Rahul Nambiar's dossier is full of surprises. T. Krithika Reddy talks to the playback singer who believes in charting his own course

As someone familiar with the whims of celebrities, I am surprised by Rahul Nambiar's simplicity. The playback singer is not just early for the interview; he has to be prodded to speak about himself.

After 350 songs and 450 stage shows in less than five years, Nambiar seems more like a long-distance runner who doesn't worry about milestones, but simply revels in his running. “Numbers don't matter; after a point, it's a blur. It's just the joy of singing and the thrill of challenging your vocals with every song that matters.”

Sipping cappuccino in the low-slung luxury of The Residence Lounge in The Park, the singer breaks into ‘Vasantha Mullai…' (from “Pokkiri”), one of his chart mainstays, and renders it in a dozen styles. I'm surprised again, this time by his versatility.

Beating boredom

As his story unfolds in the course of the hour-long conversation, I realise that surprise is part of the Rahul Nambiar baggage. “I get bored easily. As a child, in New Delhi, I used to bang the table all the time, imagining myself to be a tabla player. My dad enrolled me in tabla classes. I learnt it for a while, and then turned my attention to guitar. Soon we moved to Chennai, and I got interested in Carnatic music which I pursued for a year. A friend suggested I register for Sun TV's Saptaswarangal. I gave it a shot, and won the music reality show. Offers for jingles followed and I happened to meet a bunch of talented, but unlucky musicians. It kind of dissuaded me from the music scene. Being an M.Com-MBA, I took up a bank job. However, the monotony forced me to wriggle out.”

It was singer Sunita Sarathy who coaxed the bud to bloom. “I met her when she was preparing for a Christmas show. She was picking out tough songs for the performance and encouraged me to render some intricate harmonies. It was the beginning of a long and successful music association.”

Thankfully for Rahul, there was no need to knock at musicians' doors. “Networking helped. And all the big offers came through friends.” Today, the singer's dossier reads like a wish list. He's sung for almost all South Indian composers from Ilaiyaraaja and Yuvan Shankar Raja to Imman and Thaman. ‘Adada Mazha da…' from “Paiya” is one of his recent numbers that has reaped rich dividends.

Talk about creative freedom, and the singer responds in a matter-of-fact way. “There's intense competition among composers. ‘Pudhusa' (new) is the buzzword in music circles. Musicians are open to improvisations by singers. Experiments have pushed boundaries. There is simply no rule. A racy Rap interlude can jolt you in the midst of a melody and a retro-tinged folk song can slip into techno rhythms! Musicians never cease to surprise. Singers have to embrace change and prepare their vocals for challenges. That's what I'm doing.”

New album

Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, Rahul too has undergone his own metamorphosis. Today, he's not just a singer and a live show artist; he's also an independent musician. Rahlaap, the band he promoted with friend and bass guitarist Aalaap Raju in 2009, has survived choppy waters and recently, the duo launched an album (by the same name) with a distinct focus on “Music beyond genres.” The Hindi album celebrates sundry emotions. “It's not easy to chart your own course in the music circuit. This album has taken years. Big music companies don't want to get associated with such experiments. The industry is film-driven. It takes a lot for independent musicians to make the cut. After many struggles, we released Rahlaap on our own. And now, we are aggressively promoting it online and through our own stage shows.”

Despite studio-hopping, Rahul believes live shows are the best to have happened to him. “They give you a high, there's so much energy around. And unlike in the recording studio, here YOU are in control and get instant feedback. Today, a singer has to be a showman as well. Some on-stage antics are the icing.”

It's time for a photo shoot. As the photographer sets up his equipment by the poolside, Rahul twirls like a dervish. This time, I'm not surprised. I figure he's preparing to be a showman!

FAVOURITE FIVE

Kishore Kumar, Yesudas, S. P. Balasubramaniam, Sir Elton John and Celine Dion.

JUKEBOX

Songs rendered by others that I'll never tire of listening to …

‘Kalyana Thenila', ‘Poovey Sempoove', ‘Oho Megham Vanthatho', ‘Anjali Anjali Pushpaanjali', ‘Jimbalaka Jimbalaka', ‘Yengey Yenadu Kavithai', ‘Kannamoochi Yenada', ‘Ithu Oru Nila Kaalam', ‘Oru Devathai Paarkum Neramidhu' and ‘Mazhaiye Mazhaiye.'

DIFFERENT STROKES

Songs that made a difference to his career

TAMIL

‘Vasantha Mullai' (“Pokkiri”)

‘Adada Mazha Da' (“Paiyya”)

‘Dosthu Bada Dosthu' (“Saroja”)

‘Para Para Pattampoochi' (“Katradu Tamizh”)

MALAYALAM

‘Swapnangal Kannezhudiya' (“Bhagyadevatha”)

‘Nee Aam Thanalinu' (“Cocktail”)

‘Innoree Mazhaiyil' (“Malarvadi Arts Club”)

‘Venmukilin' (“Mummy & Me”)

TELUGU

‘Mankanna Podichey' (“Parugu”)

‘Maro Maro' (“Chirutha”)

‘Priyatama' and ‘Dhannaley Thalley' (“Ullasanga Uthsahanga”)

‘Silaka' (“Mirapakai”)

TWO TO TANGO

Like band Rahlaap, the album too showcases different music styles. Both Aalaap and I believe music lovers crave for freshness. The CD has six songs plus a remix of our own track. Most of the lyrics have been penned by our friends. Raqueeb Alam, a regular for A. R. Rahman, too has contributed. The songs traverse a range of emotions and all the numbers (barring the remix) were recorded with live instruments.

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