The sound at the beginning of New Haven-based musician Ravi Krishnaswami’s new album Gemini — released under the name Hybird and out today from Off Atlas, the label founded by Jonny Rodgers — is “my daughter Willa’s Rockin’ Royals Barbie guitar,” Krishnaswami said. “It’s one of those things where you get those electronic toys and they make the sound, and after a couple weeks you can’t stand the sound anymore. But I just kept fiddling with it. I love the sequence of chords.”
That was over a year ago. The song “was about hitting midlife — or half-life — turning 40 and taking stock” of “what I’ve done with my life. And one of the things that had really been kind of eating at me is that I’d been writing music for other people and not really writing my own story,” Krishnaswami said. It was, as he put it, an itch to scratch.
The guitar played four chords in the same order, and Krishnaswami couldn’t change it. But he could control the rhythm they were played in. So he brought the toy guitar into his home studio, where he works — making music for commercials and video games as co-owner, along with fellow musician Jason Menkes, of the music company COPILOT.
“The chords are not actually tuned to anything — they’re flat — so I triggered each chord separately, sampled it into my software, cut it up, and replayed what I was playing,” Krishaswami said. “This has got to turn into a song,” he recalled thinking. “And I guess the process of putting that song together … was very much directed where the lyrics went, which was looking back at childhood and about the magic of instruments and recording things being toys.”
Krishnaswami spoke from experience. Growing up in Ardsley, N.Y., he took piano and violin lessons. He sang songs to himself while doing his paper route, and in time started to write his own songs. He also started playing with a double cassette deck that would let him mix sounds together. “I wasn’t recording anything, or writing anything, or producing or composing — which are these titles I’ve had for my career now,” Krishnaswami said. “I was just playing.” But when he was 15 or 16, he saved up enough money from his paper route to buy a 4-track recorder from the Sam Ash in White Plains, along with a “really bad guitar” he bought from a neighbor.
“And then I just made four 90-minute cassettes’ worth of terrible, awful songs that no one should ever hear,” Krishnaswami said.
He went to the University of Virginia and began as an engineering student. “In my mind,” Krishnaswami said, “I was going to maybe make guitar pedals someday … maybe have a bedroom studio.”
When he was a sophomore, however, his father died. And he himself fell sick with cancer. He took a medical leave off from school and went through round of chemotherapy and surgeries. When he came back, he thought, “the engineering thing is not really me. I’d started a band, and … being in the room, I felt completely at ease with other musicians, telling them what to do, listening to what they wanted me to do, and that’s what I wanted to do. So I majored in music and I majored in English.”
His band — Charming — kept at it for a little while after college, but soon everyone moved to different parts of the country. Krishnaswami, getting out of college with a preexisting medical condition, needed a job in music that would give him steady health insurance. It shaped his career. “So I had an awareness of some of the different things you can do in music, and one of them was jingles.” He got a job at a jingle house in New York called Sacred Noise as a studio assistant. That meant “take out the trash, dust off the mixing board, order lunch for clients, and deliver DAT tapes.”
But in the studio were computers, instruments, equipment, drum machines — “all these toys that I wanted to play with.” The staff at Sacred Noise noticed and gave him the chance to try for a couple contracts on spec. Krishnaswami “reeled in the big one on my first try,” he said, with humility. It was a “techno campaign for the United States Army, which effectively killed their big jingle from the early ‘90s, ‘Be All You Can Be.’”
“For me it was basically because I was a kid and going clubbing with my brother, so I knew what that music sounded like and was able to effectively re-create it…. For building a career, there’s a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and that was that for me.” But his training in music and English also let him make the sale. “You need to be able to describe in cultural terms what you’re doing, because that’s how people who don’t have theory backgrounds experience music,” Krishnaswami said. “Who does this music speak to? Who listens to this kind of music? Who do we want to reach? Why does this sound make me feel this way or make me think this way?”
For a while his early success “pigeonholed” him, and he wrote nothing but electronic dance music for two or three years. “Music for advertising took over my life for a long time,” Krishnaswami said. He could write a different piece of music every day of the week. His own music was pushed to the side, but “I wouldn’t trade it in,” Krishnaswami said. He got better at writing and making music, and the production values of what he made rose. “I felt like, ‘wow, I’m getting all these skills — I need to use them on my own music again at some point,’” Krishnaswami said. “But I never made the time.”
After 10 years, Krishnaswami had developed a track record and a roster of his own clients. Things were changing at Sacred Noise — “we saw the advertising world changing, we saw the budgets changing, and not in a good way,” he said — and he wasn’t sure that he was going to be a part of the company’s future. So Krishnaswami and his producer, Jason Menkes, who had worked together at Sacred Noise for five years, struck off on their own.
“We had a vision for having a company that had less overhead — less premium office space in New York City, less staff, and more of a freelance-based, project-to-project kind of consultancy,” Krishnaswami said. “And we also saw stuff like interactive advertising and gaming as being these areas that were growing … and we wanted to go after that and have the freedom to do that, and to be invested in it as company owners.”
They started their company, COPILOT, in 2008 — “the week that Lehman Brothers failed,” Krishnaswami said. “In some ways it was the worst time to start a company because the economy tanked. But in some ways it was the best time to start a company … I feel like if we had waited for the economy to turn around, we would have been too late. We spent those early years building the company, and the reputation, and the website, and starting to get work under our own name, and when the economy turned around we were positioned to take advantage of that.”
Krishnaswami and Menkes did jingles for Home Goods. Then they did music for Fallout 3 — a big game — which led to a lot more work with Bethesda, the video game company. And once again, as Krishnaswami found himself writing music intended to be the soundtracks for other worlds, he drew on the knowledge he’d gained over the years.
Yet something was still missing. Krishnaswami wanted to perform. “Well, why don’t you find a band to play with?” his wife Julie suggested. He’d learned guitar by playing along to records, and had been learning the complicated parts that guitarist extraordinaire Johnny Marr wrote and played for the songs of now-seminal rock band the Smiths. On Craiglist in 2007, he found a group looking to form a Smiths tribute band, They needed a guitar player, and Krishnaswami responded. Years followed in which he slowly unlocked more of the secrets to Marr’s playing — which in turn improved his own. Ten years later, the band, the Sons & Heirs, is going strong; just this past weekend, the band played the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.
But still, for Krishnaswami, “thinking of myself as a guitar player has been a lifelong process.” He moved to the area five years ago when Julie got a job doing legal research at Yale, “and we’re pretty much here,” he said. “I love New Haven. I love being here.”
And he still hadn’t written an album of his own music—until just over a year ago. “It took me over a year” to write it, he said, which felt slow to him after years of writing music quickly for others. “It was in real fits and starts.” He found time in between job and family obligations. “Three or four songs in, this was nothing,” he said. “It was just me messing around in the studio to blow off some steam. When I got to about six or seven songs, I thought, ‘well, I only need three or four more and then I’ve got a record.” The songs ranged from the personal to the political, revolving around a tension between the natural world and technology. “I didn’t have a game plan,” he said. “But I think it hangs together thematically.”
“I didn’t tell anybody about it for a long time,” Krishnaswami continued. “All of a sudden I gave this disc to Julie,” he said. “I’m working on this,” he told her. “You’re writing a record and you didn’t tell me?” she answered back.
“But it was also my secret project,” Krishnaswami said. “It was this place I could go where no one was giving me feedback yet — because I spent so many years getting feedback.” He began passing it around to people he trusted, and “found a great friend and collaborator in Jonny Rodgers.”
He met Jon through Jon’s brother Steve, the owner of the Outer Space. “I got to know Steve and he started telling me about Jonny…. Jonny and I eventually hooked up and stayed in touch,” he said. Krishnaswami called on Rodgers for a couple of COPILOT projects. And Rodgers’s first album under his new nom de musique, Cindertalk, “struck a chord with me. I love it.” Rodgers gave Krishnaswami feedback as Krishnaswami finished up the record — and they struck a deal for Rodgers to release it on his new Off Atlas label.
So back to Gemini, and that question of how to deal with a life that’s half over.
“You can get wrapped up in the existential dread of ‘wow, it’s half done’… but a lot of it was about getting to a point of sanity and clarity — I’m a much more sane person than I was five years ago for a lot of reasons,” Krishnaswami said. “I feel more balance in my work, being able to put my own work out there…. I feel like I’ve regained my own voice and trust in my own voice. I’m still very grateful to work professionally as a composer, and very humbled. But at the same time, there is a new confidence to some of my interactions that comes from knowing that I’m making my own stuff again, and I don’t necessarily need their validation to feel better at the end of the day.”
“And,” he added, “if a few people hear some of these songs and like one or two of them, that would be great, too.”
Click above to listen to the full interview with Ravi Krishnaswami on “Northern Remedy.”