Mohan Kannan on his learnings as a freelance musician and working in the film industry

It’s comforting to witness the rise of an independent musician. Mohan Kannan is one such musician, who has achieved impressive milestones over the past 25 years – founding member of Agnee, playback singer for songs from Hindi films such as Cocktail, Laal Singh Chadha and Lootera– precedes it.

Mohan is still there, and he’s busier than ever. But this independent stalwart isn’t up to the same old tricks. In fact, there’s a lot to be learned from his willingness to experiment, push his personal boundaries, and advance in an industry that’s all too comfortable with neat boxes and keeping artists there.

In this conversation, A Humming Heart spoke with Mohan Kannan about his upcoming projects, his new venture, The Mohan Kannan Experience, his thoughts on the direction of India’s indie music scene and what drives him to forge new metals.

What is the differentiator in your mind regarding the process of creating music for an independent project versus film music?

The main differentiator in the creative process is the fact that when creating film music, the director’s vision for the film is paramount, and we as musicians [or] Music directors must justify and respond to this vision in the best possible way. It’s at least a two-way creative process, and we’re writing a memoir that stems from the story of the film and the situation we’re creating the song for. For indie music, you can completely let the song go its own way with no clear direction.

One interesting perspective you can bring to the conversation is that of experience. You have been an integral part of the Indian indie music scene for many years now. What do you think of how the scene has grown? Also, maybe, how should it grow?

I think there are a lot more artists in the spotlight [and] doing well commercially now in the independent scene. There is an ease of creating and delivering music made possible by the availability of multiple platforms, and also being able to virtually finish a song from composition to final master at home. Also, there seems to be an upward trend in non-cinematic music consumption, although I haven’t seen anything significant in this regard yet. I think we still have a long way to go to be able to have non-film music and film music on an equal footing in terms of the ability to promote and also the awareness of the quality of the music therein is broadcast.

From the moment you entered the scene until today, a lot has changed. Do you see a fundamental difference in the way musicians approach their work now?

On stage, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see bands go to great lengths to be tight and deliver punchy performances. However, the basics remain the same: musicality, performance, impact and the ability to connect with the audience will always be the parameters that make concerts memorable. It’s just that I think there are a lot more acts now striving on each of those metrics than they did a few years ago. On the recording side, I’m not sure there’s a big difference in how musicians approach their work. I guess having access to so much music online is only going to help everyone broaden their thinking about what kind of genres they would explore, like it helped me.

What do you consider a defining moment in your musical career? Something that completely changed the way you approach your job?

I don’t think there was really a watershed moment that made me change the way I approached songwriting, singing, or music. I have always believed that being honest as a musician is the most important thing in the world and as long as I can convey an emotion honestly it will connect with a listener. I continue to hold this belief today. However, in the direction of success and the things that go with it, the release of “Aahatein” in its wordless version was pretty much a turning point for Agnee and we became a household name after that, and we were grateful to this song ever since.

Looking even at the commercial film music industry, what are the ways indie musicians can become bigger players in this space. And what does it matter that it happens?

I think independent artists don’t have to do anything but accept film offers. Film music is not a genre in itself, and due to the wide variety of films being made today, there is room for all kinds of music in the industry. Almost all genres find their place in one film or the other. So I don’t think that’s really been the issue for the last few years at least. The artist, however, must understand and be open to working on a memoir. They must be able to collaborate with another creative person towards a visual goal, and be able to receive input from people who are not necessarily musical experts, but who bring the film to its ultimate vision. As for the significance of this event, I think movies are the biggest platform for releasing music at this stage in India, and they will continue to be for quite some time. So for a musician, promoting their song is always a win-win, and it would be great if more and more musicians could contribute and earn from the film industry.

What is the next musical vision you are working towards?

Many exciting projects are happening simultaneously. Agnee has over 25 releases by the end of next year. I have a few solo songs coming out on the independent scene. I work on a few films as a musical director. Of course, we continue to do shows as Agnee, and we always look forward to them. I’m also launching my solo number “The Mohan Kannan Experience”, which is a performance of all my songs in movies. The coming months are going to be hectic and I can’t wait.

The label “indie musician” has always ended with a hook 22, because the term “indie” is more of an idea than a classification. So how do you make the most of this idea and go up? If Mohan Kannan’s journey is proof of this, be open to new experiences and jump from square to square, shamelessly armed with curiosity.

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