Mili Nair’s voice blends the beauty of jazz with Indian music. Jazz, she says, keeps her on the edge and lets her be free at the same time

She’s the sound of breezy calm in ‘Meethi Boliyan’ from Kai Po Che. She’s also the powerful force of Amit Trivedi’s ‘Badri Badariyan’ and ‘Yatra’ from Coke Studio@MTV Season 2. We’ve heard her with A.R. Rahman, most recently in Ambikapathy’s ‘Parakka Seivaai’, and with Harris Jayaraj in Maattrran’s ‘Rettai Kathire’. Meet the lady behind the unusual jazz voice—Mili Nair.

More than a hobby

“Singing was never a hobby for me. It was always much more. Right through school and college I was convinced, deep down, that this is what I should be doing for life,” says Mili. Trained in Western classical vocals and in Carnatic music, Mili began her career singing jingles. “Advertising gives you free rein to experiment with your voice; try fun and quirky things,” says Mili. From the playful jazz hook of the ‘Jaldi Kya Hai?’ Maaza ad, to the simple guitar-and-voice Cadbury Silk tune, the ads helped her talent get noticed.

Her big break into playback singing came when A.R. Rahman offered her ‘Keda Kari’ from the film Raavanan in 2010. “Working with Rahman was an amazing experience,” says Mili. “He is such a strong composer and his compositions are beautiful works of art on their own; the singing just adds more colour to it.” As a young musician, Mili says such an opportunity was rare to come by, calling it “surreal”. Mili sang Rahman’s work once again in the song ‘Maham Maye’ from the film Komaram Puli, and again in Ambikapathy, the Tamil version of Raanjhana.

Besides Tamil, Mili has sung in Telugu, Kannada and even hummed the title track for the Malayalam film Urumi. “To be able to sing in many languages is a great privilege Indian singers have. Where else would you find it common for musicians to perform comfortably in five or six languages?” she asks. Mili adds that she hopes to someday sing in Malayalam too, as her roots are in Kerala.

Born in Bombay and educated in Pune and Bangalore, Mili says her upbringing shaped her as a musician. She grew up listening to rock and pop artistes, but was slowly drawn toward jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald. The genre eventually became her forte for she loved the freedom it offered her. “We take vocal improvisation for granted because it is common in Indian music but in Western music, jazz uses it the most. It takes singing to the next level because you’ve to think of your voice just like another instrument in the band, and improvise accordingly. It keeps you on edge always,” says Mili.

It was her ability to bring jazz influences into Indian music that gave Mili her Bollywood debut with Amit Trivedi’s music in Kai Po Che. “Playback singing requires you to complement the vision of the composer and Amit felt my voice suited the song. I also did a section of vocal improvisation at the end and I’m grateful to Amit for retaining that.

On Coke Studio

Mili’s collaboration with Amit extended into two lengthy arrangements for Coke Studio@MTV Season 2. The first, ‘Yatra’, was sung alongside Shriram Iyer and had intense Carnatic elements and the second, ‘Badri Badariyan’ was with Rajasthani musician Mame Khan. “The success of a show like Coke Studio is that the audience gets to see everything as it happens live. And there are things that happen in the moment which cannot be recreated in the studio. In such collaborations, the energy on stage is immense, and each artiste feeds off the other’s creativity,” says Mili.

Alongside playback singing, Mili is also busy working on her song-writing skills, as well as performing concerts across the country’s jazz circuit. “There’s a growing audience in cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai for jazz, and the current crop of musicians are those who have taught themselves over the years, learning through listening and performing live,” says Mili. Her first international performance was a set with jazz guitarist Vinnie Valentino at the Java Jazz Festival 2009 in Jakarta.

Mili’s first performance in Kerala will be this Sunday at Cafe Papaya. The concert features both Mili’s releases as a playback singer as well as covers of English jazz standards. She says, “It’s an acoustic performance, so we’re stripping it down to the basics. It’s going to be a fun gig!”

For ticket details, contact 9895019900