Jasdeep Singh Degun: ‘Hopefully this will open the doors for many other Indian classical musicians getting signed’

Anomaly, the debut album by Leeds-born sitarist and singer Jasdeep Singh Degun, has been several years in the making.

Jasdeep Singh Degun. Picture: Adam Lyons
Jasdeep Singh Degun. Picture: Adam Lyons

The project was “kickstarted” in 2016 when Degun received a scholarship from Sky Arts and he began working on the songs a year later. “Then the pandemic happened and we kind of lost two years,” he says. “I finished it just before the pandemic hit.”

During the development stage, Nitin Sawhney, Degun’s mentor on the project for Sky Arts, acted as a useful “sounding board” for his compositions. “We had a session in his studio down in London, then I ended up writing a song with him on the album, Translucence, that flowered into something quite nice,” he says.

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Degun says he found Sawhney’s experience enormously helpful. “When I first set out I said I need to find a producer who understands the Indian classical sound world,” he says. “That was the first thing I asked Nitin. I said, ‘I’ve got all these compositional ideas but I feel like I need some help in realising that’. He gave me a couple of tips and I got in touch with David McEwan (Sawhney’s long-time collaborator, who ended up co-producing Anomaly), and he really helped in terms of the sound and the mix, where best to place the instruments and everything.

“At that point I was just a full-fledged Indian classical musician. I was doing a bit of composition on the side but this was my chance to really delve into my own stuff which I hadn’t really done much of before.”

Degun is keen to shine a light on Indian classical music in Britain, feeling that it’s a genre that record labels have been reluctant to explore despite the fact that there are “hundreds and hundreds of really talented Indian classical musicians” attending classes all over the country and that most major cities have “five or six really good teachers of tabla, sitar, tanpura and vocals”.

“Even to get signed is such a massive feat because it just doesn’t happen for Indian classical musicians, even though there is lots of precedence behind it,” he says. “That’s partly because there is no infrastructure set up for us – we don’t have any managers, we don’t have any agents. Indian classical musicians don’t make records. We train for ages then it’s all live performances, so the model just doesn’t allow for Indian classical musicians to make a career out of it.

“My manager, who happens to be my girlfriend as well, she is the one who said we need to pitch properly. Without blowing my own trumpet, I am pretty well respected in the Indian classical world, I’m a decent player, I’ve been on the scene for a long time and I’m always performing. When we were pitching to labels everyone said ‘You’re a really good musician, you’ve done so many good things and the album is good but it just doesn’t fit our roster, find a label where you can find someone like you on it’. I literally looked at hundreds of labels in this country and there was not one brown face, not one Indian musician at all. It was only Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh and Anoushka Shankar who are signed and Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney were big 20 years ago, they made their name then, and Anoushka Shankar is Ravi Shankar’s daughter, she was born into musical royalty.

Jasdeep Singh Degun. Picture: Robert Leslie

“I can name 250 Indian classical musicians in this country who are working at a high class level and none of them would ever get picked up. I remember when I received the scholarship, because it was £30,000, I could either do a sitar album by myself or do what I chose to do which was to try and feature as many British-born Indian classical musicians on it. I think have 12 or 13 playing on it and the reason for that was because I’ve been given this opportunity and I wanted to see if I can shine a light on these musicians. With a huge amount of luck I managed to get signed by Real World before the pandemic and that was no small feat from a personal point of view and from the Indian classical point of view as well. Hopefully this will open the doors for many other Indian classical musicians getting signed and to thrive.”

Through the course of his career, Degun has worked with the likes of Vangelis, Goldie, Melanie C and Cerys Matthews. He says he’s interested in pushing musical boundaries. “When I was younger I was always raring to do everything I could,” he says. “I was practising so much and I would play sitar on anything that just sounded good to me. Between the ages of 17 and 20 I was all over, I was a session musician in London and I was studying music there and doing projects with brass bands and drum & bass, I was just enjoying music.

“For me music is a language. All my friends are musicians, I love playing with people, I enjoy all the interaction you get from playing different styles. But then I applied for the scholarship back in 2016 to be able to do my own stuff. Anomaly is a consolidation of everything I thought sounded good with my training and it was a real chance to find my own voice as a composer and as a musician. I worked with all the Indian classical musicians I looked up to but also make an album that my parents and family would listen to. It’s very Indian classical but hopefully in a way that’s accessible and sounds good to the ear.”

In 2020 Degun premiered Arya, a concerto for sitar and orchestra, with the Orchestra of Opera North, which they are now recording. He has also just been commissioned to write an opera for the company, based on Monteverdi’s Orfeo. “It’s called Orpheus and is touring in October, I’m writing that at the moment,” he says. “That’s half Indian classical and half Western classical take on Monteverdi’s Orfeo. We’ve got seven Indian classical singers and seven Indian classical musicians and then seven or eight opera singers and harpsichord and other things. It’s a real collaboration and coming together of the two styles.”

The company has also made Degun artist-in-residence this year “which is great”, he says. “I’ve got good ties with Opera North.”

Tragically last year Degun’s brother Taran took his own life at the age of 27 and the musician and his family have subsequently been raising money for two mental health charities, Leeds Mind and Andy’s Man Club. “It’s a universal problem for young men under 30, and tragically that’s what happened to my little brother not so long ago,” he says. “We did a fundraising thing just to raise awareness of this.

“I think at the year mark, which will be in September, we’re looking at working with these organisations to raise awareness within the South Asian community and beyond that as well. It is something that’s quite dear to me and fell that we should talk about more, for sure.”

Anomaly is out now. Jasdeep Singh Degun will launch it with a concert at Kings Place in London on May 14 and tours in July. www.jasdeepsinghdegun.com