AR Rahman is extremely fun to work with and brings out the best in me, says singing sensation Jonita Gandhi

In a conversation with HerStory, popular playback singer Jonita Gandhi talks of her childhood, growing up in Canada, Bollywood, and AR Rahman.
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Singer Jonita Gandhi

Your first heard Jonita Gandhi in Vishal-Shekhar’s Chennai Express. But long before Jonita Gandhi started her playback singing career in Bollywood, she was a viral YouTube star where she posted videos in collaboration with Aakash Gandhi when she was just 17 years old. Born in India and raised in Canada, Jonita is well known for her songs in Highway, Manmarziyaan, OK Kanmani, Sarkar, Padman, among others. She has also been featured in AR Rahman’s album Raunaq.

In a conversation with HerStory, Jonita delves into her years growing up in Canada, and her singing career.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

HerStory: Can you tell us about your growing up years?

Jonita Gandhi: When I was less than a year old, my family migrated from Delhi to Canada, so I lived there my whole life until I moved to Mumbai a few years ago. While growing up, I performed at various cultural events, while simultaneously studying and pursuing a double degree in Health Science and Business. Some of my favourite memories while growing up include traveling with my family, and having really fun karaoke house parties.

HS: Were you interested in singing as a child? Did you have formal training in music?

JG: As a child I used to sing and dance around the house. Initially I was really shy, but my dad encouraged me to keep trying and eventually signed me up for western vocal classes at the Ontario Conservatory of Music. Also, during a couple visits to India, I took a few Hindustani vocal lessons. During my years in university I also took a few courses in Western classical vocals.

HS: Growing in Canada, what was life like? How did you groom your singing career in the country or did you have limitations?

JG: Growing up in Canada, I was fortunate to be surrounded by both western and Indian music. Both types of music had a really big influence on my singing style - I would often find myself blending the two as well. I was happy to have music running parallel to my education because it was a great creative outlet for me and I’m fortunate to have been able to balance both.

HS: What prompted you to choose singing as a career over others?

JG: Before pursuing singing as a full-time career, I made sure I had a solid education and that I equipped myself with a solid backup plan in case singing professionally didn’t work out. I always knew music had to be part of my life.

Then I started uploading covers to YouTube, where they gained traction, with recognition from esteemed personalities like Salim Merchant, AR Rahman, and Amitabh Bachchan.

I think I explored the platform at a time when it wasn't that commonly used by singers in India. Once I was done with my degrees, I decided to give a professional career in music a shot.

HS: Can you tell us about your first hit?

JG: The first hit song that topped the charts and really got people to know my name was Sau Tarah Ke from the movie Dishoom. It was especially exciting for me, as it was my first ever collaboration with Pritamda.

HS: When and how did your first break in Bollywood happen?

JG: My debut song in Bollywood was the title song for Chennai Express, thanks to an impromptu opportunity to meet Vishal Dadlani at their studio. I was visiting my friend Abhishek Ghatak who was a sound engineer at Vishal’s studio at that time.

HS: You have worked with acclaimed music directors in India. What has your experience been?

JG: Each experience working with a different music director is unique and rewarding. They each have their own style and ways of working, and there’s always something new to learn from every interaction. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with several music directors and have learned so much about singing and about myself and my voice.

HS: How was it like working with AR Rahman?

JG: Working with Rahman sir is a blessing and I am thankful to be part of his musical family. I feel I have a lot to gain from working with him both inside and outside of the studio. He is extremely fun to work with, and I feel he really brings the best out in me as a singer and live performer.

HS: What do you think of the indie music scene? Would you like to do something in this field?

JG: I’m happy to see that the independent music scene in India is growing and there’s more attention on talented artistes who exist outside of Bollywood. However, it would be nice to see this growth rise even more and for independent artistes to have opportunities to become household names, just like playback singers in Bollywood, and independent artistes in the West.

As for myself, yes, I would love to explore independent music, and I have worked on a few singles in the past, and hoping to do more of it in the future.

HS: Are you inspired by the styles of any particular composers/musicians?

JG: I get inspired by so many musicians and artistes everyday. Sometimes it's their music, and other times it is their work ethic... Either way, I always try to keep my eyes, ears, and mind open.

HS: What do you enjoy doing the most?

JG: Other than music/work related things, these days I find the answer to that is Netflix and chill. Although I would say I enjoy spending time with my family the most, when we are in the same city.

HS: Do you think there is a dearth of women in the music industry - music directors/composers/lyricists?

JG: There definitely aren’t as many female music directors or lyricists in the Bollywood industry as there are male ones.

HS: What are your future plans?

JG: I take life and work one day at a time! It's hard to list specific goals at this time, but I definitely plan to keep exploring new avenues of musical expression, and to continue to diversify my reach by collaborating across genres and languages.

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