Shelton Pinheiro is one of Malayalam film industry’s few English songwriters. He talks about his method of song writing and poetry

Shelton Pinheiro’s life revolves around words. His sparsely-done advertising office sports a clear table adorned by a bottle of red ink and a fountain pen. Beside, in a large hardbound notebook, lines of neat words run, with scattered crosses and cuts in between — the beginnings of a story penned in green ink. “Writing is serious business,” says Shelton, “It’s not a ballpoint pen affair!” he laughs. With two decades in the public eye as an award-winning copywriter, and in private as a poet, Shelton now weaves words in a new sphere — as one of Malayalam film industry’s few English songwriters.

Tryst with Mollywood

We’ve heard him most recently as the lyricist and voice behind ‘Memories Never Die’ the title track of the Prithviraj-starrer Memories. In the past, he’s written ‘Super Mom’ and ‘Michael Jackson’ both from the film Mummy and Me (2010) and also written and sung the rap portions of ‘Kandille’ from Cinema Company (2012), and ‘Hip-hop’ from the Mammootty hit Big-B (2007). Shelton’s debut though, was in 2004 with ‘Am I Dreaming’, the English ballad sung by Sayanora Philip in Manjupoloru Penkutti (2004).

In the early days, Shelton observes, English music in Malayalam films was used only occasionally — to either create an upbeat groove, as most English songs were associated with dance numbers, or to reflect a sense of modernity in culture. “So, we would be given a few bars of music to fill up with lyrics, just to establish a mood.” However, trends have changed. “It’s a reflection of our times. Most of us speak in English, Malayalam, or ‘Manglish’, and directors are now looking towards songs written entirely in English to create emotions during the narrative — just as how Malayalam songs were traditionally used,” says Shelton. Thus, his brief for Memories required him to work with a 50s retro feel that invoked ideas of forgetfulness and the past.

A song usually arrives at Shelton’s desk with a rough melody in place. The genre of the music invariably dictates the lyrics he writes, but the writing process itself falls in place only once he has captured the “hook” of the song, says Shelton. “For instance, I had to keep playing around with words until the hook “memories never die” came along; the rest of the song was written around that.” For songs that incorporate both English and Malayalam lyrics, Shelton writes by the number of bars and syllables he’s given to fill in. “A certain section can fit just 27 syllables, for example. I like these ‘boxes’; they force you to sharpen your skill in picking words. It gives you a kick to keep trying things till something finally falls in place — both in terms of rhythm and meaning.”

Shelton’s inclination towards music began young, influenced by his Anglo-Indian family from the Vypeen Islands. His own preferences range from the jazz greats — Diana Krall, Frank Sinatra — to alternative rock bands (Mumford and Sons, Oasis, Coldplay),Gregorian chants, Taize music, the Sufi poets and Asian Underground artistes such as Karsh Kale.

With Rex Band

The variety is reflected in his long-term association with the Rex Band, an ethnic spiritual band which began in 1991 during his years at Sacred Heart College, Thevara, where he met, now music director, Alphons Joseph. Over two decades, Shelton wrote close to 60 songs for Rex Band for their 12 albums and has toured the world several times over with them. “Rex Band is made up of 15 members with very different musical instincts. So while pianist Stephen Devassy and Alphons compose a lot of the music, the genres range from Indian classical to hip-hop, rhythm and blues, jazz and ballads. So I’ve become accustomed to writing for different genres through them.”

In fact, it was through Alphons, that Shelton wrote for Manjupoloru.. as Alphons directed the film’s music.

But long before the song writing, came poetry, says Shelton. “It was through poetry that I learnt the importance of distilling words to a crystal-like clarity. It’s a lot like sculpture. You chisel away at the excess words till you get the exact shape.” His efforts have resulted in two collections of poetry — one named Meanwhiles about what happens while you wait for life to take its course, and the other, a volume of poems on Kochi.

While both are under construction, Shelton has already been featured in publications such as Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and the Atlantic Monthly. Of his life with words as poet, copywriter and songwriter, Shelton says, “Most people realise young that they enjoy language, but not many get to pursue it in adulthood in so many ways. I’ve been blessed.”