Nitin Sawhney: Only human

'Human' may be his most commercial album to date, but as Nitin Sawhney explains to Phil Meadley, with its songs about childhood and racism, it is also the most personal
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The Independent Culture

It's early August 2002 and on the other end of the line a barely audible voice croaks, "I'm not very well at all. My voice is going and my body has gone into spasms. I'm off to see the doctor in about five minutes." After months of battling personal demons and intricate melody phrases, Nitin Sawhney has at last finished his new album, Human. The doctor suggests that he has been overworking and needs a complete break for a couple of weeks. In the end, time restrictions mean that all he takes is a late booking to Portugal for a week before diving headlong into the waiting media frenzy.

The beginning of June this year sees Sawhney in a much more relaxed and vibrant state of mind. We meet up at his small but elegantly minimalist pad in south London to discuss the new album and discover why this highly rated musician puts himself through the mill every time he digitises a note on to his computer. "I always get ill after an album," he confesses. "Everything goes into it. Whenever I make an album I don't sleep much, I don't eat properly... everything is about the album. I sculpt an album from every influence I've ever had, from every thought I've ever had. I have to distil it down to the bare essentials of what I'm trying to say. So it's a big process that involves throwing out a lot of shit and spending a lot of time focusing."

We slope off to a nearby pub. Sawhney has the kind of intelligent but unshaven look of a man who spends countless hours musing over the fundamentals of life. On stage he is the keystone of his group, not always dynamic, but always alert to the needs of his vocalists and soloists. In conversation he is eloquent and philosophical, but also humble and polite. He also believes in keeping his private life private. However, this notion is almost diametrically opposed to the new album, which is at times an excruciatingly raw autobiographical account of his troubled early years growing up as an Asian kid in Rochester, Kent.

"This has to be the hardest album I've done because it is so personal," he confides. "In the early part many of the songs are about all the shit that happened to me at school, and the things that I experienced growing up. It's where I first experienced racism and a lot of dark experiences that made me feel quite isolated." These experiences included seeing National Front leaflets distributed outside the school gates, getting followed home by someone in a van shouting out racist abuse through a loudhailer, and being jumped on by the same eight kids every day during his early teens. Having a National Front music teacher banning him from the music room for six years, and starting school during an era when the NF were getting more votes than the Liberal party didn't help his feelings of deep despair.

To underline this period of time, the track "Say Hello" includes snatches of speeches by Enoch Powell on race and immigration. They are juxtaposed with Martin Luther King's "State of the Union Address" and underpinned by a jazzy downtempo groove. Regular vocalist Tina Grace rasps out emotionally charged lyrics mirroring Sawhney's painful recollections of wandering around school corridors being ignored by the white kids. During our interview he quotes the child psychologist Piaget, who wrote that the more diversity and different ideas a child is exposed to, the more rapid their development. As he remarks, "It's not healthy being in a singular culture."

"I do feel that this is an album about layers of trust and becoming less trusting of things around you," he points out. "Whether it's your parents, education, media, or politicians, each time you hit something it feels like you become more and more disillusioned. As you grow up people seem to lie more and there's more manipulation in terms of what you are supposed to be or how you are meant to define yourself. So with this album, it's really trying to get away from all that and trying to be perceived simply as a human being."

Sawhney is once again joined by an impressive list of guest musicians including The Streets' Kevin Mark Trail, Aqualung's Matt Hales, Natacha Atlas, Jayanta Bose, Taio (vocalist for R&B producer Wookie), and promising new vocalist Reena Bhardwaj. But these musicians, however good they are, simply add textures to the mind of Nitin Sawhney. Make no mistake this is a deeply personal album made by a man baring his soul to the world.

"The climate I was writing this album in was one of heavy politicisation. A friend calls it colonisation of the mind, and I think there's a lot of that going on right now. Just think about George Bush saying 'you're either with us or against us' during the Iraqi conflict. This album is about coming to terms with your whole identity when the world is so manipulative. But gradually I've been feeling more and more optimistic about certain things, so that's why the album has a melancholic edge but there's more optimism as you go through. I feel depressed at all the crap and bullshit and brainwashing that I see constantly around me, but I feel very excited about being alive and just enjoying life as a human being."

Followers of Sawhney may be a little surprised by the overtly commercial aspect of Human. There are at least two potential hits in "Falling" (featuring Hayles), and "Rainfall" (featuring Taio) and a strong R&B feel pervades many of the tracks. Even though Sawhney admits that signing to a major meant that he was aware of certain obligations, he's also proud of the fact that V2 gave him a lot of artistic freedom. "I only realised afterwards that people might feel it's a more commercial album because I'm perceived as a producer more than a songwriter. But basically I wanted to do more songwriting and more lyrics because of the autobiographical content."

Sawhney has been extremely vocal about his dislike of being perceived as purely an Indian artist, and he still holds vehemently to this point of view. "I really want to get away from labels and categorisation. We're getting to a point where basic human principles are so politicised that it's difficult to make a statement as a human being without it sounding in some way subversive. That's why I believe in the simplicity of an album like Human because it says, 'that's all I am, and that's how I look at myself'."

'Human' is released on Monday on V2. Nitin Sawhney plays Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12 (020-8354 3300) on 20 July; Womad, Rivermead, Reading (0118 939 0930) 26 July; and the Big Chill festival, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (020-7684 2020) 3 August