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“Everyone’s Voice Should Have Equal Value”: Nitin Sawhney Talks New Album ‘Identity’

“Everyone’s Voice Should Have Equal Value”: Nitin Sawhney Talks New Album ‘Identity’

Inclusive in more ways than one, Nitin Sawhney’s 13th album, ‘Identity’, is wide-ranging yet deeply personal. Sawhney tells Dig! why.


Nitin Sawhney’s 13th studio release, Identity is one of the very best albums of 2023. It’s a profound exploration of a subject that raises pride, emotion and – increasingly in the way identity is discussed – conflict and division in society. “There’s been so much noise about what identity is, and who determines whose identity, that I thought it was important to make a statement,” Sawhney tells Dig!

Listen to ‘Identity’ here.

“My identity was defined by myself and no one else”

“I’d been thinking about this theme for a couple of years,” Sawhney says, reflecting on his inspirations for what would become Identity. “I said on an album called Beyond Skin, years ago, in 1999, that my identity was defined by myself and no one else. I actually wrote that in the sleevenotes. And it’s very interesting that the currency of that idea has become more and more relevant over time.”

Describing Identity as a “sonic collage”, Sawhney worked with 16 featured artists and a plethora of other musicians to probe what identity means to them. In a tribute to Sawhney’s wide appeal, there are household names on the record (Gary Lineker, Joss Stone, Guy Garvey), alongside musical mavericks who have long forged their own path away from the mainstream (Natacha Atlas, Aruba Red).

But perhaps the greatest number of collaborators are relatively unknown to most. Underground rapper-poet Jazzi Sirius is featured on two outstanding tracks; non-binary artist I Am Roze delivers an emotional vocal performance; and the cellist-singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson collaborates on a track celebrating the history of the Windrush generation in the UK. These artists sit alongside many, many others who share their creativity and experiences on Identity.

“Everyone’s voice should have equal value”

Sawhney creates a parity of voice on the album, an equal stage for all of these hugely different artists who work in a variety of genres. “I think that’s really important to me,” he says. “Everyone’s voice should have equal value unless they are harming others.”

Sawhney remembers a profound experience of this himself. “One of the people I was very fortunate to meet was Nelson Mandela, in his house, a long time ago,” he recalls. “I was interviewing him in his house in Johannesburg. His PA came into the room and said, ‘The president is on the phone to speak to you.’ [Mandela] looked at me and he said, ‘How many more questions have you got?’ I said, ‘Two or three.’ And he said to his PA, ‘Could the president call me back in ten minutes, please.’ I remember thinking, Wow, this person is a true egalitarian.”

There is an urgency to the topic of identity in the current political and media climate, which Sawhney is painfully aware of. “People are very keen to judge other people’s identity and to define it, and to debate other people’s identity rather than allowing people the freedom to simply express their identity,” he says. “Over the last ten years, the power of social media has grown, and I think it’s grown in some good ways and some pretty dark ways. The judgement of and negative commentary on identity through social media is terrifying, for many reasons. Those attacks on people’s identities have masqueraded under the pretext of being about free speech. And free speech is quite often hate speech in disguise – which is actually criminal. It literally is a crime in this country.”

Sawhney feels that identity has “become a politicised football. It’s a game between sides. People who perceive others’ identity as a football for them to play with, and who don’t realise how much damage they are doing. Or perhaps they do realise how much damage they do to the people they kick around.”

“I don’t have those kind of genre boundaries”

Musically, Identity is an eclectic album, blending the talents and tastes of Sawhney’s collaborators with his own visions. “I’m very fortunate in that I’ve had a very, very, very strong training in music, very classical and very broad,” he says. “And so, for me, I use that as a tool to express ideas, as a language. I take a linguistic approach to the way in which I work, without being didactic or trying to be over-expositional in my ways of approaching an idea.

“I’m always thinking about how I use what I know to get across a thought, or a feeling, or a collaborative theme,” he continues. “And because I’m a film composer, often you have to jump into so many different genres of music, and I love that. I don’t have those kind of genre boundaries. Music for me is much more about where I go to get across an idea with as much dramatic impact as possible, or as powerful a statement as I can make.”

“The words were projected onto my face”

Identity’s album cover features a dramatic portrait of Sawhney, words typeset onto his face, wrapping around his head like police tape. “It was the idea that your voice is being taken away from you, or that your ability to express yourself properly is taken away from you,” he says of the image, revealing that it has not been digitally altered. “It was from a photo,” he says. “It’s literally a photo, there’s nothing drawn on or painted on. The words were projected onto my face. But I liked it. I thought it worked really well and expressed what I think a lot of people feel, or felt, in performing on this album.”

Sawhney seldom rests for long and, already, he has many other projects ongoing. Celebrated as a film composer, he is currently working on soundtracks for natural-history documentaries (one on a family of tigers; the other called Surviving Earth, “on extinction events over this planet’s lifetime”). He’s also working on the score for the new Neil Gaiman TV series, Anansi Boys, “and another two films that I can’t actually talk about at the moment.”

He also reveals something which his admirers have long wished for: that a book about his life, or inspirations, or history, might be in the pipeline. “It’s interesting,” he says, “because I often use Twitter for random thoughts! I’ve written for theatre before, and even TV. I have started something, which is kind of part autobiographical and partially about the history of music, looking at the history of music anecdotally. It’s a personal perspective on music.”

Any such book is sure to be as fascinating as Identity is. This is an album with deep humanity and sympathy at its core, seeking to explore and push back against the loudest voices in the room, while amplifying those that are rarely heard.

“I wanted the album to be a section of different people whom I respect, and whose identity is defined by their own ways of looking at themselves in the world,” Sawhney says. “I think that I was very fortunate to find collaborators who are very strongly engaged with thinking about not only their own identity, but also their identity in relation to the context that we’re all in.”

Buy signed ‘Identity’ vinyl bundles at the Dig! store.

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