To most artists, two years between albums means just enough time to tour, take a break somewhere sunny and write and record a new set of songs. Not so Nitin Sawhney. Since the release of his last studio album, 2003’s Human, Sawhney has consolidated his position as Britain’s most versatile musician with an impressive array of projects. He returned to DJ’ing with a vengeance, playing major cities across the world, including a packed appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, released “All Mixed Up” (an album of his own work remixed by other
artists), and compiled “Fabric.Live 15” for London superclub Fabric. He composed classical scores for The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Britten Sinfonia, with whom he toured the UK, easily selling out London’s Royal Festival Hall. Sawhney also composed soundtracks for more than half a dozen films (Sawhney was a BAFTA judge this year) and several high profile TV productions (one of which won him an Ivor Novello award nomination). With all this, he still found time to write, score, and direct workshops for his first ever play commissioned by the Royal National Theatre.
This overdriven blaze of activity attracted the attention of CAA, arguably Hollywood’s most powerful film agency, who signed Nitin to their composer roster earlier this year (alongside Missy Elliot, Alicia Keys, and Marilyn Manson).
If it sounds like there was little time left for Philtre, Sawhney’s seventh studio album in 11 years, the musical maverick insists the opposite was true. Inspired by elements of all his recent projects, in particular his return to DJ’ing, Sawhney collated ideas for the album over several months last year and by the time he locked himself away to record, found the music flowed more easily than ever.
The result is an astonishing collection of songs that take the listener on a journey through global club culture, Indian classical music, Bengali folk, traditional flamenco, blues, old soul and R&B. On Philtre, drum’n’bass beats rub shoulders with sitars, flutes float over classical piano. Hip-hop, scratching, trip-hop, castanets and flamenco guitars sit alongside hypnotic strings and funky basslines. For vocals, Sawhney has sourced his strongest line-up to date, with Philadelphia-based Vikter Duplaix, Bollywood soundtrack star Reena Bhardwaj, Spanish collective Ojos de Brujo, Ninja Tune’s Fink and human beatbox Jason Singh joining regular collaborators Tina Grace, Jayanta Bose, Taio and the soulful Sharon Duncan, as well as striking new discovery Jacob Golden and, on Rag Doll, even Sawhney’s mum.
The diversity of styles and sounds on Philtre will come as no surprise to fans of the man who, in his teens studied Western and Indian Classical Music, flamenco guitar, and jazz piano, before playing in punk and rock bands, jazz outfits and eventually The James Taylor Quartet. While Sawhney’s previous albums have devoured these and many other influences, sonically, Philtre raises the bar. The production, programming and arrangements are Sawhney’s best yet and subtle links between songs give the album the feel of a film soundtrack or DJ set.
“With every new album, I try to use what I’ve learnt since the last one,” says Sawhney, “and this time, I had so many different experiences to draw from. From working with an orchestra, I learnt more about building a song and playing with a sense of scale. From DJ’ing, I saw how changing the speed of a song or using different rhythms can impact on an audience. From working with film directors, it was how a certain sound can evoke a mood or emotion. All those experiences have improved me as both a musician and a producer. There are things I’ve done on this album I couldn’t even have attempted two years ago.”
Perhaps the biggest step on for Sawhney is in terms of beats. On Philtre, as on his previous albums, the songs have an intimate, emotional feel, but this time, they are driven by infectious grooves capturing the relentless energy of a dancefloor. In keeping with the music, lyrically, the album is largely upbeat and optimistic.
“I didn’t want to be political,” says Sawhney, who admits to being left-wing and has a political opinion on almost any subject you could mention. “I got so sick of hearing all these justifications for us going to war and being bombarded with misinformation. I was reading about global warming and it felt as though people were becoming almost a virus on our planet. It seemed to me that music is a universal way of getting us through all the daily crap. Philtre means ‘healing’ or ‘magic’ potion and that’s
how I feel music.
“On Rag Doll, my mum reads a lovely poem she wrote in Hindi. It’s very simple. It’s about a woman walking by the River Ganges. She has nothing and she doesn’t know where she’s going. Then she leans down to the river and sees a firefly, which gives her this sense of hope and freedom. That became a theme to the album. The world at the moment is a very dark place, but every day I see hope in unexpected places. It gives you a good feeling for the future.”
Certainly, the future of music is safe in the hands of Sawhney. From the funky, Meters-inspired Flipside to the fiery fiesta that is Noches En Vela (Part 2), from the old soul of Throw to The Search’s frantic finale and from the sweet, delicate Spark to the lush, multi-tracked Void, Philtre is a sublime reminder of the possibilities of music. Wildly ambitious, yet instantly accessible, pilfering the past and looking to the future, with Philtre, Sawhney has upped the ante all over again.