It’s often said music makes my world go round. For Bangalore’s tall and handsome dentist turned music composer it surely does. Music Composer, Grammy® Winner Ricky Kej released his 21st studio album in collaboration with five-time Grammy® award winning artist and living legend, Stewart Copeland (The Police, 5x Grammy Winner). This brand new album is called ‘Divine Tides’ and was launched in June 2021. The album also features many acclaimed artists from around the world. This is Ricky’s most ambitious work to date, he has really poured his heart and soul into this album and is thrilled to have worked so closely with his idol, Stewart Copeland.
At what age and how did you realise that music was your calling?
Ever since I remember, I have always been in love with music. Even as a child, my ears have always been more important than my eyes. While most of my classmates in school were fascinated by television and cartoons, I was hooked to my music system. I would dissect songs I heard to try and figure out the instruments used, the musicians playing those instruments, and I would learn about different cultures and people through music. I was also passionate about the environment. It was through my music that I fell in love with our natural world and I have always found a deep connection between music and nature. I have no idea why, but we had a baby grand piano at home, and a guitar. So I started off by trying to make music on those instruments. Much later as an adult, after I already embarked on a thriving professional musical career, I took a formal education in music to avoid what I perceived could be a handicap in future.
What were the challenges initially and what made you realise that this is what you want to do professionally?
Through high school I was very serious about music, and in India, it is during our 12th grade that we need to make a strong decision as to what we would like to do with the rest of our lives professionally. Whether a doctor, an engineer, accountant, Manager, Businessman, etc. I had made up my mind that I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life. I wanted music to be my hobby, my passion, my profession, my bread and butter, my everything. I went to my father, a third generation doctor, and told him the same… and he thought I was absolutely crazy. “How can music be a profession!” I fought with my parents and after many days of fighting… my father and I reached a compromise – I would have to finish off a degree in Dental Surgery, and once I finish off my degree, I could do whatever I wanted for the rest of my life. So, I went to Dental college for 5 years, and at the end of 5 years I got myself a Dental Surgeon degree. The day I got my degree I gave the certificate to my father, and I became a full-time musician. I did not practice Dentistry even for a single day. As they say, there was no looking back after that.
You have made your contributions towards the earth and our environment – please highlight some of them.
Ever since I won the Grammy® Award in 2015, I have dedicated my life and all of my music towards elevating environmental consciousness. All of the music that I have made since then have addressed different aspects of various environmental and social issues such as climate action, human-animal conflict, sustainable farming, the refugee crisis etc. I am humbled to serve as an ambassador for a few agencies of the United Nations such as UNICEF, UNCCD, UNESCO -MGIEP and also to work closely with organisations such as WHO, Earth Day Network etc. I have always believed that only when people start acknowledging an issue and start a dialogue to solve it, a solution will come. My aim is to inspire this dialogue through my music. Music has the power to retain a message deep in the consciousness of a listener. All of the music that I create is about our natural world and social issues. Through our concert performances, we do what we call the “Top-Down Approach” where we perform to intimate audiences consisting of World – Leaders, decision-makers, and prominent dignitaries to urge them to create stronger policies to tackle environmental issues and health issues and the “Ground Up Approach” where we have performed to hundreds of thousands of the general public to raise awareness about these issues. Climate Change is the biggest existential crisis we humans have ever faced, and I feel that it is upto artists, especially musicians to advocate for Climate Action.
Please tell us about your recent collaboration and how was your experience working towards it?
I had been working on a follow-up to my Grammy® winning album ‘Winds of Samsara’ and had catalogued some of my favourite ideas. Recordings were delayed because of my relentless touring schedule and when the pandemic hit, it presented an opportunity for me to spend time in my studio and kick-start this project again. I reached out to Stewart Copeland (The Police) and was thrilled when he said yes to making this album with me. I have always relied on technology for all of my recordings and Stewart too is high on technology, and has one of the most amazing home studios. That helped us record seamlessly during the pandemic. Stewart and I recorded our portions individually and it all came together superbly. Despite the pandemic, we are thrilled to have created an album that celebrates life and will create a wave of much-needed positivity in our audiences.
Stewart Copeland has always been my musical hero, and I have been a life-long fan. Working with him was like attending the best masterclass imaginable. Stewart is not just the Founder and Drummer of one of the biggest selling bands in history ‘The Police’, he also regularly composes for Operas, Orchestras, and for over 50 Hollywood movies including the Oscar award-winning ‘Wall Street’. Despite reaching the pinnacle of success, he is constantly evolving and learning by exploring new sounds, traditional music instruments, and rhythms. We constantly threw ideas at each other, adapted sounds, and crafted this album together piece by piece. All of the songs have strong Indian roots with a fusion of the west and the entire album celebrates the magnificence of our natural world and the resilience of our species.
Would you like to recall your big win at the Grammy’s a few years ago when you did your nation proud?
It was around 2012 when I met the South African flute player Wouter Kellerman. I was a huge fan of his music, he was a fan of my music. We wanted to work together. We finally met in Los Angeles, and while discussing ideas for a potential collaboration, I mentioned that I had just composed a piece of music based on the ideals of peace by Mahatma Gandhi, my father of the nation. It was a huge coincidence that Wouter was working on a piece of music inspired by Nelson Mandela, his father of the nation. Through our discussions we realised that there was a whole lot of cross-pollination here – Mahatma Gandhi spent his formative years in South Africa, so he has South African’ness in him. Nelson Mandela was heavily inspired by Mahatma Gandhi so he has Indian’ness in him. Wouter started to add south African’ness to my music, I started to add Indian’ness to his music. While doing this, both of us became the best of friends, travelled across the globe and in 2 and a half years we had an album ready ‘Winds of Samsara’ (my 16th album!) and that album went to the top of the US Billboard charts, and we eventually won the Grammy Award for it. Winning the Grammy was one of the biggest highlights of my career and it validated by belief in pursuing my passion for music as a career. I consider every award to be a recognition, and super important. But if awards are used just for vanity, it’s pointless. Using awards for a greater good is what matters to me. I am always up and about collaborating with Governments, organisations, NGO’s, Individuals and several others who strive to make a difference.
Any tips for budding musicians and singers?
My advice would always be to treat music with respect, and always be hard working. Talent may not always be under your control, but you can be the most hardworking person… like I am!! Never use creativity as an excuse for laziness. Never make adulation, acclaim and awards the end goal, but be grateful when you earn them, and use them as a platform for doing bigger and better things.
How have the recent tough times been for you?
I miss performing my music to a live audience. Live concerts allow me to connect and interact directly with my audience and to ensure that they leave my concerts with a renewed love for our planet and hope. It is always an amazing feeling to look at an audience and realise that I have succeeded in emotionally connecting with them through my music. The pandemic has hit the entertainment industry very hard. The music industry is extremely dynamic and different professionals in the industry rely on each other. Performing artists, Production companies, event management companies, sound engineers, recording studios and everyone else involved is stuck in limbo at the moment especially here in India. I performed multiple virtual concerts over the course of this pandemic with my last three online concerts watched by an estimated 200 million viewers from around the world, It is all about adapting to the times and our surroundings, because no matter what pandemic hits us, music will never leave our lives.
What are your future plans?
It is hard to make any concrete plans right now since the situation around the world is extremely unpredictable due to lockdowns, suspension of flights, border controls, etc and of course, with the virus constantly mutating. Touring is definitely on my mind but, I guess for the next few months I am going to work on promoting Divine Tides and try and get as many people to listen to it. Since I have worked so hard on the music, poured my heart and soul into it, I feel I owe it to the music to ensure as many people around the world enjoy it.