Untrained and with no backers in the Hindi film industry, a young KK (Krishnakumar Kunnath) had begun knocking the doors of music composers in the early 1990s. Musician Lesle Lewis remembers his ‘Colonial Cousins’ bandmate Hariharan asking him to try out the new kid on the block.
“KK came to me and asked whether I can make an album for him. Not everyone could make an album back then. You had to get signed by a record label, fund a video and had to have some kind of a name. I told him that it is a long shot and that he will have to wait. But, since he was talented, I started calling him for jingles. Finally, after some years, I took some of his jingles to Sony Music and asked them to listen to this great upcoming singer. They loved his voice and asked me to make an album with him,” Lewis talks to The Hindu, a day after KK’s untimely demise after a concert in Kolkata.
That album ‘Pal’ came out in 1999, standing out with its soft rock influences amid a sea of remixes and bubblegum pop in the independent music scene. After KK’s passing away, the songs from the album, including ‘Pal’ and ‘Yaaron’, were among the most shared by his fans. The album was all the rage on campuses and reunions, and still remains so.
Lesle, who composed the music, brought in a live band for the recording, a rarity in those times. He had the confidence to experiment with the young singer, who also had the background of singing in some rock bands.
“He would come home, sit and learn the songs written by Mehboob and learn its nuances. We waited until he would get used to the songs, so that he would sing in his own unique style. At that time, we couldn’t make it more rock, and chose a more melodious pop rock sound, as the general population weren’t ready for rock even then, but that ensured that the album would reach a larger audience,” says Lewis.
Singers from South India, especially Kerala, often find it hard to lose the influence of their mother tongue while rendering Hindi songs, and vice versa. But the songs of KK would never give away his roots, for he had that ability to adapt his voice to the language. Though the natural diction in Hindi could be attributed to his growing up years in Delhi, even when he sang an all out Tamil dappankuthu song ‘Appadi Podu’, no one could guess that it was sung by a non-Tamilian. This was one of the factors which helped him make it big both in Bollywood and the Tamil industries.
Even though he belonged to Thrissur and was born to Malayali parents, ‘Rahasyamay’ from Puthiya Mukham (2009) was his only Malayalam song in a career spanning more than 25 years. Deepak Dev, music composer for the film, knew him from his early days in Mumbai, where he was working as an assistant music director.
“KK was already a big singer then. I was just a keyboard programmer. But, knowing that I am a Malayali, he came and talked to me. He told me he had no Malayalis in his friends circle there and he was looking for someone to speak the language to. It was a fanboy moment for me as I had grown up listening to albums like ‘Pal’. He told me that he had not sung in Malayalam till then. After I became a music director, I waited till I found the right song for him. Though he didn’t know how to write Malayalam, he was very fluent in the language and had the right diction. When I spoke to him a few months back, he had told me that he hasn’t been able to work in Malayalam after that and that he is working on a new album,” says Deepak Dev.
For the listeners in Kerala, who began following him from the days of working with A.R. Rahman for ‘ Kalluri Salai’ from Kathal Desam (1996) and ‘ Strawberry Kanne’ from Minsara Kanavu (1997), his works from both Bollywood and the Tamil industry remain favourites. Be it when singing ‘ Khuda Jaane’ or ‘Uyirin Uyire’, he was always seen by Malayalis as one of their own, although his diction never gave it away.