You are already familiar with Keba Jeremiah, the passionate guitarist whom you have seen on television in Vijay TV Airtel Super Singer or may be in MTV Coke Studio. In this interview, Keba Jeremiah talks his heart out about his experiences working with AR Rahman, his passion for the string instruments and his first love! Meet Keba Jeremiah, who in the last 3 years, has accumulated an impressive repertoire of Tamil and Hindi films including Paiya, Pasanga, Engeyum Kadhal, Savari, 3 Kings, Avan Ivan, Mangatha, 3, Action Replay, Rockstar and Ek Deewana Tha.
You are quoted as saying “As a musician, [Rahman] gives me absolute freedom and hence there is a lot of scope for improvisation.” Please describe the process of composing a song with AR Rahman. Have there been instances where the song took a different direction because of your influence? How is it working with AR Rahman?
With Rahman sir, usually the reference tracks are laid down which I just have to go and replace with live guitars unless we decide to jam on a specific song and come up with something different. Jamming on a song can always take you in a different direction like what happened with a song called Yenga Pona Raasa from the film Maryan. Working with Rahman sir is an absolute pleasure because you are never paying anything but always learning something.
You are a master at multiple instruments – the keyboard, the drums, the guitar; and interestingly enough, did not start out playing the guitar. Do you feel your base in other instruments inclined you to play the guitar? How did you choose guitar over other instruments to play?
I primarily started off on the guitar but had my brothers playing other instruments too. This got me playing the keys and the drums and what started out as just a fun exercise really contributed to my musical capabilities. Having access to instruments other than the guitar certainly helped, it broadened my horizons and helped me push beyond my limits. The guitar pretty much chose me I guess..it was my first love and always will be!
Other than the guitar, what are the other instruments you like to play or listen to?
I can pretty much manage most stringed instruments; I’ve got a mandolin and a ukulele. I can play the accordion but I truly enjoy listening to the saxophone and the flute.
What are your favorite musical genres? Some artists whom you listen to, some of your favourite songs?
I’d say it’s a mish-mash of things…nothing too heavy, A bit of pop- rock, jazz…I listen to a lot of acoustic stuff. John Mayer, Tommy Emmanuel and Michael Buble are some of my favourite artists and there are plenty of good songs out there..I could never choose just a few.
Who were the biggest musical influences of your life and why? How did they affect your musical style, composing style, and personality?
I think there were plenty of influences when I was in school and growing up, mostly artists who wrote their own music and were pretty guitar heavy- Jon Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and plenty of other artists typical of any teenager’s playlist in the 90’s. Other than that, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and other artists definitely influenced my playing. It’s hard to put down exactly how they influence your music because it is a process on various levels. Apart from helping you understand various musical technicalities and tricks, they help you learn commitment and the constant work as one attempts to progress towards perfection which is crucial to anyone’s musical journey.
Why was Kadal was the toughest album for you?
I won’t say it was the toughest album but it was challenge as a lot of the music composed for the film is next to impossible to duplicate.
What are the qualities you personally feel a composer can possess in terms of treating singers and musicians and in composing style? How do you feel a composer should manage the stresses while delivering the best output?
One quality that is quite hard to find in the Indian music scene is being on-time. This of course should be from both ends- the artists as well as the composer/director. It is as important to be punctual as it is to be creative! Music is fun and if you did it the way it’s meant to be done, it’s stress-free. I guess I’ve been lucky as a majority of the people I’ve worked with haven’t allowed any stress to get in the way. It’s been hard but certainly fun.
You studied engineering but now are a professional, full-time musician. Many singers such as Shankar Mahadevan also have degrees of higher education. But at the time of making such a difficult choice, I’m sure there must have been numerous thoughts must have been flying about from friends and family. What was going on in your head when you decided to break away from the traditional Indian route and following your dream?
The only condition my folks had was that I should finish my engineering and after that I could do whatever I wanted. So, I kept my word. I was working on my music all through engineering college as well and I was lucky that many opportunities came my way.
Would you advise a strict or lax music guru for young children?
Well, one would certainly need hi/her teacher or guru to be someone who doesn’t let him/her slack off. Teachers can be fun and laid back in terms of their personality but when it comes to practice they better be strict; how else can anyone get better?
How do you feel one should develop their musical style? By emulating their own idols or trying to be themselves?
Best of both worlds. When you start off, you are always imitating people you admire but in time, your own style will develop. The key is to recognise that and allow yourself to grow.
What is your opinion of remixes? Do you think classic songs should not be touched or that every song in the past could use an electronic “tweak?”
I don’t know about an electronic tweak but many songs can certainly use an unplugged or acoustic tweak.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who feel education and music are not compatible? Would you suggest giving it all up, continuing with both, etc.?
In today’s competitive world I think it might be better to continue with both. It’s not a bad thing to have a safety net with you. Once things take off and priorities change, you will automatically know what to put on the back-burner.
Keba, you’re a legend and unfathomable to think that you at one point, you were just an ordinary guitar player. Can you please just discuss, especially for our young audience, how many hours of tireless practice you put in to become the guitarist you are today?
My tireless hours of practice still continue. Any musician-amateur or professional, young or old knows that the more you practice the better you get. It is a continuous process that doesn’t ever stop.
Thank you so much for you time Keba. We hope this interview is an inspiration for many emerging music artists. We are looking forward to hearing your wonderful compositions. Please continue keep your wonderful, divine work up!