The Accidental Album: Indian-American Singer Songwriter Subhi Follows Her Heart, Honoring South Asian Poetry and American Jazz
You cannot contain the heart. Just ask Indian-American singer-songwriter Subhi.
On a hot summer afternoon in 2016, Subhi was riding back in a rickshaw from a meeting with a Bollywood film producer in Mumbai, stuck in traffic. Outside, kids played on the street and she was overwhelmed with the feelings, the memories of her own childhood in Delhi. She started singing a melody and the lyrics just flowed with it. That’s how the song “Bachpan” (“Childhood”) happened, right there in the rickshaw.
Later that year in Chicago, she collaborated with pianist and arranger Joaquin Garcia and made a music video of the song. It resonated, especially with South Asians who savored the fun list of favorite games Subhi trips through. The response led Subhi to record an entire Pop album of original Hindi songs with influences of Jazz, one of the first.
That lesson lies at the center of Subhi’s debut album Shaitaan Dil (Naughty Heart; release: September 15, 2017), that the heart runs and leaps where it will. Inspired by Chicago jazz, by Hindi and Urdu poetry, Subhi’s playful, melodious songs chronicle the delights and downsides of romance, but with a twist. Her tales reflect the torments of separation and transcontinental migration, experiences both deeply Indian and deeply American.
Yet music never seemed like a viable career option, so after studying in the US, Subhi found herself in New York, working in finance on Wall Street. It was not a good fit. “I would research artists online, reading their Wikipedia pages over and over,” recalls Subhi. “I would write songs in my spare time. Eventually, after I got a company award for excellence, I knew I had to do something else.”
Subhi went into arts journalism, becoming a correspondent for a couple of leading Indian television channels. On one of her assignments, she crossed paths with Mira Nair (director of Oscar-winning film Salaam Bombay). The two hit it off, and Subhi began doing music-related work for Nair. “Mira Ji was staging Monsoon Wedding, the film on Broadway and needed someone to help write a medley of Punjabi folk songs. I started doing that, and it hit me, this is what I love the most. While working with her, I learnt if you want to do something in life, you have to give it your 100%. I had to devote myself to music.”
She did so by heading to Mumbai, India’s main engine of musical commerce and home to Bollywood. That meant countless meetings with producers, long sessions with arrangers, and thankless pitches to film directors. It also meant leaving behind her family and friends and starting a dizzying few years of living in many places, and in none.
“While in Mumbai, I composed for various films and projects including the prestigious Yash Raj Films and the popular digital platform The Viral Fever. I did this for four years and never got the artistic satisfaction that I was looking for,” reflects Subhi. “All I wanted was to create music and I found myself spending most of my time networking with Bollywood’s who’s who, away from home.”
This curiosity led her to work with Chicago native Joaquin Garcia, a jazz pianist. He and Subhi took two of her songs, rearranged them and made some simple music videos. They clicked with listeners. “Joaquin brought the jazz influences and I realized immediately they worked really well,” explains Subhi.
Influences range from more contemporary jazz vocal approaches (“Ud Jaa”/ “Fly Away”) to old-school Dixieland, on tracks like “Shaitaan Dil.” “There have been Hindi songs with jazz influences, of course, when jazz was a popular style,” she notes. “But there aren’t many jazz singers who write songs in Hindi.”
The combination worked, however, as local audiences and journalists picked up on Subhi’s work. She found herself on radio shows, invited to festivals, building a band. “Finally, I was doing what I have always wanted to do; creating music and sharing it with the world. I was loving it. Things were happening organically. One of the session musicians during a recording at the Studio asked if I was making an album. I had six songs. I thought, maybe I should.”
The playful results mark Subhi’s arrival on a scene where few South Asian women wind up. But it all feels right, even if it’s unexpected. “The heart does what it wants. This wasn’t what I planned, but at times, you have to follow your instinct and your heart,” Subhi muses. “All through this journey, I had no idea where I was going. Logically, it made no sense. But my heart would not let go. It has its own agenda.”