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Soft Pop to Soothe the Soul | Verve Magazine

Verve People

Text by Ranjabati Das. Photographs by Sawani Kumar

The singer-songwriter is back. Seven years ago, at 20, he dropped his first EP Skunk In The Cellar, a collection of five love songs that dealt with heartbreak and received a favourable response from critics and listeners alike. He then went into a self-imposed exile, choosing to perform exclusively under aliases instead of releasing music under his own name. He was already making music with Run It’s The Kid, the Delhi-based band that he formed with Dhruv Bhola, and featured Danik Ghosh (bass) and Bhairav Gupta (drums) in 2013. In 2016 came the solo act Morning Mourning, a name that he says he does not miss. He claims to have outgrown his EP as well, despite the accolades laden on it. But that’s natural considering that it was released nearly a decade ago and set in a different time in his life.

Shantanu Pandit has grown up, and so has his music. “I don’t think I write simple love songs anymore; it is more layered,” he tells me over Zoom, in his casual manner. With a fringe – and despite a fair amount of facial hair – he has a boyish demeanour. Smiling shyly at the camera from time to time, he is polite, unbothered, equivocal in a pleasing kind of way.

This is not to say that the more self-assured Milk Teeth is devoid of angst. But while the album is infused with intense, melancholic reflections, its home-recorded, lo-fi  sound is as non-intrusive as the rest of his oeuvre. You could press play at any point during the day should you be searching for a downbeat, laidback sound to come home to.

Take the first single, Aliza Don’t Count On Me. Deliciously biting, it puts forward an earnest enough request, sung with a committed solemnity against a scratchy background. He drives the point home without mincing words or leaving any room for doubt:

Don’t count on me
Because I’m not the man
The man that you want me to be
When I’m not asleep
When I’m on my feet
When I’m standing straight
Upright, make no mistake
A.K.A. when I’m awake. 

The magic, for me, lies in the bridge. Against the backdrop of crashing cymbals, he finally acknowledges his pain and explains himself. The trumpet takes over and, along with the guitar and drums, builds up the departure before he comes back to reiterate his viewpoint:

I don’t feel so good
But I feel like I should
Today I’m going to write you away…
And I notice you creeping out of the room,
it’s okay,
Please Aliza, don’t stay for me.

Clearly, his mind is made up. When it came to the making of the album, though, it had been a little more scattered. “I started recording in 2017, and it was a long and arduous process. I was also teaching myself how to record and produce music through this time. And it was very broken up. I would take six months or a year off in the middle and come back to it, to change stuff all over again [chuckles]. So it ended up taking really long, longer than it should have,” says Pandit. “Also, I was moving around a lot during this process,” he adds, crinkling his eyebrows. “I moved to Hyderabad, and then I came back to Delhi. I went to Ladakh in the middle for a year – I happen to be in Ladakh again right now.”

Listing betrayal and wonder as the overarching themes in Milk Teeth, he credits his childhood as the inspiration for the album. “The overall theme holding it together is how magic and wonder are the lenses through which you look back at old childhood memories. It seems that childhood is a magical period in life. I find that period inspiring.”

Excerpts from a conversation… 

When I first heard Aliza, I felt like it came from a bit of a dark space. Was this song based on real-life experiences? Who have you collaborated with on this album?
Very much so. Aliza is a name I made up, but it is based on a relationship I had a while ago. Aliza Don’t Count On Me was born out of a session I did in 2017 with fellow musicians Dhruv Bhola [piano], Akshay Deokuliar [drums] and Jayant Manchanda [bass]. I was on guitar and vocals. Over the years, I kept switching things up, so the final recording has Karan on drums, Bhola on bass and piano, and Rohit Gupta on the trumpet, and me. Bhola is my primary collaborator and my best friend. He is featured heavily on the album and plays all the bass, a bunch of guitar and keyboard. All of the live drums on the album is Karan. Rohit has also played the pan flute on As I Grow, the oldest song on the album. I wrote in 2015. Other than that, Aditya Kapoor plays some synth and does a little bit of sampling in Uh-O, and there’s Ashrey Goel, who has played some synth as well.

Exclusive Preview: Listen to ‘Do U Know’, the second single from Shantanu Pandit’s debut album ‘Milk Teeth’

The second single, Do U Know, starts gently before it hits the bridge, where you pull off a coup:
Put that bullet in my head
Shoot me dead
Put that bullet in my head
Get it over with.
You had me completely convinced it was the work of a female collaborator....
[Beams, pre-empting the remark] The vocals are all me. I wanted to make it sound like a child. If you listen to it now, after me telling you this, you might hear it. Everyone listens to it first and asks, “Hey, who’s that girl on it?”

What is this song really about?
I feel like I don’t want to talk about the story behind this song. It’s personal. It is about something bad that happened to one of my closest friends [smiles uncertainly]. It’s an explicit story, and my parents and shit will probably read this interview [laughs nervously]. What I can share is that it’s probably my favourite song at the moment. It’s also funny because I ended up using the rough bounce of that song as the final version. I spent a lot of time trying to mix that song, and I had a bunch of different versions of it. But I ended up choosing the rough unmixed version because I just felt like that had the most vibe.

What I found interesting is that it never comes back from the bridge. I was also wondering what prompted you to repeat “Do you know what I mean?” in that manner and whether it is intended to show some kind of emotion or urgency? I’m not sure if this resonates with you, but it had a sense of tiredness, at least to my ears.
I was trying to sound desperate and tired and trying to recreate the feeling that inspired the song. The song was basically just the first half. I was jamming it out one day, and my phone was in front of me. I was strumming the chords and singing whatever I felt like singing. I started singing, “Do you know, do you know what I mean?” I liked what was happening, so I quickly recorded it on my phone. And then I forgot about it. A couple of years later I was going through my phone recordings – I often record a bunch of scratch stuff on my phone – and I chanced upon it. I thought I had captured what I was feeling at the time well, even though it was a crappy phone recording. I felt like the earlier version needed something more, and this worked.

Your songs are difficult to sing along to because of their intricate melodies. They are not very easy to replicate. Your old stuff, on the other hand, had the Dylan-esque/old James Blunt vibe….
I always thought that my music is quite simple – I wouldn’t be the right person to comment on it [smiles modestly]. I spent a lot of time listening to Dylan during my formative songwriting years. I’m sure there’s still traces of him because of how powerful an inspiration his songs were in the beginning of my music career. I was pretty much trying to ape Dylan for the first one or two years, and then I kind of got sick of people comparing me with him. So I pretty much stopped playing harmonica and singing and playing guitar at the same time. 

Tell me a bit about your side projects, Run It’s The Kid and Morning Mourning. How do you differentiate this from the music you make under your own name?
By 2014, I had my solo effort as well as my band, Run It’s The Kid, for which Bhola and I write the music together. In 2016, we released the eponymous debut album. I had some solo material, but I did not want to put out the music under my own name. I felt like starting afresh. I didn’t particularly like anything I had done under my own name. I started hating that old record [Skunk]. That’s why I started Morning Mourning. It was that body of work which I felt wouldn’t fit into anything I had done before. It wouldn’t fit into Run It’s The Kid because that’s Bhola and me, and it wouldn’t fit into Shantanu Pandit because I felt like I was a whole different person by then. And I had this weird thing back then where I felt that I needed some separation between me as a person and me as a musician, which is why I wanted to make an alias. I regret the move now, to be honest. In 2018, I put out the album Is This Biodegradable as Morning Mourning, and Milk Teeth is a natural progression of that. When this album was finished, I felt like I should put it out under my own name; I’m ready. It would reach more people, for one. Milk Teeth has definitely been the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, but being on the other side, I feel very proud of what I’ve achieved. It’s me.

It sounds like you were keener to put out music from the shadows. I’m sure that takes some pressure off.
It did, but I think a certain amount of pressure is good. Otherwise, you end up slacking. I want to now be on the cover of the album, in the music video…. Up until now, it has been about hiding behind the music.

All three albums make for gentle listening: they are melodic; they have thoughtful lyrics. How would you classify your various acts if you absolutely had to?
I think most musicians would find this question hard to answer today. Music has become more complex now. Everything has flavours of everything. Honestly, I can’t bother trying to classify. People say my music is folk, but that means so many different things, say, for example, folk in India as opposed to folk in America. Whenever someone asks me, I just say “singer-songwriter”. I felt Is This Biodegradable and Milk Teeth have a certain amount of connectedness. They are both simple home recordings, so I guess you can call it lo-fi.

You made this shift to produce this album by yourself. That gave you a lot of control.
I felt bored with the extent to which I was involved in my music, and I felt very drawn to producing music. A lot of the music I listen to is DIY home recordings. I had gotten a little averse to the whole studio thing – spending a tonne of money and being under all that pressure. Although, now, having gone in the opposite direction, I see  merit in it as well. It took me years to figure out how to record and mix and produce. And I wasn’t going to settle for anything less than good. If I felt that I wasn’t good enough, I’d take another year and another year after that to sharpen my skills. And now I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I am satisfied. Miti [Adhikari, who produced Run It’s The Kid] played a big role. That experience of being in a studio with him made me realise that this was definitely what I wanted to do. Nowadays, it’s essential for a songwriter to know the whole shebang because if you don’t, then on some level you’re settling for someone else’s vision. With the tools we have today, everyone has to think from a producer’s perspective if you want to see your vision through to the end because that’s such an essential part of music now. Once you acquaint yourself with the whole process, your vision just gets larger and your art becomes better.

The way people listen to music has changed a lot since 2014. How have streaming platforms affected the creator and the listener? Do you think those who are growing up with these platforms will appreciate music differently?
Streaming has made music very easy and accessible. Most people listen to playlists, and I don’t know how I feel about that. I still listen to albums from start to finish. I haven’t tried to cater to that format. Maybe I should start thinking about that more.

The medium plays a massive role. When the radio came, it changed how music was created and presented. Today, we’re familiar with streaming platforms suggesting playlists. Sometimes, artists from the same label pop up as suggestions on streaming apps. Your thoughts.
I really like the YouTube algorithm. I’ve discovered so much of my music through that. I haven’t used Spotify or Apple Music that much. I am not too aware of how the Spotify algorithm works. A lot of people talk about how it sucks, but I mostly go on the search bar and type what I want to hear. As far as algorithms are concerned, I think it’s pretty cool because it provides non-stop music to the consumer.

Do you feel popularising a genre sometimes takes away the authenticity – the bigger and more corporate the label gets, it becomes more about what is consumer-friendly and profitable?
I see it happen all the time, and it is what it is. Once a certain movement or subculture becomes fashionable and popular to the point where people are trying to break into a formula, it’s bound to get pretty fucked. It blows up and isn’t as cool as it used to be because it becomes diluted. But it’s just how things move forward.

What do you think is the best thing about being an indie artist?
The smallness and tightness of the whole thing. Being an indie artist basically means you’re more free to do what you want to do. Your team isn’t massive, and the whole corporate structure hasn’t infiltrated your heart. Honestly, I don’t know what is indie anymore. Nowadays, artistes call themselves “indie”, but it’s pretty structured. In India, anyone who is not Bollywood is indie. Some people think of it as a genre. It’s a weird word [laughs]. What exactly are you referring to?

When others have less of a say in what the art would turn out to be, the final output. Isn’t that what you strive for as well? As an artist, are you possessive about your work?
I am super possessive about my work. I’m kind of a control freak. I don’t think I can ever not be indie in that sense. I don’t see anything wrong with the other thing as well. It depends on what kind of person you are and what suits you, how you see your career, etc. Sometimes, it might be a great situation to be told exactly what you need to do and get it done. It depends on how you want to go about making your art. In terms of efficiency and streamlining, it’s great. Why not have a different person to do everything, and you do what you do. Maybe that could still be indie. You can’t do everything on your own. I think I’ve learnt it the hard way. The idea is kind of stupid because you need people. In life. You need help. It’s just about the extent to which you want help and the involvement of others in what you do.

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