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Wayfarer: An Interview with Dhruv Visvanath

6 Jun

In our honest opinion, twenty-something Dhruv Visvanath is already one of the most iconic musicians in India today. With his unique percussive guitar style, clear design aesthetic, and an irrepressibly nomadic take on life, it’s pretty easy to pick a Dhruv Visvanath song out of a musical lineup.

In 2015, Visvanath released a well-received debut album, Orion; but like all great musicians, he didn’t let the success define his career. In 2016, he embarked upon a massive 17-city tour across India – no doubt driven by his keen (and well-documented) sense of wanderlust. The tour resulted in 2018’s The Lost Cause – a brilliant album with lilting melodies, beautiful imagery and Visvanath’s masterful guitar skills.

Top Five Records caught up with Dhruv for a detailed chat about his influences, love of travel, musical style, and much more. Read on below:

Let’s start with a picture of what makes you into the artist you are today: What got you into music, and when did you first start getting into it?

I’ve been playing and learning since I was seven, and it’s been a long and arduous journey at times; but I’m ever so grateful for music. I started off with the piano, and from there my thirst for musical knowledge just grew further and further, up to a point where I just picked up a guitar and started learning through trial and error. To this day, I still feel like that’s the right way for me! Trial and error above everything else!

We at TFR see glimpses of Sufjan Stevens, the Decembrists, and hints of Mumford & Sons in your tunes. What would you say are the biggest musical influences in your music? Apart from other musicians, what else has influenced you as an artist?

First off, thank you! You guys make me blush! I have always looked to using stories from my life as my biggest source of inspiration for writing songs. My family, my dearest friends, my heartaches and moments of happiness have allowed me to express my thoughts and feelings through music; I just try to do my part by being honest and true to myself.

Musical inspirations are an entirely different story. Would you believe me if I told you I was listening to Dr. Dre a few nights ago? All jokes aside, I do listen to and absorb what I can from as many different artists, because you can learn many things just by listening to different songs. Currently I’m hooked on to Daniel Caesar, Parcels and Jungle, but I’ve always loved bands like Alter Bridge, Foals and Snarky Puppy. I really like the way they arrange their songs, and how they build their music and it’s such a useful lesson when making music!

Your music stands out among Indian singer-songwriters for your unique style of percussive acoustic guitar. How did you get interested in this style of playing? How did you train yourself in it, from a technical standpoint?

I do feel like I am unique for sure, but I’m thrilled to see more and more people just stepping in to their comfort zone when it comes to making music! It’s a pleasure to explore and I want to take the time to learn from everyone doing things differently. I like to think of myself as a songwriter more than just a guitarist but I absolutely love playing. A lot of my songs feel like they start from the guitar, and grow into bigger stories with more layers, and to be honest, I only want to write good songs, and my technique has helped me do that.

I’m a self-taught guitarist, and have maintained that throughout my musical journey. It allows me to continue making mistakes and learning in new ways! Honestly though, I used to play the electric guitar and I could feel myself stagnating, and there was a point where worries arose and I started falling out of love with the guitar. It wasn’t until I found a few videos on YouTube with guys smacking the bodies of their acoustics – and epiphany struck! I would literally sit and learn these percussively flavoured songs and would spend hours imitating these amazing guitarists, from Andy Mckee, to Don Ross, to Antoine Dufour. These folks were genuinely great teachers and it really allowed me to find my own style along the way.

Music video for “Jungle”, from The Lost Cause (2018)

Let’s talk about the songwriting process. The rhythm and melodies in your songs are so intricate, and yet your words always seem to lock right into place. What comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?

I love a sense of rhythm in everything. Having words that complement the rhythm just make the song that much more enjoyable, both to write and to listen to. Oftentimes, the music does come first, but it depends. Most of my ideas stem from an idea that’s ten seconds long. My sense of rhythm comes from how I play, and I use my strengths to work my on weaknesses when it comes to writing layers or working on my voice.

It really helps to write in a manner which brings out the best in you, rather than trying to force a song out. You want to feel like playing and listening to music that makes you want to be a better person, and a more expressive person. It’s a strange way of looking at it, but writing a new song gives me so much happiness, and it feels like constipation if I don’t write!

One of our favorite aspects about Dhruv as a musician (apart from the music itself, of course) is your keen sense of design, from the common font across your output, to the connected color palette, to the incredibly unique choice of, for example, using mops to tell a story. What inspires your design aesthetic?

The mops weren’t my idea! That goes to the director of my video for “Wild,” Tanvi Gandhi. But I have to say I have always looked at myself as someone who’s had to build himself from the ground up. I like to create as much of an identity as I possibly can, but that’s important for anyone who wants to be an artist. I pick vivid colours because I see vivid colours emanating from my music, and I want to show a sense of wonder and wistfulness. I feel like a person who plays the acoustic guitar to it’s absolute limits, so for me, bright colours and extreme contrasts seem like a fitting portrayal of who I am musically.

In any song, the most important thing is the story, and I’m a very story-driven person. The use of abstraction comes naturally to me and I love it when the songs bring things to life. A sense of abstraction is key, and it’s not often that someone feels like a mop until they see a mop act and live just like you!

Let’s talk about that music video for “Wild”, because it really is unlike anything else out there in Indian indie music today. How did you come up with the concept for that music video? How did you plan out the production work that went into actually putting it together? And how long did it take you to film it?

Again, I can take credit for the song! The video, however, was an entirely different task. My director, Tanvi Gandhi, bombarded me with ideas for six months until we hit on this one kooky idea of expressing human angst through mops – and the vision stuck. Production started in January 2018 and the rest of the creative team behind the video spent a month going on reconnaissance trips and making prototypes of the mops. It wasn’t until the first week of April 2018 where I got a finished product. I’m very glad we took the time to make the video, and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. It’s travelled to places I haven’t even been and I’m so glad it’s been played at many festivals. (Ed. Note: Dhruv is too humble to mention it, but “Wild” was shown at the prestigious SXSW festival this year.) It was a product of love and for it to be loved and appreciated in the way that it has is very special to me.

Tell us a little bit about your recent album, The Lost Cause, and how you put together all the pieces there. We know you went on an eponymous India-wide tour before the album actually came out – to what extent, and how, did that tour influence the music on the album?

Well, if I’m honest, I recorded most of the music before actually going on tour! The whole purpose of the tour was to go through India and explore the various stories that my family had experienced throughout the country. It definitely did affect the finished product, however, and I’m grateful to have gone on that journey. It really allowed me to attach stories to my songs, and some of the songs I’d written prior to going on the tour didn’t make much sense until I’d experienced these stories. The album felt effortless to work on. I’d sit and work with just writing songs in my bedroom and then recording them late at night. I took the project on as a chance to improve my ability to record my music, and I’m glad I did it.

The backbone of your album, The Lost Cause, centers around exploration – from new cities to aspects of you as a person and as a musician. Has this streak of discovery always been part of who you are?

I’ve been a traveler all my life. I’ve grown up in different places, and it’s always been an absolute blessing to go out an explore. The song itself was more about a need to identify your dreams, and to follow them wholeheartedly. Placing the right amount of faith in yourself will push you further than anything else will. I wrote this song for all the times I’ve been told that what I do is just that, a lost cause. I thought to make it an epic of sorts, as large as I possibly could, so it’d feel like something you’d shout at the top of a mountain!

What’s next on the radar for you – New music? New tours? Something else entirely?

Well, I’m in the middle of recording some newer songs, but also I’ve taken the last year or so to write the best music I can, and just create. I’ve been fortunate to work on a few film scores as well and it’s something I’m extremely keen on continuing. Finally, this last year has taught me what it means to be a good producer as well, and I want to take this chance to really improve and work with more people and make more songs with more people if I can!

Thank you, Dhruv, that was excellent! Before we wrap up, we’d like to ask you some quick-fire questions. Ready?

What are your top three Desert Island Discs? (i.e., three albums that you would be fine listening to, without access to any other music, for the rest of your life?)

One Day Remains by Alter Bridge; Phil Collins’ Greatest Hits; Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace by Foo Fighters.

What’s been your favorite gig so far?

So far, it has to be a gig I did at NIFT Delhi in October last year. I had my best friends with me on stage, and playing a fun, exciting night to a nice big amphitheater.

Who’s one Indian artist that you’d love to work with?

Warren Mendonsa, Dhruv Ghanekar, Parekh & Singh… the list is very, very long.

Given your love of exploration, we assume you’ve travelled a lot around the world. What’s one city that you find yourself wishing you could visit again?

Two cities, Montreal and Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong and that place will always be special to me; and Montreal because it’s just one of the most musically charged and creative places I’ve ever been to.

What albums or songs are on constant rotation right now?

I love listening to any song made by SG Lewis, an amazing producer. As for albums, I’ve been listening to Let it Die by Feist, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish and Assume Form by James Blake.

You can visit Dhruv’s website for information on where to listen to his music. All images courtesy the artist.

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