Benny Dayal Curated
An Indian Playback Singer
CURATED BY :
One instance you can never forget in life.
Recording this Tamil song called Omana Penne from Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya and I recorded this song on my birthday.
When was the first time you realized you wanted to pursue music?
When I was 13, I was in school. I’ve been listening to all kinds of music all my life and it came to a moment where…Mr. Rahman was playing a very key in my life that time because he’s just come out in ’92 and this was in ’98 and I knew it – this is what I want to do. His album, Dil Se had come out, we were really young at that time and these songs hit me really hard. I really had no words to express what I was feeling at that time. I wasn’t mature enough to explain or realize but it really made me feel one thing that I want to do music till I die, that is all matters and there’s nothing else. So, that’s how the big decision came.
S5 led you to be where you are today, how were those days?
It happened in Chennai and S5 was the time when I got acquainted to recording in the studio, interacting – being a team player and at the same time being a solo singer and being a backing vocalist. It teaches you all the aspects of singing. Singing has 2-3 aspects, you back somebody and you sing lead so S5 was all about that, you learn the combination of both. For me it was a great learning experience because I got to understand how things work in studios, how people record your voice, how the entire recording process happens, how the music is produced, how the music is created, how it is put forward, how the voice is added to it, how every layer or harmony is done, how to sing into the mic, how to utilize the mic properly, all of that I learnt. So it was one hell of a learning experience for me.
We read that you joined MCC mainly for its cultural and you have been a part of quite a few bands there, how is it different when you’re making music as a band as opposed to independent music?
Well, being in the band, we were making independent music. Music is music at the end of the day, there is film music and independent music but they’re classic occasions being created by the media but for me, it is all music and that’s exactly why I want to be a part of everything and I want to do more. You should not let your heart stagnate or let your mind be complacent of what you already have and if you can do more and find pockets of happiness, fill in those pockets of happiness in your life and if all those steps make you feel happy then you should continue doing it because happiness is the only thing that keep your mind away from being attacked by the devil in you because if you keep your mind idle it is just one spiral downwards. So, I never let that happen, I like to engage myself with doing more music and doing new stuff all the time. I’m working on my EP this year, it’s a Hindi-English EP called Silence Swaad Anusaar. Swaad Anusaar in Hindi means ‘as per taste’ and I believe that music starts from silence and with silence. And when I work with great producers, they always say, “Silence plays a very important role in music” and it’s like a very valuable ingredient in a song and that’s why I named my album Silence Swaad Anusaar, it’s going to be a great album, it’s not going to be loud in your face but it’s going to be loud enough for you to enjoy it and soft enough for you to be moved. That is the whole concept behind the album but it is going to be active, fun, creative and it’s going to be very, very independent.
Who has been your greatest influence to make the kind of music you make?
MJ and AR. MJ has been a great influence because I started all because of him. When I was five my dad gifted me the Moonwalker movie and as any kid would go crazy seeing that movie, I went crazy too seeing the dance moves, the singing and automatically I took to dancing and then my parents realized that I have rhythm in my body and that I understand key and pitch and so, everything took over.
You were first noticed by AR Rahman, how was your first interaction with him and how was the whole experience of working with him for the first time?
It still don’t have heavy, valuable interactions with him for me it has always been just watching him and learning the way he works and the way he conducts himself as a human being on the whole, that’s what teaches me and that’s how I’ve learnt from him. It’s not like he tells you things and he gives you advice on something, it’s for you to grab and take things from him. The way he works, works for him really well and if you can take some good out of it and implement it in your life the way you can and make it your own, then that’s really good for you, right? So, that’s all I’ve done, I haven’t sat there and asked questions and questioned the art form or the craft of making music, nothing, just observe, keep your mind open, let there be a lot more passion in your art and you’ll be there.
How hard was it for you in that window when you had just started singing regularly and then you had to give up your job to follow your dreams? What kind of parental pressure followed after?
I had a lot of pressure, crazy amounts of pressure. When I used to go and record there have been points where people have rejected me, the way I sing and said “Naah…this is not a great voice” or “You’re never going to be a singer,” and stuff like that and you have to go through that because that should trigger to bring out the better in you, there’s nothing called the best but the even better in you. Even my parents sometimes were like “What are you doing with your life?” so I had to fight it and keep the faith. So for me pressure brought out the even better out of me and I’d say succumbing wouldn’t have helped and I would have been nowhere. It wasn’t much of a shift; my plan of coming to India was to become a singer. I fought with my dad, I argued with him as to why I needed to go to Chennai from Abu Dhabi when my dad wanted me to get a business degree from Pune from a good business school like Symbiosis or so and I said “No. I want to become a singer” and he questioned me “What about your education?” and I was like I will study just that I need to make my way through this and I can do it myself and by you telling me what to do and what not to do is going to confuse me further and I will be hopeless, I will be pointless and I will be goalless in life. So I had to fight it and make that choice. We had a cold war for almost a month and a half, we never spoke to each other much and eventually when I started recording in movies and songs started doing well and when the whole world started letting my father and mum know “Oh your son’s song is beautiful” “He’s done a great job” “How did he Rahman?” and then my father started feeling that I am becoming important in life and he’s becoming important to the people in the society. Not in terms of becoming big or humongous but in terms of marking yourself as a recognized person. And that made my parents feel that I am actually taking the right steps in life and it was not through any push or pull through anybody in the industry. I had nobody to push me.
What is the scene like for someone without a godfather to survive in the industry?
I’ll tell you something, it is very hard to be honest. Everybody has honesty in them but some people don’t choose to be honest. You can show it every day and my thing is, even this interview is me being honest and I’m not trying to sugarcoat any of my life and if I went through shit, I went through shit and if I’m having a good time, I’m having a good time but I am extremely honest about what my life was and what it should be and I’m not sitting there expecting things to come to me and make my life wonderful. For me, I am expecting to improve and that’s a very honest way of saying and is not something people would like to quote in the papers and read that some other day. For me, honestly, I just want to become better and I just want to become more awesome and even when I meet my musician friends I keep saying that I want to be more awesome. You have to be more awesome, you have to be blowing everyone away when you perform and you know that first line you sing on stage should just blow them away. And I still feel that I haven’t been able to do that for myself. All of what I am doing is for me and no one else and if I am going to make myself happy, I’m sure that everyone else is going to see the resonance of my happiness. So that’s what it is, it’s at a higher level for me altogether. And thank you for interviewing me because people get to hear my story.
How come you never went back to acting after By the People?
I was never serious about acting. I realized that making music is more my cup of tea. I don’t know, I can’t be so loyal. I need to sleep. I love to sleep. You have to be there on time, you have to look fresh and all that takes a lot of dedication and to be very honest I am lazy in some way and I love to sleep because my voice has to sound great when I get to the studio. Like how every actor’s face needs to look fresh, when they sleep they get their beauty sleep and they look fresh, for me I need to sleep so that my voice sounds great and I sing my song without wasting the composer’s time and energy, nailing the song as per his vision and getting it to that point where he is happy and also I am happy. You are giving everything into that song, your heart, your soul, your blood, your sweat.
Language has been no barrier for you and you’ve sung in all South Indian languages, how do you go about that?
To be very honest, I have an ear for grasping sound so I used to imitate when I was in school. I used to listen and then imitate and because I used to imitate, it was easy for me to sing too. And then I realized that language isn’t much of a problem and in school I used to study Arabic, I was very good at Hindi in school and I studied French and I was really bad at it and dreaded it. There have been instances where you do a corporate show and you perform for a Korean client and you have to learn a Korean song, I have done that. Recently Karsh (Kale) was producing an album for this amazing Chinese singer called Sa Dingding and I have featured on Malayalam/Chinese collaboration and Karsh is giving a brand new image in terms of her sound, him being the genius he is. So yeah, languages have never been a barrier for me, I’ve sung in Telugu, Kannada and recently I’ve recently been approached to sing in Gujarati as their industry is beginning to grow. I also happened to learn a little bit of Ohamia singing with Papon for Assamese when I was doing Coke Studio. As long as you treat your mind as a child, you can always teach your mind to learn right from the base. People keep approaching me with different languages because they think that my diction is quite okay and they’re happy with the way I sing in their languages; they don’t curse me so that’s more than enough.
Bollywood has embraced you. When you look back, which is that one moment of pure joy that you still vividly remember?
My first meeting with Rahman sir was surreal. I never expected to meet him because I never even tried to reach out to him for any sort of work. Most friends I knew who could help me on that front would tell me that it’s kind of impossible to meet him.He’s very focused with his work and it’s a game of destiny for anyone to collaborate with him. But then, like they say, miracles are impossible things that become possible without us being in control of them. The biggest lessons in music are from Rahman sir. Any artist who works with Rahman sir just needs to observe and learn from him. There’s no need for a conversation. Just observe and you will understand the level of his purity, his honesty, sincerity and determination and his relentless dedication towards his work which is very important to achieve anything in any field of work. I am always overwhelmed about the fact that I am working with an amazing human like him and those are my lessons to stay grounded and let your work speak for itself.
You experiment a lot with different genres, which would you say spoke to you the most?
Every genre is interesting in its own way and I’m not trying to be diplomatic and it’s just that sometimes you want to be doing everything but not everything may come to you perfectly. I used to sing Arabic in school and that was to a certain extent but now I’m trying to sing even more perfectly. Sometimes when I’m in Dubai and I’m stuck in immigration or something and sometimes they have the prayer going on, they put it on the speaker, I just take my phone out and record the prayer. They sing it and it’s really beautiful, so I try and learn inflections like that and try and do stuff like that so that I can I can improve myself because I learnt the language and I need to keep it intact so that makes me a cut above many other musicians in terms of delivery of content in the industry. So, that’s how I train myself, if I’m travelling so much and can’t constantly learn music my only way of learning is to record content and to keep listening to it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from to create music?
There is nothing like that, so Tamil Fever was created by Nucleya and me in five minutes. We were in a hotel room and we didn’t have a mic to record it, Nucleya had this basic beat and he was like can we do something on this and I was like do you have a mic to record it because I will lay you melody right now. He just turned the phone’s video camera on and pressed record, he played the beat and I just started singing till the track ended. He stopped and he was like, “Dude! The song is set.” And a few months later Sony approached us and that was it, the song was there and we just had to get the song written in Tamil as per the concept of the song they wanted and my friend Christopher Pradeep wrote it and we recorded it and it was there for everybody to enjoy.
You’ve sung a lot of songs in so many industries and have also released albums, both independent and commercial. How do you find the time?
Make time, as usual. It is very simple, you have to make time, and if you cannot make time you cannot make music. There are sometimes when I’m gigging and recording very busily for weeks, sometimes you get a 3-4 day break and at that time I contact my friends whoever helps me produce and who I can produce with, I make time, either I fly them down or get to them, sit with them and share these ideas, melodies that I have on my phone, and see how we can arrange it and which angle we can go with to produce the song to make it sound unique. I always write lyrics when I’m flying in flights; the melody is in my head so I keep writing them down. Sometimes I start writing a song and finish writing it before the flight takes off and those are the best songs that happen.
You’re also a great hit when it comes to live performances as you get the crowd pumped up. Which do you like better, singing in a studio or at a live performance?
Both are just the same because you are performing at both, you are giving your heart and soul for both because you perform in a studio and give it your best so that the song sounds great and you’re performing on stage and are giving your heart and sound so that it sounds great there too just that there’s one person as an engineer or a composer in front of you and over there, there are just many more people. Honestly, my performance is the same in both places. The thing is, I do music, and when you do music you should look like you were born to do this. It applies to anybody, any kind of job. On Facebook, some people they write horrible stuff about Mr. Rahman being such a bad performer but even now when he’s on stage that aura and the purity he spread is amazing. He is pure, his mistakes are pure, his songs and the way he sings is so pure, he is not pretentious, he might not be perfect but his imperfection is saw pure that it wants you to be someone like that even when he made a mistake, he smiled about it. People’s heart should melt and people actually say “Oh…he made a mistake, so cute.” And that’s what I strive for where you become so great that one small mistake can be forgiven. But I’m in a stage right now where even one mistake cannot be forgiven and I shouldn’t forgive it myself.
Is there some sort of a pre-show routine that you follow?
No, I just pray. I make sure I pray before I get on stage. My band, Funktuation, and I pray together before we go on stage.
What advice would you like to give to upcoming musicians?
Just do what makes you happy, that’s all. I’ve been saying this for the last 10 years and I still say the same thing. If you aren’t happy doing what you’re doing, don’t do it. Simple. And don’t be pretentious and just be yourself no matter what.
AR Rahman discovered you so to say, what is your equation with him today?
I share a very beautiful equation with Rahman sir. We have a teacher-disciple relationship, and he has been an inspiration to me in my nascent years as a singer. I feel lucky and grateful that I can perform with him and tour with him. He’s my godfather in the industry and someone who inspires me to be a better musician. He taught me how great success comes with great humility.
How has your journey been so far?
Well… what can I say; life has been a great teacher. With the grace of God, it has been an exciting and enriching journey. Initially, every single music director I met had nothing to offer me. I would plead to get a chance to sing, even if it was in the chorus, but I got no breakthrough. My father had just undergone an open-heart surgery and my parents had to shift back to India from the UAE. I couldn’t ask for money or tell them anything. My brother was just settling down into his job. There were days I didn’t have money to pay rent or to eat three meals a day. The one turning point in my life was meeting Rahman sir in 2006. I had been three days into a news desk job when I got a call from Rahman sir’s office. They wanted me to sing harmony later that night. I was hoping it was not a prank. I ended up recording the same night in his studio, and I met him in person. I had no words to utter, I was spellbound.
What has been most challenging for you?
The most challenging aspect of my journey was to stay positive despite all the hurdles that came my way as I got rejected from studio to studio. In the beginning, an established music director told me, ‘You will never be a playback singer’ and he slammed the door on me. I didn’t retort but I couldn’t sleep for nights and I slipped into depression. Sometimes well-wishers would betray me and I didn’t know whom to trust. But I took a call to shun away all the negativity and only attract positivity into my realm. I’d run away from anything or anyone that made me feel that something wasn’t right at that particular moment. My story in the world of music isn’t a cushioned one, I have seen the downs, and therefore, I value the ups even more.
It has been over a decade since you started singing film songs. How has the music scene changed since then?
It has moved forward in terms of the technology. Basically music is music and it is just the way you hear it now. The thing that makes you tune into the music today is the technology that is involved in making the sound more superior than what it used to be.
For someone who is synonymous with music, how do you define the high of music?
Music is the most spiritual thing for me. I get to share my energy courtesy many other musicians every day. It is that coming together that makes people happy, makes them dance and sing along. It spreads enough positivity and that is totally spiritual. I cherish it every day. It’s a divine feeling and higher than anything else. It is the most healing moment of life. Even if I have a cold or fever and I get on the stage and get applauded for my performance and get love from so many people without any judgments… that is a divine feeling. And that will keep me going forever till I die.
You have said that you like to be the underdog, and that being high-profile doesn’t fetch you more work.
I like to be an underdog because you are not very celebrated. Once you are celebrated, you become one of the professionals and one of the regulars. But for me, being an underdog keeps me grounded. I always have that feeling that I am going to record a song today and I know that there is a chance that maybe my voice might not suit the song or it could be rejected. That keeps me wanting to do better because if you have that feeling in you, it makes you become focused and give your all every time. Your heart is such a pure place and sometimes when you know too much, you never let your heart speak. And music requires a lot of heart. So I just let it trip and let it go and every time I sing it I give it my best.
How did you enter the singing profession?
I definitely had a lot of ups and downs – a lot more downs more in the beginning. I have been rejected a lot to an extent where it just makes you feel very hopeless. Even to sing chorus, it was very hard in those days because people weren’t willing to take a risk. Then eventually Mr Rahman discovered me.
Any memories from your first recording?
My first recording was way before I got my break with Rahman sir. I was doing a lot of Christian devotional songs back then. Just the feeling of being inside the studio and letting that fire out of you – the fire that was always suppressed – was wonderful.
At what age did you know that singing was what you wanted to do?
When I was 13 or probably 14. I was actually a trained dancer in bharatanatyam, kuchipudi and mohiniattam. And then I started singing for a couple of stage shows and people came up to me and said, you sing so well. A lot of my friends used to tell me that they liked my dancing but they preferred my singing. I couldn’t believe it because I was a dancer and that is what I was known for as a child. So I started singing and just for fun’s sake my mum started enrolling me in small competitions, which I began winning. Only then did I realise that I must be good at singing
How did your single series ‘Swaganusaar’ take shape?
In Swaganusaar, we tried to explore different genres through the series and at the same time show elements of swag. That is where the title comes from. Every song that you listen today, they all speak about swag. So like Swadh anusaar, we picked Swaganusaar.
Which are some of your favourite songs?
Kaise Mujhe Tum Mil Gayi from Ghajini, Badtameez Dil from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Bang Bang from Bang Bang, Tu hi to Meri Dost Hai from Yuvvraaj and Dum Dum Mast Hai from Band Baaja Baarat.
Was there any song that was particularly challenging?
Definitely Kaise Mujhe Tum Mil Gayi because it is not an easy song to sing. It is still one of the hardest songs. It is very challenging at an emotional level and at a technical level.
There are many things that make a singer – the voice, the craft, the heart. What, according to you,separates you from the others?
My music is my holy place of worship that I’m constantly polishing because I never want it to rust. I don’t give it my 100%; I give it my 200%. It’s like without music there is no Benny Dayal. Music brought out the best in me and taught me to be a better human being and I’m always trying to give back to the world through my music. Reinventing myself is key. I don’t see myself in competition with any of the existing singers because everybody has their own unique and original style. The only way to move forward is to reinvent, try and figure out things that help you evolve and findthings that touch your soul. Stagnation and complacency is not a part of my system because I do not want to be doing the same thing over and over. I always have the thirst to keep doing something that I haven’t done before. I always want to keep an open mind. Every time I sing a song, or make new music, I want to undo myself. If I have climbed to Step 5 I want to go back to zero. I want to be a fresher every time. It’s like singing a fresh song every single time.
I see the thirst, I see the devotion but what is it that makes you happy?
Happiness is an abstract term. My happiness doesn’t depend upon an individual item or incident. Happiness is not materialistic to me. It’s a Zen state of being one with your higher being. I have learnt, over the years, that happiness can’t be defined and it needs to be felt even when you are in the most traumatic situations. It’s a source of inspiration that comes from within and knowing and believing that there is a higher source of energy. If you literally ask me what brings a smile to my face then I’d say when I can feel the happiness in the hearts of my fans when I perform live; that’s what makes me ecstatic and inspires me to be a better singer.
Would you share a moment of inspiration, a moment when you surmounted something that you never saw yourself doing?
Becoming who I am today and being able to learn so many languages and sing in each one of them. Music knows no language or barriers, they say. Can you imagine, I was a total stranger to the entertainment world and today, with God’s grace, I have achieved so much! The most challenging aspect of my journey was to stay positive inspite of all the hurdles that came my way as I got rejected from studio to studio. At the start an established music director told me, “You will never be a playback singer” …and he slammed the door on me. I didn’t retort but I couldn’t sleep for nights and I slipped into depression. Sometimes well-wishers would betray me and I didn’t know who to trust. But I took a call to shun all the negativity and only attract positivity into my realm. I’d literally run away from anything or anyone that made me feel something wasn’t right. My story in the world of music isn’t a cushioned one; I have seen the downs so I can value the ups even more. This somewhere made me understand one universal fact – the more you help others in whatever way you can, the more the universe returns the favour in some form.
Are there any singers that bring you joy when you hear them?
AR Rahman. He transports you to a whole new dimension and his performances give you goose-bumps. I love it when he performs ‘Kaise mujhe tum mil gayi...’ I’ve taken inspiration from a range of singers and composers when I was growing up and I enjoy listening to most of them. These range from The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, RD Burman, Madan Mohan, Shankar Jaikishen, O P Nayyar, AR Rahman, Ilaiyaraja, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Salim-Suleiman and Amit Trivedi. They have all been a part of my evolution as a musician today.
Which has been your personal high and why?
Initially I did odd jobs like working at a BPO and then working as a journalist to support myself till music could finally earn me a livelihood. I was the cultural convenor of Madras Christian College and as long as I was playing with my band I felt like a rock star. I joined MCC in 2002 because it was well-known for its cultural activities and it gave me my stage confidence. After my graduation in MCC, I did a diploma in journalism from the same college because it would keep me connected to the band scene. But the taste I had of the real world was quite an eye opener. Every single music director I met had nothing to offer. I would plead to get a chance to sing, at least in the chorus. No breakthrough. My father had just had an open heart surgery and my parents had to shift back to India from the UAE.I couldn’t ask for money or tell them anything. My brother was just settling into his job. There were days I didn’t have money for rent or to eat three times a day. There are certain things I cannot talk about… The one turning point in my life was meeting Rahman sir in 2006. I was three days into a new desk job, when I got a call from Rahman’s office. They wanted me to sing harmony later that night. I was hoping it was not a prank. I ended up recording the same night in his studio and I met him in person and I had no words to even utter as I was spellbound. Surreal but true! But I have to thank Pravin Mani who is like my Godfather. He is the one who imparted knowledge about professional singing. Before that, I was singing only in culturals. He taught me a lot of the technical stuff.
Who is your favourite comedian in the Indian comedy scene?
I love Vir Das and I love Kapil Sharma because he’s ridiculously funny I also like Irfan Khan’s sense of comic timing.