We’ve all heard stories about the four-year-old girl who speaks fluently in a language that she has never been exposed to in her life. Or the six-year-old boy who plays a musical instrument like a virtuoso that he was never trained to play. Stories that are unexplainable and supernatural – often consigned to the reincarnation category.
It is perhaps not hyperbolic to include the songs on this new album Cutting Loose there too. This is a debut album by a 31-year-old singer-songwriter from Kolkata, Jaimin Rajani, who learnt to play an instrument just eight years ago. No one in his family even listens to music, let alone play any instrument. After studying Computer Science, Jaimin completed his MBA, but suddenly put everything on hold to pursue music. It wasn’t to follow the usual trajectory-- being inspired by his musical idols and start by mimicking their work, doing covers and then evolving to originals. All he actually wanted to do was realize the melodies he heard in his head, complete with the arrangements he imagined them in. It was an irrational pursuit, given his circumstances, but also involuntary.
Against the advice of many well-meaning people around him, he insisted on doing a full album the old-fashioned way and not focus on singles - against the norm. The sheer quality of his melodies, the hard-to-comprehend consistency and their assured expression do not in any way suggest a debut album, let alone by someone who hasn’t been steeped in music at all.
Most significantly, the songs belong to a different time and place, a different culture. If the internet could impart rootedness from a distance, there would be a lot more such music emerging around the world that was steeped in the local ethos of other cultures – but there isn’t (not any that I know of, not on this scale).
Musicianship, especially the sort that evolves to virtuoso playing, happens around the world but intimate singer-songwriter music that sounds native to a space the artist has never been in – that is another matter altogether.
Jaimin’s songs seem from west coast-America in the early-1970s – the period in popular music history from which the maximum longevity-friendly songs emerged. The idea of these songs featuring at the legendary Troubadour club in Los Angeles, with James Taylor, Carole King and Jackson Browne on the same billing does not seem far-fetched at all.
Interestingly though, there is one way in which these songs are faithful to their current milieu as well. Jaimin was very clear that he wanted his song delivery to be in the same accent as his conversational one and took pains to ensure the American accent was kept at bay (which, for metre reasons sometimes slips in). In fact, it is not hard to identify this as an Indian accent as the songs flow by. This layer of authenticity is hugely significant in an Indian context where English cover songs are mostly performed with a foreign twang here often even more pronounced than in the original (and most original English songs made in India bear this intellectual colonization, or wannabeness, even more poignantly).
And that is the other great achievement of the songs on the album – the way they have been realized. The core musicians are Subharaj Ghosh on guitar, Arka Chakraborty on piano, Protyay Chakraborty and Rajarshi Das on Violin, Aniruddha Saha and Arjun Chakroborty on drums and percussion, Rohan Ganguli and Ralph Pais on bass – hardened Jazz musicians among them, world-class even (Kolkata has a tradition of that, as many will know).
Overqualified to play on an album like this that required very simple executions from them, they followed the vision of the least accomplished instrumentalist amongst them– Jaimin, but also held their own. Unavoidable Bengali overthinking and cultural superiority complex preening aside (full disclosure: am three-quarters Bengali myself), it is a serious achievement that the album is devoid of virtuosic forays or individualistic loose wires.
The playing and interplay is magnificent – the feeling of spontaneous exploration resonant through a relaxed looseness. There is an organic simplicity, restraint and playfulness – a lightness of touch that effortlessly balances elegance, clarity and soulfulness. What they have accomplished is hugely inspiring in its own right.
Some of India’s best-known indie musicians have also contributed small parts to songs, including Rahul Ram (of Indian Ocean), Ralph Pais (of Savages), Abhay Sharma (of The Revisit Project), Rohan Ganguli (of Supersonics), classical guitarist Deepak Castelino and sitarist Kalyan Majumdar, also Bluegrass musicians Patrick Fitzsimons and Billy Cardine (both based in the US) – all their parts arriving remotely.
The entire album, that began with Jaimin just putting his parts down alone during the pandemic lockdown, was constructed brick-by-brick. Later, Protyay Chakraborty did the mixing and mastering, playing his own significant role in making these songs sound as good as they do.
In this perfect storm of quality, pretty much everybody worked on the album for little or no money – which explains the astoundingly low cost of barely a lakh of rupees to make it. As Jaimin likes to joke – “how can I call myself an ‘independent artist’ given the help I got from so many people?”
The final result is an hour-long collection of 14 songs that ebb and flow, with enough variations between them despite being bound by a common essence. And without a single filler among them, not one. Unlike most modern albums, even by many big international acts these days, it isn’t top-heavy where it starts well and gradually peters out (in fact, tracks 5-9 might even represent this album’s peak, though literally every song here has the potential to be someone’s favourite). The easy listening vibe of the album is very misleading as it demands participation from the listener, which is where its depth lies. And the sense of wonder it quietly constructs. After its subtleties have settled, its power of the album keeps increasing cumulatively, and deepens on repeated listening.
The economical and clear-eyed musicianship is complemented by Jaimin’s vocals - unshowy and authentic – all of it brimming with a rare kind of honesty.
The authenticity extends thematically– most tracks are a 31-year-old’s expected preoccupations– romance and heartbreak, snapshots from this aspect of his life. Jaimin says he only works on songs where its emotion doesn’t exist in the “exact same configuration” in an existing song by another artist, even if themes may overlap.
The opening track 'Home (the first song he ever wrote) is about, in his own words – “the comfort that requited love offers.” 'She’s Running Late' about “an ex-girlfriend who was perpetually, habitually and unapologetically late, and hated being held accountable.” 'Never Mind' is about an unhealthy relationship. 'The Girl with Wilderness in Her Garden' a romantic “hate song”.
'Wore My Heart on My Sleeve' a “passive-aggressive breakup song” (half of which is the band playing the only elongated jam on the album; as the last song, it is a great curtain call). Even in the songs with the discordant themes, the musical elegance never lets up. But there are also other shades. 'Varanasi' is about “the holy and the unholy juxtaposed”. 'Autumn Leaves' about unwanted changes, 'Bucket of Pain' about fickle chance. 'One More Night' about a trailblazing friend. The delectably upbeat 'Let Me Find A Way Out' about a dislike for incessant downpour that ruins an outing. 'I’m Going Solo' about “not signing up for companionship at the cost of integrity.”
And then, there are deeper preoccupations. 'This One’s For You' is about “subjectivity during life, objectivity in death.” Bob Dylan and Nick Drake feature on this track, as does Mark Knopfler, prominently so. As musical ghosts in a song that eventually sounds nothing like any of theirs. Though Knopfler is actually the most discernible influence on the album, Jaimin also cites The Beatles, Bob Dylan, JJ Cale, Paul Simon, Pink Floyd, The Doors and Freddie Mercury as others who had a big impact on him - an old school list of usual suspects.
This old school taste merges here with a distinctly old soul sensibility – with a slightly world weary delivery (like James Taylor, whom, interestingly, Jaimin does not cite as an influence). Two of the most impressive tracks on the album are, in fact, about the Muse. 'She', an 8-minute track (that Jaimin refused to cut down to make more ‘accessible’), “personifies creativity here, the way it is done in Hinduism, where creativity is represented by Goddess Saraswati.” It is also the track where Jaimin’s impressively deft lyrics right through the album actually draws attention to itself (in a good way).
And there’s 'Something Here To Stay', with its exquisite touch of sitar and an ethereal saxophone, which is about “the yield; how creations have the potential to outlive the creator.” As apposite here as any sentiment can get.
Whatever Jaimin does in the future or does not, his place in India’s non-film independent music history is assured with this album. Already, he has received validation from international quarters, with testimonials for his songs from musicians like Scarlet Riviera (famous for her work on Bob Dylan's classic album Desire), John Sebastian (who featured memorably in the original 1969 Woodstock concert and later its film) and Rob Stoner (a notable part of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, who also played with legends like Joni Mitchell, Chuck Berry and Don McLean). These people know a thing or two about enduring music.
Given the rather currently “uncool” musical territory Jaimin has traversed, it is debatable if the low attention span generation will have the patience to even try his songs out for size, let alone settle into them. Despite music from the previous century accounting for 70% of the music market in the US for example, (in Europe, it is apparently even more), ironically Jaimin’s collection of timeless old-school songs qualifies as untested new music.
Jaimin doesn’t seem perturbed though, claiming that he’s not anxious as “there’s nothing at stake”. It is the sort of peace that perhaps descends when posterity is the primary audience.
Cutting Loose is available on all major streaming platforms.
(Jaideep Varma is a writer-filmmaker who has been writing on music for 25 years).