Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Clinton Cerejo: The mehnat behind the music - An exclusive Drift interview

Clinton Cerejo pops up a lot on CDs where he's very visibly credited as a playback singer. But much happens between the first glimmer of a tune from a composer to the final cut that goes on a CD. And its in this area that Clinton has been steadily making a name for himself in the music biz.

Clinton's worked on musical arrangements, vocal arrangements, background scores and produced music. He has a unique style which multiple composers have tapped over the years to fuel their hits. Most recently Sajid-Wajid, fast becoming hot shots in Bollywood music, had him work on the vocal arrangements for Partner. And we all remember those don't we?

There is a lot worth learning from him and his story - and he was nice enough to tell us all about it.

Aspi: Hey Clinton, congratulations on enjoying a hot career streak of late. Partner was such a huge musical hit.

Clinton: Thanks very much. Partner was huge, although my contribution to Partner extended only to vocal arrangements. I’ve worked on other films in larger capacities...

Aspi: First off, I'd like to ask you which projects you've worked on lately and in what capacity.

Clinton: One film that’s not so recent but which I’m quite proud to have been a part of is Vishal Bhardwaj's “Omkara”, in which I programmed and produced along with Hitesh Sonik (fabulous musician and great friend! ) all the songs in the film as well as the background score.

Recently I’ve scored the soon to be released “Maharathi” along with another music director Mr. Rajat Dholakia who is like a musical mentor to me. I also work on a regular basis with quite a few other music directors like, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Lalit Pandit, Adnan Sami, Pritam, and AR Rahman.

I’m currently busy working with Hitesh again on the songs for Vishal Bhardwaj’s upcoming film ‘Kamine’. In between my film work I also compose a fair amount of music for TV commercials and ad jingles.

Aspi: You once explained the role of a vocal and music arranger to me that was a revelation. Could you please educate our readers about that too?

Clinton: Well a music arranger is a much broader term. As an arranger it’s my job to take a song through it’s various stages of creation. A music director comes to me with just the melody...played on a guitar, piano, harmonium, whatever...

Thereafter we sit together and ideate on things like the groove, tempo, vibe, genre, etc. After which I begin programming the track. Once I have an arrangement that’s very close to the zone the director wants the song to be in, we over dub any live instruments we feel may enhance the arrangement and then the tracks go to the mix engineer for mixing.

As a vocal arranger I get called in to specifically enhance an already finished track by adding interesting vocal harmonies or counter melodies. It’s much more specific to vocals and it’s more about enhancing a track that’s already been conceptualized by somebody else rather than conceptualizing it yourself.

Aspi: How do you get projects? Is it through networking? People just know you in Mumbai? Or do you have a resume and an agent that help you get work?

Clinton: I have been fortunate enough to say that I’ve never had to make a demo of my work and pass it on to people in the initial years. It was always word of mouth and one project that led to another. In fact I started working with Mr. Rahman quite by accident.

Over ten years ago I had vocally arranged a song, which was being mixed at 4D studio 'A'. Rahman happened to be working in studio 'B' and the studio door was open and he heard the harmonies and came in asking who had arranged it.

Even though I wasn’t present at the time of mixing, I happened to meet him a month later and I reminded Mr. Rahman that I was the guy who had done the vocal arrangement that he had heard at 4D. That was pretty much it. A week later I was on a flight to Chennai to work with him. In our industry one thing usually leads to another.

Aspi: Ok, let's digress a little bit to talk about Clinton the musician. Your Mom is a professor, your Dad is an engineer. Young Clinton decides to become a musician. How did your parents react? Were there long life lessons about roji-roti at dinner time?

Clinton: Ha ha… wow, you’ve obviously done your research! Yes my family’s pretty academic as families go. Mum’s a French Prof, Dad was an engineer at L&T, my elder brother’s a software professional in Zurich and my younger sister edits medical journals for publications in the US. So my choice of career was pretty radical to them…

In fact I was actually going to do my MBA after my BCom and I had even bought the books to study for the entrance exam. Until I had a conversation with a couple of friends who told me I actually had what it takes to make it in the music business and that they would hate to see my talent wasted working in a desk job.

One of them is now my wife Dominique (we were just friends back then) and the other is our long time friend Asif Ali Beg - the musician, actor, and lyricist for several of Bollywood’s recent hits.

As far as my parents are concerned though, they really are proud of me and Dom today. I guess they just didn’t want to see me starve...:)

Aspi: What were your earliest influences that made you sit up and say: "I want to have a career in music!"

Clinton: I’ve been influenced by a lot of people but my strongest were the big pop producers – Quincy Jones, Trevor Horn, Arif Mardin, Stevie Wonder, Babyface, Hugh Padgham, Peter Gabriel, Roland Orzabal, Roy Thomas Baker, etc. When I heard their kind of production I would go nuts...

Even today I’m influenced by a lot of fabulous producers who keep blurring the boundaries.. guys like William Orbit, Carmen Rizzo, Mark Bell, Marius DeVries, Neil Davidge, BT, Glen Ballard, Brian Eno, Craig Armstrong, Will Gregory, Timbaland...the list is pretty endless...

Aspi: And how old were you then?
Clinton: About seventeen

Aspi: You started your career doing jingles. Which of today's superstars did you run into then?

Clinton: I started off singing jingles. I worked with Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan (Noorani) & Loy (Mendosa), Lezz Lewis, Ranjit Barot, Louis Banks. KK was definitely singing a lot of jingles around the same time. Kunal Ganjawala and me have sung a lot together on jingles.

But as a jingle singer I read the writing on the wall pretty quickly. I knew my voice was just not versatile enough to be really successful as a jingle singer, besides I was itching to move on to something else. When I heard music I would always listen to what was going on behind the lead vocal. I was just pulled in the direction of music production/arranging.

Aspi: Your first break was in a Marathi film called Mukta. Then you started working with AR Rahman on Taal. How did that break come about?

Clinton: You’re right about that. Mukta was not only my first song but the first time I actually saw the inside of a studio. I was in college with Siddharth Haldipur (Sid from Band of Boys). We were great pals and I would go over to his house and play piano and sing - we’d jam basically.

His dad, Mr. Amar Haldipur, famous arranger and violinist, heard me and quite liked my voice. He called me over to his house one afternoon and introduced me to Mr. Anand Modak, the music director. That’s how I did the song. It was an English song for a Marathi film, picturised on a black American.

With Mr. Rahman actually I didn’t do any work on Taal. I started just after that on some of his famous Tamil films, like Mudhalvan, Alaipaiuthey, Kandukondain Kandukondain, as well as Hindi films like Takshak, One Two ka Four, and later Lagaan...

Aspi: What type of work did you do for AR Rahman?

Clinton: Vocal arrangements mostly...and a little bit of lead vocals especially for his Tamil projects.

Aspi: Any arrangements in your recent work that you think really stand out?

Clinton: I’ve recently arranged a song for Mr. Rahman for his new film "Robot" - a cool song, which features some cool Afro style backing vocals.

I just sang with Kunal an acapella song for the Hindi version of Rahman’s Tamil hit film “Boys”.

Also did some nice vocal arrangements for a song on SEL’s new Telugu film, which they’re currently scoring.

In terms of production work, Hitesh Sonik and I are quite happy with how the songs are progressing for Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film. Watch out for that when it comes out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Aspi: I have to digress again to ask you this: is Dominique around? Can you please tell her a true-blue Cerejo fan says Hi!

Clinton: Sure I will...she is around as a matter of fact.:)

Aspi: Well, what did she say?

Clinton: She’s got a smile on her face. She’s flattered to have you as a fan...

Aspi: You work on a lot of songs that have Western arrangements or English lyrics. How did this quasi-specialization come about?

Clinton: Well it all started back in my college days. I would listen to all the albums that were coming out of the then booming Hindi pop industry. And whenever I heard BV (backing vocal) sections they really sucked sonically. And yet when I turned on a Jackson album or a Whitney CD the backing vocals shimmered and sparkled to me. Which led me to wonder – "What are they doing that we’re not?" and "Why do their vocal sections sound so good and ours do not?"

So I pretty much did my own little research, breaking down harmonies of vocal bands like New York Voices, Take 6, as well as Steely Dan records. etc.

That’s when I realized that’s it’s a combination of how vocal harmonies are written and the vocal texture in which they’re sung. It was all there in the writing. I guess doing that research helped me develop a sense of harmonic structure and also expanded my chord vocabulary. Something that would be of great value to me as a session musician.

Aspi: Ok a couple of quick questions about today's music. Best new male singer you've heard?

Clinton: Difficult to say but I like Raghu Dixit a heck of a lot.

Aspi: Best new female singer you've heard?

Clinton: Shilpa Rao definitely has an interesting texture to her voice. And I love Hard Kaur. She makes every song she raps on, her own.

Aspi: Best new CD you've heard recently?

Clinton: Right now I’ve just begun listening to Goldfrapp’s new album Seventh Tree which I’m really digging. A month or two ago I bought the soundtrack of Ratatouille and that blew my mind as well… Michael Giacchino – insane composer...

I keep listening to a lot of different stuff. There’s an electro house DJ called Seamus Haji whose music is killer.

Aspi: You've also produced a CD by a Dubai-based band called The FINE. How is non-filmi production different from filmi production?

Clinton: Wow...How did u hear about that? The FINE were actually introduced to me by Salim Merchant who actually was supposed to do the project himself. When he heard their music he actually suggested me for the job. I am grateful to him for that because the project was a lot of fun. In terms of production I actually got a chance to come into my own.

When you’re producing film music there is a deliberate intent that you’re always aware of. There are certain liberties you just can’t take. You learn to work within the boundaries of the Indian consciousness. But the FINE’s music was so UK/ Brit alternative rock based...that’s a sound I love. So I could do what I wanted basically. And I think they’re really happy with the results.

Aspi: Let's say you wanted to change the destiny of independent pop in India forever and you had one wish from a genie - what would you wish for?

Clinton: I think I’d wish that India would adopt the system of royalties to music composers like the rest of the world so that a musician’s art is respected and musicians who genuinely contribute great music year after year would actually see the fruits of their hard work. That’s when we’d really see a shift from Quantity to Quality...

Aspi: Clinton, thanks for being such a sport and good luck for the future. We look forward to more kick ass stuff from you.

Clinton: Thank you so much!


Anonymous said...

thanks! this was very informative...

i didnt know the roles of different people in making songs. i thought the composer did everything!!

clinton, good luck!!

Anonymous said...

Is that Clinton's voice on 'DO YOU WANNA PARTNER'??

All those songs are great. My fave is Soni De Nakhre. Who came up with Po Pappi Jam?

Anonymous said...

..and the music education continues.. Aspi, thanks for bringing us this fascinating insight (and btw awesome networking :) ).

Clinton, loooved Omkara and now that I know the magic you do, will be looking to see your name in the credits in future...

Unknown said...

Clinton, thanks for doing this! Its always great to get an idea of how the music we all love gets constructed.

anon, I think that voice was Sajid's not Clinton's. In fact Sajid has a kick-ass voice - he was terrific on 'Aksa Beach' from 'God Tussi Great Ho'.

meena, glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's interesting -- I'd always thought of the music director as the primary creative head behind the music -- now we know better! Thanks, Clinton and Aspi!!

The mischief-maker in me wants to add the frivolous question of the day, though: What was it like to have the name Clinton in the late 90's, especially in India where it's not exactly common? :P

Anonymous said...

Great Aspi !
One more feather in your cap !
Bollywood is taking note of you.
Remember this & Move on.

Stone said...

Thanks for sharing this.
I'm a huge fan of Dominique and Clinton.
Dominique is mindblowing in "Phir Dekhiye" in Rock On.

Anonymous said...

wow, he had me at Omkara.

Agree with svr. I did'nt know there were these "arrangers" (for a lack of a better term) who were more of less responsible for putting music together.

Clinton's got an impressive resume and like the story of how he ended where he is today. Talent always shines thru.

Anonymous said...

wow, he had me at Omkara.

Agree with svr. I did'nt know there were these "arrangers" (for a lack of a better term) who were more of less responsible for putting music together.

Clinton's got an impressive resume and like the story of how he ended where he is today. Talent always shines thru.

Anonymous said...

wow, he had me at Omkara.

Agree with svr. I did'nt know there were these "arrangers" (for a lack of a better term) who were more of less responsible for putting music together.

Clinton's got an impressive resume and like the story of how he ended where he is today. Talent always shines thru.

Unknown said...

stone, welcome! We'll have to see if Dominique will stop by. There is way too little known about her.

svr, it might have helped Clinton no? On the other hand, it would be impossible to find him via Google.

I enjoyed re-listening to Omkara as well. It is important to note that Hitesh, who Clinton worked with, is credited on the inside as one of the creative forces behind Vishal Bhardwaj's sound in that movie.

Anonymous said...

Fab interview Aspi! Like everyone said...didn't know so many people were involved with music. Very informative. I really loved all the music he mentioned he's worked on...Partner being one of my Favorite soundtracks!

Aspi, you forgot the Drift signature question...hello?!

Clinton, since Aspiji forgot, I'll ask...Do you konw how to fold a fitted bedsheet? If so, tell us your secret?

Unknown said...

I did forget this time, sorry! But I've asked that question on every one I've done since.

Anonymous said...

You don't think he would have been the target of massive teasing, because of his name? :)

Kanan said...

Awesome, Aspi! maza aa gaya. All throughout the interview I wished to listen to some clips of Clinton’s work, what exactly he works on, how it makes a difference in what we actually get to listen to, etc... I think I'll go check the "Behind the music" parts of those bonus DVDs for some of the movies that Clinton mentioned.

Wishing many many interviews for Aspi and best wishes to Clinton!

PS. “In our industry one thing usually leads to another.” That brought a wide smile on my face. :D Networking zindabaad!!

Anonymous said...

First off, Clinton, man, you are too cool! I was a fan of your work and did not even know you!

Next up, Drift saab, kya kehne! You have a desk job, and still know all this other stuff? How DO you do it? Who the heck knew that this army of people created a song? I thought the music director did everything. (Neverhteless, I am sill a Vishal-Shekhar fan.)

The saddest part of the interview of reflecting on the fact that Bollywood does not pay royalties.

Clinton, you and other talented folk should start your own music production-distribution cooperative. Hire the marketing folk. Hand out royalites. It would be like fair trade tea...I would much rather buy a CD that recognizes the musicians than some businessman fat cat.

Unknown said...

svr, you think so? Maybe if there was a Monica or two around.

Kanan, thanks!

Mind Rush, well said! Learning more about the process of music should actually increase our appreciation of composers - they are truly producers (their equivalent in film is a director).

Karthik S said...

Excellent interview Aspi!

Anonymous said...

wow aspi thanks so much for that useful insight...imo these people should be exposed more bcos you rarely get to hear about them as opposed to MDs, etc. looking forward to more interesting interviews!

Anonymous said...

Excellent questions Aspi and very well answered by Clinton. The whole thing is a revelation to novices like me.

Aspi, since you seems to know so much technical details about music, would it be right to ask you to chart the path that a song traverses from conception to CD production? I have always wondered if the lyrics come first or the music comes first.

Please enlighten the novices.

Unknown said...

Pappu, songwriting can be highly unstructured and vary from individual to individual. There is no prescribed formula. But along the way, I hope to have some people talk about the creative process here so we can get an idea.

For a really decent introduction to the process, you should watch the highly amiable Music & Lyrics.

In most commercial song writing, the lyrics almost never seem to come before the melody. They usually come after or during. There are always exceptions though. And its a good thing, IMO.

On a side note - I was really programmed by Vividh Bharathi where the announcer would say: "And yeh lyrics ko dhun se savaara hai.." thus leading me to believe that lyrics came first.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Aspi for the explanation and recommendation. I will definitely watch the movie and will, for sure, watch this space for more interviews

Anonymous said...

Hey!Clinton the interview was fabulous, gives a nice insight as to what all you have achieved, Dom you sound great in the song from Rock on!
I am so proud of you guys!

stargirl_archie said...

Ahhh I love Goldfrapp too!!

Unknown said...

stargirl, welcome to the drift. I haven't gotten round to listening to Goldfrappe yet. Probably should.

Rachana said...

Hi Clinton,
I am quite sure that you will not recognize me but I will still try. If you recollect those days back in 2000 when you mom Madam Ruby Cerejo was organizing a French musical show at Ramnarian Ruia College, I was one of the participant in that show. My name is Rachana and there were a few others such as Gauri Kelkar, Ruchi etc. I have been trying to reach your mom for a while on facebook but had no luck. Will you be able to tell her to email me if possible, my email address is
Hope to hear from you.

Rachana Michaels