music, and I now feel equipped with the tools I need to make my own music.
When I’m working with my band, I usually write the whole song, everything from the verses to the chorus to the bridges and the out section, and then give it to them. They are extremely talented musicians in their own right, and add the beats and grooves in unexpected ways and places. It makes the song very exciting, but sometimes I have to tell them when to stop, because I don’t want all that to overpower the lyrics and meaning of the song itself.
TFT: What has been your most memorable performance till date?
RV: It would have to be Launchpad when I was 16. I was in college and it was my first time performing in front of nearly 40,000 people. I remember being very scared and nervous, but the rush that I got from that performance was unbelievable. I think it’s that rush that really keeps me going. I love the entire process of music making and singing, but the vibe and energy at a show is something else altogether! I identify myself as a performer, an entertainer. I want to be a complete experience. I want to be able to give people a complete audiovisual experience and constantly reinvent myself, but still continue to play my own music.
TFT: So what’s keeping you busy at the moment?
RV: Lots of things! I am always open to collaborating with other artists and am doing whatever gigs come my way. It’s a learning process and keeps the creative juices flowing. I am also in the process of releasing my own EP. I want to keep the ball rolling once I do that so I’m working on creating enough material for that. The EP release will probably be followed by an EP tour across India, so let’s see...
TFT: What kind of music are you listening to these days?
RV: I love Florence and the Machine. I love how her voice really does all the performing, that’s something that I want to do as well. Also, irrespective of what people say, I love Lana Del Ray! Music is very feel-based for me, and it’s the output that matters in the end. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin, but I want to expand myself so I immerse myself in a variety of genres now. The blues will always be a permanent favourite though.
TFT: What do you think of the current music in India?
RV: It’s brilliant, it’s so exciting! It’s very different from what it was 10 years ago, when I just started performing. Indian audiences were still focused on rock and metal then, but with the Internet and YouTube there’s more awareness about different kinds of music now, and that automatically makes people more accepting of new and different sounds. I think that kids today are far ahead of what we were at their age because they have all this information at their fingertips and are so talented! The horizons are broadening; people can get online and find the music they like, which automatically gives musicians lots of opportunities to perform. I love that Indian music has such a diverse cross-section of genres now and, more importantly, such a broad and diverse audience.
TFT: Despite this you aren’t on YouTube yourself!
RV: Yes but that’s because I’m constantly learning. I don’t want to put my music up until it reaches the sound I want it to reach.
TFT: So would you say you are a perfectionist?
RV: I use perfection as a motivating tool really. Chasing after perfection, or the idea of perfection, lands you in an infinite loop. Who is to say what the perfect sound is? I love it because it pushes me to keep trying new things and challenging myself – to push my boundaries as an artist and a musician.
TFT: What advice would you give to today’s aspiring singers and song writers?
RV: Make the music you love and be true to yourself. Keep yourself open. Listen to every possible kind of music and get out of your comfort zone and dabble in everything and experiment with sound as much as possible. Also, try and learn to play as many musical instruments as possible, it really helps. As clichéd as it sounds, simply follow your heart.
As told to Medha Kulkarni, an art writer, critic, curator and illustrator who is currently learning Deutsch and loves Nutella.
Rachel Varghese is a self-taught singer-songwriter with a Jazz'n'Blues background. She is a musician and performer who loves all kinds of music and is constantly reinventing herself.
Most of us are perpetually caught up in a hurricane of questions; questions that tease us, haunt us, keep us tossing and turning all night. We chase them around and around, rising and falling in their dizzy dance. At the eye of the hurricane lies a single question, blinking innocently at us in its stillness. As we enter it, all the rest fall away, and we are left with the only question worth answering.Read More
By Medha Kulkarni, Issue 26, Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing.