Some musicians gravitate immediately to their calling, while for others a defining moment – perhaps a tragedy or a realisation that it’s now or never – sets them on their path. For Nikhil D’Souza, that rude awakening came with a chance meeting with an old friend in Mumbai while he was working as a geologist.
“I told him about the job and that it paid well and that they were thinking of promoting me,” D’Souza recalls, almost wincing at the memory. “He just looked at me and said ‘I want to slap you right now!’”
His friend reminisced about their time growing up, when D’Souza would be found carrying his guitar around town and playing music in people’s houses just for the sheer fun of it. That old pal concluded that the real Nikhil D’Souza wouldn’t have been content working as geologist for a living.
Together with his discovery of the inspiring sounds of Jeff Buckley, this virtual slap-in-the-face set D’Souza on a new journey which necessitated taking a huge risk. “I thought, let me give this a shot and quit my job,” he states, with determination still echoing in his voice years later. “I’m going to get back to Mumbai, see where the music scene is at and see what I can do.”
Nikhil D’Souza grew-up in Mumbai. His father moved to the Middle-East when he was a child, so he was mostly raised by his mother. Ironically he found the theory behind his childhood guitar lessons so boring that he’d cycle around the block to avoid his tutor. His family owned an old school boombox – the only one in the neighbourhood – so the local kids would drop by to listen to the big American and British artists of the era. He subsequently learned to play just by observing them, and by his late teens had the technique to master virtuoso material by Joe Satriani.
“Back then, original music was never really encouraged in Mumbai. No-one really gave a damn about it; it was all covers bands all of the time, aside from a few metal bands. So as a singer-songwriter – one guy with a guitar and introspective lyrics – I knew I was out of place.”
Given the context, it was hardly surprising that his initial attempts didn’t work out. Fate would indeed have to wait until the combination of his friend’s intervention and a new found love of Jeff Buckley changed his life. Perhaps forever.
D’Souza’s dogged determination saw him thrust demos into the hands of whoever might be able to provide him with an opportunity. And soon enough, his first big break – singing for an ad – in turn instigated a second in which he carved a niche for himself as a playback singer (in short, providing a vocal for an actor to mime along to) for a wide range of major Bollywood films such as Anjaana Anjaani and Queen. His impact is easy to summarise: if you’re one of the millions of fans who make Bollywood an industry that’s worth $2 billion a year, you’ll recognise his voice.
“If I was asked to sing for a film, it was usually because they wanted my Western songwriting sensibility in the song. So if a character is coming back to India from living in the West and they need a song about the situation, they’d call me.”
Bollywood enabled D’Souza to make a living, but his long-term goal was to get his own original songs out there. He entered and won the televised South-Asian talent contest SUTASI and everything escalated. He subsequently played the nation’s top festivals including the NH7 Weekender and The Times LitFest, while his sets at college events all around the country see him perform to anything from 2-10,000 people. He even represented his country by claiming second place at the Crimea Music Festival, which earned him a significant fanbase in Ukraine and Russia. Elsewhere, he has played shows as far afield as London, Los Angeles and Melbourne.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of SUTASI was that it enabled him to meet a manager who put him in touch with Jeff Cohen, a songwriter and producer who has scored hits with artists as diverse as Josh Groban, Macy Gray and contemporary country stars The Band Perry.
The blend of Cohen’s magic touch with the atmosphere of working in Nashville improved D’Souza’s songwriting exponentially to the extent that they both felt sufficiently confident in D’Souza’s growing talent to book a small industry showcase gig in London. The result exceeded all expectations, as D’Souza soon signed a deal with Warner Music and returned to London to record material with the Grammy-winning producer Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz, James Blunt).
D’Souza’s voice traverses a maelstrom of emotions. Here’s a singer who can convey it all – passion, yearning, love, loss and sorrow – and what’s more, he possesses the power and the purity to articulately express himself in songs which are immediately relatable.
‘Still In Love’ is a prime example, being about the realisation that he was “completely head over heels in love” with someone he thought he’d moved on from, yet many people will also be enamoured with the life-affirming romantic imagery of ‘Desert Island’.
Two songs were co-written with Jamie Hartman, the songwriter who is currently enjoying huge success for his work with Rag‘n’Bone Man. The buoyant ‘Because Because Because’ celebrates the positives in a blossoming relationship when it’s “very easy to find a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t be together”, while ‘Beautiful Mind’ tackles a complicated situation in which “you want to be with someone, but she’s seeing a close friend of yours.”
They’re songs which people can relate to because D’Souza’s experiences are replicated the world over. “Am I unlucky in love?” he sighs. “Yeah, and I still am. But at least it provides plenty of inspiration for songs!”
Despite such heartbreak, things are very much looking up after a circuitous and sometimes fortuitous voyage. Having recently relocated to London, Nikhil D’Souza is finally in the position to present his music to a huge international audience.
“Ah, there’s plenty of apprehension – it’s a whole new life,” he admits, noting that he tends to take some time to make new friends. “I realise it’s going to be difficult, but this is the life I want and this is the music I want to play. And I’m excited that if I do well in England, that will really validate the scene in Mumbai too, as there’s a lot of talented musicians there who don’t believe they can make it in the West.”