Introducing Stephen Zechariah: "I want to change Tamil audiences' perspectives of Indian music worldwide"

Introducing Stephen Zechariah: "I want to change Tamil audiences' perspectives of Indian music worldwide"

Not many artists can claim to successfully traverse between music and acting, but Tamil Singaporean wunderkind Stephen Zechariah is a prime example of a truly versatile talent. 

The musician and actor made his big screen debut in the 2017 Singaporean-Malaysian film Joe: The Black Assassin, where he also served as its composer. Zechariah has since starred in various Vasantham dramas, including mystery thriller Avathaaram (2019) and musical drama Naam (2020), the latter of which his character is also a musician named Aaryan.  

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Best known for his artistic partnership with 360 Entertainment Productions multi-hyphenate T. Suriavelan, Zechariah's songs are also widely popular among the Tamil diaspora alongside local contemporaries like Shabir and Lady Kash, cementing himself at the forefront of Singaporean Indian entertainment. Having contributed to numerous soundtracks, the composer melds the poetry of Tamil folk music with modern pop-inflected arrangements, weaving rich narratives about romance and heartbreak.   

Testament to his popularity, Zechariah’s music has reached audiences beyond Singapore, garnering fans from Malaysia, India, and more. He also regularly collaborates with international Tamil artists, highlighting his crossover appeal on the other side of the Indian Ocean. Examples include ‘Theruvorom’ with Sri Lankan Tamil rapper MC SAI, as well as ‘Alli Pookal’ with popular playback singer Priyanka NK and ‘Adi Penne’ featuring Chennai-based singer Srinisha Jayaseelan

Hear65 recently caught up with the ‘Nesamaguren’ act to chat about his creative process and the influence of Tamil culture on his work.   

Hi Stephen! What have you been working on recently?

I’ve got two projects in the pipeline, one local and the other international. I’ll be acting in a two-part sci-fi series for Vasantham Mediacorp directed by Jaya Rathakrishnan and a mystery-fantasy drama series for Astro in the third quarter of this year.

You’ve soundtracked various films and dramas, including Joe: The Black Assassin (2017), Naam (2020), and Parambarai (2021). What was it like working with director and lyricist T. Suriavelan to create these songs?

[Suriavelan] and I have been friends for a very long time and we began our journey together in the movie Joe: The Black Assassin, where we created our first song, ‘Saaral Mazhaiyaa’. We are always in sync, so work feels very seamless with him. We bounce ideas off each other even at 5AM in the morning. I remember making songs with him in the most unforgettable situations, and we are certainly two peas in a pod.

Your work is a diverse blend of pop, rock, hip hop, and traditional Tamil music. Are there any other genres or sounds you’d like to explore?  

I would love to explore blues, reggae, and dance music, as these genres are barely used in the Tamil music industry. Personally, I want to change Tamil audiences' perspectives of Indian music worldwide. I think it’s always good to introduce a new change to broaden our musical horizons.

How does composing in Tamil differ from that of English? Are there aspects of the language that you have to be more conscious of? 

Tamil is a poetic language, and choosing the perfect lyrics to suit the melody is like putting together a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It involves a lot of studying and understanding of the language. Pronunciation is also key in Tamil, because words can have different meanings and cause confusion if mispronounced—it’s very similar to Mandarin in this sense. English, on the other hand, is a universal language that’s easily comprehensible by many. 

Between the English and Tamil mediums, Tamil compositions these days still require ethnic instruments, and composers very much stick to their traditional roots. However, English compositions have evolved and digitalised their music to keep up with current trends.

Who are some Tamil Singaporean artists you’d like to shout out to? 

Shabir: He has made our country proud by representing Singapore in the Tamil film industry.

Yung Raja: He’s our homegrown talent who has showcased his versatility by mixing both English and Tamil when producing his own songs. 

Satthia: He’s an independent artist who has created many songs for local Tamil dramas.

Rishi Kumaar: An actor, music composer, lyricist and director. Rishi was one of the best we ever had, and his music transcends language. He was born a prodigy for the world of arts.

Mohamed Rafee: He’s a timeless artist. His contribution to music is enormous and he is such an exemplary figure for young and upcoming artists. It's an honor to witness his works.

Who is your favourite Tamil musician (local or international) of all time, and why?

The Indian film composer A. R. Rahman. There’s so much one can keep talking about this icon, but I’ll keep it simple by sharing the same sentiments of many: he is the “Mozart of Madras”.

Share with us 10 essential Tamil songs that you think everyone should listen to

  1. Yaayum – Shabir 
  2. Mustafa – Yung Raja
  3. Rasathi – Satthia 
  4. Bujji - Santhosh Narayanan 
  5. Enjoy Enjaami – Santhosh Narayanan
  6. Why This Kolaveri – Anirudh Ravichander
  7. Kalyana Vayasu - Anirudh Ravichander
  8. Urvasi Urvasi – A. R. Rahman
  9. Munbe Vaa – A. R. Rahman
  10. Aalaporaan Tamizhan – A. R. Rahman

Listen to Stephen Zechariah here.

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