Shabir and Buvan talk Vettai's final track, working together, and the future beyond

Shabir and Buvan talk Vettai's final track, working together, and the future beyond

Earlier in March, multi-hyphenate Singaporean artist Shabir released the theme song for the fifth and final season of the acclaimed Vasantham TV police drama Vettai. For the past four seasons, Shabir has produced and composed all of its theme songs by himself.

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12 years after the first season’s release, he enlisted the help of Buvan, a homegrown music composer, arranger, and producer to invent the instrumentation of the final season’s theme song. Shabir has cited the bond between him and Buvan as “brothers', on top of being a source of strength for each other both professionally and personally.

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The high-energy track also notably features the frontwoman of The Steve McQueens, Eugenia Yap, as well as a cross-border collaboration with the “Godfather” of Tamil Hip-hop himself, Yogi B. We recently sat down with Shabir and Buvan to catch up on how they’re feeling with the release, creative processes, bridging Singaporean and Indian cultures together, and what we can expect from them in the near future.

Hey Shabir, you’ve acted as well as composed the first four theme songs for Vettai. How does it feel now, in its last season, having Buvan on board to produce the show's final theme song?

Shabir: Previously, all the other versions have been me working on my own. So I've been left alone to deal with it. Because the first one is always not a problem, you can always come up with the first one. Then, we’re supposed to do the same thing in a different interpretation for the second time, third time, [all] without a collaboration. I think it's very challenging. 

So I did it four times without a collaboration. But finally, when Buvan came in for fifth, the process felt seamless, because Buvan and I have worked on a lot of tracks already - we’ve worked on our film score and stuff like that.

But even then, I think it was a huge challenge to come up with a number five, because I think the problem wasn't about us producing it, but rather getting the idea: what are we exactly going to do with it? We have discussed the ideas, the concept of what it could be, but putting it pen to paper, events to our DAW. That was the challenge - like what do we start with?

But the moment we started, I think we kind of got a flow and a vibe, and then we went in that direction all the way. And of course, Buvan was a huge source of strength for Vettai Five. Because he brought in a lot of fresh perspectives and ideas. It was definitely a pleasure and we had a lot of fun working on the track.

How about you Buvan, how did you feel?

Buvan: Well, it's quite an experience for me. Because I think when I was like 10, or 12, I remember hearing the first season of Vettai’s soundtrack for the first time while I was in my room. I was like, “Oh my God, what's this sound?”

I left my room and watched the release of the song on Vasantham TV. I remember I was shocked, and I sat close to the screen, just watching the entire song, I wasn't even letting my parents watch the screen. 

That's how intrigued I was with the original track. I followed all of the four season tracks, I would hear them on TV whenever they were out on Vasantham. So, the moment Shabir told me that we were going to do the fifth one, I now have a responsibility to be part of what I really love. Then, he told me that we’re going to have the Godfather of Tamil hip-hop to rap on it, and I was like: “Okay, what?”

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I’ve been following him since my primary school days, and to understand that these two big products are now coming together, and how I’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to produce for this particular track with Shabir, there were a lot of nerves.

It's been like a good 12 years or so since the first Vettai track, So I thought, how can we bring in a fresh perspective? That challenge was definitely there, but we had fun, besides the initial [stage of] “I don't know what to do, or how can you do this?” Yeah, but after that, once we hit that note, then I think we had a really good flow.

Shabir: Yeah, so I kept telling Buvan that hey, listen, no pressure, okay? I mean, Yogi B is a legend, and you're producing for him. Okay, there are a lot of fans for Vettai, and they’re all waiting for the track here, but no pressure. So I kept saying that and I think that helped.

Buvan: [Laughs] Completely helped!

You guys spoke about Yogi B and how he is the forefather of Tamil hip-hop. But what was it like working with Eugenia from The Steve McQueens? How did the link-up happen?

Shabir: After the idea for the intro was written, I gave it to Buvan and I gave some examples of soundtracks and showed him examples of vocals.. And after that, I completely entrusted the recording of the female vocals, the intro and the bridge section to him.

Buvan: Yeah, Eugenia and I go way back, I've known her since my polytechnic days. I used to follow her from The Steve McQueens and I used to catch her gigs, and we were friends. So the moment Shabir gave me the reference tracks, I knew that Eugenia was the person for this. 

She's got this character. Her timbre is haunting and there’s something pleasant about it. I really don’t know how to put it into words, but she is a vocal powerhouse in my opinion. I called her up and said: “Hey Eugenia, I’ve got this track and I really want you to be part of it.” And she said okay, let’s do it, and that was that.

When she heard the demo, she was instantly vibing, and said let’s go to the studio. I briefed her about the heart of the song, and what it’s supposed to mean and lyrically what I wanted her to emote when she was singing. In The Steve McQueens, her timbre is a bit more sultry, there’s this neo-soul funk, jazz element in her voice naturally, even in Riot in Magenta

But, I knew there's this tone that she hasn’t experimented much with, and I was trying to bring that out in this track. When we started the session, she gave me a lot of ideas which got me inspired. We have this rich section which goes all orchestral, and Eugenia has this ethereal vocal, but initially we didn’t have that. But the moment she came in, I was like: “Damn! We should do this thing.”

And it happened. It was one of those moments where it just clicked like, we came in, made some magic. It was beautiful for us.

You previously mentioned that it’s been over 12 years since Vettai’s first track came out. Now, producing its 5th and final track, working with Yogi B, how did you calm your nerves going about producing it?

Buvan: The space I usually work in is usually very dark and the creative work only happens beyond like 10PM. I'll be just staring at my computer and trying out ideas, listening to lots of reference tracks. I have a habit of humming tunes wherever I am, be it in the bathroom or even if I'm in the gym. I'll just try out different permutations.

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I guess the moment I was entrusted with the responsibility to produce a track, I was trying not to let that affect my mentality. I thought, let's try to create the best product possible with what we are given; with the story in mind, with the sonics in mind. One example is the trumpets, and also certain elements that we reprised from the first season. And usually my music is influenced by what I’m listening to at a point of time, and I was listening to a lot of Arcane. I was inspired by those soundtracks there. So subconsciously, they kind of helped me craft this track. Was I nervous? Initially, yes. But the moment I'm in the process, I'm like, okay, cool. I think we can figure out something. But that process definitely took awhile.

Shabir, you recently won the Edison Award 2022 in Chennai, India for Best International Music Director - what does that mean to you?

Shabir: Initially I got the call from the representative of the jury committee, because thanks to social media now, everybody knows what exactly you're doing. You know, because you are informing people, right? So they have been updated that okay, I'm also doing films, and I'm doing series soundtracks, and we’ve also done scoring. So it’s sort of the entire portfolio that is of someone who is a multi-hyphenate.

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I think the company itself, like Buvan, and everyone in our team, are very versatile. And I think that versatility comes from the training that we received from the film industry, both Singapore and India. We apply that in all our works, because I think the soundtrack industry in India, and the film score industry is quite merciless, in terms of quality and delivery. Because we received our training there, and we still continue to work in the industry, we have a certain standard that we have to uphold all the way, and we kind of bring that to Singapore.

And in Singapore, there's a great indie vibe, there is this thing that's catching on, everybody wants to be authentic, and bring something to the conversation. Because it's less commercial here, and we bring that spirit to India. So it's quite interesting how we’re using both our places, and the sense of space and culture to influence each other. The relationship has been quite symbiotic. 

Now that I start traveling to India again, it's only expanding this whole phenomena that is happening very quietly within us. When an Indian award jury see something like that, to recognize our work that we're doing from Singapore despite it being COVID for the past two years - [whilst] I've not been able to travel in India and do a lot of work in India - I think it's definitely very, very encouraging.

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It's also a lesson for all of us to remember that the work should not stop no matter what, pandemic or no pandemic, whether we're in Singapore, if we can't travel, it's okay. We should still be doing something, we should still be working, we should still be contributing to the form. Someone at some point is going to recognise it, or call you out for a collaboration, a calling for an award, etc. So I guess, that's the biggest learning curve for us. 

I definitely should share the award with my entire team. For example, like Vettai itself, right? In all honesty, nobody knows what exactly to do with Vettai five. Nobody knows actually, the producer is not very sure, the director is not very sure, Buvan is not very sure, and neither am I.

So when the track came in, I casted a vision. I thought, let's add a Chenda drum, which sounds like a war drum, it's a percussion instrument from Karela. Then I said that I wanted to cast a story, I wanted to visualize the entire Vettai team on their knees. They're down and then they're rising up - how will it be if we do something like that? It's not part of the plot.

But we needed something, and we needed to create our own plot to gather inspiration. It's so important that when someone has a vision, everyone else backs you up while you chase the intuition. If you don't have that, it's very, very difficult to produce something of this scale given the other limitations that we have in Singapore, including financial & budget limitations, and time etc. 

Buvan was really a source of strength for me in this track. Because whenever I said that this is what we should do, he never questioned it. The Edison award is definitely an award that I will share with my entire team for all the works that we have done, spanning across the various industries and genres.

What do you miss most about Singapore when you’re in India, and what do you miss most about India when you’re in Singapore?

Shabir: When I'm in India, of course, I miss the food and family and friends in Singapore. Yeah, food first and then everything else. Because it's food that makes you feel at home. I'm someone who can ride solo, I can be on my own and still be okay. But even when you're on your own you need food, right?

When I'm in Singapore, I miss the chaos of Chennai, because although I call it chaos, it has a very organic flow to it. And this includes even the traffic. You might think, how am I gonna drive from the city? But the moment you get behind the wheel and you start driving it becomes like fishes in the river. Basically, just don't hit each other, just keep going, whoever was in front of you has the right of  way. So, when I'm in Chennai, that's the vibe, and you adjust to it. I definitely miss that. 

There’s a lot of spontaneity in Chennai to be very honest, and in Singapore we plan a lot of things. For example here, you’d call up someone and arrange a set place and a set time for a meet up, but in Chennai, they’d call you and come over to you at any time. So, you got to miss that. That spontaneity is really special.

Buvan had a culture shock when I brought him to Hyderabad for the first time to work on a Telugu film. The Telugu film industry is very different compared to the Tamil industry. For Telugu industries, everything happens in the 11th hour and even when the soundtracks leave the studio, they're still making changes.

You think you're done, but you're not done.

The movie might be released tomorrow, but they’ll call you today, saying: “You know that thing? I think we can change one more thing about this.” And then they'll do it, and still bring it to the theatre and it's still happening. People still watch it, everything will still happen as planned...without the plan that is. So when Buvan came into Hyderabad it was a culture shock because while the track is getting ready, you have to wait for 30 minutes and copy it to your hard disks. I was in my room working and then they all stormed in, five big dudes with beards standing behind Buvan looking at him [for the track]. That was an experience [for him] I think.

Buvan: I think it's one to remember, and something I will take to my grave. This was right after my national service in the Army, the most Singaporean environment that anyone can possibly be in. And two weeks later, I’m flying to Hyderabad and I don’t speak Telugu, and they don’t speak Tamil, and there's already a language barrier between me and them. So imagine, you’re there, exporting something, and I’m staring at what’s being exported, and now five dudes are standing behind me, staring at me, staring at the screen. 

Shabir: That must have been the longest export of your life!

Lastly, can we expect to see more Shabir x Buvan songs, beyond the film landscape?

Shabir: This year, we have lined up quite a number of indie tracks. And this is a good year, because we've got a number of collaborations actually, some of them are really big. We're going apeshit. But we're just trying to calm down as well. So we can’t announce it yet but they’re big projects.

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Apart from that, we have lined up three independent singles for this year. We’re also in the midst of ideating for the music video, so we are just creating visual assets right now. And they will all be ready around mid-year and the rest of the year. We're looking forward to rolling out these singles this year, and we’re very happy to have started the year out with Vettai.

Listen to Vettai here.