Weaving magic into words, Grammy-nominated singer Shilpa Rao is on the global radar for her unique voice, and her choice of music. Rao glimmers with hope to make Indian classical music more popular, and shares her most musical memories.

Picture this. It is the year 2007, and you tune into the radio while you are heading home after a long day at work. You hear a poignant, classical voice crooning the lyrics, “Tose naina lage piyaa saaware”, and you immediately fall in love with the voice you’re hearing for the first time. You don’t know who the singer is, but thanks to this song, you have been introduced to her melody. Shilpa Rao may have officially made her music debut with “Stranger On The Prowl” from Ek Ajnabee, but this very song (“Tose Naina Laage (Javeda Zindagi)”) from Anwar made people notice her fresh, conventional, tranquil voice. Credit where it’s due — music director Mithoon introduced the world to Rao’s talent. The two worked together on the song, “Woh Ajnabi” from The Train, and this was just the beginning of an efficacious journey that also made Rao land a Grammy nomination recently.

With more than 25 songs under her belt, including “Khuda Jaane”, “Subhanallah”, “Manmarziyan”, “Bulleya”, “Ghungroo”, Rao collaborated with renowned sitar player, Anoushka Shankar, for a song titled “Those Words” from Shankar’s album Love Letter last year. The album got nominated for the prestigious 63rd Grammy Awards 2021, adding another huge achievement to Rao’s impressive list. Rao recalls that it was 12:30 AM when she read a piece of news that had her name in the Grammy nominations. The next thought that followed was “I will have to work even harder, do better music, and put in more effort and practice. I felt that I need to do even better than I have done so far,” says Rao.

So how did this Grammy-nominated collaboration happen? Rao recollects, “Shankar and I met many years back at NH7 festival, and stayed in touch post the event. One fine day, we met over lunch where we talked about each other’s work. It was then that Shankar suggested that we should work together. She sent me this song last year and when I heard it, I felt that it was just beautiful. We thought of adding vocals to this song and I reached out to my friend, Shirin Anandita, for help. She then wrote the lyrics for this song in Punjabi, and that’s how the song happened.”

While “Those Words” has put Rao on the global market, this is not the first independent song she has worked on. The singer has been juggling between singing for Bollywood films and making independent music for quite some time, and says that she equally enjoys working on both kinds of projects. “I don’t differentiate between music. For any given project, I put in everything without considering where it has come from, if it’s for a film or it’s independent. The pleasure of being a musician comes from creating something new and having fun in the studio with fellow musicians. Hence, I never miss a chance of doing that,” she says.

Rao adds that she is quite focused on doing a good job and enjoying it, and perhaps that’s the very secret behind her being so popular amongst musicophiles. The singer has been in the music industry long enough to understand how it functions, and to be able to see it evolve. She shares, “In recent times, there is a lot of independent music being released by artists from different parts of the country, which is getting its true stature. I think this is a great time to be a musician.”

But is there anything she wishes the music industry had done when she entered the business? Rao says, “Back in the days, there was a time when you couldn’t hear much of the female artists, and suddenly now there are many female-driven albums and songs. Touchwood. This is such a beautiful change to witness, and it has been possible with the rise of independent music and female-driven stories.”

Unfortunately, with the good comes bad. Rao feels that the industry needs more educated and trained artists. She states, “When we talk about music in today’s time, we don’t have many people who are well trained in music. If we can bring about that change, then we can shine brighter than before on a global level.”

When it comes to furthering the reach of traditional Indian music globally, Rao has high hopes from the youth. She says, “Indian music, including Hindustani classical and other forms of traditional music, is very much loved across the globe. Everyone knows Zakir Hussain, Ravi Shankar ji, Sultan Khan Saheb, Bismillah Khan Saheb. It is only because we have taken our rich music to a global stage and gained appreciation for it. I think we need to do the same even now. I am really saying this with a lot of hope that our youth will make it bigger for us at a global level.”

It was during the pandemic when Rao’s song, “Hardum Humdum” from Ludo released, leaving everyone in awe of her voice once again. Rao released another song titled “Roz Roz” in collaboration with The Yellow Diary during the lockdown, establishing that she has very well adapted to the new normal. Conversing about how the pandemic changed the way she works, the singer says, “I think we, as musicians, have the capacity to work from home. Now, I just make sure to take all necessary precautions for myself and people around me.” She followed this with a request for everyone to get vaccinated as she, like anyone of us, is eager to get back to her normal, non-pandemic life.

However, new normal or not, Rao is looking forward to collaborating with The Yellow Diary again. She says that she has quite a few independent singles that she has recorded, and are ready for release. “There is a lot of film music that I have recorded and I hope that you all love that too, so a lot of music is coming this year and 2022. Totally looking forward to it,” she concludes.