Kaber Vasuki: Music saved me from an emotional crisis, and musicians became my saviours
In this freewheeling chat, indie composer Kaber Vasuki speaks about his music journey and his transition to writing for films, including the latest Netflix anthology, Putham Puthu Kaalai
If you are a listener of Tamil indie music, you have probably heard about Kaber Vasuki. The indie musician is known for his philosophical, brutally honest lyrics that are designed to penetrate your soul. Kaber Vasuki, the man, is no different. I ask him about his chosen name, Kaber Vasuki, and he shares that he didn't like the name his parents gave him. "I did not want my name to reflect my gender, religion, or where I am coming from." Why this specific one though? "Nothing in particular. A lot of people have asked me this, but I tell a different story to each one of them depending on my mood. Siladhu lam en epdi nu theriyadhu, apo thonum pannuvom," he says, with a chuckle.
This spontaneity is a refrain in Kaber's music and his career choices. “When I was about seven or eight years old, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller. For long, I thought that meant being a writer.” From sending novel synopsis to writing in child sections of newspapers, young Kaber followed suit on his passion. But like many others, he ended up in an engineering college. When he didn't like it, he discovered music. “Music saved me from an emotional crisis, and musicians became my saviours. I knew I could write, so I figured why not become a musician?” And that desire brought him to Chennai, where he did several things: be a librarian, a storyteller, make music and start the band Kurangan (with Tenma) which enjoys a following even though they have disbanded.
His themes choices are transient, and so are his influences, he says. “They say good artists copy, great ones steal. I try to steal," he says, smiling. “When I listen, especially to English music, I find exemplary ideas that haven't been utilised in popular Tamil music,” he explains. Kaber terms this process 'stealing' but adds that he doesn't do it as well as he should. As for tracks like The Poramboke Song though, he owes it to research; he calls them 'translation projects'. “So, I wouldn't say I am very original. But yes, there are songs I can’t explain the origin of. I fill such tracks with what I know.” He cites the example of Vasanam, which was based on his experiences. "As I grew up, I saw the attitudes of my friends changing. Back then, I didn't have the intelligence to challenge them. But later, I felt, idhellaam sollirukanum." A collection of such 'I should have said this' revelations turned out to be Vasanam. “When we argue, sometimes, we don’t get the words we need. But veetuku vandhu yosippom, ipdilam punch pesirukalaam nu,” he says.
Films were doors that opened though he did not go knocking (He has composed a song in Dharala Prabhu, and has projects like Rocky and Aelay in the pipeline). “I am not clear about what I want. I often face a disconnect between myself and my emotional state.” He admits to having been skeptical about films but needed the money. “Also, I was lucky to work with people who have all taught me something.” In the beginning, he wasn't sure how to write for a tune or a set rhythm. "Hip Hop Tamizha was the first artist who approached me to work in films; this was for a song in Kavan. I was intimidated back then, so I just sang the track.” Later, he was called again for Irumbuthirai by PS Mithran. “It was a learning experience. To write for a fictional world was easy; as a writer you only grow when your empathy expands. My strength was in exploring themes that hadn't been spoken about so far, not that I knew the language very well. But they gave me the time I needed.” That was the beginning of learning a new set of skills. “I believe I haven't completely expressed myself in films yet, but I do surprise myself once in a while."
His latest work for Putham Puthu Kaalai, he calls as being one such 'surprise.' The hopeful, cheery vibe of the title track is distinctively unique from the biting sarcasm that permeates in the lyrics. Kaber laughs in acknowledgment. "Sudha ma'am had called me to write mini-songs for her short, Ilamai Idho Idho, which were rooted in nostalgia." Kaber thought his work was over, when he received a call from GV Prakash's office for the title track. "Even though my music isn't that same space, I love our pop music. The tune he sent me brimmed with energy. Writing to it needed no effort; words just flowed."
The Tamil Indie scene has evolved a lot in recent times, and yet, the struggle to find fresh voices does exist. He agrees that the struggle is harder for socially responsible artists, but says it is too early to judge. “A lot of the artists are still learning. Namma oorla music oru periya vishayam nu oru image iruku.” He believes that even artists who work independently are stuck in the rut of film conventions. “I get indie music people who message me saying they are composing, and they need a lyricist. Why? You can do everything yourself. Folk expression and indie music is about being independent. That spirit is still lacking.” And then, of course, there's the issue of monetisation. "Hip Hop Tamizha figured out what worked for his music. For me, it was crowdfunding; now, I am trying merchandise. Each artist will figure out what works for them, giving lessons for those who aspire to make it. Or we need a businessman like Steve Jobs.”
Kaber says monetisation is a systemic issue that can't be solved by one person. “The unintended consequence of our film music system is the monopoly they wield over the space. The emergence of YouTube and the internet has changed all that. The ideal dream is to have a culture where filmmakers can pick existing indie music for their films. Now, the internet and digital literacy have begun to percolate deeper, and it will happen. It is just a matter of time."