Text by Ranjabati Das.
Image Courtesy: Dot.
During our Zoom call last year, she was seated on the floor of her newly rented Cardiff flat, where she had finally been able to fulfil her long-standing dream of living by herself. “This is the first time I’ve lived alone, and I love it. It’s a whole new state of independence and excitement!” she exclaimed of this definitive milestone in her life. Within minutes, she opened up about a host of personal topics, including self-evaluated lapses in judgement. The earnestness was rimmed with a nervousness that I found surprising, given that she’s been talking to the press on and off since her teenage years. Yet she also drew succour from the more difficult lines of questioning, using the interview process as an instrument to leaf through and critique her trains of thought, in an effort to reaffirm her truth.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a private person,” she reflected. “But I’m not willing to go the conventional route and do every single interview, and it’s because of this moment at one of my gigs in 2017. The whole crowd was singing along to the words of my songs — which I hadn’t even put out in an album. I suddenly got a feeling and went, ‘Oh shit, this is a big deal!’ I realised that people are listening. And it hit me that this comes with a lot of responsibility.”
Singer-songwriter Aditi Saigal, who goes by her stage name, Dot., often finds herself at a tricky crossroads. Between promoting her material and stepping back to protect her privacy, between giving into lucrative corporate offers and preserving her values. Between obligation and free will. Ego and education. “It’s a give and take between what I want to create and what I have the freedom to create,” she tells me straight up.
Despite a self-admitted “tendency to seek the spotlight”, actually being in it took Saigal some getting used to. When her casual social media upload, Everybody Dances To Techno, went viral in 2017, she was 19. Along with widespread recognition came public glare and a multitude of pressures: to perform, to put out new music. And after a slew of gigs, when it became overwhelming, she found herself retreating from the same technology that had brought her fame. She resurfaced on her professional Instagram and YouTube channel after two-and-a-half years, a few months ahead of the release of her litmus test of a debut EP, Khamotion, which dropped in mid-July last year to positive reviews.
Image Courtesy: @dotandthesyllables/Instagram
Intentionally stepping away from the media arc lights that were trained on her — instead of capitalising on it — and coming back with an album she co-produced with like-minded collaborators, was a rather purposeful, maybe even prescient, move that belied Saigal’s years.
Her stellar debut EP certainly proved that good things come to those who wait but, more importantly, the time off provided her with a much-needed reset, equipping her with the tools to adjust to life in the limelight and replenish her creative juices. And now, having squared her shoulders, the 23-year-old is perfectly poised to create new career trajectories, as is evident in the recent reveal of her role in Zoya Akhtar’s newly-announced Netflix musical The Archies. The lack of over-exposure could have been a factor in her being cast as well, considering that one of the draws of the film is that it will be the debut vehicle for a bunch of young faces, and it does, interestingly, indicate a break from Saigal’s erstwhile reticence.
I find Khamotion brimming with flavours: sweet, zesty, saucy, bittersweet.
The sheer power of her propulsive vocals, which she can slow down in the blink of an eye to create a sense of ebb and flow, coupled with her natural ability to alchemise words into poetry, resonates with me. It dawns on me that she is well attuned to her substantial talent, which is like second nature to her.
Don’t You Worry from Khamotion
The seven-track EP that is infused with elements of jazz and pop will take you on an exhilarating joyride that will leave you breathless. Engaging lyrics suffused with cheekiness — Somebody call Grace, pulchritudinous face, such beautiful hair, head as empty as air — are thrown in for ballast. In the love song Taxi Fare, where she goes — I don’t even care ’bout the taxi fare, forget about the tab, let’s just sit and gab for a while, I’ll be keeping all your memories, don’t need trinkets to put me at ease, and tomorrow if you forget me, I won’t believe you darling — she could well be alluding to the costs of journeying into stardom, which she lightly tosses aside in favour of her fondness for her niche organic fanbase.
The name Dot. was inspired by her mother (actor and theatre practitioner Shena Gamat), who had impressed on her the importance of the unassuming symbol while drawing dots outside the lines in a colouring book — Saigal recalls that she had only been 12 or 13 at the time, but this stayed with her. Dots, her mother had told her, increase the interest quotient. I suppose this is especially the case when they lie outside a formalised structure, defying its limits. Not unlike Saigal.
Dots, in my head, can be aesthetic or functional. Raza saw the bindu as a focal point. They could also signify an ending. Or, as in the case of an ellipsis, a pregnant pause or an unfinished thought. All of it signals the inevitability of re-emergence….
Edited excerpts from a Zoom conversation
Where do Dot. and Aditi Saigal intersect?
Dot. is my stage name. But when I moved to the UK five years ago for university, I started introducing myself as Dot. Back home, everyone knows me as Aditi. I have been struggling with this identity question because they intersect all the time.
I’m the same person. I don’t change my personality depending on where I am. It is….[breaks off] What is it? It is a hard question. I changed my name because I thought I can be whoever I want in university — I could start over. If you’ve seen videos of me back then, I had a boy-cut. So, I cut my hair, and I changed my name. This is the first line of my song, Sunny Days — I’ve cut my hair and changed my name — and the line refers to this time in my life. I didn’t really change in terms of who I am, but I definitely gained confidence. Dot. represents a new me that is more present and self-aware.
What did you learn about yourself after going viral at 18?
One, I have a tendency to seek the spotlight and think that I am a lot more than I am. I have to be very careful not to cross that line. If I start thinking that way, then the music suffers. And this has happened. After one-and-a-half years of being in the spotlight, I found I couldn’t really write. I need groundedness. And the second learning was that I am very self-aware. If I wasn’t, I would probably have continued on that path. I don’t know if that would have been a good idea for me as a person. Could have been great for my career…. I went to counselling, and I’m much better for it. And I’m really thankful that I caught myself at that point.
What are you trying to communicate about yourself through your online persona?
It’s all about the music. I want to write music, and I want to perform and record it. I’m not really that fussed about whether I’m the next Madonna, and I’m largely doing it for myself. To some extent, I do want to make my channel bigger, but it can’t rule my life or be the main concern. It may sound cocky, but it’s actually coming from a place of honesty. Also, I’m a person before I am a musician, and that thought informs my approach to social media; I have to take care of myself even if it means going against the grain. So, when I share about how my plants are doing or about my crochet projects or my private space, it is really personal. I have pondered over it. The main reason I want to present this side of my life to the public is because there has been this narrative that has been shoved on me. There is a “passion narrative” when it comes to artistes. You only do music and that’s your whole life, you have to live and die on this promise of fame. My music is fed by these other aspects of my life. And there’s this famous quote — famous in my family — by the guitar player of HFT, Arjun Sen, a family friend, who says that you can only play what you have lived. It speaks to me.
Your fans often write to you and engage with you. What are some of the issues that concern you about social media, given the importance of internet presence in this day and age?
Internet presence is everything; image is everything. And you can look at that in a negative way or you can take that as a positive, which is what I’ve decided to do. So, I’m thinking if internet presence is such a big deal, then how do I keep checks and balances so that I’m not losing myself in the chaos that is the internet? I’d rather talk to the few who are invested in connecting with me than millions who are half in it. My fans are dedicated, and they know obscure songs which I have taken down from YouTube or my SoundCloud that hasn’t existed for a long time now. On social media, there’s a huge temptation to slap on a filter, but for my own self-image, it was important for me to portray my real self.
I gathered from one of your Instagram posts that you can also sew clothes. Is this a new creative hobby? Are you a slow fashion enthusiast?
I am trying to learn how to sew. I’m in the process of sewing a dress out of muslin [holds it up]. I don’t talk about it much but slow fashion has had a huge impact on my life. The shirt that I’m wearing is a charity shop shirt. I try to shop second-hand or sustainably when I can afford it. I have a capsule closet so I don’t overbuy; I used to have a lot of clothes but I chose to scale down. I try to make conscious choices and while sewing is a part of that, I don’t have a knack for it, like I do for crochet.
Image Courtesy: @dotandthesyllables/Instagram
Is it scary on some level to have people know so much about you? And especially before you had even come out with an album — before Khamotion happened?
It is, because people know quite intimate details. I haven’t received a lot of hate, which will be another struggle when it comes — I’m sure it will come at some point. The bigger you get, the more that tends to happen. On the other hand, I’ve also had some deep, intimate conversations with complete strangers. Sometimes, I take screenshots and put them in a folder. These kinds of exchanges outweigh the fear and discomfort I feel about having my life out there.
What’s the story behind the name of your EP?
“Khamotion” is basically a portmanteau of khamoshi [silence] and motion. And it’s essentially a simple but complex idea of being still but moving. Being peaceful and quiet but simultaneously rushing. Practically, what it embodies is a mode of transport. When you’re sitting in a train, it is moving but there’s a kind of a rocky silence. I love being on modes of transport — even just taking the bus or auto somewhere. What inspires me normally are the really ordinary things. Khamotion embodies the magic in the ordinary. So, it’s those kinds of juxtapositions.
It can also apply to contradictory life aspirations — the hustle and bustle, and slowing down; the applause and the quiet; materialism and inner peace. Are peace and ambition at odds with each other?
Since we know that the idea of Khamotion was sparked during a commute to college and the experience of taking public transportation formed the larger inspiration behind the songs, how would you articulate your feelings about the pandemic when that part of life came to a stop?
It’s so all-encompassing that I can’t fully comprehend it although I’ve had it so much easier than so many. A lot of my listeners have claimed that the song This Train has held a very strange significance during the pandemic, even though it was written before [the pandemic]. The idea of having to keep on moving, regardless of the fact that the world is completely frozen, has echoed for a lot of people. Life goes on, and although it’s a lot harder now, we have to carry on. I haven’t been able to see my mother in two years because of the pandemic. I’m lucky that I’m not a social creature, that I’m comfortable being on my own.
I could describe your sound as blues- and jazz-inspired. How would you (though I know you may not want to label it as a musician)?
I used to claim that my music doesn’t belong to any particular genre, but I don’t think like that anymore. When you’re writing a book or an essay or a short story, half of the work is done by the writer and the other half by the reader. The work is not complete until the reader has read the words on the page. This philosophy borrows from the theory of Constructivism, which states that learning or interpretation happens exponentially when the learner has absorbed the learning as an active participant. Then, the cycle is complete. I put out whatever music comes to me — without thinking of the genre when I am writing — and my listeners have said that my music has got a bit of jazz, blues, pop, rock and, sometimes, soul or funk as well.
Who were your collaborators on this album?
The album was such a great experience because of my collaborators. They took me out of my musical rut. I went in there with a head full of ideas of what I wanted, but I was also open to what the others could add.
I co-produced the album with James Gair, a fabulous recording and mixing engineer, who provided a lot of creative inputs.
Then there’s this band called The Armchair Captains, who are friends from university but now based in Liverpool. I wanted to work with them because we have a similar wavelength. We have Luke Lomax on drums, Joe Gordon-Potts on saxophone — he’s a multitalented musician who plays bass, piano and loads of other instruments — and Thomas Evans on trombone. He’s a crazy character, who came in with a broken trombone [laughs, her dimples deepening]. It was so broken that when he would play it, the slide would just come out! And then they were mock fighting with it, like they were in Star Wars — it was so stressful!
Then we had Jack Ledsham on trumpet, Owen Lloyd-Evans on double bass and Matt Bicknell on saxophone. He is actually a saxophonist but he said, “Shall I play some clarinet for you? I’m not really that good” and then he comes to the session and is done within five minutes.
We were going to do a livestream gig together but we haven’t been able to, for financial reasons. This is a new phase in my music and what I’m really getting into is what others can do to change my music and make it more interesting.
Image Courtesy: @dotandthesyllables/Instagram
And could you tell us a little bit about Labonie Roy, who is behind your album art?
Labonie is a really good friend of mine and I’ve known her since I was little; we went to the same school in Delhi. I’ve always admired her art. She is currently engaged in creating environmental illustrations for schoolchildren, which I find really interesting. I would have approached her regardless of whether I knew her or not. She creates animal characters with humanoid characteristics, and they could be doing ballet or writing a book. I really wanted a character for myself. And when she asked me what animal I could most relate to, I thought of a squirrel, which she devised for me.
You have previously stated that the reason you haven’t dropped an album before this is because studios scare you.
I was always made to feel really guilty for not using a click track. This is a big thing. Honestly, I don’t consider myself to be a singer or a piano player. I am not highly skilled at either of the two technically, say, in terms of form and breathing techniques. There are much better singers and piano players out there. First and foremost, I am a writer. For me, it’s all about the writing — the lyrics — and the music. So when the studios were telling me what to do, the songs were sounding clinical and overcompressed. I had a bad feeling that my kind of music and the sound I had in mind was just not going to be possible under those kinds of environments.
You studied music and creative writing from Bangor University, and you are currently pursuing a master’s in education, studying curriculum and policy from Glasgow University. Can you shed some light on what drew you towards these diverse choices?
I’m genuinely interested in all the different ways in which my life could take shape. After my second year of university, I took up a job as a data analyst for a year. The reason I didn’t just pursue music at Bangor is because I wanted to have a broader kind of an education. I also took classes in game design and film. I thought about it for a long time and realised that getting into education — not in terms of a teaching degree, which is very specific and not my thing — and the way we learn is something I’ve always had a huge interest in. Learning is probably the single most important matter to me; it’s how I define myself, even before I say that I am a musician, who is Indian.
Sometimes, I think of becoming a researcher or getting into curriculum design and looking into the Indian education system. It doesn’t come across in my public persona that much — though I have posted about it a few times — but it’s a very important part of my life.
Your parents have worked in creative industries. As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up since you have so many interests?
At first, I wanted to be an architect. At one point, I dreamt of opening my own music school. I shared my thought with a very close friend of my mother’s, who is a human rights activist, and she brought up the affordability factor. I understood that I would have to do it in a way that would make it accessible. Otherwise, there’s no point in opening a school. On one hand, we need schools that experiment and are not bound by the system, but on the other, the system is what’s accessible and one has to work within those frames in order to make the biggest impact.
What are your most enduring music-related memories growing up?
I was a bit of a diva, and I took any opportunity to be on stage. I am a bit embarrassed about it, but I suppose I have always had that streak. I remember getting up on stage and singing Demi Lovato’s This Is Me when I was eight or nine, in Goa. I was obsessed with it! I even did the whole turn-around thing [laughs, demonstrating].
We’ve caught a couple of glimpses of you singing in Hindi and Garhwali. Have you ever considered writing in a second language?
Initially, I didn’t write in Hindi because I speak very bolti or colloquial Hindi. It’s what you hear in the streets. When I speak to my friends, there is a lot of slang and gaali. I always thought that there is this one way to write in Hindustani, and that is in Urdu — although I don’t understand most of it, it is the more poetic side of Hindustani for me. But then I realised, if I write the way I speak, that’s more honest. And so now I’m writing three or four Hindi songs, with different sorts of influences. And it’s working. When we listen to music, we listen to unique perspectives. My unique perspective now is that I’m not going to worry about being poetic.
You’ve been reluctant to hire a promotional strategist or follow standard release cycles, fearing it would interfere with your personal process. How important is it for you to be able to assert creative control?
My manager [Anirban Chakraborty, director at music publication Rock Street Journal that was founded by Saigal’s late father] completely understands that my aim is not to gain fame and fortune at this point but to produce good music that is accessible to people who want to listen to it. I would like to grow bigger, but I’m not in any hurry. So, we both decided together that an organic approach will work best for me. I cannot imagine someone handling my social media or telling me to produce a particular song by a certain date. Mujhse nahin hoga [I won’t be able to do it]. I can only write what I write when I write it, and I’m not bothered about gaining a huge following. What’s important to me is that the fans I do have are intimately connected with the music. My listeners are internalising my music, and that’s what I value. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to earn more from my music. But I’m not going to compromise on my values. I am taking up the corporate opportunities coming my way — because I need to earn — but I am picky. So even if big companies offer me a lot of money, I can say no. I’m very lucky that I don’t need a lot of money to survive. I have a job. I have a lot of other interests that I can pursue in terms of jobs.
At the core, would you say there is a deeper focus on self-fulfilment or self-care versus success?
I’m going to be happy regardless of whether there are 10 or 10,000 people listening to me. What I really want is the freedom and space to write the kind of songs I want to write. If I wanted to write a beautiful jazz piece with a big horn section but didn’t have the platform I have now, I wouldn’t be able to afford to hire the musicians I want. So, there’s a bit of a give and take between caring for yourself and wanting to create. That’s where the tension is.
Almost sounds like your plan is to sidestep the conventional template for success.
For me, success is a very complicated notion. It’s definitely not correlated to money or popularity. Ultimate success would be to be able to create whatever music I want, whenever I want [her eyes light up], and have people wanting to listen to it. By no means am I there yet. Being able to constantly learn would be a measure of my personal success. It’s really funny: when you’re 17, you think you know everything. I thought I was at the top of my game, but now that I am older, the main realisation has been that I don’t know anything [laughs].