Away from the spotlight that beams so brightly on pop icons like Beyonce, JayZ, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift and Eminem, is the man behind some of their most popular tracks — Jeff Bhasker. With five Grammys and 15 nominations for the coveted gramophone, Bhasker, today, is among the leading songwriters, musicians and record producers in the US. Yet, his inclusion in the list of music doyens at the recently concluded MTV India Music Summit in Jaipur drew blanks. “I have never been a fame seeker. I don’t make much of a push to be out there. People in the industry know me and for me, that is enough,” says the 43-year-old musician of German and Indian origin who was seen waltzing through the three-day festival, stationing himself, intermittently, at the performances of his confreres, and later discussing his life and music with composer and producer Ram Sampath.
“Indian classical music, much like jazz, is complex and intense,” says Bhasker, who trained in jazz piano and arranging at the Berklee School of Music. It was his mother, who during his growing up years in Sorocco in New Mexico, helped him develop an ear for jazz. “My mother knew a few pieces that had a jazz influence that she would play on the piano. I was soon obsessed with jazz harmonies and jazz in general. Where I grew up, there wasn’t that much going on. Studying jazz seemed like an exciting step for me then,” says Bhasker, a second-generation American, whose grandparents came to the US from Punjab. His father, a doctor, was the mayor of Kansas city for 24 years and as a result Bhasker grew up “being very American”. His friendship with singer Jasbir Jassi and a collaboration with him in 2010 introduced him to Punjabi folk.
As for Bhasker’s compulsion for jazz, it didn’t last long and verged a genuine understanding of himself and the music he wanted to create. “I grew out of jazz. I wasn’t as good as those around me at Berklee. I don’t want to sell myself too short but I had a teacher in college who told me that I would have to absorb entire traditions of music which included all the classical masters, the jazz piano legends, transcribe it, learn it, analyse it and then I’d be able to develop my own style. It was taking too long for me. So, at some point, I decided that I’m going to use what I’ve got to express myself and make my music. Yes, you have to imitate to learn but you also have to find yourself,” explains Bhasker.
Side projects to win an extra buck — at a rehabilitation hospital as a music therapist and later in a wedding band — further enabled his search for his voice. “As I played the songs, I realised that what was just a vehicle to improvise for me, was to my audience a song that had meaning — body and soul. And that’s when I truly began to understand the power of a song and the combination of lyrics and melody. It also pushed me to focus on that, which made these songs work instead of focussing on the form, so that it would sound like the song and not some jazzy interpretation of it,” says Bhasker.
But jazz didn’t peter out even after he arrived in New York on the day of 9/11. “It was a tough time. People were worried and unwilling to help. But the great thing about New York is that people there have a great way of making things happen. They are constantly doing something, hustling. I eventually moved to LA and a lot of that toughening up in New York came handy,” says Bhasker.
And that’s when life truly began to change its tunes. It led to his first collaboration as a writer and producer with Kanye West on the album 808 & Heartbreak (2008). He refers to the volatile rapper as his mentor. “I find that there is an underlying racial tone in the way he is portrayed in America. Granted that he is a little braggadocio but I think if he were white, he would not be criticised in the same way. It’s a fact of life in America that a black man who is confident and speaks his mind, will be torn apart,” says Bhasker, adding, “racism is a big part of our country and is coming to the forefront again with the election of Trump. I think this expression of blackness is against that and it will continue,” explains Bhasker.
In the last decade, Bhasker has clinched five Grammy awards — Run this town (2009), All of the lights (2012), We are young (2013), Uptown funk (2016) and Record Producer of the Year (2016). Of this, We are young was a song that he produced with the novice band, FUN, that pursued him for a long time just to get a meeting. “I turned them down, like five times, till they found someone to put in a word for them. I finally met them and Nate Ruess (the lead singer) sang We are young. I thought that sounded like a great song and told them that we should get into the studio and record the next day,” says Bhasker.
Bhasker, at several points in the interview, said that it is essential for one’s stars to align. FUN also threw open unexplored avenues for him. “Kanye, Beyonce, JayZ — they’re huge stars. With them, you’re just a small piece contributing to something much larger. But with FUN, they were looking towards me for guidance. It was more equal exchange. I’m now looking to nurture more talent. Hopefully, with artists in India too,” he says.