Biography

The choice of opening notes in a composition about Nitin Sawhney is dizzying. They could be about his 2017 Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award, his Sadler’s Wells production or the next entries in a distinguished catalogue of major film scores, including Warner’s 2018 blockbuster, ‘Mowgli’, his shows at Shakespeare’s Globe, his exciting television ventures with Tony Visconti, or his incredible voyage through every style and medium you can think of.

Finding the start point for a Sawhney biography presents as many options and avenues as his remarkable career itself. He is one of the most distinctive and versatile musical voices around today, and is firmly established as a world-class producer, songwriter, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, orchestral composer and cultural pioneer.

Sawhney has become a modern day “Renaissance man” with his endless artistic inquisitiveness making him the modern music industry’s embodiment of that expression.

As he was preparing for a typically intense period of progressive new work, Sawhney’s Lifetime Achievement recognition at the Ivor Novello awards stood as a staging post for what he’s delivered to date. He is rightly seen as one of the architects of Britain’s so-called Asian Underground movement, but he’s done more than almost anybody to help it go over-ground. Not that he ever usually stands still long enough to glance over his shoulder.

“It was just a really great occasion,” says Nitin of The Ivors and the Lifetime Achievement award presented to him by collaborator, filmmaker and actor Andy Serkis. “I felt ridiculously humbled and privileged. Looking at the range of previous winners, to be the 30th winner…I kept thinking ‘God, they’re all household names.’ But it was nice, because it’s from composers and songwriters, and there’s a real feeling of celebrating music.

As an artist, producer, songwriter, club DJ, broadcaster, multi-instrumentalist, orchestral composer and cultural tastemaker, Nitin Sawhney is a talent for the British music industry to be truly proud of. Now, with a depth of experience admired by workmates from Brian Eno to Jeff Beck and from the London Symphony Orchestra to Paul McCartney, he continues to have a host of challenging new ideas up his sleeve.

At any given point, Nitin’s diary bulges with projects, stretching months and years ahead, In late July 2017, he served as Musical Director for Tony Visconti’s ‘A Life In Music’ concert at London’s Union Chapel, featuring guests Stewart Copeland, Bob Geldof and Holy Holy, the latter Visconti’s salute to the early music of one of the legends he helped create, David Bowie.

Filmed for a Sky Arts special, those would be ingredients enough for a remarkable night, but it didn’t end there. Recognising the 50-year career of Visconti, a muse who is Sawhney’s direct forebear in many ways, the gig featured music by other artists whose sound Tony shaped, including Marc Bolan & T. Rex and Thin Lizzy. But the stage was also adorned with some outstanding fresh talent, leading to Sky Arts’ six-part series Tony Visconti’s Unsigned Heroes, with Sawhney as Musical Director.

The pair may have had vastly different geographical origins, Visconti growing up in Brooklyn and Sawhney in Kent, but they were almost fated to work together. “Nitin has accomplished everything I always wanted to do but never had the time,” says Tony. “He is a prolific composer who has contributed countless scores to many films, TV shows and documentaries. He is a very accomplished and talented guitarist and on other instruments, too, but I’ve heard his amazing guitar playing face to face and my jaw dropped.

At a private party, I heard him and his friend sing a complicated acappella Indian music rhythm exercise. I mean, really complicated. Where does he fit all this talent and knowledge in his head? It will be my privilege to work side by side with him in my upcoming Sky Arts TV series.

As an Associate Artist of Sadler’s Wells since 2010, September 2017 held the appetising promise of a fully choreographed Sadler’s Wells’ production of Sawhney’s 2015 album Dystopian Dream. Nitin’s worked with Sadler’s on a myriad of collaborations, and the fruition of this long-held ambition, to mount an already remarkable album is a truly ground-breaking audio-visual setting. This is also the first time an album has been conceptualised into a choreographed contemporary show by Sadler’s Wells.

Sawhney regularly takes to the stage in his own right, firstly as part of the India & Me series inspired by the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. Virtually a one-man presentation at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of Shakespeare’s Globe, the show enriched with his own experiences growing up as a British Indian. Followed by performances at the Globe itself, by a full gig with his band, only the second time the hallowed space has been used for such a show.

I think any Asian artist growing up in England is going to be a mix of contexts and heritage,” reflects Sawhney with quiet conviction. “So you’re constantly battling to be perceived as who you are, against a surprisingly miseducated and ill-informed world.” He pauses to laugh, but it’s clear that such supposed barriers have always inspired him to reach ever further.

That ignorance is quite often shoved at you so aggressively that it really challenges your ability to react in a measured way,” he muses. “I grew up very angry, but music, for me, is that measured way.

If there was anger, Sawhney did indeed harness it well. Raised in Rochester, he played classical and jazz piano, guitar, tabla and sitar and was friends from school years with a fellow enquiring mind, keyboard virtuoso James Taylor. Nitin became an early touring member of his celebrated James Taylor Quartet, but as a second-generation British Asian with so much to say, it was already obvious that his scope couldn’t be limited to any one medium.

After Sawhney left university he teamed up with his college friend Sanjeev Bhaskar in a comedy duo, the ‘Secret Asians’. Years later, they would work together again on the smash hit TV sketch series ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, for which Nitin won a Sony Radio Award as both a writer and performer. Other passion projects in radio accrued in later years, including several series of his own BBC Radio 2 show, ‘Nitin Sawhney Spins The Globe’, in which he not only introduced global treats on disc, but created some of his own.

Back in earlier days, Sawhney’s name appeared above the title on an album for the first time with 1994’s ‘Spirit Dance’, on the seminal World Circuit label. It won immediate admiration, became his first to break into the mainstream UK charts, and set in motion a bespoke body of recorded work that was realising its full potential by the time of 1999’s ‘Beyond Skin’. The album took the theme of nuclear conflict and spoke so loudly that it won the South Bank Show Award and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

A deal with V2 Records ensued and led to three releases for the label, two of which, ‘Prophesy’ and ‘Philtre’, won the Boundary Crossing title at the BBC Radio 3 Music Awards. ‘Prophesy’ went silver in 2013; the same year, ‘Beyond Skin’ arrived at gold certification. Another album landmark was 2008’s ‘London Undersound’, featuring guest appearances by McCartney, Imogen Heap, Natty and Anoushka Shankar; Sawhney went on to produce Shankar’s Grammy-nominated 2013 release; ‘Traces Of You’.

Sawhney’s stage work has also seen him as a director, for Sadler’s Wells with Confluence and for National Theatre workshops of his own play, ‘Trust’. He won a New York Performance and Dance Award for best score with Akram Khan’s ‘Zero Degrees’, scored Bahok for the Royal Ballet of China and wrote the music for Théâtre de Complicité’s Olivier Award-winning ‘A Disappearing Number’, among many others.

With some 50 movie scores to his name already, he’s written the music for the true story romantic drama ‘Breathe’, directed by Andy Serkis, and starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, released on both sides of the Atlantic in October 2017.

Sawhney is passionate about the field of musical education, and has eight honorary doctorates from British universities. He has been patron of the British Government’s training provider Access to Music and is a fellow of LIPA (the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) and the Southbank University.

Not only does Nitin work in just about every traditional medium you can imagine, he helps develop the newest ones. He’s worked extensively with the UK games developers Ninja Theory, composing the music for their cutting edge, bestselling video games, ‘Heavenly Sword’, ‘Pigsy’ and ‘Enslaved’. His orchestral score for Enslaved, with the Prague Philharmonic, won an Ivor Novello nomination.

Sawhney is also on the leading edge of VR, honing his skills in the context of Virtual Reality. “VR is very interesting to me because it’s exploring the nature of how we perceive reality anyway,” he says.

Music’s always got a part to play in every version of reality we have. So I think on each platform, or each medium, there’s new ways of looking at music. VR, as a way of recording, gives you a new way to become intimate with the listener and get into their mindset, and find new ways of making that connection.

The distinctions run deep, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Nitin Sawhney is a man for our times, and for those to come. “I think I’ve experimented with just about every medium, but I’m always open, and if you think of music as language, you can never tire of working with it,” he says.

It’s about how you engage with yourself and the world around you. That’s dynamic, so the way you think should be dynamic, and the way you express yourself. So from that point of view, I’m just open to what happens next, and how music is going to enable me to absorb and to give back.

Honorary Doctorates

2006 – Awarded an Honorary Fellowship from South Bank University, London
2007 – Awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Kent
2008 – Awarded Fellowship of LIPA
2009 – Awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sussex
2009 – Awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Roehampton
2009 – Awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Staffordshire
2012 – Awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Goldsmiths
2014 – Awarded Doctor of Arts University of Hertfordshire

Biography

The choice of opening notes in a composition about Nitin Sawhney is dizzying. They could be about his 2017 Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award, his new Sadler’s Wells production or the next entries in a distinguished catalogue of major film scores, his shows at Shakespeare’s Globe, his exciting television ventures with Tony Visconti, or his incredible voyage through every style and medium you can think of.

Finding the start point for a Sawhney biography presents as many options and avenues as his remarkable career itself. “Renaissance man” is a phrase often used cheaply, but his endless artistic inquisitiveness make him the modern music industry’s embodiment of that expression.

As he was preparing for a typically intense period of progressive new work, Sawhney’s Lifetime Achievement recognition at the Ivor Novello awards stood as a staging post for what he’s delivered to date. He is rightly seen as one of the architects of Britain’s so-called Asian Underground movement, but he’s done more than almost anybody to help it go overground. Not that he ever usually stands still long enough to glance over his shoulder.

“It was just a really great occasion,” says Nitin of The Ivors and the Lifetime Achievement award presented to him by collaborator, filmmaker and actor Andy Serkis. “I felt ridiculously humbled and privileged. Looking at the range of previous winners, to be the 30th winner…I kept thinking ‘God, they’re all household names.’ But it was nice, because it’s from composers and songwriters, and there’s a real feeling of celebrating music.”

As an artist, producer, songwriter, club DJ, broadcaster, multi-instrumentalist, orchestral composer and cultural tastemaker, Nitin Sawhney is a talent for the British music industry to be truly proud of. Now, with a depth of experience admired by workmates from Brian Eno to Jeff Beck and from the London Symphony Orchestra to Paul McCartney, he has a host of challenging new ideas up his sleeve.

At any given point, Nitin’s diary bulges with projects stretching months and years ahead, but summer 2017 sees the fruition of several particularly fascinating endeavours. In late July, he serves as Musical Director for Tony Visconti’s A Life In Music concert at London’s Union Chapel, featuring guests Stewart Copeland, Bob Geldof and Holy Holy, the latter Visconti’s salute to the early music of one of the legends he helped create, David Bowie.

Filmed for a Sky Arts special, those would be ingredients enough for a remarkable night, but it doesn’t end there. Recognising the 50-year career of Visconti, a muse who is Sawhney’s direct forebear in many ways, the gig will feature music by other artists whose sound Tony shaped, including Marc Bolan & T. Rex and Thin Lizzy. But the stage will also be adorned with some outstanding fresh talent, leading to Sky Arts’ upcoming six-part series Tony Visconti’s Unsigned Heroes, airing in September with Sawhney again as MD.

The pair may have had vastly different geographical origins, Visconti growing up in Brooklyn and Sawhney in Kent, but they were almost fated to work together. “Nitin has accomplished everything I always wanted to do but never had the time,” says Tony. “He is a prolific composer who has contributed countless scores to many films, TV shows and documentaries. He is a very accomplished and talented guitarist and on other instruments, too, but I’ve heard his amazing guitar playing face to face and my jaw dropped.

“At a private party, I heard him and his friend sing a complicated acappella Indian music rhythm exercise. I mean, really complicated. Where does he fit all this talent and knowledge in his head? It will be my privilege to work side by side with him in my upcoming Sky Arts TV series.”

September holds the appetising promise of Sadler’s Wells’ fully choreographed production of Sawhney’s 2015 album Dystopian Dream. As an Associate Artist of the revered performing arts venue since 2010, he’s worked there on myriad collaborations, and now sees the fruition of a long-held ambition, to mount an already remarkable album in this groundbreaking audio-visual setting.

After an acclaimed first performance at the Royal Albert Hall last year, the music and dance production — created from Sawhney’s own concept and co-devised with Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez — will receive its world premiere in Luxembourg in September. That will be followed by a UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells in autumn 2018.

Even before that, in August, Sawhney takes to the stage in his own right, firstly as part of the India & Me series inspired by the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. Virtually a one-man presentation at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of Shakespeare’s Globe, the show will be rich with his own experiences growing up as a British Indian. It will be followed, at the Globe itself, by a full gig with his band, only the second time the hallowed space has been used for such a show.

“I think any Asian artist growing up in England is going to be a mix of contexts and heritage,” reflects Sawhney with quiet conviction. “So you’re constantly battling to be perceived as who you are, against a surprisingly miseducated and ill-informed world.” He pauses to laugh, but it’s clear that such supposed barriers have always inspired him to reach ever further.

“That ignorance is quite often shoved at you so aggressively that it really challenges your ability to react in a measured way,” he muses. “I grew up very angry, but music, for me, is that measured way.”

If there was anger, Sawhney did indeed harness it well. Raised in Rochester, he played classical and jazz piano, guitar, tabla and sitar and was friends from school years with a fellow enquiring mind, keyboard virtuoso James Taylor. Nitin became an early touring member of his celebrated James Taylor Quartet, but as a second-generation British Asian with so much to say, it was already obvious that his scope couldn’t be limited to any one medium.

After Sawhney left university he teamed up with his college friend Sanjeev Bhaskar in a comedy duo, the Secret Asians. Years later, they would work together again on the smash hit TV sketch series Goodness Gracious Me, for which Nitin won a Sony Radio Award as both a writer and performer. Other passion projects in radio accrued in later years, including several series of his own BBC Radio 2 show, Nitin Sawhney Spins The Globe, in which he not only introduced global treats on disc, but created some of his own.

Back in earlier days, Sawhney’s name appeared above the title on an album for the first time with 1994’s Spirit Dance, on the seminal World Circuit label. It won immediate admiration, became his first to break into the mainstream UK charts, and set in motion a bespoke body of recorded work that was realising its full potential by the time of 1999’s Beyond Skin. That album took the theme of nuclear conflict and spoke so loudly that it won the South Bank Show Award and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

A deal with V2 Records ensued and led to three releases for the label, two of which, Prophesy and Philtre, won the Boundary Crossing title at the BBC Radio 3 Music Awards. Prophesy went silver in 2013; the same year, Beyond Skin arrived at gold certification. Another album landmark was 2008’s London Undersound, featuring guest appearances by McCartney, Imogen Heap, Natty and Anoushka Shankar; Sawhney went on to produce Shankar’s Grammy-nominated 2013 release Traces Of You.

Sawhney’s stage work has also seen him as a director, for Sadler’s Wells with Confluence and for National Theatre workshops of his own play, Trust. He won a New York Performance and Dance Award for best score with Akram Khan’s Zero Degrees, scored Bahok for the Royal Ballet of China and wrote the music for Théâtre de Complicité’s Olivier Award-winning A Disappearing Number, among many others.

We also don’t have long to wait to hear Sawhney’s work on the big screen again. With some 50 movie scores to his name already, he’s written the music for the true story romantic drama Breathe, starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, released on both sides of the Atlantic in October, and the new version of The Jungle Book (working title) coming early next year, both movies directed by Andy Serkis. The Jungle Book (working title) will feature a glittering Hollywood cast including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sawhney is passionate about the field of musical education, and has six honorary doctorates from British universities. He has been patron of the British Government’s training provider Access to Music and is a fellow of LIPA (the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) and the Southbank University.

Not only does Nitin work in just about every traditional medium you can imagine, he helps develop the newest ones. He’s worked extensively with the UK games developers Ninja Theory, composing the music for their cutting edge, bestselling video games, Heavenly Sword, Pigsy and Enslaved. His orchestral score for Enslaved, with the Prague Philharmonic, won an Ivor Novello nomination.

Now Sawhney is on the leading edge of VR, honing his skills in the context of Virtual Reality. Notably, he’s been working on a version of his Dystopian Dream album with Serkis. “VR is very interesting to me because it’s exploring the nature of how we perceive reality anyway,” he says.

“Music’s always got a part to play in every version of reality we have. So I think on each platform, or each medium, there’s new ways of looking at music. VR, as a way of recording, gives you a new way to become intimate with the listener and get into their mindset, and find new ways of making that connection.”

The distinctions run deep, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Nitin Sawhney is a man for our times, and for those to come. “I think I’ve experimented with just about every medium, but I’m always open, and if you think of music as language, you can never tire of working with it,” he says.

“It’s about how you engage with yourself and the world around you. That’s dynamic, so the way you think should be dynamic, and the way you express yourself. So from that point of view, I’m just open to what happens next, and how music is going to enable me to absorb and to give back.”