Shakthisree Gopalan Interview: Every collaboration with AR Rahman sir is a dream come true
The singer speaks about her latest chartbuster Aga Naga, the enriching working experience with AR Rahman, and all things music
Many years ago, when an architect-cum-musician Shakthisree Gopalan got an opportunity to design AR Rahman's KM Music Conservatory, little did she know that he would design her big playback singing break through the soothing melody, Nenjukkulle in Kadal (2012). Since then, Shakthisree and Rahman have worked on many memorable songs, including their latest collaboration, Aga Naga for Ponniyin Selvan. "I think AR Rahman sir's Kun Faya Kun and Naan Yen (Coke Studio song) are the two songs that could potentially capture my emotions about this journey so far. The lyrics are self-explanatory, and every opportunity to sing in AR Rahman sir’s music has been nothing short of a dream come true."
Shakthisree has also sung the Telugu and Malayalam versions of Aga Naga, and she recalls the hype generated after the song briefly echoed in the first part of Ponniyin Selvan. In fact, the Tamil version of Aga Naga was the first song she recorded after the lockdown relaxation in 2020. "Then the studio reached out to me to schedule the recording of the 1-minute excerpt [Aga Naga] for all 5 languages. I didn’t know where in the film it was going to be used till I watched PS1 in the theatres. My heart skipped a beat when Rahman sir used it in the iconic meeting between Vanthiyathevan and Kundhavai," she shares.
Be it the one-minute excerpt or the four-minute full version, Shakthisree has been at the receiving end of a lot of love and warmth, and she expresses her heartfelt gratitude to Rahman for giving her such an opportunity. "I am speechless. Words don’t do justice to emotions. Truly grateful for all the love support and good vibes that so many have shared," says a humble Shakthi, who strongly believes that her work as a playback singer is enhanced by her ability to put herself in the character's shoes to understand how they react to a particular situation. "When I heard the song for the first time in the studio, the melody felt like a river flowing and trickling through nature. The magic and the spirit of the song were already woven into the composition and there is a sense of regalia in the melody, the arrangement, the orchestration, the metering of the words and every single element. And approaching the song knowing that it was from the POV of Kundhavai, a Chola princess, certainly influenced the approach and rendition," she shares.
While Rahman was definitely her calling card in cinema, Shakthisree has sung some lilting numbers for a lot of composers, and she notes that each of them gave her a new learning experience, and made her develop trust in multiple processes. "It is nice to have a new way of thinking about an old idea. The approach is what differs, and matters too. You can always figure out techniques, pick up new tools and spend time perfecting your craft, and being vulnerable enough to accept new perspectives results in paradigm shifts in growth," says Shakthisree, who pursued her higher education at Berklee College of Music after becoming a noted playback singer. "To try out ideas without holding on to them too dearly in a constructive environment where you are encouraged to make mistakes and work on them was amazing."
Since 2007, Shakthisree has been writing and performing originals, including Phir Wahin, Cycle Gap, and Nee Podhumey, and is slowly but steadily carving a niche for herself in the indie music space. When asked what serves as inspiration for her compositions, Shakthisree says, "Sometimes, I fantasise that the songs we make already exist somewhere in the ether waiting to be born." Delving deeper into the ether to string an explanation behind her process, Shakthisree shares, "It could be just a word. Or it could be a concept or a melodic hook. It could even be just a particular sound. There is a defining moment when you realise there is a song waiting to be made. From then on, it is all about realising it and seeing it through to completion. I feel that learning to recognise that moment of inspiration or having that emotional awareness where a word or a sound moves me and makes me feel... that’s where the song's genesis is," explains Shakthi.
There is something liberating about conjuring up one's own creation, and it must be multifold for someone as multifaceted as Shakthisree, who is a singer, songwriter, and composer. "It can be really cathartic if I go through the process allowing myself to be as honest as I can," says a rather philosophical Shakthisree, who feels it is also a really emotional process as putting out any piece of art involves metabolising, processing and navigating that creative spark through life events, experiences, and memories. "At the end of the day, it is awesome to be able to use music to bridge the gap between emotion and expression."
Shakthisree's articulation of her thoughts is a reflection of the importance of honesty in our music. In fact, she asserts that it is this quest to allow herself to be more honest that ushers her into taking her musical journey forward. "It has certainly not been easy. But the journey of allowing myself to be vulnerable has been a journey of healing. And I’m grateful for the growth," signs off Shakthisree just like how the lilting Aga Naga number fades off like the Ponni river flowing into nature's lap.