Ajay Mathur, the musical cosmopolite, and smooth shifter between stylistic worlds, recently released his new album Blow My Cover.
Brimming with melody and zest for life, this inspired collection is certain to resonate with fans of The Beatles, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, or David Bowie. Blow My Cover also keeps with Ajay’s tradition of imbuing his work with deep meaning and Universal human themes.
As we have all learned over the past few years, it is difficult to accept that there are situations that are genuinely out of our control. In those moments, we can either sit back and wait or we can look at things from a new perspective and use an unusual situation to our creative advantage.
Mathur chose the latter option, giving up control by completely trusting fellow artists with his music. He contacted 25 musicians worldwide – some he knew, some he admired, but had never met – and asked them to feel free to interpret one or more of his previously released songs. No particular style, no particular timeline. If they liked the idea, he asked them to please send him what they had done. If they didn’t, no strings attached.
The tracks arrived one by one. Thirteen interpretations by roots, folk, jazz, classical, and rock musicians from Tokyo to LA and Chicago to Buenos Aires, resulting in Blow My Cover.
Tattoo.com spoke with Ajay Mathur to discover the inspiration for Blow My Cover, more about his gear, and his definition of tone.
What inspired your new album, ‘Blow My Cover?’
I didn’t plan this album at all. ‘Blow My Cover’ is the result of a desperate act of self-preservation. In the early days of the pandemic, when the shutdowns came into effect from March 2020, everything ended abruptly for me, just as it did for artists around the world. All my concerts, my studio dates, and my events planned well in advance were canceled within a week, with no prospect of the situation improving any time soon. I felt like I was on the verge of an emotional downward spiral and had completely lost control of my life. I was desperately looking for a way to get out of this situation.
My friend and co-writer Mary Lou von Wyl gave me the idea of putting a creative spin on this out-of-control situation by actually giving up control of my own songs. So, I made a list of about 25 musicians that I really admire. Some I had worked with before, some I hadn’t. I sent each of them an email with links to a selection of my songs that I thought would suit their individual styles. I asked them to choose one or two songs and interpret them freely. I didn’t specify style, tempo, structure, etc., and I didn’t give them a deadline, in the spirit of giving up control and of trust. I also had no intention of following up with them. If they sent me something, I would be very grateful. If not, then no strings attached. I thought I might get one or two songs back that I could save for a future album. The fact that I got 13 interpretations of my songs back was a huge surprise and the idea for a cover album ‘Blow My Cover’ was born.
Wasn’t there a bit of risk to allowing other musicians to reinterpret your songs, without any type of constraints?
Back then, my risk of slipping into a spiral of depression was real and much greater. Turning to musicians was an act of self-preservation, perhaps even a cry for help. It turned out to be a successful experiment in mutual trust and was a completely new experience for me. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t overthink it because something uniquely beautiful came out of it.
What kind of guitar, pedals, and amp are you currently using?
I have different setups for studio and for live playing. I prefer playing an acoustic guitar live rather than strapping on one of my Stratocasters or my red Telecaster deluxe. Playing live, my 1980 Martin D-28 acoustic is my number one go-to guitar. Occasionally I also play my Guild Jumbo live. The acoustic guitar goes into my Acus One 6T Wood amplifier (which goes directly into the PA) through my pedal board, which is probably a little unconventional. My acoustic guitar (and my vocals microphone Shure SM58) goes into a TC Helicon Harmony GXT pedal. The guitar signal then goes through Electro-Harmonix C9, Mel 9 and Ravish Sitar pedals and finally into a MXR Dyna comp pedal. These pedals can unleash amazing psychedelic soundscapes. In the studio, I have a much bigger selection of electric and acoustic guitars, amps, pedals, and outboard processing available, for example, a 1980 Mesa Boogie Class A tube amplifier and a 1975 Roland JC120. My go-to amplifier in the studio is a Kemper Profiler with thousands of amplifier profiles available.
How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?
My live set-up is pretty much a closed loop, and my stage sound stays consistent. However, the situation is somewhat different with the ‘Blow My Cover’ album when I’m playing live. It’s just me, Ajay Mathur with the guitar and, in the collaborative spirit of the album, I invite special guests to play with me. At every gig, different musician guests are on stage with me. This makes each of my concerts a unique experience, and every evening a new, different experience. The overall sound is different at each concert because of the different musicians and instruments on stage with me.
How did you get started in music?
I grew up in India in a family of artists and musicians. While my family was dedicated to Indian traditional music, I somehow gravitated to Western music. It must have been a mix of curiosity and rebellion. At the age of 14, I had the good luck of meeting The Beatles while they were in Rishikesh, India at the ashram. That was a life-changing experience for me and the final motivational spark to start playing the guitar and even create my own music. That’s when I put down my artist’s paintbrushes and picked up a guitar.
What is your definition of tone? And is your tone evolving?
My definition of tone lies more in the subjective qualities of music that a listener perceives, rather than in a specific sound, instrumentation, or melody preferences. Of course, I have a keen sense of sound quality, pitch, and melody, but for me, the real strength of a good tone lies in the emotional impact that a song or melody has on the listener and on myself. I’m my own most brutal critic when it comes to the emotional impact that my melodies, instrumentation, and sound need to evoke. I am constantly experimenting and developing the tone and impact of my music. ‘Blow My Cover’ is the next logical step in that evolution.
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, TV, or other media?
Primarily, people inspire my writing. Their stories, their interactions, and their impact on our society are sources of inspiration for my songs. This can be through direct interactions or conversations, or through news media or documentary reports. I translate many of my own thoughts and emotions into poems, a lot of which eventually emerge as song lyrics.
What can you share about your writing process?
I have a selective writing process. When a song idea or a melody surfaces in my head, I drop everything else and pick up a guitar and play and sing for an hour or so and try to give the idea some kind of structure. The ideas usually come with lyrics, or at least chunks of lyrics. I don’t record the ideas and I don’t write them down. Instead, I just let them be. Usually, the good ideas stay in my head for a long time, for days, weeks, or even months. Then I know that there could be a song in this idea. The ideas that didn’t stay in my head were obviously not worth pursuing.
In your opinion, which artists are killing it right now?
Old men are killing it right now: Rolling Stones and the good old Beatles (Paul and Ringo and the estates of George and John). These are established names and easily get all the exposure they want. Wilco and Pretenders also have good new music out.
Why do you make music?
Because making music fulfills me.
What’s your definition of success?
When I’m able to reach a growing listener and fan base around the world when I’m able to make a decent living from the financial return of the songs/albums and even invest in new album projects. That’s how I would define success. The icing on the cake is the recognition and accolades from industry professionals and the media, awards, and chart placements.