Navin Kundra is a well known British singer and songwriter, who many will have heard of. Kundra’s singles, covers and collaborations have spelt much success for him in recent years but it doesn’t stop there. He’s featured in BBC series ‘Doctors’ as well as performed on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and been part of the line-up to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UK in 2016. The list of achievements Kundra has enjoyed and continues to make is almost endless.
As he is on the verge of his next single, and as he celebrates his birthday today (11th January), BizAsiaLive.com caught up with Kundra to find out a little more about his career and more.
A little birdie told us you’ve been shooting for something special. Can you tell us anything about it?
Well, I’m shooting for my first Bollywood film. A few months ago I was scouted for a new film being made. It’s an action movie with Eros International. I always thought if I were to do anything in Bollywood it would be music, so when I initially got the call I thought they wanted me to do a song or some music for the film. They said “No we’ve got a role for you to act in it. Are you interested?” I thought it sounded like a fun. I haven’t acted for a while, I did drama in school so I can act, but it had just been a while. I’d always been focusing on music.
They told me I was really a good fit for the role which is nice because they normally put out a casting call and hundreds audition and get selected, but they specifically scouted me. I went for a screen-test and had to deliver some dialogues. Then they sent the footage over to Mumbai and the director gave a thumbs up. So we have shot a lot of it in London. It’s a really interesting storyline, quite a new star-cast as well. It’s just nice to be a part of something fresh in a project like that. I also got a chance to brush up on Hindi.
As you mentioned, you thought that you would get a musical break first as opposed to an acting break in Indian cinema. Would you still be open to that? Is there any kind of musical break that you would like to have? Would it just be playback singing?
I’m always open to different projects. I’m a full-time musician and artiste and I love it. So I’m always open to do those kind of projects. For example, earlier last year I was asked to do something for BBC’s ‘Doctors’ (2000-present), where my song ‘Mehbooba’ (2009) was in an episode. When opportunities like that come about, like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (2004 – Present), I love to take those on. I believe they come for a reason. So when this came my way I thought, let’s give it a go. It’s not my mainstay, I’m an artist first and foremost, but I’ll try my hand at acting and see what the experience is. And it was an amazing experience.
Do you think you would you take up more acting?
Yes, definitely. I mean obviously, we have to wait and see what people think of the film first and of my performance. I just trusted in the director and the team on the movie. I enjoyed the buzz of being on set, being around people. It was a lot of fun.
You’ve performed at various live events in recent years. You’ve also released a number of singles and done many interesting and different things in your career. Is there one thing you’d say, in your experience, stands out in the whole time that you’ve been a musician?
Yes, there are a few things. I think one thing that really stood out for me was performing for Modi at Wembley Stadium. That was a dream come true because it’s such a big deal to have the new Indian Prime Minister come over and we welcomed him in grand style. Little did I know that my performance would be the one that gets broadcasted all over the world just before he made his entry. That was a really special moment for me. That stands out. I think breaking the Guinness World Record also really stands out (raising £10,000 for the British Asian trust founded by HRH Prince of Wales). ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ was another one, because at the end of the day we work really hard to create music, to go out and perform, to build a fan-base. When you start to see your work being appreciated in spheres that you don’t normally roll in, it’s fantastic. It makes you feel like you’re doing something well.
You’ve been in the music industry for some time. What keeps you motivated?
I love what I do. I look forward to getting out of bed every morning not really knowing where my days going to end and where tomorrow’s going to start. But knowing that I get to do what I love. I love that. It’s the most rewarding experience to wake up and feed your own passion.
Do you think in today’s age, whether it’s in the UK or even globally, it is difficult to stay musically relevant?
I don’t think it’s difficult, I think it just takes a person to be constantly working and keep updating themselves to stay relevant. See if you don’t update yourself, and you stay in the mindset of 10 or 20 years ago where you’ve been working off the same tracks, you’re not really progressing yourself. Anyone in any field becomes stagnant after a while. The world goes on, everyone else moves with it, and you have to move with it too. Having said that, I think with the speed at which music is changing now, there’s just a lot more opportunity, there’s a lot more to learn and sometimes that can be quite overwhelming when you hear how much sound is changing, sonically, visually; there’s a lot of change. Again, I love what I do, and I get very excited by trying to come up with the next thing or working with what’s happening, or indeed as you know putting all of that to the side and going completely the opposite way. I think when I put out ‘Tere Liye’ (2009) it was a very Bhangra saturated market, so it was a breath of fresh air in many ways. If you look at Bruno Mars’ new album and his new single that just came out, it’s like a throwback to the 90s that no one else is doing at the moment. And sometimes that sort of thing can help you stand out.
You’ve had a number of love songs and a number of up-beat songs. Is there one that you just love performing?
‘Shudaayi’ (2012) usually gets everyone going. That’s a really fun track to perform. What’s more satisfying to me as a singer, because I love singing live and performing live is when I do a song like ‘Tere Liye’, I really get to sing it. Whereas a dance song you’re constrained a little bit to the beat, so you don’t really get to sing and let your vocals shine, whereas in a love song being a bit more melodic you do. I always try and make sure that if I’m doing a song like that live, it’s not like the record so people would always get something extra from it.
One video that really stands out of yours is ‘Bandagi’ (2017). How did you come up with that idea?
I was watching a lot of videos at the time; very glossy, big budget. I saw that everything looks great, but for some reason, it just felt a little superficial to me. It was all about how great someone looks, how wonderful the location is, how hot the dancers are, or how great the car is. I felt a song like this is all about an emotion and feeling that emotion and connecting with people. So it was an experiment literally, that’s how it started out. I went to a foreign country, where no-one would know what I’m singing about, but I will play the song and I will walk around, and let’s see what happens, let’s see if people will react. Just as a symbol – it wasn’t a heart-shaped balloon or anything – but I’d carry a balloon. There’s something about it that makes people smile. It makes you stand out, it makes people smile and it makes people curious. So that coupled with the music, I thought let’s see what happens. And really what it was all about was really spreading a bit of love, which is showing people that whether you know someone or not, you can just be present in the moment and have a really meaningful connection with people. And it’s very human as well. We weren’t taking selfies or anything, there was no social media, no promo or anything. It was literally here’s a song that I’m performing. I met so many people on the way and it turned into a holiday for me. It was lovely, I made some great friends and we’re still in touch, and they loved it. They loved what it was about, and these weren’t people who listen to Hindi music. They were Chinese, there were locals, there were people who were visiting, there was a couple that proposed, and genuinely that’s in the video. I had the Gold Factory sponsor the video for me as well. That’s the only part that was staged in that part of the video, but everything else was real. The people felt that way because of the song, and seeing me walk around. What we decided to do then was pass that love on, symbolised by the balloon, over to someone who’s already with their partner and just see what happens. To me, it was really refreshing because I took all the glossy-ness away. We wanted to do it in a way that was a little different. I did an experiment in Winter Wonderland last year, as they have balloons and things like that, and I bought a bunch of balloons. So I was walking around and I saw people looking, and people came to take pictures, and I saw loads of couples there. I handed this balloon to a couple and they were really happy and they hugged each other and the said thank you and they went off together. And I was like that was really cute. Then a couple of months later I went to Italy and I did the video.
Did the song come before the idea or did the idea come before the song?
The song came before the idea. For me, the song is always first. I don’t really think about anything else in terms of how I’m going to promote it or what the video’s going to look like. I just go and try and make the best song I can possibly make. Afterwards we sit down and pick the song we’re going to release after writing however many, and then put everything around it.
How much input do you get when doing a music video, apart from ‘Bandagi’ which was an idea?
That’s a good question. I’m really hands-on with music, I have been less hands-on with music videos. The ones that I’ve been really hands-on with are ‘Dangerous’ (2010) and ‘Bandagi’. I believe in bringing people in that are better than you at what they do, so they can bring something extra. So when I handed over ‘Shudaayi’ to a creative team, they just came up with a really simple concept; black and white. Again , this was going against everything that’s coming out at the time. ‘Tear It Up’ (2016) had a really different creative director and creative visual. My manager and the video production company are more involved with that. But now as music becomes more visual, I’m taking hold a bit more on the visual side of it, which is why when we did ‘Bandagi’ it was just self-done. It’s weird because before I don’t think music videos were as relevant. Now everyone wants to see what’s going on on YouTube, and it’s really relevant now. I’ve now understood that music isn’t just about the song anymore.
You’ve done your own cover versions of popular songs. To some, cover versions are very different to putting the song in a new film and releasing it as if it’s new, whereby many know the old version usually as a 80s or 90s song (or older). What is your take on that? Do you agree with Bollywood re-hashing in that way as opposed to a cover version?
Firstly, before I started writing and releasing my own music, I was always singing other people’s songs. I still love doing that because it’s fun to do. It’s nice to do it in your own way. That’s why I put covers out. There’s nothing commercial about them, it’s just something I can give my fans or people that don’t really know me a little introduction or way of showcasing a song how I hear it in how I deliver it. I think remixes are valid and are done to access different markets. At the moment, I’ve got a new English single and we’ve got a couple of mixes for that because we know different versions would be on radio or in clubs. Older songs, to fit with the new generations can go both ways, because the ones that are getting re-hashed are really rich, successful songs. They were made before we had this era of amazing technology where vocals are auto-tuned, where it was all about the heart and soul and melody and the talent was behind it. I understand why they would do it because it’s a gold mine. Those songs are gold dust. I think if you don’t know the originals, they’re nice songs to new ears. I think if you know the originals, you’re most likely to be disappointed by the way they’ve been done. Having said that, I’ve heard some really good ones, and they’re really refreshing to hear. What I do think it highlights is the magic of music and how long it can last. Even now, I’ve just put a concert together called ‘Voice of Legends’ where I take on songs by Mohammad Rafi Saab, Kishore Kumarji, Lata Mangeshkarji. The whole point in that was, I didn’t see any young artistes taking on that kind of era, and I love those songs. I wanted to take them from those old recordings where the quality is not what we’re used to listening to now in terms of crystal clear, digital sound. I just wanted to keep them alive by putting them on stage and presenting them to an audience. They’re not remixes but we’ve given them a new take. I think it’s important to keep classic songs alive. You may hate it, you may not enjoy it, you may love it but that’s here to stay I think, as a trend. My only hope is that the original songwriters and creators and composers are duly rewarded for their work. In English and American music we have a system whereby if you’ve written a song, no one can take that away from you in terms of publishing. But I’m not sure India has quite caught up with all of that. I know they haven’t as I’ve been given contracts by record labels which ask me to sign away all my publishing rights and that’s probably why I’m still unsigned. It wouldn’t surprise me that maybe the original composers and people behind these songs are not getting credited because there are new singers. I think there’s been a few cases where the original people have come out and said “what have you done? What’s happening?” So as long as the original artistes are getting appropriately credited, it’s fantastic. Look at people like the Beatles, I heard this Chaka Khan song; anytime anyone makes a version of it, those original artists are getting paid.
There are so many legendary people in Bollywood and outside Bollywood. Is there anyone you would love to work with, if given the chance?
Yes, I would love to work with the people that inspired me to make music. AR Rahman is way up there. I just think musically he’s so versatile and I love that he’s been able to do what he does and put it on a huge world stage. You might not think it, but I think Badshah is great at what he does. He’s a rapper and I think the collaboration between us could be really interesting. I’ve always been inspired by Sonu Nigam, I would love to do a song with him. Every time I’ve met him he’s been so nice, and he’s come to know about me and my work as a singer. I remember I sent him a link to ‘Tere Liye’ and he sent me a message back saying which I thought was a really nice thing. I’m very open to collaborating and work with people. I feel that if they’re out there in the market and they’re doing good stuff consistently, then there’s something special about them.
This Bollywood film is the start of your Bollywood journey. As a new actor, who would you like to work with in Bollywood?
I hope so! I’m a huge Shah Rukh Khan fan. I think it would be really cool to act alongside him. Everyone wants to work with Amitabh Bachchan, he’s fantastic. I really love Aamir Khan too, I think he’s phenomenal. I don’t know whether I would learn a lot from acting with him but I think it would be quite an intense process working with him. I’m a huge Tom Hanks fan. I would love to work with him. I think what he pulls out in his performances, I haven’t seen anyone rival that or match it at all.
In the UK, when famous singers such as Shreya Ghoshal, Sonu Nigam, Atif Aslam or similar artistes come to perform in concerts, their opening acts tend to be other singers from India. Do you think there should be support for UK artists in such instances where they are the opening acts? Would it be something that you’d be interested in given the opportunity? What’s your take?
Yes, I think it’s a fantastic idea. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen. For me I think it would be amazing because you get introduced to artistes and it’s a lovely platform to showcase UK talent on, and also introduce UK talent to foreign. That’s a really good idea. For example, I was invited to host the Adnan Sami concert, where I got to meet and speak with him. I wished there was a bit more of that. When Shaan was doing a concert on stage in Leicester, the promoter saw me in the audience and invited me on stage. they let the audience and Shaan himself know I was a UK singer. I told him whilst I was on stage that I started my career with him on ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’ in which I was a contestant and he was the host. He couldn’t believe it an I jogged his memory and he said “Shall we do something together for the audience?” and we sang the same song that we did back in 2004. That happened last year. It was mad but it was nice because it was like he’s an artiste in his own right and so am I. I was inspired by him and there we were sharing the stage. And obviously it’s Shaan’s concert but it was nice to do that. I think they should have support for artistes in the UK. I guess they would probably want to approve it first, and then you have to look at quality control and see who would do something like that justice. I can understand there are a few things they need to figure out, but it sounds like a really good idea to me. I think I could do a good job.
You’ve always so much going on. How do you get time to wind down?
Whilst time to myself is limited, I tend to drive. When I drive that tends to be “me time”, even though I’m still thinking about work, I live in the Midlands and I’ll travel to London or Manchester or wherever it is, and that time that I’m driving I’m alone and I’m with myself. I’m thinking about a million things but most of my best ideas happen when I’m driving. So that’s what I like to do. I love to spend time with family. I’m a big YouTuber in terms of watching YouTube videos. I like to watch movies and sit down with friends and catch up. They’re the kind of things that I enjoy. I like to read biographies as well. I love learning about people’s life stories.
Who’s been the most interesting person you’ve read about?
Arnold Schwarzenegger. His biography is called ‘Total Recall’ (2009). It is a phenomenal story, because if you think about it, from being no-one to becoming this incredible bodybuilder, to Mr Universe to then being the biggest Hollywood actor and then becoming a Governor, and now going back into acting. What a life! The way he did it and what was going through his mind at every step was interesting to learn about. It’s phenomenal. I think there’s a lot to be had from stories like that as they’re the things that are inspiring and can motivate. There’s times when you find it a little difficult, or you’re not achieving what you want to achieve, or you have something you want to do but you feel you can’t do it because of everything else, and stories like that, where you’re struggling can really help lift you out of that and tell you that anything is possible. You just have to stick at it and figure it out and work through it, because it’s always better to work through it or work around it. That’s why I love reading biographies by people who I think are successful or who have done something interesting. They don’t even have to be famous.
Your music has been really appreciated, especially in the UK and you’ve worked with various artistes. Are there any collaborations that are coming up that we can look forward to, that you can talk about?
There are but none I can talk about just yet. I’ve always just done my own thing and people call up and say “Can we do something?” It’s a weird industry because when people call me up or my manager and say “Look we’d love to do a track with Navin,” it’s almost like they want me to give them the track. We would say “Great. Send us what you have in mind, send us some ideas and we’ll work on it.” So if you’re a producer, send me over some beats and I’ll write over them, or if you’re another singer maybe you’re already working on something or let’s get into the studio together, and then it never happens. I’ve collaborated strictly with artistes abroad like when I went to Canada to do some shows, I ended up collaborating with a female vocalist called Prita Chhabra and a rapper called Blitzkreig. I’ve collaborated with a few rappers over here. They’re not obvious collaborations that you would think of but I would love to do the right kind. There are a lot of artistes I would love to work with. Let’s see what happens.
What else is happening in the future?
There’s a fair bit coming up this year. There are three main things that are happening for me this year and they are firsts. My first Bollywood film is hopefully going to happen. You never know until it actually comes out because projects get shelved all the time. Fingers crossed this happens. I’m super excited about that. Secondly, the show that I put together called ‘Voice of Legends’; we’re building an intimate tour. We want to do three-four cities here in the UK, and then internationally. It started in Holland, so we’d like to take it to Germany, France and America. We want to do about six-eight cities over there and in Canada. It’s a really special show for a lot of people. Everyone loves those songs, they all connect to them and I believe that I can offer them a new take whilst retaining the soul of the original. That’s what I’ve been working on. It’s hard and ambitious as a young guy in the industry to take on. Also my new single coming out called ‘Burning Slow’. For the last year I’ve been working on experimenting for a different market. If you come to my show you’ll hear me sing ‘Tere Liye’ and ‘Shudaayi’, and then you’ll also hear me do an Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ and Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk’. I mix it all. I think to myself why am I just singing Hindi and Punjabi songs? I can sing in English too. I wrote a whole bunch of English songs and it feels right to me that that music should also reach an English audience. My last two English songs broke into the Urban club charts, which again I think is something to be celebrated. Unfortunately, a light hasn’t been shone on it as much as it should have been. Maybe because it doesn’t mean that much to Asian people, but to me as an artiste it means a lot. We broke top 20 with the first one; a song called ‘Tear It Up’, and ‘No Games’ (2017) was number 6. But with ‘No Games’ we thought let’s just put it out, because I’m a new name in that market. We wanted to build up a bit of mystery and a bit more interest around it; no video, you wouldn’t have hear it on the main radio. Again, with ‘Burning Slow’, we’re hoping we can push it even further with that. It’s a beautiful song, it tells a really nice story, and I think even Asian audiences are going to like it. It’s got a little hint of what I love doing in terms of musical influences.
BizAsiaLive.com would like to thank Navin Kundra for taking the time to speak with us and also wish him a very happy birthday.
(Photographs courtesy: Shyama Sudra)