Sid Sriram's Kaleidoscopic Vision: How "Sidharth" Became A Declaration Of Identity & Self
It's hard to break into the music industry but that's especially the case for international artists. Sid Sriram had already established himself as a leading force in South Indian cinema. In the past decade, he grew into one of the most recognizable talents in Tamil music. His foundation lies in Carnatic music, a form originating from South India. However, genres like jazz, R&B, and indie rock have also seeped into his music, well before he released Sidharth.
Sidharth came about serendipitously, Sid explained. Sidharth's inception began during his years at Berklee College Of Music in Boston. These years proved crucial to his creative process, allowing him to merge his foundation with R&B, soul, and jazz. Although his career would bring him back to his home in Chennai until the pandemic struck, he returned home to a myriad of opportunities opening the gates for him. For one, he met Ryan Olsen, the primary producer of Sidharth, and secondly, he landed a deal with Def Jam.
"I was just at home, just really trying a bunch of shit out for the sake of music. And then, when it came time to make this album, which happened quite serendipitously. We started around like May or June of 2021," he told HotNewHipHop. "It happened effortlessly. Like I'd been sharpening the craft for so long, that when it came time and this creative wave hit us, it kind of flowed out of me in that way where it felt very kaleidoscopic."
We caught up with Sid Sriram last month to discuss the process behind his latest album, Sidharth. The singer also dove into working with Justin Vernon and breaking into the English-speaking market after gaining significant traction in India.
This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.
HotNewHipHop: Your background is in Carnatic music, which you've evidently thrived in. What was the process like merging deeper influences, from R&B and jazz to electronic, on Sidharth?
Sid Sriram: I feel like it's been like 10 years in the making. I grew up with Carnatic music being the discipline of music that really kind of fed me and raised me. Got into R&B, soul, and jazz pretty early, just in terms of listening. Then later, just teaching myself how to vocalize and those forms. Starting in 2008, when I started studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, that's when I started experimenting with like, bringing the worlds together. The seeds were kind of sown then. Since then, it's been this, like, over a decade of just continuing to experiment. Obviously, my career has gone in different ways, so taking on more influences, gaining experience, just feeling more comfortable with the idea of merging different worlds.
Because I've been trying to do it for a minute, and it was especially intense during the pandemic when I had a lot of time and there weren't any performances inside. So I was just at home, just really trying a bunch of shit out for the sake of music. And then, when it came time to make this album, which happened quite serendipitously. We started around May or June of 2021. It happened effortlessly. Like I'd been sharpening the craft for so long, that when it came time and this creative wave hit us, it kind of flowed out of me in that way where it felt very kaleidoscopic. And I wasn't thinking about okay, now I'm going to try this Indian riff or - you know what I mean? It was just like, everything flowed out in this very natural, kaleidoscopic way.
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What was the decision to use your first name as the title of the album? Especially, since this is your Def Jam debut, right?
Yeah, and for all intents and purposes, my English debut, as well. I used the word serendipitous. The way I connected with the producer I worked with on this album - Ryan Olson from Minneapolis. We connected very randomly and kind of accidentally through Instagram. And I found my myself out [in Minneapolis], like almost taking a leap of faith, because I've never been there before. I'd never met the crew of folks over there. But like I said before, the first trip I went there was like a three-day trip. And we worked on 30 ideas over three days, just jammin'. Like, six to eight of us in the room. It really did feel like a creative wave just hit and I had no choice but to just be seized by it almost. I was just hanging on for life, not really thinking. I was kind of mentally checked out and just channeling the whole time we worked on the album. We finished it over the course of about eight months.
In the same way, the name kind of just hit me. Me and Ryan were texting back and forth, throwing around different album titles as we were starting to finish the production of the record. And nothing was really sticking. And then one morning, I woke up and I just thought, well, what if I titled it Sidharth? Because, you know, like, maybe two months into creating the record, that's when I really realized that this was my album. At first, it was kind of like, maybe a cool little side project or something. But like two months in, I was like, "Oh no, this is the thing." Once I realized that, I also quickly kind of realized that this was the most honest work I'd ever done musically.
So, again, the name didn't come with like thinking a whole lot. It just hit me. I texted Ryan, I was like, "Yo, how about this?" He was immediately like, very, like excited about it. And I felt as if I spent more time with it, much like the lyrics of the album and shit, which kind of happened subconsciously, I spent more time with the title of felt just like the most apt title for this record, because it really feels like a reconnection to self for me, you know? And a reconnection to something that I hadn't ignored but I hadn't really felt in a while, which was my need to express my own story and my own narrative and my own kind of DNA and put that out there in music form.
With this being my return to my roots in terms of writing my own music in the West. And then also my kind of declaration of identity and self. It felt like a perfect match for what that was.
You described the significance and the purpose of this project for you, but I want to know, what did you hope that people took away from this project? Was there an end goal in mind when creating this project?
While we were creating it, there was nothing by way of any end goals. Or it was just like - it almost felt like a job, and I mean, that in a good way. There was the rigor of waking up every morning and being like, "I have this thing, I gotta finish it." It never felt like a chore.
So I come from a background of Carnatic music, right? And one of the most beautiful aspects of this form, and I would trust any form that has a bunch of layers and is like, what you end up falling in love with is not the result but the daily grind, you know? Waking up and practicing and the rigor of and doing the boring shit that's not super glamorous, or whatever. So in the same way, with this album, I became obsessed with the creation of it and the joy I felt making it.
This is the most collaborative I've ever been. I used to try to be on my Prince sh*t, just making everything on my own. And you know, and playing all the instruments and everything and because that's what my ego on it. But this was the first time I shared in a creative experience with a group of people that quickly became like family to me. And the first time that I wasn't precious with it, and I wasn't like, "Oh, this is my creativity, every decision has to be made by me," and all that. So, I was just very hyper-present throughout the whole process. So there was no thinking about before or after. Just like, be in this moment, write these songs, connect with these people, and make something and feel the joy and the magic and the fulfillment in the process of doing so.
I'll say this, though. While we were making it, there were definitely moments where I had a deep, deep resonance with these songs. I've said it before, but my barometer for every song was if it made me cry at some point in the process of making it or listening back or whatever, then it checked off the box that there's something in it that meant a lot. Once we finished it, my hope, especially as we started getting closer to releasing the music, and aspiration for the music [was] that it would give to people what it gave to me, you know? It opened up certain emotional and spiritual valves within myself that just burst me open in a beautiful way. And in a necessary way and that's what I want. That's my desire for like, the impact of the music on other people, you know? Have it open them up to vulnerability, maybe emotions or thoughts or things they haven't addressed or thought about in a while.
And you know, sometimes when you hit your funny bone, it makes you feel kind of weird. Like emotionally, I want the music to do that to people where it's just like, oh, I haven't felt that. What is that? Allow them to open up and dive into those things about themselves. Thereby, hopefully, facilitating healing, you know? Ultimately, that's the goal.
You mentioned kaleidoscopic earlier in this interview and I like how you used that word. On your Tiny Desk performance, you explained how you've frequently pondered these existential questions in your head. With a body of work like this, how did you work through those questions during the writing and recording process?
Yeah, I think the writing of this record was just a journaling of me finding my way through that process, you know what I mean? It felt like, there were so many moments, like - when I wrote "Came Along," which was the last song I had to write, and I was leaving for India the next day. Ryan was like, "Yo, we need to get vocals in before you dip out because you're going to be busy while you're out there." So, I was at the finish line, I had to get that one. I remember having a huge fight with some close loved ones that morning. As heated conversations or fights, especially with people you really love, it kind of - one changes something within you molecularly and it opens up some shit, you know?
"Came Along" has really nothing to do with that particular conversation that I had with those folks. But I felt just so compelled to write after that. It did open up a bunch of questions about one, existentialism. Two, the way I approach relationships with loved ones. There's a bunch of just like profound kind of not realizations just yet but questions that were popping up and that song was directly born out of that.
So in a similar way, there's the line in "Blue Space," it's, 'Stupid selfless obsessions, rid me of them." Right before the pandemic was probably my busiest year in India. A lot of big hit songs, I was really busy, but also running on an empty tank. And through the pandemic is when I think I really experienced true ego death for the first time, you know? So it was like, these are all things that I was going through or kind of experiencing and feeling through and whatnot. These songs were just reflections of that. So yeah, the questions and the search for truth and all that, I wouldn't say like, the songs were inspired by that the songs just are that, for sure.
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Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has a number of credits on the project. How did that relationship develop and what was that experience like working with him?
So Justin, and Ryan, the producer of the record, are very close friends from childhood. They grew up in the same spot in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Ryan came to pick me up at the airport in Minneapolis for the first time. He's like a super anonymous type of dude. So his profile picture is of another dude, not him. So I pulled up to Minneapolis and I saw this other guy's like, "Yo, what the hell is going on?" But it turns out to be like the sweetest, sweetest, most interesting person.
We went to grab breakfast, we got to know each other real quick. And we've been texting and had a couple of phone calls prior but this was our first real interaction. And I very quickly understood that this was a very interesting, very genuine cat. But the first person or place he brought me through after that was Justin's spot. And Justin just bought a spot in Minneapolis close to where we grabbed breakfast.
For a little context, I've been a huge Bon Iver since college. I remember I was in the dorm rooms in like 2009. When we first heard songs like "Woods" and the way Justin was using auto-tune, we were all blown away. His music actually really helped me grave a couple of very deep just like family passing. You know, I have a very close and deep connection to his music. I met him and he was the coolest dude.
He just pulled up to the studio the next day and played acoustic guitar on a bunch of the songs. He was part of the core DNA of those first three days of the music that we made. And then on a song like "Quiet Storm," he added vocal stacks to a bunch of it in his signature kind of sound. And yeah, he's just been a homie you know what I mean? Like, it's been really cool because they do say like, "Don't meet your heroes" or whatever the f*ck, but he just turned out to be like a genuinely solid person. Obviously, a genius musician, but also the perspective that he's offered me in our conversations has been super valuable. We just went on tour with them a couple of weeks ago. That was one of the most memorable experiences of my life for sure.
How's that shift been for you from succeeding in Bollywood and the South Asian market to now entering the North American market with huge success?
Yeah, it definitely felt like a shift, you know? And it's not like I'm not doing Tamil songs and Telugu Songs. That's all continuing. I have taken a step back because you only have so many hours in the day. And the creative well needs to be replenished if you really want to give yourself to it. So this last year - well, since really, I made the album, it has been a shift and a pivot. It's been exciting. I feel like I've done a lot of work in South Indian cinema, you know? I've really enjoyed the songs I've been a part of, and the fan base has been incredible.
Really, actually, I started living in India in 2016 to like 2020, 'till the pandemic. My time there really allowed me to build my own roots with my city, Chennai, and really kind of embraced my identity in a much deeper way than I ever had before.
What this phase of my career feels like is, you know, I've spent the last decade doing that, and I really kind of enjoyed being at the very top of the game, and I'm humbled by that. But at the end of the day, I'm a creative creature, you know? For me, the art, the music, and what I make is the first priority. I needed to feed my soul. At this point in my life, especially after the pandemic, when I had a lot of time just to ponder and think and soul search and connect with music again, in a pure way, I realized that I had something to say, and I had to say it with an urgency, you know.
It's funny, man, like I used to covet this shit when I was younger. I had this cover of a Frank Ocean song come out in 2011 that went crazy on the internet. I was taking meetings with all these labels but nothing materialized and I was desperate for it at the time. But at this point in time, I made this album at a time when I wasn't - I was about to pack up shop in the United States and move to India permanently around that time in 2021 because I kept hitting walls with my own music over here. It just wasn't locking in and then the way the universe works, and God comes through, it's like, when the path is ready for you, or rather, when you're ready, ready for the path, you get put in those positions. So this feels exciting.
It also feels like a necessary thing for me right now. It feels like this is what I'm supposed to be doing. And especially after doing these shows in these last few months, and I go out and perform for audiences off the Sidharth music, and you see what it does to people, you know? I was talking about before the hope is to have my music molecularly change the way people feel and move and help in healing. You know, I've seen it happening in real time through the shows. So it's affirmation that at every point this is exactly what I'm supposed to be supposed to be doing. And I'm 33, it makes me feel a bit younger, again, you know what I mean? Because we're building something from the ground up. And that's really exciting. I think it's allowed me a refreshed, rejuvenated perspective for damn sure.
Final question: as much as this album might be personal for you, it feels like it's also going to be a groundbreaking force for other, South Asian and, even Tamil artists, in the Western world. Do you see the future of music embracing these sounds more and opening up in North America?
Yeah, I think it's inevitable. It's inevitable for two reasons. One, it hasn't been done yet so there's like this pent up just like energy that's just waiting to be tapped into. It's just gonna take one or two of us to breakdown that door and then it's gonna be floodgates, you know? Two, there's a richness in the artistry of our people. And I say our people, but South Asia is so diverse. So there's not only a richness, there's just also this complexity and layers and so many different nuanced sounds that it is going to happen.
I wear it proudly because I think with this album, we've taken a big first step. We're going to see what it does in the weeks and months to come, obviously, but it's what's necessary for me is for artists from South Asian backgrounds to be taken seriously all over the world, and not have to play caricatures and stereotypes of themselves but to be like, "No, this is what the f**k I'm doing and I'm doing it regardless." The world is already catching up. There are so many eyeballs on the market.
It's happening, and I'm honored to be at the forefront of it. I think one thing I remind myself of is to never like overthink the responsibility aspect, because the minute you start thinking you're so important, and you're like a messiah or whatever, the art starts to sound like shit. So it's just like, keep focused on making real good music that feels honest. That would be I think my biggest kind of like, if I had any insight or words to offer.
I had the show at the Roxy [in Atlanta] in July. And it was sold out and there were a lot of brown folks in there. Different age groups, but a lot of youngsters, for sure. I'm sure some of them are artists but it occurred to me at the end of that show, and I spoke on it, I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is that we have the permission to make whatever we want. It doesn't have to fit some sliver of an expectation or whatever. I think as soon as we embrace that and move confidently with it and make exactly what we want and not try to jump on a trend or whatever else. Like I said, it's inevitable, there's going to be a shift in the sound of the globe happening in the next two years and it's gonna be very dope.
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