When Nitin Sawhney's 'Beyond Skin' was nominated for The 1999 Mercury Music Prize, (and Talvin Singh had previously scooped the award) cynics dubbed Sawhney the 'token Asian' inclusion. But his unique brand of hybridised rhythm has quelled the detractors. If 'Beyond Skin' reeled in critic and music aficionados alike, his latest album 'Prophesy' should ensure more mainstream appeal.
Sinèad Gleeson: In 1999 'Beyond Skin' was nominated for The Mercury Music Prize and won the South Bank Show award. How did these events impact on your career?Nitin Sawhney: The album had already done well in the charts, but it was cool to get that kind of recognition. It was also a bit of a double-edged sword as I remember being in a record shop and they had all the Mercury nominees in one section and when I asked why the Nitin Sawhney album wasn't there, they told me I could find it in the World Music Section. It was a marginalisation thing, as if someone with brown skin couldn't be embraced as part of mainstream culture. I was often referred to in music papers as that year's 'token Asian' nomination.
Where did 'Prophesy' start, was it an organic process or a concerted effort to sit down and get to work on the next album?It was both really, I'd been thinking about a lot of the ideas behind the album for a long time, questioning the concept of what the development was. It was an attempt to redefine it for myself and get away from preconceptions of the developed world being associated with economics and power. I tried to get much more into the idea of development being synonymous with spiritual enlightenment and respecting people around you. So I went out to meet Aborigines, Native Americans or kids in Soweto, people who I thought would inspire a true sense of balance and interaction with their environment as opposed to the brainwashing bullshit you get living in England.
Do you think that your work - and that of Talvin Singh, Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation - has helped break down the stereotypes about Asian Music?I wouldn't say that I'm particularly responsible for opening the door for Asian music. I'd say I'm a more of a symptom of change and I think things HAVE changed a lot and I feel a lot happier with fact that people are ready to embrace multiculturalism from a much more egalitarian perspective. Things are moving on and I feel optimistic about that side of things. I wouldn't say that anyone of those artists have singularly opened the doors for Asian music, but personally I like to challenge stereotypes.
When music has inherent ethnicity, do you think it's predisposed to being political?It's an interesting question, as sometimes by just making common sense statements you can be politicized by the fact that society is intrinsically politicized. For example if you say that global warming is bad because people die as a result from it, it's like allying yourself with the Green Party and being anti-George Bush because he won't sign the Kyoto Agreement. So statements about race - which are fairly common sense - can be construed politically.
Like The Dead Kennedys, Moby and Consolidated, you use inner record sleeves to make overtly political observations – do you think that artists should fully maximize their public platforms to highlight issues?I like all of them so that's quite a compliment - particularly Consolidated who were a massive influence on me at one point. I actually think of it as more of a humanitarian expression and I think art should always be art first and have its own expression. I don't think I have the right to tell people what to think and as a medium it shouldn't be used to preach to people. I'm not sending messages to people but I'm just opening up my own perspective on things for other people to examine and have their own opinion on. I really believe in expressing what I feel and integrating in artistic expression. If – as an artist - you can't express that in your music, where the hell can you?
There's quite a cinematic feel to the album, have you ever been asked to write a film soundtrack?Yeah, I'm actually working on one at the moment for a film called 'Johnny Bollywood'. I've written the music for a film called 'The Dance of Shiva' which starred Kenneth Brannagh and a film called 'Split Wide Open' about corruption and paedophilia in Bombay. I love writing music for film, I grew up on Ennio Morricone and Bernard Hermann soundtracks and I'm a big fan of film.
Are there any tour plans off the back of this album?There will be, but I don't know the dates. We should be coming to Ireland, I wouldn't want to miss out on it.
Nitin Sawheny was in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson. 'Prophesy' is out now on V2 Music.