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A song a day to sing the pandemic blues away

Hari Adivarekar | Updated on June 23, 2021

To a different tune: Mani’s methods of music-making underwent an overhaul with the project   -  HARI ADIVAREKAR

For a month this summer, songwriter-guitarist Bruce Lee Mani composed, recorded and released a song every day

* I just wasn’t in a good space in my head. I would wake up every morning in a rage, feeling hopeless and helpless

* Once I got into the flow of things it actually became fairly simple. Songs were just lying around, I had to just pick them up

* The musician is now busy with the final mastering of his song-a-day album which will soon be released on online platforms

***

Most of us have been there over the past year — waking up bleary eyed and belligerent, ranting and raging, desperate to break free from the clutches of a global pandemic. The angst peaked for Bengaluru-based songwriter-guitarist Bruce Lee Mani when his two children tested positive for Covid-19 in April. Though they remained asymptomatic, anxiety took a toll on Mani.

“Looking around and seeing what was going on, having so many friends and relatives go down with Covid-19, impacted me in negative ways. I just wasn’t in a good space in my head. I would wake up every morning in a rage, feeling hopeless and helpless,” Mani recalls.

That was when his wife Bindu stepped in and urged him to creatively channelise his emotions. It led to “A Song A Day”, a project where he composed, recorded and released a song in video format on social media for 30 consecutive days. The project began on May 3 and he wound it up exactly a month later.

 

It was a new approach for the musician. “I’d never done anything like that before, so it put a lot of pressure on me.” But the prospect of failure didn’t deter him; this was a challenge he set upon himself. “The first song was when the West Bengal elections were on, so I used that [as the theme]. Once I got into the flow of things it actually became fairly simple. Songs were just lying around, I had to just pick them up,” the 44-year-old musician says with a laugh.

What Mani fails to mention is that he is something of a composing wunderkind, and has spent the past 25 years making original music and touring with his band Thermal And A Quarter. The band has released eight full-length studio albums and is well into recording their ninth. They have composed over 140 songs that fall into a genre of its own — Bangalore Rock.

On the road: Mani has spent the past 25 years making original music and touring with his band Thermal And A Quarter   -  HARI ADIVAREKAR

“Apart from one song, with which I struggled a bit, I surprised myself over the 30 days. I didn’t really struggle much on any day.” And so flowed blues and rock, acapella and soul, ballads and ditties in a genre bending compositional binge.

The new approach took Mani away from his usual method of music-making, of letting influences and ideas percolate for weeks before they cascade into lyrics and music that is honed in collaboration with his bandmates. This time, the process underwent an overhaul. “I didn’t sit and think very deeply about it at all. There was no planning and worrying about outcomes. Instead, I felt liberated, not being answerable to anyone or anything. I had to, of course, write the lyrics, compose the tune, learn to perform it, record, mix, master, shoot the video and edit it myself. And I had only 2-3 hours in the day to do it as I work and have over 15 classes to teach a week besides running Taaqademy (his music school).” In order to accommodate the project into his packed schedule, Mani took to waking up at 4.30 am.

Almost all the songs were composed and recorded on a special acoustic guitar, the Kepma Transacoustic, sent over by a local music store. “It is one of those guitars where you play it and it just feels right! I’d just pick it up and there would be ideas.” He was supported well by a string of collaborators, including those who reached out on social media as the project gathered momentum. Writers such as Jayaprakash Satyamurthy and Rajeev Ravindranathan (with whom he composed two songs) pitched in, and well-known Bengaluru musicians Vasundhara Vee, MD Pallavi, Sumana and ex-TAAQ bandmate Sunil Chandy also lent a helping hand. Even though he intended it to be a solo enterprise, collaborations evolved organically.

“People would message me and ask ‘Would you like to do something together?’ or I would ask them. And we’d just do it. It was crazy because there was no time for a regular collaboration. Vasundhara and I did the song in two days, same with Pallavi, who was also taking care of a small child. We did not wonder about what or how we were going to do it. It was just ‘Here are the chords, here’s the music, send me what you like’; there’s no judgement, no specification, no guidance. It was just — ‘Go for it’.”

Even for someone as experienced in practice and pedagogy as Mani, the exercise granted deep learnings, some reminiscent of American cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s concept of the beginner mind. Mani gained insights into his own mind. “As a process it has been illuminating. I had to trust my instincts because I just didn’t have the time to wait for the third or fourth idea. It was pretty much the first or second idea that you just have to go with. So most of the songs were jams, I’m jamming through chord progressions, through vocals, or through a solo, and it’s the second or third take or the first take sometimes, and it is done! I also had to produce and I didn’t have time to sit with 20 different equalisation or get into small details. It was just record, dump, try, go.”

Action can be liberating, especially when most of the world is decidedly stuck. At a time when many have found themselves at the precipice of sanity, a creative endeavour can go a long way towards ensuring a smooth landing. American comic and musician Bo Burnham discovered that during the making of his now epic comedy special Inside. He says it saved his life — literally and figuratively. So did Mani.

The musician is now busy with the final mastering of his song-a-day album which will soon be released on online platforms. He wants to keep the momentum going, and aims at releasing a song every week. Meanwhile, there are cherished takeaways. The musician now knows that the rhythm which will save him lies within. It is about getting the song started.

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photojournalist based out of Bengaluru and Mumbai

Published on June 23, 2021

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