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Mili Nair and all that jazz

Mili says she loves the way the jazz musicians broke free from format, yet stayed rooted to the core.

Mili says she loves the way the jazz musicians broke free from format, yet stayed rooted to the core.  

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A host of film songs, jazz gigs and independent music later, Mili Nair stands on the cusp of another milestone:  her debut album as singer and songwriter, writes Esther Elias

Mili Nair’s moment of epiphany dawned in the darkness of a vocal booth in Kodambakkam. She’d just written down Vairamuthu’s lyrics, and learnt its simple tune, when A.R. Rahman and Mani Ratnam walked in. As they sat down and listened to her render ‘Keda Kari’ for their film Raavanan, a dream reel scrolled in Mili’s head of all the magic the two had woven together… Roja, Bombay, Alaipayuthey, Guru... “I couldn’t believe that I, at 24, was standing in that room, singing for them! That moment gave me my calling; I knew I was here for a reason.” Five years and a host of film songs, jazz gigs and independent music later, Mili stands on the cusp of another milestone:  her debut album as singer and songwriter.

Born to Keralite parents and raised in Pune, Mili grew up a single child with music as her companion. “I was a late talker, so I was humming before I could say words,” she laughs. Like all “good South Indian children”, she was sent for Carnatic music classes, but secretly built an ear for her mother’s collection of English music, everything from Abba and The Beatles to Christopher Cross. Her mornings began with choir rehearsals and after school, she’d hop next door to her music classes in a little cottage full of upright pianos left behind by English nuns. “I knew quite early on that music would be my life,” says Mili, but for a short while, as a teenager, when that dream almost didn’t come true for a lack of resources, her heart fell. “When music did return, I realised anew just how precious what I’d taken for granted was.”

It was only in Bangalore as a student of journalism at Mount Carmel, did Mili find jazz. All the while training in Trinity School of London and Royal School of Music’s classical music syllabi, a friend lent her a Chet Baker instrumental CD, and it was love at first listen. “I loved the way the musicians broke free from format, yet stayed rooted to the core. It instantly changed my thinking as a singer. I started seeing my voice just like an instrument, capable of all that freedom of improvisation!” Mili went on to sing covers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dee Dee Bridgewater alongside her usual repertoire of rock and pop at gigs across Bangalore, until one day renown bassist Keith Peters, heard her sing and offered to back her. “I was stunned, but went along with it, and learnt more about exploring my voice with Keith, than ever before.”

In the thick of making life as a jazz musician, Mili never quite foresaw Rahman knocking at her door. She still doesn’t know how he found her, but that window of opportunity with him opened numerous doors into playback singing. From ‘Ippadiye’ for Yuvan Shankar Raja in Poojai, to ‘Nee Sunno New Mono’ for Harris Jayaraj in Nanbenda, ‘Oh Penne Penne’ for Anirudh Ravichander in Vanakkam Chennai,  ‘Parakka Seivai’ again for Rahman in Ambikapathy, and the song she’s best known for, ‘Meethi Boliyaan’ for Amit Trivedi in Kai Po Che, Mili is thrilled with the music that’s come her way. She’s also just finished recording the title track of Mr. X, a Bollywood film with Jeet Ganguly as music director, where she’s sung a duet with director Mahesh Bhatt (“What a rockstar!”). “I’ve been blessed to have music directors who understand my voice,” says Mili, “They call me for that particular sensibility of a jazz singer, and allow me to be me.”  

Alongside film music also arrived the offer of a Coke Studio session with Amit, where the vocal powerhouse in Mili came forth in all its glory in ‘Badri Badariyan’ and ‘Yatra’. “Singing with him is the sort of work that fulfils your soul. The calibre of musicianship that plays with Amit is that splendid,” she says. For a year now, she’s been gigging with Amit and the band across the country, at college events and music festivals like NH7, one of the latest venues being in Pune. “The energy there was just insane! People were screaming song requests, and climbing over barricades to reach us. For me, that was a homecoming of sorts.” In the midst of the whirlwind that Mili’s life had been the last couple of years, she found herself one evening at a concert in Bangalore listening to a drummer named Hamesh. They got talking, about music, of course, and are today married and settled in Chennai with a home full of music and their earnings spent on buying even more music. “Music is the marriage,” smiles Mili.

At home, one day three years ago, resting between shows and studio sessions, Mili picked up a small keyboard lying around at home and fiddled a melody that popped into her head. She explored the musical idea a little further and gradually, it blossomed into a full-fledged song. “I found music come to me in most unexpected moments this way. And it doesn’t come with lyrics first because I feel far better through music than words; a bass line or guitar phrase will drop by and I’d have to follow it around for a while, nurture it into fullness.” Over these years, Mili’s stacked up a collection of songs that range from jazz to blues, rock and pop, rarely performing them live, but running them by musician friends for “that magic that happens in collaboration”. All of life thus far has shaped this album, says Mili. From Bollywood, she’s learnt of how the music industry works, and from independent jazz performances, she’s honed that maturity of feeding off fellow musicians’ creative flights. Her work enters studios soon and will reach the world later this year. “Doing music where you can be yourself, truly is divine,” she says.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 9:44:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/mili-nair-and-all-that-jazz/article6916613.ece

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