For Sid Sriram, there is a quality inherent in the Carnatic music of South India that he describes as “universal truth.” The 32-year-old singer/songwriter has spent years imparting this truth to audiences in India and across the world; today, he ranks as one of the most popular Bollywood singers of the past decade. On his new English-language album Sidharth, however, he departs
from the musical lineage of his family’s home country, where he has lived since 2015, and draws on the R&B, indie rock, and American pop styles he grew up with as an immigrant kid in Fremont, CA, in the ’90s and 2000s. Through doing so, he hoped to find a way to communicate “truth” in music through deeper personal exploration.
“For maybe the first time, I was able to make music where all these different elements that feel like part of my DNA breathed through the songs,” Sid explains. “I didn’t have to try and think about how to express these things. It started to come out on its own.”
Sidharth is a massive-sounding record: soulful, ethereal, and emotionally dense. Many of its 14 tracks sound like they are echoing down from a mountaintop. However, the album was recorded in an intimate context. In the summer of 2021, Sid took a leap of faith and hopped on a plane to Minneapolis, where he and producer Ryan Olson (Poliça, Gayngs, Bon Iver), who had previously only met on Instagram, spent an intensive week in the studio. Most of the songs were tracked live by a small team of Olson associates, including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, of whom Sid was a longtime fan.
“There was no ego,” Sid remembers. “Everyone was just really happy to
be back in a room making music with each other. Granted, I didn’t know any of them at the time. But it felt really quickly like a family.”
Fronting this band, Sid threw his entire creative self into crafting vocal hooks and elaborate songforms on the fly. “I had to trust in chaos and let it guide me,” he recalls. The music that resulted from that studio joyride is a dizzying combination of pop anthems and progressive experiments, centered on Sid’s heart-wrenching vocal performances and Olson’s adventurous electronics. Hook-forward tracks with dance floor energy, like the Afrobeat-inflected "Friendly Fire,” slot in next to unexpected diversions like “The Hard Way,” a celebration of family and loved ones featuring a hyperactive drum ’n’ bass groove that splits the difference between Janet Jackson in her Velvet Rope era and post-Kid-A Radiohead.
All this may seem like a far cry from the music that has made Sid famous with Bollywood fans worldwide since breaking out with his first hit soundtrack song, “Adiye” (from 2013’s Kadal), just a year out of music school. Indeed, many of the million-plus-viewed videos of Sid feature him singing ragas backed by traditional instruments, not freestyling personal narratives over glitchy 808s and Auto-Tune beds. But before his sudden success, Sriram was an American 20-something obsessed with pop and R&B; he found early viral success by posting a Frank Ocean cover (“We All Try”) to YouTube. In many ways, Sidharth highlights the ways in which the musical personalities of that younger version of Sid and the Carnatic music star Sid relate to and complement one another.
During some of the record’s most breathtaking moments, Sid combines contrasting these musical modes to moving effect. “Dear Sahana,” a song about “yearning for companionship,” mixes R&B and gospel with Indian classical melismas and country music flourishes. In a nod to his earliest musical memories, the children’s choir his mother has led since Sid’s youth lends support at the song’s climax, a moment that always makes him tear up while listening back. Country music, on the other hand, was mostly alien to Sid, but he found that it fit naturally into his musical universe. “I realize that pedal steel lends itself to the way my voice moves,” he explains. “The way it can bend felt like a cool mirror to the Carnatic-based melodies.” Though its songs often look resolutely towards an open-ended future, Sidharth also represents a homecoming of sorts for Sid, re-embracing American culture after spending years absorbed in the musical traditions of his ancestral homeland. This return to his roots is reflected in the album title, which relates to a moment of childhood self-actualization.
“When we first moved to the Bay, in second grade, I decided to change my name to Sid since so many people fucked it up,” he says. “Sidharth, in a way, is me reclaiming the name and everything that comes with it, not just culturally, but for me personally.” It is a fitting title for a record across which Sid seems to be—as he puts it- “excavating” his life experiences in search of clues that can help him on an uncertain and exciting journey ahead.