Under The Spotlight: Ajay Mathur

When a song takes four decades to write you know full well there’s a story worth telling. In the case of Ajay Mathur’s single ‘Anytime At All (The Aftermath Of Silence)’, pen first met paper after the death of John Lennon as a pathway for grief but was never fully realised for fear of an emotional relapse if it were to be sung. In the grips of lockdown when grief was certainly all around, Ajay forged a way forward and the single finally took shape; and we had the chance to find out how…

SS: How would you describe your songwriting process?

I have a selective process of writing songs. Let me explain…. the melody comes to me first. It generally comes with the theme of the song, sometimes even with big chunks of lyrics. I play it on my guitar (or piano, whichever instrument is at hand) and sing it until I get to a key that fits. What happens next is that I try not to record, write or save the song idea right away. I let it rest for a couple of days or even weeks. If the song idea sticks in my head, then I know that there could be a song in it. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t worth pursuing anyway. If it sticks, I record the song and whatever pieces of lyrics I have on my phone and jot down any lyrics that came with it.

The lyrics are the crown-jewels of my music and clearly play an important role. I write a lot of the lyrics myself and I also collaborate with Mary Lou von Wyl, a very talented, creative writer and a fiercely independent thinker. Mary Lou’s style is more poetic than mine, which tends to be quite direct. At least that’s how I perceive it. Mary Lou and I have also adopted a real-time process of writing lyrics. I play, she writes, I sing what she just wrote and we tweak as we go. It’s very fast, fun, often cathartic (yes, tears flow sometimes) and it also prevents us from overthinking. This is basically the creative part of my songwriting.

My approach to working out arrangements, final lyrics, grooves and licks, etc. vary from song to song. I approach my production song by song and work towards whatever brings me closer to my concept of the essence and the atmosphere of that particular song, regardless of a style or a genre. When I work on a song, it gets my undivided attention until it’s finished. Then I move on to the next one. My songwriting and recording is an ongoing process. I don’t have a specific album in mind during the creative and production work.

SS: How has this process evolved over time?

It hasn’t really. I do remember earlier on in my songwriting career, I used to meticulously record all the ideas I had on cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes!). In the end the cassettes just seemed to pile up never to be listened to and I only worked on songs that stuck. About two or three years back I actually threw away a big box of those cassettes!

SS: Do you take songwriting inspiration from anyone in particular?

No. No one in particular, though my songs have been inspired by other people’s stories and of course a lot comes out of my own life experiences. My lyrical themes span from personal, romantic, circumstantial or cynically narcissistic to social, political and environmental. The current exodus and the mass movement of people seeking safety and refuge far away from their homes and culture – their faces, their stories, their journey, the plight and the political fallout they have been facing, especially in Europe and the United States – has had a profound effect on me. It has been very disturbing and at the same time has motivated me to write and sing about it. Another theme is the culture of fear that is consistently been cultivated and induced into our thinking. It’s been drilled into our heads to believe that we’re not good enough. We focus on our blemishes more than on our beauty. Even though there is much to be distressed about, on a more cheerful note, there have been many events in my personal life where I’m absolutely convinced that the universe has conspired in my favour. That has inspired songs about love, life and personal epiphanies.

SS: What is the hardest thing about songwriting to you?

For me, there’s nothing hard about songwriting. It’s not a compulsion for me. I think there is an inspirational energy, the Greeks called it the ‘muse’, that occasionally comes knocking at the door. If I’m tuned in, I hear the knock, open the door and let the muse in. It stays for a while and then just goes away. I have creative phases where I write lots of songs in a very short period of time, but also phases where I write nothing. I don’t try to force it because that doesn’t work for me.

SS: Do you have any remedies for a creative writing block?

As much as I have spurts of very creative phases, I also have phases where I have absolutely no song ideas. That’s okay for me. I don’t force myself to write a song. Either I’m in a creative phase and the songs come flooding in or I’m not. When I’m not, I focus on other things in life that I also enjoy, like walking with my dog, cooking, and listening to awesome music. I don’t worry about so-called writer’s block.

SS: How would you say your life philosophies affect your musical work?

I try to live consciously and be aware of what’s going on within me and around me. I try to avoid thinking in terms of problems but rather see things as situations or circumstances that could offer opportunities different than what I anticipated. I try not to be fearful, but careful where the situation demands. In that sense I’m resilient and don’t panic. I try to get clarity before I take actions. I have a positive attitude towards my life and the people around me. I also have a healthy sense of social justice. I think that is reflected in my music.

SS: How has the process of writing Anytime At All (Aftermath of Silence) influenced how you understand managing grief and fear?

Anytime At All (Aftermath of Silence) took a long time to write. Initially, I wrote it in the early 80s shortly after John Lennon’s murder. The song was a reaction, a gasp for breath after the shock. Writing the song opened a pathway for me to move on and it possibly helped me with my grief. Yet, I left the song untouched because I feared the emotional impact the song might have on me if I tried to sing it.

It wasn’t until April 2020, during the Corona lockdown that I revisited the song. That’s when I found emotional strength and the musical voice of that song. It was liberating when I finally grasped the full depth of a song that I wrote decades back in a completely new context. At a time when cancellations, stillstand and uncertainty due to the Corona crisis was stifling me, the song was a perfect moment of clarity. It not only broke the deadlock of inertia, but also boosted my confidence to finish an entire album, which is my upcoming album ‘Talking Loud’. I think that moment is perfectly reflected in ‘Anytime At All (Aftermath of Silence)’.

SS: What have you learnt about yourself as a person and a musician from the process of writing Anytime At All?

As a musician and songwriter it was a lesson in patience and in the acceptance that it can take decades for a song to mature. As a person it was a lesson in courage to let go. I didn’t pursue the song, but I just let it sit until it was ready to be rediscovered.

Anytime At All (The Aftermath Of Silence) is out now and available everywhere!

Follow Ajay down below:

Official Website

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