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Sid Sriram performs songs from 'Sidharth' at The Current

Sid Sriram – studio session at The Current (music & interview)The Current
  Play Now [18:37]

by Ayisha Jaffer

April 12, 2024

“I'm a creature of habit,” Sid Sriram admits, “and I really get used to like a certain routine.”

That said, Sriram is not inflexible. In fact, he tends to embrace serendipity in his life, and it has served him well. In was, in fact, his embrace of serendipity that led him from his home in California to a successful career in India — and it’s also what led him to visit Minneapolis to work with producer Ryan Olson. This led to the album Sidharth, a collection of songs that let Sriram explore his many influences without boundaries, it led him to explore the meaning of his very name.

During a recent visit to The Current studio, Sriram played songs from Sidharth, and then sat down with host Ayisha Jaffer to discuss his life and his career so far. Watch and listen to the complete session above, and read a transcript below.

A man sings into a microphone in a recording studio
Sid Sriram performing in The Current studio on Friday, March 1, 2024.
Eric Xu Romani | MPR

Interview Transcript

Ayisha Jaffer: Hey, what's up? I'm Ayisha Jaffer here at The Current with Sid Sriram. Thanks so much for being here.

Sid Sriram: Thanks for having me.

Ayisha Jaffer: Welcome back to the Midwest. We're so excited that you're here at The Current studios, first time.

Sid Sriram: Yep.

Ayisha Jaffer: And you've had such a prolific career, you know, from India music, Bollywood scene, to indie music and kind of everything in between. So I kind of want to start from the beginning. 

Sid Sriram: Sure.

Ayisha Jaffer: You were hitting the stages at age three, I heard?

Sid Sriram: Yeah. But first, what you said last, rhymed; I don't know if you noticed. That was pretty cool!

Ayisha Jaffer: I didn't notice!

Sid Sriram: Yeah, I started — I was born into a family of musicians. I was born in Chennai, India, and my mother, her father, and like, going back through the lineage, they're all Carnatic musicians, which is south Indian classical music. So I was born into that; we moved to the States when I was one, to Fremont, California. And my mother started a music school there in '92. I was two years old. So I was just really kind of surrounded by and immersed in this music form. And I had just a natural inclination towards it. And yeah, when I was three, my mom was putting her students onstage for the first time. And I insisted on wanting to be onstage as well. And I think my parents thought I might be scared or something, but, so they're like, "Yeah, go do it." And I just fell in love with it. So it's kind of been no turning back since.

Ayisha Jaffer: And so like, growing up, so you were doing that Carnatic music, the classical music of South India, but then also, there were R&B influences, right, growing up, and indie music growing up. How did that kind of fit from hitting the stage to then ending up in Berklee, which makes sense for music? And you said it, too, it was like, you were talking about like, the kind of the spiritual aspect, but then like soul, like soul encompasses that — it's a good you know, home for branching off from there.

Aretha Franklin performs onstage
Aretha Franklin performing onstage in 2017.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Sid Sriram: Sure. Um, I discovered like R&B, soul, when I was seven or eight, just through like, listening to the radio and flipping through stations, and chancing upon a jazz station in the Bay Area where I grew up. And that was really like a pivotal moment for me because it led me down this beautiful rabbit hole of finding artists like Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, you know, really like the greats. And why it was so important for me it was because for the first time, coming from this Indian classical music foundation, I was able to find another form that felt like, technically, you use the same kind of chest voice and really using your entire voice and throwing it. And also like the embellishments that they do, the riffs and the runs, felt similar to some of the embellishments that I would do in Carnatic music. So technically, that was like there was a connection form there. And then also, just like spiritually and emotionally, it really felt like there was a deep honesty, sincerity and like surrender in that music form, which is also an anchor point of Carnatic music. So the bridge kind of was formed then. And that was what really led me to find all the other forms of Western music that I discovered as I grew older, whether it was like Radiohead, or Sigur Ros or Bjork, or whatever, the source point for me in terms of like, branching out was soul music. And ultimately, yeah, I started at Berklee in 2008, and that's also when I started writing my own music. And that's really the time where, whereas before I was, with the soul stuff, I was covering other artists, and in Carnatic music, I was down that path, but this was the first time I started to kind of plant the seeds to see how these two very different worlds and parts of the world could have conversations with each other in the form of music. Sure.

Ayisha Jaffer: And actually just listening to your session just now, the beautiful vocalizations you have, I heard you kind of weaving those two things together as one, and I wondered, was there any particular voice that you were like, "Oh, that connects it for me"? Or a few voices?

Sid Sriram: I've never really heard anyone shapeshift vocally in the right way. There are voices that have really influenced me, I think; like Aretha is a voice that, just the texture of it, and again, like how charged it is with emotion. Jeff Buckley was a huge one, and what's interesting is with him, I didn't know this until much later, actually, Justin Vernon told me about this when we were working on the record, but he studied with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at one point, so Jeff Buckley did, so like you could hear that in his voice. So he, though he was completely grounded in American music, that studying with a South Asian legend, you can hear that there's certain influences that kind of bled into the vocal texture of his.

Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley
David Gahr

Thom Yorke is another one that I'm just a fan of the vocal tone. But this thing, this kind of being able to start a phrase in a way that sounds like it's like a soul R&B phrase, and then in the middle of it, kind of switches into what feels like it's Indian classically, like, influenced, that was something I think I've been experimenting with for the last decade. But with this album, this is the first time where it happened effortlessly, where I didn't have to think about it, or it didn't come out as something contrived, where it just kind of happened. I was like, "Oh, there's the thing."

Ayisha Jaffer: Was that sort of like when you went to Berklee, and you were kind of now looking into songwriting, starting to do that, was that kind of like, you were like, "I have these things I love and I want to put them together." Was that sort of what influenced that? 

Sid Sriram: Yeah, I think so. I think, well, I feel like socially or just as like, as a human being, having grown up here in the States but being from India, I did always feel like there was a unique perspective that I had to offer, not even just musically, just in terms of life experience. And that has been like a subconscious kind of core aspect of who I am or a belief I've had since I was quite young. So naturally, that kind of made its way into the music when I started writing, because I started writing from a space of necessity; I was at Berklee, just like really homesick, and it became kind of my mechanism to work through that. And through that process, the coming together, the worlds just kind of started happening, I don't know if it was necessarily like an intentional, like, "These are the different aspects of me and this is how it's gonna come together." The source point wasn't intentional, it's probably something that happened accidentally when I was in a practice room just messing around with some chords. Once I realized that this could be a thing, then it became pretty intentional that I wanted to bring these things together, and figure out how it can happen in the most seamless way. Admittedly, at first, it wasn't that good, you know? Or like, there'd be moments where I'd sing whole song, and then the end, it'd be like, "Here's the Indian section!", you know? And that felt so — at the time, it felt fine, and I knew that it was a part of the discovery. And it took a lot of that, just chiseling away through the years to get to the point where it didn't have to be an intellectual thing anymore.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah. Well, I'm curious. So okay, Berklee, you're writing songs, you're doing things, and then — I am sort of missing this piece of the story — how did you, like, fall into the Bollywood scene and that music scene?

Sid Sriram: Sure. So, I was, this was like, 2010. I was at Berklee at the time, just mainly working on my own music and then Carnatic music also, just kind of continuing on that trajectory. And a composer named A.R. Rahman who's a legend from southern India, the same city that I was born in, he had just won the Oscar that year for Slumdog Millionaire, but way before that, he's like one of the most integral musical influences of my life from like, when I was born to now. And so I emailed him, be like, "Hey, here's some of my music, check it out if you have a moment." Him getting that Oscar was huge for myself, because it was the first time that someone that looked like me got that level of recognition on the world stage, or specifically on the western world stage. So that was just like, oh, an aha moment.

A man poses for a photo on arrival at a film event
A. R. Rahman attends the Opening Night Gala screening of "What's Love Got To Do With It?" at the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 01, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

So that kind of inspired me a few weeks later to send that email; didn't expect a response, it was a cold email. But he responded back a couple of weeks later. And then about a year after that, I was in India, in Chennai, for concerts, for Carnatic concerts, and I got a call from his assistant to go to the studio. And early 2012, I recorded my first song with him. And that is what really started the journey of being in Indian films, specifically in southern Indian films. I haven't done any work in Hindi, but in southern Indian languages. And yes, started in 2012, it was a huge left turn for me as well, because I was on a certain path where I was writing my own music, I had a cover of a Frank Ocean song called "We All Try" that really blew up in 2011; I was taking meetings with a bunch of labels, and then this happened. And I don't know, I think serendipity has just always been an important part of how I move and really kind of believing in it. And that was just probably the first instance of that being a really magical moment that I just had to give myself to, you know? And that's how that started. And then just, it didn't take off immediately. The song that I recorded with him was a big hit, but people didn't necessarily know who I was or didn't know my face. A couple years later, I had another song that I had done with him that really blew up, and then my career took off over there.

Ayisha Jaffer: That's cool. I mean, I remember my youth, [the Indian film] Taal was like a big thing.

Sid Sriram: That's one of my favorite albums, one of my top five for sure. 

Tips Films
Movie Taal - Official Trailer - Aishwarya Rai, Akshay Khanna & Anil Kapoor

Ayisha Jaffer: Me too! So I'm very aware. And it's a good example, though, of like, I think a lot of people don't think like, "Oh, just ask, just reach out to your idol and see," and I love the serendipity in your story. It's really beautiful. So there was a moment then. So I remember hearing that you were talking about maybe you were going to move to India and stay there. But you decided to stay here, at least for now. And so I'm wondering what was it about staying here? What made you stay?

Sid Sriram: Sure. So I think, so 2016 is the year where my career in India really took off and skyrocketed. The song came out on January 1 of that year. It really changed my life. I was still living in the U.S. at the time. And that song took off. I was kind of adamant to stay in the U.S., because even though I had this career that was starting to really do a thing over there, I wanted my career to take off here in the West. And I think that really just boils down to me kind of not having fully embraced my identity yet. So I was like, "No, I need to do this in America first." My dad who manages me, was like, "There's something going on over there. Let's go check it out." So we went to India, and that's when I started living there, like six to eight months out the year. So I did that from 2016 to 2020. The career just continually grew, and 2020 was probably my most — on paper, my most successful year. Or sorry, 2019. 2020 hit, the pandemic hit, and I came back to lockdown with my folks in Fremont. And that changed a whole lot for everyone, you know, the whole kind of fabric of how we move changed. And that's when I started writing my own music again, like seriously. I kept hitting walls through from then to like 2021. And at that point, I was like, "Maybe I just give this up all together and just move to India full time." Right around then, I connected with a producer

Ryan Olson at Walker Art Center on August 17, 2017.
Emmet Kowler for MPR

named Ryan Olson, who's from Minneapolis. And we again, serendipitously, connected on Instagram. He's not really like a forward facing, like, social media guy at all. But somehow our paths crossed digitally. And I took a trip to Minneapolis for three days, and that trip changed my life. So around that point was when I was going to move back full time and just move to India. But this happened and I was like, "Oh, no, there's something else going on."

Ayisha Jaffer: Great. All right. Well, we're hanging out with The Current, we're hanging out with Sid Sriram here on The Current. I'm Ayisha Jaffer, and we're going to talk about your album, since we're touching on it, called Sidharth. And OK, so I want to go back to Ryan Olson, you guys, so you guys were Instagramming each other or DMing each other; like, how did this all, let's rewind and like, how did this all kind of connect being that like, maybe Ryan, was Ryan on your radar the other the other way around?

Sid Sriram: So what it was was, there's a photographer that I really love. His name is Erik Heck. And I'm just a fan of his work, just again, through Instagram. There's a certain way he treats color that is really beautiful. And him and Ryan are friends. So they were, so I follow Erik on Instagram, have been for years. Him and Ryan were just doing an Instagram live, just like a mix in the studio, must have been like three or four in the morning, but it sounded awesome, so I started following Ryan after that, and he followed me back. And we just started exchanging messages, really. And he said, "Come out to Minneapolis," like, "We should make music out here." I'm a creature of habit, and I really get used to like a certain routine. So I've been in L.A. and New York and Fremont and making music in these places — again, hitting walls, not really having any breakthroughs — but I was still like, "No, I think I'm just going to stay here." My dad again was the one that was like, "There's something happening in the Midwest; you should go check out a different city and just see what's going on." And my dad has this sixth sense with these kinds of things where he can just kind of tell. So I made the trip out. And Ryan's profile picture is not his face. Like he has someone, like his friend's face. So I pull up to Minneapolis, get out at the airport, and it's another dude. Like, I was confused! But he ended up being one of the most loving, interesting, unique individuals. We grabbed breakfast. The first person he introduced me to was Justin Vernon, who, them two are childhood friends. And that was pretty big for me because I've been a big Bon Iver fan since I was in college. And then we spent those few days at Ryan's studio here in Minneapolis, just making music. You know, it was three days of just five to six, seven of us just jamming and without ego without any agenda, just doing it.

Justin Vernon singing at Rock the Garden
Evan Frost/MPR

Ayisha Jaffer: That's Midwest right there. Did you know that when you arrive in the Midwest, you just, mandatory conversation with Justin Vernon, that's like what you're given. So that's awesome. That's so cool. Because I know I heard in your, sort of some hesitation of the Midwest, because it's not like the traditional place that you would come for music, but you know, even I'm discovering that myself, like, you know, the land of Prince and all these great artists coming out of here. So what was your kind of your first impression? You sort of touched on it a bit.

Sid Sriram: Yeah, I was just in a new place. So, and like I said, and for me, I don't even know if it was like, an apprehensiveness of coming to the Midwest; just going to a new place, I was like, "I don't know," you know? And my first impression was just I was amongst individuals that were so honestly warm. And this idea of making music without agenda or egos, it was just the most refreshing thing ever, because, and this is no knock to any other city, but so many times you go into sessions or making music in where there's like a lot of expectation, or very rigid kind of constructs that you have to operate within, and I just don't find that inspiring. This was just infinitely inspiring. And we were coming out of the pandemic at that time; this was like May or June of 2021. Everyone was just excited to be in the room together. And that's really kind of like that real genuine energy was just kind of addicting honestly; like, we were just in the studio to like three or four in the morning those three days. At the end of that like three-day period, we'd come up with like 30 to 35 song ideas. And, yeah, the next eight months after that was just spent chiseling away and making a 13-song album.

Ayisha Jaffer: So when were you like, "This is an album"? Like, "This is it"?

Sid Sriram: Yeah, so I'd been working on other stuff, like I said, near the beginning of pandemic, just completely on my own. And that's what I thought my album was; I thought this was going to be like a side project or something. And so basically, after that first weekend, I went back home to Fremont, to the Bay. And I started just kind of writing and excavating, from those 30 ideas, what felt like the most special moments. And about a week in, my mom is a — you know, she's still my music teacher to this day, and she's just someone whose opinion I really, really respect and trust in — and she very kind of, like, subtly, like, "You should finish this stuff." You know, like, there's something — she didn't say there's something there. She's like, "You should finish this stuff." That was it. And I was like, "OK." So it was just not my, and that's, and it was about, like, I guess, my next trip to Minneapolis, I went back home for a few weeks, started writing the songs and just kind of chiseling away, came back to Minneapolis, and we started kind of like digging into the production a little bit more and all that. After that trip, I was like, "Oh, this is not the side project, this is the album." You know, and that's when it really hit me. And yeah, like, it just felt like this creative wave hit us, you know? And it doesn't happen all the time, but like, it hit us in a way where I couldn't do anything but surrender to it, and really just — I speak about this a lot, and I used to talk about it more in like abstraction — but the idea of channeling and really, yeah, surrendering and becoming a vessel. You know? This was a process where I had no choice but to do that; like it seized me in that way. So yeah, I kind of rambled a little.

Ayisha Jaffer: No, I love it. Well, you also named this, this is your namesake: Sidharth. So what was it? Was it just like it felt most authentic to you? Like you kind of found, I don't know, I don't want to say like, "you found yourself through the music," but is that ... ?

Sid Sriram: Yeah, for sure. I think we were nearing the end, we just finished like first round of mixes. By that point, I'd actually moved to Colorado from the Bay. And I just got back to my spot there, and me and Ryan were talking, and we'd been throwing around different album title ideas. And one morning it was just like, "No, this might be it." And it was, again, very on brand with the way we made the rest of the album. It just kind of hit me; there was not a lot of thinking or toiling and stuff. It was like, "Oh, this could be." I texted Ryan, he's like, "Yeah, that's tight." And you know, this happens where sometimes you write a song and you make sense of it after it's written, where it's like, you start to really understand the layers and the meaning behind it. Same way with the title. Once it was titled and we really started finishing it up and all that, I was like, the album feels like a reaffirmation of self or rediscovery of self, and also just a celebration of that. And I've been detached from my full name for a long time now. My parents and my sister call me that, but no one else in the world does. Also, having become famous in one part of the world with the name Sid Sriram, I've lost some of my personal connection to that name, too, because it feels like I don't own it anymore. So in many ways, titling this album Sidharth was just also kind of a deep embrace of not even just the child in me, but like the deepest part of who I am, you know? And that's what this music really feels like it represents. 

A photo of a man is surrounded in mosaic
Sid Sriram, 'Sidharth'
Def Jam Recordings

Ayisha Jaffer: Well, and your namesake also has like really cool meaning to it, and I feel like you've just like, fell into it — not fell into because it was like was like serendipitous, but also very much worked on in this record of like "success" and like "completion" and you know?

Sid Sriram: Yeah, I actually didn't know that. Like I knew the history behind the name Sidharth and that like Buddha and that, but I did not know what it meant until I titled it, and then I looked it up.

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh, really?

Sid Sriram: Then I realized "one who has achieved." And that opened up a whole new set of just like, portals in my brain of, "Achieved what?" you know? And "What is achievement?" and all all this, but yeah, I had never taken the time to even understand the meaning of the name until titling it this. So in so many ways, it just felt like a circling back around to the source.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah, I feel like serendipity is your life. And that's awesome. Well, I have to talk about one particular song that we're playing here on The Current, which I heard you sort of mash up.

Sid Sriram: Yes!

Ayisha Jaffer: "Quiet Storm" is the song that we play, and it has such an intensity and a warmth to it. And I wondered if you'd be willing to talk about it a little bit.

Sid Sriram: Yeah. I feel like that song really encapsulates the spirit of the album in the most kind of poetic and powerful way. Its subject matter is somewhat vast in that it's really like, I think about this a lot, but I think the idea of like autonomy on a spiritual level is a fallacy. You know? And not that we don't have control over our actions and what we do, but I do deeply believe in the fact that we focus too much on control, and that takes away so much of the beauty of what life is. And this song is, like "Quiet Storm," there's a line near the end of it is, "When you finally see, this is nothing short of magic / When you finally see. this is nothing short of madness / I opened up my eyes and let the life flow..." I'm forgetting my own lyric, but it's, those first two lines, it's, it's, you know, what, let me finish: [singing] "I opened up my eyes, let the lies of those before me, pulsing through my veins..." Yeah,  that's what it, so lies before me. So it's like, this idea of just surrendering, you know, and the moment of surrender, especially when you're surrounded by forces unknown, surrounded by what feels like a hurricane. You know, there's not much else you can do but surrender in those moments. And not from a space of weakness, but from a space of strength. You know, and I think conceptually, that's what that song really is. In terms of the song itself and its form, it's just like a journey, you know? That you kind of, it's like almost like you're on a train, and it's just like, kind of like pushing its way through something is kind of what it feels like. Yeah.

Ayisha Jaffer: That's beautiful.

Sid Sriram: Yeah.

Ayisha Jaffer: I love that. I also love finding it, you're finding it on this different wave, even the lyrics. Like I can, I can feel that pushing through, which is really cool. Sid Sriram here at The Current. Sidharth is out now.

Sid Sriram: Thank you.

Ayisha Jaffer: Thank you.

Video Segments

00:00:00 Do The Dance
00:04:06 Dear Sahana
00:10:44 Came Along
00:15:02 Interview with host Ayisha Jaffer

All songs from Sid Sriram’s 2024 album, Sidharth, available on Sid Sriram Music/Do What You Love Records LLC/Def Jam Recordings


Sid Sriram – vocals
Evan Slack – guitar


Guest – Sid Sriram
Host – Ayisha Jaffer
Producer – Derrick Stevens
Video and Audio – Eric Romani
Camera Operators – Megan Lundberg, Nikhil Kumaran
Graphics – Natalia Toledo
Digital Producer – Luke Taylor

Sid Sriram – official site