Jonita Gandhi grew up listening to soulful music because her brother and father both played music as a hobby. She is a multifaceted performer who has made a name for herself by singing in a variety of languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Telugu, Gujarati, Malayalam, and Kannada. The Breakup Song from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, the title track from Chennai Express and most recently, Deva Deva from Brahmastra, are some of her songs in Hindi. These songs further upped her popularity. She started recording cover songs at an early age, including popular ones like Pani Da Rang, Tum Hi Ho, and Yeh Honsla, to mention a few. She has since become a YouTube sensation. The singer talks about jamming with talented artistes like Salim Sulaiman, Sonu Nigam, and Amit Trivedi, both in recording studios and on tours. Collaborating as a playback singer with the likes of AR Rahman and Pritam has been nothing short of a dream come true for her. When she was nine months old, her family relocated to Canada. While she was surrounded by a lot of Bollywood music during her growing up years, the singer has also been influenced by ABBA, Beyonce, and Lauren Hill. In a candid conversation, Jonita discusses her big break with the title track of Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express, the versatility in her body of work, and how being nominated for a Filmfare Award was a career-defining moment for her. Excerpts:
How exposed were you to Indian music while growing up?
There was always Bollywood music playing in my home while I was growing up. I would sing and dance along to the songs my parents played, from the golden oldies to the latest Bollywood releases. My dad is also a musician by hobby and his band would often rehearse at our house. They played Bollywood songs at local events, and that’s how I started performing when I was a child.
How has your family helped shape your musical talent?
My family loves music. My dad used to play guitar in his college band and now plays keys as well. My brother is a percussionist as well. And they both perform at local South Asian events around our hometown in Canada.
Which singers did you particularly listen to?
While growing up, I listened to a lot of different singers, not only from Bollywood but also from the West. When it comes to Bollywood, I probably learnt the most from listening to Lataji (Mangeshkar), Ashaji (Bhosle), Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal, and Sunidhi Chauhan.
I try to be particular about expression and phonetics when I’m singing in different languages. I understand that a slight variation in pronunciation could change the meaning of a word entirely. So I rely on the native speakers around me in the studio to help me get it right before I hit the mic. I make a sort of legend on my notes to help me remember pronunciation and meaning while recording.
Chennai Express was your big break in Bollywood. How did you land that?
The night I recorded that song was the first time I met Vishal Dadlani. He happened to be working on the song when I bumped into him at the studio while visiting my friend Abhishek Ghatak, who worked there at the time. When he asked me if I wanted to try the song, my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in to give it a shot. I walked out without any expectations, but when I found out that my voice was being kept on the song, I was extremely excited.
How did your journey with AR Rahman begin, and how has he mentored you?
Rahman sir discovered one of my YouTube videos and shared it on Twitter, which started the whole thing. Little did I know then that it would lead to an association that would last years. Not long after that, I received a call to record at Rahman Sir’s studio in Chennai. I’ve had such indescribable experiences in the studio and behind the mic with him. He has asked me to try things I didn’t know I could do, but somehow he knew I could. I feel grateful that he entrusts me with not only recording songs but also performing his music live on stage. I remember how nervous I was to go on a tour with him the first time, as I was the only female singer for the North American Intimate Tour. Working with him continues to be such a rewarding experience.
You are quite the YouTube sensation. Did you put up your work on the platform with an eye towards finding work in Bollywood?
When I first started on YouTube, I didn’t understand the power of the platform. I had no idea it would lead me to the career of my dreams either. I first started sharing videos with my friends and then realised that people around the world were starting to respond to them. When we started getting show inquiries and recognition from industry stalwarts, that’s when it hit me that there was a bigger picture ahead.
How different would you say the independent music scene is when compared to playback singing for films?
Both can be quite different. Playback singing is more like work for hire; singers are typically called to execute a pre-planned song, where many people from many different departments are part of the process. The independent music scene generally allows more room for artists to make more of a connection with listeners on a personal level, in my opinion. The process of releasing music in both spaces is also very different, with everything from strategy to budgets included.
Were you performing on stage while studying?
Throughout my university years, I performed at events regularly. It was like a part-time job for me. While most students earned money through retail jobs and other means, gigs were my primary source of income. It was a great way for me to balance work and fun! I would come home from my campus on weekends to perform and head back to school on the weekdays.
Have you ever had a funny or embarrassing experience with a fan?
I remember once meeting a fan who had known me specifically for my YouTube covers. He was so awestruck by the fact that I was standing in real life, and he innocently said, “I can’t believe you came out of YouTube!” That’s a memory I think will stay with me for a long time, haha.
If you had to pick a song from your career that fast-tracked your musical journey in the industry, which one would you pick?
I think The Breakup Song was the song that helped people recognise my name and voice in the earlier years. Chellamma from the Tamil film Doctor (2021), however, grew more rapidly than any song I had sung prior. I could see the impact on social media.
What’s your take on your latest hit, Deva Deva?
I love the song. It was beautifully portrayed on screen in the film. I love how the song has a anthemic feel, especially the chorus, which makes people want to sing along. It’s always an honour to work with Arijit Singh, Amitabh Bhattacharya, and Pritam Da’s team.
You have been nominated for a Filmfare Award in the past for The Breakup Song, and Ahista from Laila Majnu…
Being nominated for a Filmfare Award is like reaching a career milestone. It felt so great to be nominated a couple of times in the past, alongside singers I looked up to before I even started pursuing singing. It’s surreal and means so much to be recognised amongst such people, whom I respect and admire so much.
So what’s next in the pipeline?
I’m looking forward to all that’s yet to come in the year ahead. I’m exploring music with some personal projects and recording for film simultaneously. Be sure to stay tuned to my social media channels to find out more when I announce details.