Singing the Truth

An Interview with Musician Kaber Vasuki

© Niyantha Shekar

Kaber Vasuki is a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Coimbatore who is now based in Chennai. His debut album, Azhagu Puratchi (Beautiful Revolution), came out in December last year after a successful crowd-funding campaign.

Azhagu Puratchi has an interesting mix of themes. Revolution in pursuit of power and immortality is a promiment one — in the song Pirai Kathai, the moon tries to destroy the day, in Maanda Mannan Kaviam, a warrior dreams of flags bearing his face flying throughout the nation — but there’s also the delightfully simple Kodai Paadal where the singer tries to escape the Chennai heat on a summer day.

What I love most about the album is Kaber’s vivid poetic imagery. In the song Pachai Perundhu, the following lines will resonate with anyone who’s looked out of a bus window.

Oru nodi engu pogirai endru marandhaal
(If you forget for a moment where you are headed)
Maru nodi engeyum pogalam
(You are free to go anywhere)

I spoke to Kaber about his songwriting, and his journey from being an untrained bathroom singer (who had buckets of water dumped on him by annoyed roommates) to becoming a full time musician. Here’s our conversation.

What came first, the singing or the guitar?

The guitar. I was a horrible singer. After I started playing the guitar, people would ask me to sing movie songs. I didn’t want to sing movie songs. So I started writing my own songs.

Why didn’t you want to sing movie songs?

Because if you sing movie songs, they inevitably compare you to SPB (SP Balasubramaniam) and people like that. In their head they’re comparing to the original. I couldn’t match up to the original.

And I basically had a lot of things I wanted to say. Whether they were stupid things or smart things, it didn’t matter. I wanted to say them anyway.

How did you know that music was how you wanted to say these things?

I used to write as well, but when I’m writing I need to build a whole world, populate it with characters and then say what I want to say through actions and scenes. But with music it’s much shorter. I can just directly say it. I just need to find that one metaphor, that one word or phrase that will sell it.

Isn’t it hard to be direct?

There’s this quote I read sometime back. I forgot who said it. “Writing is very simple. Just put down the truest sentence you know, and keep doing it.” Once you’re clear about what you want to say, with song writing it’s very easy to say it outright.

But it has to fit a tune right? So what comes first, the tune or the words?

They come together. I have a story or an image in my head. Once I get one line down it just kind of builds from there. Which is why my songs are all built on very simple, repetitive riffs. I just keep singing until it becomes a song.

So you don’t sit down with a piece of paper, write a song, and then pick up the guitar.

No, I can’t do that. Once I start writing the flow just stops. I need to be singing for it to happen. Generally how I write a song is I have a line, or I have a melody and I sit with the guitar and then I keep singing that line until it burns into my memory. Then another line comes, another line comes and the next stanza happens.

I just keep singing the song from the top to where I have it until I’ve exhausted all the ideas. By the time I finish writing a song, I’ve sung it 30–40 times. If I take a break in the middle, that’s it, the song is never going to get completed.

So there’s no editing? You don’t go back to a song and say ‘this line could be better’?

Once I finish writing a song, I just record it and keep it. After a few days when I’m listening to it, I think ‘Oh, this word could be different’ or ‘I could put this line there.’ I’ll then make those changes and record it again.

I’m not a perfect singer. Over a period of time, the way I sing changes because I change. If I listen to a song after six months, it’s a completely different song. It’s nuances and implications have changed.

So each song is extremely personal at that moment of time. You’re only singing about things you truly care about.

Yeah, at that moment. Two months later I might not even give a shit about it.

Do you still feel proud of it? Do you look back on it two months later and think ‘Ah, that was shit’?

I think a song is just reflective of where I was. Whoever listens to that song, if they are in the same place I was when I wrote it, it will resonate with them.

What’s one song where you still relate to the feelings or emotions it talks about?

I really don’t think there’s any song like that.

Does songwriting then help you disassociate yourself from a moment?

The minute I finish writing it, it’s done. It’s wrapped up. I don’t have to deal with it again.

The song or the emotions?

Both. Sometimes I can never recapture the feeling I had when I wrote it. After that it’s muscle memory.

© Niyantha Shekar

Your songwriting is in Tamil. Do you think in Tamil?

I think in both languages. I have a set of friends I exclusively talk to in English, and I have a set of friends I exclusively talk to in Tamil. Depending on who I’m with at that time, the language changes.

So the first song that you wrote, was that in Tamil or English?

The first song I wrote was a really shitty song in English called Gloom.

Were you gloomy when you wrote it?
No, I wasn’t. I was just listening to a lot of Coldplay. I thought I’d also do sad songs. I first started writing in English. It didn’t feel authentic to me. It was very imitative. I thought I could say it better in Tamil.

So what is it about Tamil that makes it easier for you to say things?

Tamil is my mother tongue. It’s just the language I go to express myself. With English there’s another step: ‘This is what I’m feeling, fine how do I say this?’ That process isn’t there in Tamil.

If you look at Tamil poetry, the language used is very different from the language that is spoken.

Yeah, the registers are completely different.

So in that spectrum of colloquial Tamil to poetic Tamil where do you find yourself when you’re singing?

The language that I sing in is the language of movie songs. I just take a different era each time. I’m actually much better at singing in Tamil than talking in Tamil.

What I know is what I’ve heard in movies. But I try to be creative with it and play. I don’t think vocabulary is a strength of my lyric writing but what I think has worked for me is that I say things in less obvious ways.

So going back to that quote, ‘Write the truest sentence you know’, is Tamil the key for you to tell the truth?

It could be. I’m more honest when I write in Tamil.

Do you think it limits audience, though?

No, it doesn’t. I think if you sing in English it limits the audience. When you’re singing in English, you can’t sing in the accent that you speak in. You have to adopt an accent, and that itself is a put-off for me.

Also very few people, I think, are truly original when they sing in English. If you take English songs written by Indian songwriters, they’ll use western analogies. For example, rain is equated to gloom, the sun is equated to optimism. It just doesn’t sit with the geography and the people I’m surrounded by.

The sun, I hate the sun. It’s always burning. If it rains, I’m very happy. If you look at Tamil or Hindi songs, it’s always like ‘Oh it’s raining let’s go dance!’

The more local you are, the more personal and the more intimate you get and it’s easier for other people to listen to it and say I’ve also been through that.

You’re a full time musician now. From the point where you first picked up a guitar to now where you’ve released an album and are working on the next one… how did this journey happen?

I tried working for a while and doing this on the weekends as a hobby. But songs have become this way by which I process my feelings. So if I don’t write a song every two or three weeks, I get very frustrated and act out. I realized that I was not cut out for work. I cannot tolerate boredom and I cannot accept that I have to listen to somebody else. I have issues with authority.

Is that why you’re a solo musician?

Yeah. I like working alone. People who work with me have to be people who can follow, who can understand what I’m trying to say, and add to it rather than take it in another direction.

And how do you react to feedback?

Very badly. But I’ve learnt to be more open over a period of time because I’m not the greatest musician. I’ve been forced to stop acting like a dick and learn.

What was the feedback like when you first started to sing?

My voice was horrible. I used to sing in the bathroom. My college roommates would keep banging on the door and ask me to stop singing. They would throw buckets of water at me.

You were that bad?

I was really horrible.

How did you get better?

I’m not good at learning formally. I only learn by doing. If someone tells me ‘don’t do it, it’ll end badly’, I’ll still do it, it’ll end badly and then I’ll learn.

So I kept doing it. Singing is basically muscle memory. Your vocal chords are just like any other muscle.

© Niyantha Shekar

At what point did people stop throwing buckets of water at you?

[Laughs] By the end of college they came to the realization that I didn’t suck anymore.

Do you remember that moment?

There was an event happening. A band was performing and I was just cribbing about how awful they were. My friend was like ‘Dude if you think you’re better I’ll get the guitar from that guy and you go sing.’

I thought he was joking and so I said, ‘Fine da.’ But after they finished, he went up to them, got the guitar and called me on stage. I was not prepared but I went up, all shy and scared, and started singing.

What did you sing?

A bunch of songs that are in the first album actually. Pirai Kathai, Maanda Mannan. Then I sang Kanavu which I haven’t released yet.

How does Kanavu go?

Oru kanavai eduthu en kannil vaithu nadanthen
(I walked with a dream in my eyes)
Athil kanda kaatchi ellaam kandu viyanthen
(And all that I saw fascinated me)
Vaanam paarthu nadanthen, kal thadukki vizhunthen
(I walked with my eyes on the sky, and I tripped on a rock and fell)
Kanneer sindhi thudaithu meendum ezhundu nadanthen
(But I wiped away my tears, got back up and kept walking)

The seniors started singing along. They knew the song because I had played it to them before. And by the time the second refrain came, everybody knew the words and they just started singing.

Why those lyrics?

Don’t know. It’s just what I felt like writing at that time.

But there must have been something right? Some trigger.

There is this one story about a Greek philosopher who kept looking at the stars and fell down a ditch. That’s basically the image. We’re all stupid and we’re still driven by our desires.

So is that what you want to be, a singer-philosopher?

I don’t want to be anything da. I just want to chill. Just write songs that I feel like writing. That’s it. There is this line in this Frank Turner song where he says, ‘I’m not as smart as this song makes me sound.’

That’s you?

That’s me. That’s everybody.


Listen to Azhagu Puratchi: