Smalltalk shares lessons learned since debut and the way forward

For Smalltalk, the only constant is change – whether it’s their its sounds on the maddeningly short EP or its approach towards making more music and selling it. In 2018, the Mumbai-based band made a significantly noticeable debut with the 4-track long Tacit. Noticeable enough to feature on two of AHH’s year-end lists in 2018 – those of the best albums and the best debuts. Since then, a new single, multiple-city tours and a decent flock of listeners have been added to its portfolio. Evidently, the band is doing something right in the Indian indie space, a space that is quickly shifting from an undersupply of artists towards a spillage. Smalltalk, present at the right place at the right time, have managed to ride the wave and have done so without any label support. 

We got three-fourth of the band – Samarth Bahl (vocals), Linford D’Souza (keys) and Siddharth Shankar (drums) – along with Rehan Oonwalla of Kranti Art Theory, the artist management company based in Mumbai that Smalltalk is signed to, on a phone call to get some insight on how they went about planning, recording, producing, and promoting its debut release, Tacit.  

Smalltalk began with Samarth and Linford jamming together. They quickly roped in Yohann Coutinho to play the bass and Siddharth joined in last. Six months in, the band walked away as the winner of Pune’s Bandcubator competition. They quickly entered the studio and started perfecting the music they had already written to release as part of the debut EP.

Preparing to make a debut

For most bands, it could take years to release a debut. Smalltalk had the finished product ready to be released within a few months. A lot of factors come into play for a new artist trying to find their sound, release it and make it stand out. The band has traversed them all and come out the other end unscathed.

Linford, a strong proponent of how a musician’s life outside of making music affects the way they approach their career, thinks that there is a conditioning aspect to be considered. If you are someone who has grown up in a household with good music, you will grow up to have a more mature taste yourself. This is an aspect people usually disregard. “It’s not just about how much theory you know. It is also about who you are as a person. You should spend some time figuring stuff out before venting out. You can’t think that you’ve seen John Mayer really kill it and decide you want to do the same thing. It’s the worst thing you can do to yourself and to music,” he says.

Siddharth seconded that opinion but added that you can only learn more by writing, even if you don’t have enough experience in this field or your life. He says, “You can look at what you wrote five years ago and think it was utter crap and has nothing to do with who you are as a person now, but it will still help you to move along the process. Start immediately.”

smalltalk album art
Cover art for Tacit

The case of Smalltalk’s debut was somewhat unconventional because the band bagged a 4-track deal with Cotton Press Studio after winning Bandcubator 2017. Consequently, they didn’t have much of a choice when it came to choosing the length of their release, the time they spend at the studio or even the producer. In fact, they ended up omitting some of the songs they had written earlier and liked in the process. But, they made it work. Samarth says, “I love what happened and I wouldn’t change it.”

They perfected four tracks for the EP. Choosing what goes and what doesn’t is crucial, and Samarth says it depends on how conducive your material is. He adds, “If a particular song does not go well with your other tracks, then release it as a single. Once you decide that, you need to have intent. If you are going to release just one track, everything should be leading to that single.” 

Linford believes that while writing an album or an EP, an artist should always have a plenty of options to choose from. He explains, “I don’t want to have a small pool to choose from. I want to have that little bit of a luxury.”

Siddharth, on the other hand, believes in gut feeling. He recommends sticking to a single if that is all that is coming out of you and switching to an album only if it serves a larger narrative. He, aware that singles are doing better than albums commercially these days, says, “This is a trend and trends change all the time. Even so, a commercial decision like that should be taken only after you have considered your own artistic prerogative.”

Samarth informs that even before entering the studio, they had the songs ready to the point that they could have performed a live take. So, that’s what they did. The final product on the stores is basically the best one of the many takes they recorded. Then, they sat down and discussed how they could add to it – backing vocals and more layers etc. They kept refining it.

Siddharth explains his “general” to “specific” approach towards making a record and says, “It’s like making a portrait, you draw the outlines first and then fill in the details.” He recommends leaving some time to move about between every session for your ears to refresh and then revisiting the track. “That being said,” he confidently admits, “some of the greatest albums in history that I love have been made with the opposite approach where you just enter the studio and bang it out, just raw.”

While there is no set formula that every artist can adopt, there are definitely certain ways to do things more professionally and meticulously. Then again, “a polished album does not necessarily mean a great record,” Siddharth remarks.

Finding a studio and a producer

Once the band had the basic structure of the EP ready, they were on a very tight deadline. With only two days in the studio, they didn’t have any time to waste. For its follow up single, ‘Tired’, on the other hand, which was released in March this year, they were more in control. With more time and space to work on the track, the band delivered a song that sounds far more refined and solid. Linford admits, “The EP came to us so early, it was a big learning process for us.”

When it comes to the question of people the band could trust and afford to work with, they all suggest finding someone who is on the same page as you. Unfortunately, India still has limited options when in terms of the producers and studios that independent artists can work with. “When it comes to the space, the obvious thing is the gear etc., but more importantly, it’s about how the space treats you. That’s the first thing,” Samarth says.

Image by blankfound creative

Linford, empathetically admits how easy it is for artists to get lost in their own world. That’s where the producer comes in. A producer, in addition to giving an outsider’s perspective, would also be able to advise on how big the sound would be, whether a studio is required or if it can be simply recorded at home, among other details. He says, “It is all about identifying the music you want to make and the direction you want to take it in.” Incidentally, the band never actually got a chance to meet with different producers, given the recording deal they had won.

Siddharth talks about how technicalities of the art can always be learned and tackled, but the relationship with the people you are working with is hard to come by. He remarks, “Even though our Bandcubator thing was absolutely circumstantial, we were very lucky to have JJ (Jehangir Jehangir) and Nikhil (Nikhil Salvi) at Cotton Press to help us out.” During the production stage, Smalltalk got to experiment a lot with the vibe of the EP. A lot of the mood on Tacit was defined in the studio itself.

Promoting the release online and offline

Given the high volume of content that comes out on streaming platforms everyday, it is important to plan the release very carefully and make sure it gets the right marketing push. Independent artists, however, spend so much of their energy and money into making the record, that they are exhausted both financially and physically when it comes to promoting the release. This part of the trade, however unexciting, is something that all new artists need to crack. Something Smalltalk has learned and is trying to incorporate along the way.  

After having spent some time in the industry, individually and as a group, the band seems to have picked up the “patience pays off” mantra. “If you wish to release your work in September, you should be in the studio and start the production latest by March. You need to give your music enough time to let it travel before you put it out,” opines Samarth.

Rehan, who had been silently listening to the conversation so far, only intervening to make sure the band members do not speak over each other, chimes in on the topic of release dates. He says, “I don’t think there is a wrong day as such but there are a lot of things to consider before you even come up with the month that you want to put the release out in.” He recommends having playlisters, demos, and visuals ready 4-5 months before the release date.

Rehan goes on to explain how things panned out when they set out to promote Tacit. As it was a March release – end of season time in India – he ended up having to book the launch tour for April/May. While the off-season did not pose as many issues as they had thought it would, he believes he could have done a lot more had they waited till September. “It’s small things like that which could really make a huge difference. After Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, you should be taking it to Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Cochin – places where people aren’t really too connected with the independent music scene. It’s really important to get your music out to those people as well and it really counts when you do,” he adds. 

At gigs, Smalltalk has been trying to find the perfect balance of playing crowd favourites and testing unreleased material. Based on the crowd reactions to the new music, they will decide which songs would go on the sophomore album. Siddharth explains that any performance is about feedback and bonding with the audience. “At the composition stage, where you have a rough idea of what your song is going to be like, you should play at some local venues to understand what works and what doesn’t and then head back to the studio.”

Familiarity with songs, however, is something that definitely counts at a live performance. Ideally, the songs should travel a little bit before they’re taken to a big stage. The band recalls the time when they performed at Little Door in Mumbai shortly after the release of Tacit. The crowd was singing their songs back to them, an experience that would be heartwarming for any artist. 

When asked whether they had an online promotional plan for the debut release, Linford exclaims, “We didn’t! We really didn’t!” They had some minimal content – promos and artwork etc. But, in terms of mileage, it was limited to their own circle. “We focused more on the content of the EP as compared to what goes into pushing that content,” admits Samarth.

Rehan claims that a lot of the promotion has happened post-release, with them getting more interviews, doing more gigs and just simply spreading the word. Most of the marketing has been digital, unsurprisingly. Now, with more videos and features in the pipeline, it has a strong promotional plan for pushing ‘Tired’, its new single. He remarks, “It was a learning process for us, both as management and as the band.” The band is now dedicated to learn how to hack social media and understand which platform allows music to move around.

The visual aspect of music

When it comes to visuals, independent artists tend to be lackadaisical. Smalltalk understands, and as Siddharth believes, that ninety per cent of what a human perceives is visual. For the debut, the band spent a couple of months going back and forth with the designer for its cover art, adding, removing and experimenting with elements to finally reach an attractive result. 

The artwork for Tacit was designed by Sajid Wajid Shaikh, which also featured on our list of artworks that visual artists dig. The band did not really give him a rigid brief as they wanted him to experiment within his own style. Sajid would simply listen to their tracks and add new elements every time he did so.

Linford comments that bands in India are lagging in the visual space in general. He believes, “Once they are done with the music, they just leave everything. We are also learning on the go and it still feels like there are a thousand things we are missing out. I wish someone had come to us and told us how to go about it. Everything is so unstructured.”

Cover art for ‘Tired’

Now that it’s been a while since the EP came out, the group has the data and can draw an analysis of how, when and where the EP was heard (Rehan keeps sending them screenshots of the analytics). They are, however, still trying to figure out how they can use it to their advantage. “Thing with the internet is that your music may become very big in a completely different country than yours and if you can’t take advantage of that then it’s just sad,” explains Samarth. Rehan also talks about how publishing is the next big thing and something they are trying to comprehend, as is everyone else in the industry.

He concludes by listing down the things they would be focusing on next, including finding the right playlist curators – in India and other countries, acquiring the right visuals and understanding publishing among others. The band members, on the other hand, simply exclaim “(everyone should) just get an artist manager like Rehan!”

The band has released the music video for its latest single ‘Tired’. 

This interview was conducted over a phone call and has been condensed for clarity.

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