“I just wanted to say my thing,” says Ajay Srivastav, of the motivation behind his fiery, spiritual and sublime second album, “Powerless”. “I was tired of listening to other people talking – I want to speak, and this is what I have to say. And I hope people understand where I’m coming from.”
His message arrives in the form of ten powerful, soulful, stirring songs that are the product of a crossfire hurricane of influences, drawing equally from the Mississippi Delta that sired the blues and the Varanasi Ghats where prayers, birth-rites and coming-of-age ceremonies are performed beside the Ganges. It’s an album where Ajay’s resonator guitar and glass slide channel the karmic thunder of Muddy Waters and Son House and the lithe grace of the sitar – but one where his aching, wise vocal sounds like no-one but himself. An album that’s unapologetically political, reflecting a turbulent era, but one that closes with a Sanskrit mantra aimed at delivering a much-needed peace of mind.
Ajay says he discovered the blues when the ground-quaking swagger of Muddy Waters’ “I’m A Man” materialised on the soundtrack of a documentary he was watching as a kid. “It was pre-internet, so I had to go to the record shop and sing the song so they could tell me what it was,” he laughs. “The blues hit me, in a big way. I was obsessed with it. I’d grown up with pop music and Bollywood songs, and I loved them both. But this was for me. It resonated. I felt like a different person when I listened to it.”
It was the blues that inspired Ajay’s path into music, but the sounds of the elders felt “inaccessible” to him. When he first picked up the guitar, he opted to channel the spirit of forebears closer to home, whose styles felt more within reach – British Blues Boom heroes like Keith Richards and Ray Davies. Those heroes inspired his own early forays into rock’n’roll, leading his own group around the Camden circuit.
But the course of Ajay’s fate has never followed a predictable path, and he has chased his muse in myriad directions, opportunity pulling him in unexpected directions. He replaced Nitin Sawhney in the ranks of legendary DJ and broadcaster Ritu’s world-music band The Asian Equation, touring the globe. He wrote Asian-fusion songs in Hindi and spent some years swimming among the sharks in the shadier end of the Indian music industry, ending up with only disappointment in his bank account. He’s fronted a 60s-style soul and funk revue playing Bollywood songs – the brilliantly named Botown – and displayed a gift for scoring musical theatre.
It was this last step in his charmed career that led to Ajay’s debut solo album, 2019’s “Karmic Blues”. While collaborating with his playwright wife on a musical, using his skills to channel the emotions and realities of the characters who populated their play, she asked him when he was going to write his own material again – to explore the thoughts and feelings of Ajay. “My wife knows me,” he grins. “She nudged me, to see where I am now as a person.”
His wife’s words were a seed that began to germinate during a trip to India with his family. “I never usually take my guitar to India, but this time I did,” he says, recalling early morning hours spent among the Ghats on the shores of the Ganges, strumming his guitar, playing the blues and entering into conversations with priests, passersby, beggars and kids. “It unlocked something,” he says. “I started writing from myself again, what I was going through, what was happening within me. That was the genesis of what I’m doing now. When I was younger, I was trying to sing like James Brown, or the Pink Floyd – I wasn’t singing from true experience, but fantasised experience.”
But now Ajay was singing his own song, or at least one that was finally beginning to take shape. He now had the words he wanted to sing, he could sense the melodies he wanted to hew to. The style of guitar he wanted to play was still eluding him, however, until, on the flight back to the UK, he listened to Robert Johnson on his iPod, and heard within the blues primogenitor’s playing “Indian folk intonation. I was hearing something I’d never heard before. I’d never played slide guitar, but now I knew I needed to. I went and got myself a handmade resonator guitar, and everything began to open up. The songs started coming. And I started getting honest with my songs. Once I’d have been too scared to write something like Karmic Blues or Third Eye – too much of my personality, too much of my cultural influences. But now I knew it was right for me to do so.”
Drawing upon his experience with the sitar, Ajay developed a style of playing that melded those diverse cultural influences. Hooking up with Vin, the percussionist from Botown, he explored the relationship between tabla and guitar. It was liberating. “All I cared about was singing my song,” he says. “I wasn’t worrying about the outcomes.” But as he began to gig this material, he won a new following. And when he committed the tracks to tape, in the form of his debut album “Karmic Blues”, the response was beyond encouraging, fans and critics alike responding to what he was doing, and understanding where he was coming from, appreciating this powerful, natural fusion of sounds.
As momentum behind “Karmic Blues” grew, he began work on a new set of songs, looking forward to performing them across a packed slate of gigs planned for 2020. Well, we all know what happened next. But as the pandemic kept Ajay locked down, the enforced pause – along with the seismic political upheavals of recent years – set these fresh tracks fermenting, and a new sense of direction overtook him.
“I wanted to have a positive message on the new album, to be spiritual but bluesy,” he says. “I have a lot of hope, a lot of love.” But as the year wore on, and the summer of Black Lives Matter took shape, so did the theme of his second album, “Powerless”. “The first album was beautiful and positive, but I’m going in heavy with this one. What’s going on in the world played heavy on my mind. The world is divided, I’m anxious and upset.”
The title track is the album’s emotional and philosophical anchor. “Powerlessness, for me, is not being able to hit back at whoever has knocked you down. So we knock someone weaker than ourselves down. We’re seeing that all over the place.” It’s an album beset with images of war, of struggle, of injustice. But it’s also an album possessed by an indefatigable sense of optimism, in how it distils the anguish into beautiful, uplifting, righteous blues fusion music, and tales of triumph against those forbidding odds. Music that’s unabashed in its spiritual essence (the beautiful interplay of violin, tabla and guitar on Holy Mother) and its feeling for joy (Golden, which sounds like Chuck Berry navigating his giddy way across the Indian subcontinent, whispering “We are golden because we’re alive”).
“The album opens with The Line, which is all about division, with innocent people the victims,” Ajay explains. “And it closes with Shanti, this Sanskrit mantra for peace of mind. Inner peace and inner strength are what this album is ultimately about, because if you’re sorted on the inside, the chaos of the outside world can’t get you.” And with its soulful, healing properties, its irresistible musical uplift and songs that are timeless and universal, there is little that will sort out your inner peace than some hours spent in the company of “Powerless”.