By Jocelle Koh

If you’ve gone deep enough down the internet rabbit hole like I have, you may have come across a viral clip of an artist called Hrishi putting a ‘carnatic’ spin on Dua Lipa’s disco banger ‘Levitating’. Simply titled ‘if dua lipa sang carnatic music’, the 22-second long clip starts with the Indian-American artist singing over Levitating’s now-iconic Roland VP-330 synthesizer hook, before launching unexpectedly into the high-energy chorus with a lush, rapid-fire sequence of words and sounds borrowed from an Indian classical genre called Carnatic music.

Despite having zero understanding of what just happened, I was immediately entranced by how seamlessly Hrishi had inserted what I now know is a ‘Raga’ (a melodic framework in Carnatic music) into a zeitgeist moment of Western pop, creating an iconic representation moment for Asian music in the process.

Readily taking up his role as an unofficial ambassador for Carnatic music, that ‘Levitating’ moment which has amassed over 3 million hits across social media was just the start for the singer-songwriter who has continued to surpass himself creatively in his original pop-meets-Carnatic creations. We picked Hrishi’s brain about every Carnatic music, and about his unique trajectory that has led him to become a truly unique offering on today’s Asian diaspora music scene.

Hi Hrishi! We’re so excited to have you with us! Can you please introduce yourself?

Hi! Thank you so much for reaching out 🙂 My name is Hrishi, and I’m an Indian American singer-songwriter and carnatic musician. Originally from Tamil Nadu, but raised in the US!

First of all, please do educate us – what is “Carnatic music”? 

Carnatic music, or “Karnataka Sangeetham”, refers to the classical music form of Southern India. Its roots go back hundreds of years, and it has since evolved to be one of the world’s most complex frameworks of melody and rhythm. 

The most central pillar of the art form is the concept of the “raga”, which could be thought of as a melodic framework approximately described as a scale, paired with a set of grammar rules, and a phraseology. In case some of these words seem alien, but we can understand ragas like this: they’re collections of musical phrases that communities in India grouped together for hundreds of years, until they slowly gathered a unique identity and history of their own.

Unlike Western music, which explores the concept of “harmony” (multiple notes playing at once) , Carnatic music is fully concerned with melodies and microtonal ornamentations, “gamakkas”, so the sound of the music is very different and unique, and can take some getting used to. It heavily relies upon improvisation, as a musician’s main job in a concert is to explore different ragas using various improvisational forms such as “swara” (solfege), “neraval” (musical riffing on text), “tanam” (unique semi-rhythmic form), and of course singing songs (known as “krithis”). 

It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous art form— can be overwhelming at first, but the deeper you dig, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. 

You’ve mentioned in the past that you took Carnatic music lessons as a child and absolutely hated it before returning to it as an adult – how much of that has to do with your exploration of your culture and identity as you grow?

Elementary school Hrishi definitely was not a fan of his mandatory weekly Carnatic class 😭— at that age, my top priority was assimilating and fitting in at school, and I didn’t quite have the confidence to embrace my roots yet. I also didn’t happen to be naturally very gifted at it, so it was easy to deflect to other hobbies and music. Funny enough, my dream back then was actually to be a guitarist in a rock band when I grew up. Didn’t quite make it there, but close enough!

I met my current guru, carnatic musician R. Suryaprakash, when I was 13, just finishing middle school. So not quite an adult, but just getting into my high school years. There were a lot of reasons for getting back into it, but initially a big driver was that I wanted to develop the ability to sing Indian contemporary (film) songs, that were classically based. Since I had learned as a kid too, I figured that if I re-started lessons then I could pick it up quickly and easily. 

And I couldn’t have been more wrong. Learning from my guru (or “Surya master” as me and my co-students call him), was something akin to being thrown into an ancient Indian fire. I started realizing that everything I knew about music, which was already my whole life, wasn’t even scratching the surface of the possibilities. And I had the rare blessing that my guru was not only an excellent, caring, (and very scary) teacher, but also a master of the craft. I was carefully guided into becoming a die-hard fan of carnatic music, and as I did I started to discover the beauty of the cultural side. I started to understand why my grandmother was so insistent that I learn as a child, and as I sang for her, I got to see a look of pride on her face I could never describe. 

Over the years, my association with culture through carnatic music has shifted quite a bit. At present, I deeply carry the belief that carnatic music was formulated as a “spiritual” music, and that it carries the power to heal and curate peace, above just being an entertainment form. I feel more proud of it than I ever have, and think it’s my duty to get as many people curious about  it as I can!

You’ve broken the boundaries of pop music with your fantastic versions of some of the biggest Billboard songs with a Carnatic twist. Was the response to your videos at first surprising for you? What was the biggest takeaway from this newfound sound taking off? 

The best part about pop music is that it’s kind of boundary-less! Right when you think you have it figured out, a fresh artist like Billie Eilish comes along and shifts the whole scene. That said, for most of my years learning carnatic music, I had never imagined that it could exist within the idiom of pop music. 

My first video was just a random idea for a tiktok video that I expected would get a few thousand views. Fast forward a couple hours and the numbers didn’t stop rising, people didn’t stop commenting. I was super excited, and to be honest kinda surprised that I had never thought of the idea before! Somewhere within me, I had held the idea that carnatic music wasn’t cool enough, or was too complicated for people to appreciate in America, and the response to that video completely proved me wrong. 

Since then, I’ve continued to experiment with different ways of incorporating carnatic elements and raga music within the sonics of my pop songs. I am very very excited about where the future is headed. 

I’m sure you’ve gotten lots of feedback on how your music has changed people’s perceptions of the genre. Can you share some of your favourite pieces of feedback or stories? 

Oh, this is a hard one. I’ve been so so blessed in this regard— there’s been so much beautiful feedback, up to the point where I’m not able to personally respond to all of it. But that said, every time I get a message from a fan, or get recognized in person it feels like the first time, and it’s impossible for me to believe. 

A few I’ll never forget— I was visiting one of my best friends in New York, and we were finding our way to an Indian Restaurant in Williamsburg. Took a couple wrong turns and we were circling around the place, when someone randomly walked up to us and asked if I was a singer. I wasn’t sure what was going on but then he mentioned he had come with a friend to my debut show in NYC. He had the loveliest words to say about how much positive energy there was in the room that day, and we got a polaroid picture together that I still look at from time to time to remind myself how crazy this journey is. 

Another time I’ll never forget was when I went to see Tamil music star, Anirudh’s concert in DC. The show was absolutely incredible, and I must have had 15 or 20 people stop me and tell me such beautiful stories about how they had started learning carnatic after watching my reels, or feeling more proud about having taken lessons as a kid too. It’s impossible to put the feeling of those moments into words, but I try to take it in stride and channel all the love into better and better music. 

I’m very excited to be able to say that the majority of my best songs and work isn’t out to the public yet— I can’t wait for the next couple years for them to all come out! 

It’s one thing to reimagine pop songs and another thing to actually write western pop with a Carnatic twist which you’ve achieved so tastefully with your original tracks like “like a ghost”, “Apollo 13” and “psycho”. Was it difficult for you to start writing in such a way or did it come very naturally? 

Learning to write pop music was a journey entirely separate from carnatic music, which included its own set of trials. I started writing songs at 19– around a year later,  I came across one of my first mentors, named Adam McInnis. Adam had an instagram page with the handle @musicindustrycontact, which immediately caught my eye, as I was in my first college rock band at the time, and looking for… a contact in the music industry 🤣

Our relationship began similar to my relationship with my carnatic guru— I was faced with the hard reality that my songs weren’t competitive in the industry, and that if I wanted to compete with the Ed Sheerans and Taylor Swifts and Frank Oceans, I’d have to sit down and learn/decode what makes a hit song connect with people. Adam introduced me to other future mentors of mine (Autumn Rowe, A-Rod Lambert, and Suzan Koc), and thus began another trial by fire, where I essentially wrote songs and learned what was wrong with them, on repeat, until I eventually found my voice as a writer. 

There’s definitely a point when it all “clicks” and suddenly something that was once invisible makes sense. For me this was figuring out how to tap into the deepest of my emotions and say them in a way that didn’t compromise honesty for the sake of cool lines or rhymes. Once I figured this part out, pairing it with carnatic influences took a lot of experimentation, but ultimately was a very natural process. I’m always trying to make sure I’m being creatively honest to both art forms when I’m fusing the two— and I’ve been blessed that audiences have received them that way too. 

Most of your tracks are largely in English with the Carnatic influence coming in the Melodies you create. Would singing in Hindi be on the cards for you in the future at all?

Yes! My upcoming album “Apollo” will actually have a bonus track that features my re-imagined version of a famous Bollywood number 🙂 In addition to the English records, I’ve recently been exploring writing Tamil songs, and I’m planning to release a lot of original Tamil music in the next two years. 

The Indian music scene is a passion point that I’d love to be involved in, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds as far as future records in other Indian languages. 

We are dying to know some south Asian acts that you might recommend or are a big fan of. 

I am unbelievably excited about where the scene is at right now with South Asian artists— so much insane talent. Naming just a few. 

Jai Wolf. His 2022 Coachella set will be engrained in my brain forever. The closer track on his debut album, “Around The World”, will make you feel like you’re flying. 

Joy Crookes. Her debut album “Skin” will transport you to an older world, where life seems simpler and emotions are at their rawest. Her lyricism blends modernity and the dual culture dilemma in a gorgeously concise and poetic form. 

Curtis Waters. A master of being honest about the hardest things to be honest about. I must’ve played his song “Freckles” about 50 times on repeat the first time I heard it.

So many other incredible artists, but anyone exploring the South Asian scene should definitely add these three to their list. 

Who are some of your biggest inspirations as a musician especially given your unique perspectives and why?

As far as carnatic music, my biggest contemporary inspirations are my guru R. Suryaprakash, and another renowned singer, T. M. Krishna. There’s too many important inspirations and sources of knowledge to name, but their music shares a spirituality and virtuosity that has arrested me countless times. 

As far as Western music. (1) Coldplay taught me how to wear my heart on my sleeve, and make friends with my emotions. (2) Jon Bellion taught me how to truly, deeply, strive for the “craft” of songwriting, and how to tell if I’m being fully honest with myself. (3) Frank Ocean taught me how to tear all the walls down, and that for every single thing I think I know about music, there’s a million ways I’m wrong. 

Western audiences’ understanding of Carnatic music is probably very limited; however I’m sure with the depth of your understanding there’s so much more creatively that you’d like to do. What do you see next for yourself in terms of your musical direction? 

Musically I’m very much a free spirit, my best state is usually when I don’t know what’s in store next 🙂 That said, I’m incredibly excited to share the singles I have coming this year, which I hope will start to reveal more of the “pop” side of the work I’ve been doing. I’ve spent a long long time getting things right behind the scenes, so I can’t finally let everything out into the world!

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Now with several original tracks such as “like a ghost”, “apollo 13” and ‘psycho” under his belt which continue to invite listeners into his finely tuned world of sensual carnatic-inspired pop, what excites us the most about Hrishi is what he’ll come up with next. Hinting at an album “Apollo” in the works and plans to evoke deeper explorations in the realm of original Tamil music, Hrishi is a trendsetter who’s clearly put in the work every step of the way. We’re so excited to see how this groundbreaking artist continues to surpass barriers and advocate for carnatic music and South Asian artists in the music scene. 

Check out Hrishi’s playlist of his favourite South Asian artists!

Follow hrishi on Instagram, his official website, or check out his music on Spotify or YouTube.