Inspired by RD Burman & working with BTS: The Musical Roadmap of Tushar Apte – Score Short Reads
Indian-origin songwriter & record producer Tushar Apte has been playing in the big leagues for years now. His credits include collaborations with Chris Brown, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Zayn, Noah Cyrus as well as K-pop luminaries BTS and Blackpink, and that’s just scratching the surface.
After having struggled with corporate drudgery in Sydney, Tushar packed up his things and moved to LA and underwent years of struggle before hitting gold with Chris Brown’s Zero. Since then, his rise to the top has been meteoric and unstoppable.
The Score Magazine caught up with Tushar to get a glimpse into his artistic voyage, his Indian roots and why he thinks K-pop is a lot like Bollywood.
- What is the role of record producer and songwriter such as yourself, especially when working with acts as big as BTS and Demi Lovato?
I think great producers are also great facilitators of ‘the room’ – understanding the dynamics of co-writers/artists and people in a room and getting the best out of that situation, guiding the talents and personalities into the best song for the session. Imagine if the songwriters and artists are driving a car, a producer’s role is like paving a road in front of the car in real-time but also building an inspiring environment around the road while the car flies down the road at 100mph.
- You’ve mentioned that K-pop is similar to Bollywood. Could you elaborate?
I think it’s similar in the sense of it being a form of escapism for fans and audiences. While there are definitely deeper meanings and layers to Bollywood work and KPop music, both forms reach broad audiences and always have extremely well produced ‘entertainment value’.
- Tell us about the songs that changed your life – both as a listener and a composer.
The earliest albums I can remember listening to are the 70’s/80’s albums and music my parents played – everything from old Bollywood music (Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman etc) to more pop stuff Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Bee Gees (Thriller, Songs In The Key of Life and Innocent Man records). I think the musicality of those records is still hugely influential in how I write and arrange now.
Later when I started taking piano seriously I got really deep into jazz and more avant-garde music. – Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, Art Tatum, Jacques Loussier, all the great ‘American songbook’ composers etc. At the same time I was deep in hip-hop and funk (especially Prince, Morris Day, P-Funk etc) as they were all styles that to me were derivative of the jazz I loved. I was obsessed with liner notes in CD’s and would study who was writing and producing these songs too, even though I didn’t know exactly what those jobs meant.
As a writer the song that really changed my life was definitely ‘Zero’ by Chris Brown. I had been writing and producing for a few years to that point and had some very minor success with a couple of label acts and a number of independent acts. When that song came out it changed the whole conversation in terms of the level of writers I was working with, and being able to build a great team around me on the management and publishing side. The work I did with BTS and Blackpink have been great as far as international profiles go and I’m very honored to have been a part of some great records since.
- From a producer’s perspective, why do you think K-pop has exploded across the globe?
I think that even though it may feel l like K-pop ‘came out of nowhere’ – dig a little deeper and you’ll find that this moment has been building for at least a decade for K-Pop (Girls Gen, Big Bang, EXO and obviously PSY and others all had huge moments globally before the likes of BTS and Blackpink etc).
I think apart from the fact that the music is super catchy and well put together and the videos are of extremely high quality, K-Pop culture has mastered the art of community and fanbase building globally and it’s just the perfect storm now.
- When you are working with artists as diverse as Chris Brown, Luhan and Rossa, how do you end up making music that doesn’t sound factory-produced and matches each of the artists?
A lot of those artists are such superstars and so well defined as artists in their own right, that it’s hard to make something that isn’t authentically them – if you tried to they just wouldn’t perform it because they know themselves so well.
From a producer/writer point of view, we just try to write great songs that are as true as they can be to these artists (and hopefully have that ‘hit’ factor!), knowing that as soon as they touch the records, they are able to make them sound authentically like them and not ‘factory produced’.
- Can you tell us a bit about your Indian roots? Are you still connected to them?
Definitely! I still try and visit India as frequently as possible (much of my family is based around Maharashtra) and I’ve worked with a number of Indian artists as well which always keeps me connected in some way to what’s going on in India.
As a producer and writer that works primarily in the U.S. pop world, I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of direct Indian musical influence I put into records but I like to think it’s always there just because of who I am and the music I grew up around as a kid.
- Have you ever considered making music in India?
I have and I am currently working on a couple of projects with Indian artists .
- You had a pretty rough life before you made it big – living in a tiny joint, eating ramen noodles and tuna. Has that hardship affected your art?
Haha. I guess in telling the story it seems like a tough time but the honest truth is that they were some of the most fun times of my life and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I had come to L.A. From a life in Sydney where I was trying to fit in the box of corporate life that just wasn’t for me. So when I moved to L.A. and had those ‘struggle years’; maybe I wasn’t financially secure but I was still making music (though not getting paid for it), being creative ,meeting interesting people, having some unique, sometimes scary experiences and just hustling and trying to make it work.
In a lot of ways it was such a fun time and an incredible learning experience. I’m sure it’s affected my work in some way, but has also made me appreciate the good luck I’ve had and what I’ve got now.
- Has there been a point when you felt like you had “made it”?
Not really, I think the ‘next thing’ always drives us where you feel you’ve never made it till you reach that goal. At the same time, I’m grateful for the fact that this is my full-time job now and that I’m surrounded by the best in the world at what I do. I’ve had some great releases and moments and I couldn’t have imagined this life even 6 years ago – so from that point of view I guess I’ve kind of ‘made it’?
- Who have you enjoyed working with the most till date?
I’ve loved each artist experience for different reasons – it’s impossible to pick a favorite. The reason I love working with Noah Cyrus is completely different from how I loved the experience with Demi etc. Recently, I am very excited about a new artist I’m developing here in L.A., which you’ll hear a lot about soon hopefully.
- You’ve worked on film and TV soundtracks as well. How is it different from composing with/for artists?
It’s a completely different part of your music brain you exercise as a composer. When you write new songs for artists it’s often a completely blank slate where the song is the centerpiece.
Composing on film & TV projects is about making music to support, move and enhance the story or characters – so in some ways it’s restrictive but it’s also a really great challenge as a writer. I love doing both though composing is also a completely different thing to navigate politically in terms of how many other ‘stakeholders’ you have to communicate with – show producers, director, networks and film studio execs etc. It’s a bit more complex that way but also part of the challenge.
- Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?
I’m across a few things at the moment, including one project with a very well known Indian artist! Unfortunately I can’t say too much about them yet!
I am also very much into the crypto/NFT (non-fungible token) space as it relates to music and art in the new digital world. I recently did a performance in the Metaverse on Decentral Games with my friend Anjulie – as part of a 3-part NFT series we did with an amazing Italian visual artist called Fried Vision. You can check out our NFT work at https://foundation.app/Anjulie this was a super cool project and we’re planning to do more shows in the metaverse soon!
Also prepping for another film score and a bunch of cool artist releases here in the U.S. (and maybe some big K-Pop ones too!)
- What does your studio look like? Can you give us a glimpse into your gear?
I have a nice setup here in L.A. with a main control room and a large vocal booth. I don’t have much complex outboard gear as I do most of my mixing and production ‘in the box’ and prefer to keep a clean and simple setup, apart from a keyboard and guitars I keep in the studio. The main vocal strip is a Neve 1073 going into a vintage LA-2A compressor (a real one!) and a UAD Apollo 8 interface. My main mic is a Neumann U87 with a custom gold-plate fitting.
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