Picture this. It’s 2020. An uncertain year where everyone is coming to terms with dealing with a global pandemic and the future seems dystopian and bleak. Like many young musicians who took to digital streaming and released their music, Mumbai-based singer/songwriter Utsavi Jha released her first song ‘Amsterdam/Thousand Miles’ and hoped for the live music scene to resume, following a sense of normalcy. Cut to 2023, the young musician is performing to sold-out shows and has just made a remarkable debut on celluloid with the OTT outing ‘Gulmohar’, cast against seasoned co-actors.
The Free Press Journal got in touch with Utsavi for a brief chat where she spoke about her process of making music, her aspirations and handling new found success
From a former lifestyle editor, to a singer-songwriter, to now becoming an actor. How do you view the magic of possibilities?
As an artist, sometimes I'm so focussed on getting work done and moving from one thing to another that I don't notice myself slipping into these different roles. For me, I was being Utsavi- experimenting, falling and learning. But when I did stop to look around, it felt surreal. As you rightly said, magical. I still don't believe it sometimes. The kind of people, experiences and emotions I've encountered in my journey so far are beyond my imagination. I loved all my jobs before I started pursuing music, especially my first as an editor at Exhibit magazine, which helped me learn and experience so much. Now, I feel lucky to have the ability to create and pursue an art-form like music. During those jobs, I would dream of getting to make my own music and perform shows. I remember being frustrated, sad and dejected because those dreams felt so out of reach. And acting- it was never a plan. However, very early on in life, I taught and forced myself to be open and put learning before comfort. I'm glad that it has paid off in some way. As for possibilities- this one character in ‘Gulmohar’ says- "In life, we only need love and hope." And that is something I have come to believe strongly. Hope really makes the world go round, it certainly has mine. And it made me believe in possibilities. So, I'd say, just keep working and let the magic of possibilities surprise you! Life has surprised me in the best possible ways in the last few years, especially the last year, and I cannot wait for it to surprise me more and more in the right ways. Always holding out hope and practising gratitude.
Utsavi has released two singles in 2023, so far, namely 'Rijhaaun' and 'Nasamjhi'
What was your mindspace like when you penned ‘Nasamjhi’?
Unlike my other songs, Nasamjhi wasn't born out of a very personal experience, but was the result of a writing exercise in 2021. However, I did end up channelising certain feelings I was experiencing towards someone at the time. I like to believe that I'm a practical and wise person who does not speak or act out of turn. However, my reaction to reality, or a situation/person then, was unlike me. And that irrationality was very frustrating because that wasn't me and I didn't understand where that behaviour was coming from. I am not irrational, but it was the situation and/or my feelings that were making me feel foolish. So, I would say my mindspace was frustration and volatility. A year later, while I was revisiting ‘Nasamjhi’, I broke down while singing it because the lyrics hit me so hard. That day, it became a song about missing someone because I was missing some very important people who are no longer present in my life. When I went to record, I channelised these new feelings. So, these are some feelings and occurrences that led to ‘Nasamjhi’ as a whole.
When you first released music in 2020, did it ever occur to you that you'd be performing to packed gigs or you'd make your film debut alongside experienced actors?
Not at all. To be honest, I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to dreaming. That's why I focus on planning, working and executing. I avoid dreaming. So, what my music could lead to was something my mind never got to. Or rather, I never let it go there. For me, I was just a new singer and songwriter, inspired to release music like her peers and see if I could actually do it. The prospect of putting together a tight band in 2019-2020 seemed very out of reach for me because I had experienced failed efforts and disappointment in that area. Cut to now- performing at NH7 Weekender or at antiSOCIAL, manifestation works maybe, and hardwork and perseverance definitely work. However, I cannot discredit the kindness that listeners and colleagues/people in the industry have shown for me to have those packed gigs or experiences. And acting- never in my wildest dreams. When I was told Sharmila ma'am and Manoj sir were going to be in the movie, I really felt as though somebody was pulling an elaborate prank on me. But it was all real, yet it still doesn't feel so. I've had so many surreal experiences because of ‘Gulmohar’. Met and learned from the best in the industry right in the first project, who even dreams of something so wild? So no, the answer is, I had never imagined I'd get to do either. But I'm extremely grateful that God and the Universe have been so kind and I hope that continues.
With the warm reception that you've been rightfully receiving so far, for your music and for your on-screen performance, do you feel any pressure or would you want to process it all, one day at a time?
I do feel the pressure for sure. I've been given so many wonderful opportunities that I feel the pressure to do good and keep the momentum going. I promise I'm working hard, but some things are not in my control. There have been times in the past or during the release phase of ‘Gulmohar’ when I'd have to stop and force myself to breathe in and just savour the feeling of having done something instead of worrying about the next thing. I am extremely grateful, don't get me wrong, but I'm also aware of the ephemeral nature of these things. So while there is pressure- on me and by me- I am teaching myself to balance it out by also taking it all in and giving a rightful, thoughtful reaction to everything. And ultimately, focusing on continuing creating and working.
With Sharmila Tagore in 'Gulmohar'
It's been a good start to the year with both 'Rijhaaun' and 'Nasamjhi' finding their listeners. How do you see the rest of 2023 roll out for yourself?
Thank you so much. Indeed, I'm so happy that my listeners have shown love to both these songs. Or these songs have found their respective listeners. ‘Rijhaaun’ was an out-and-out experiment and to see it being so well-received was a great push to keep following my instincts. And ‘Nasamjhi’ reinstated my belief that structure and techniques are always second to expression and honesty. I love when I can learn something new as that's what it's all about for me. Everyday, I am reminded of the kindness these strangers show to me by being such loyal listeners, engaging with me and my music and just supporting all my experiments. I hope they continue being kind enough. As for how I see the rest of the year, there's plenty of Hindi and English music for sure that hopefully goes to plan. For everything else, I am being open and I can't wait to see life unfold and surprise me like it has, till now.