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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

The sound of catharsis

We talk to Sandeep Savio Sequeira who, after two years in the wilderness, has released an album about his strifeRob Garrat speaks to Sandeep Savio Sequeira, who, after two years in the wilderness, has just recorded a new album that charts his discontent 

Sandeep Sequeira a singer-songwriter at his home studio in the Al Raffa area of Bur Dubai in Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National
Sandeep Sequeira a singer-songwriter at his home studio in the Al Raffa area of Bur Dubai in Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National

Before he could begin recording his debut album, Sandeep Savio Sequeira knew he had to clean up his life and put his house in order. The UAE-based singer-songwriter quit smoking and other unhealthy habits, started working out and overhauled his diet. He also sought professional psychological help, attending therapy for the first time in his life – because more than physical, his problems were first and foremost mental, the root cause stemming from the emotional exertion of a destructive romantic relationship.

“I had fallen off the wagon, in all aspects of my life,” says the singer and guitarist. “Truth be told, in these few years, I completely forgot about myself. Whatever I wanted to do got lost. As soon as this relationship ended and I had a way out, I knew I needed to get back to myself.”

After more than two years of creative inertia, by February this year, the blackness had lifted, when Sequeira took a month off work to record. It was an incredibly fertile four-week burst that saw the songwriter lay down the bulk of the 15 tracks that would make up the cathartic outpouring of Metanoia. The LP would be pointedly released under the name Palayan – the Sanskrit word for escape.

“In 2014, I recorded more than 40 songs,” he remembers. “And in 2015, I recorded nothing. In 2016 – again, nothing. I had gotten into a relationship that completely consumed my own life.” During this period, Sequeira was far from idle. As a member of UAE rockers Physical Graffiti, he estimates he clocked close to 100 gigs in 2015 alone. But his solo music was left strangled by personal circumstances and his Palayan avatar put on indefinite hold.

Metanoia, then, is a rebirth; the sound of a human being emerging from the fire by clinically raking over the coals of despair. It is an assured set of confessional songwriting. Pro-shot video singles for the catchier moments Empty Seed and It Was Never Enough were released in November. Next, the plan is to tape a live, stripped-back, acoustic version of the entire album, alongside a band who will be tasked with bringing these eclectic, atmospheric soundscapes to life.

There is little chance of stage fright. Born in India and raised in Bur Dubai from the age of 3 months, Sequeira has played a dominant role in the UAE’s underground rock and alternative scenes for more than a decade. Brought up listening to his dad’s Indian classical-music cassettes, the 28-year-old’s first taste of western rock ‘n’ roll came with the introduction of MTV to the region in the late 1990s. This laid the first stones of a guitar-centric path that soon progressed from the popular nu-metal and rap-rock of the day – Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park – to darker, more ambitious subgenres, such as death and extreme metal.

Sequeira taught himself guitar in his early teens, but with few music venues in existence, he recalls an adolescence spent playing semi-private, under-the-radar gigs in communal compound gyms and hotel ballrooms. Greater success came in his late teens and early 20s as a member of metal band Beneath the Remains, who for a half-decade spell achieved relative local notoriety and were close to being signed before self-combusting in 2010. For Sequeira, who had quit his studies for the music, it was crushing.

“It was a good band, but people left and relationships fell apart, it just crashed,” he recalls. “I had put a lot into that band. I put my life on hold – it was looking good, we had labels talking to us, but unfortunately, people turned out… whatever. It was a very difficult time. I had no job, I had not finished university; I couldn’t even get a job.”

After re-enrolling in an audio-engineering course at SAE Institute Dubai, Sequeira was forced to pick back up the guitar he had tried to sell. After gaining confidence from some remotely recorded Bollywood session work, he began recording original compositions under the moniker Palayan, penning a series of ambitious, progressive guitar instrumentals.

“I had no idea I would ever sing in my life,” he remembers. “I always wanted to, but didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I had a voice people would want to listen to.”

Back at SAE, Sequeira – now employed as a supervisor and guest lecturer – met a group of students proudly wearing their hard-rock influences stamped on the name of their band, Physical Graffiti. Conflicting schedules saw the veteran musician invited to fill a vacancy on guitar for a single gig in mid-2014. “One show became 80 or 90,” he laughs. “We never spoke about it – they never asked me to join and I never brought it up.”

Soon established as one of the UAE’s most hard-working bands, Physical Graffiti provided a useful distraction at a time when Sequeira’s own life was in turmoil. But during this period, his own creativity dried up. “I stopped taking care of my health,” he recalls of the period. “Every aspect of my life had fallen apart – spiritually, mentally and physically. I realised I needed to get myself back – I went through some major bouts of depression, and went to get help at the end of last year. All I knew, after trying to get myself back, is that I had to do Palayan again.”

When his relationship broke down for good, Sequeira found the key to rediscovering himself, his music, and his moniker, in the submerged audio snapshots lodged deep in his phone. He unearthed recordings of 20 almost-complete songs documenting the various stages of pain and catharsis – both a time capsule of hurt and an artistic gift. “I thought: ‘That’s my album,’” he recalls. “I decided to stop hiding from myself. I thought: ‘Let me go full-on with this.’ To get to that point, I had to do a lot of work on myself. I had to start living again. I told myself I would only do the music after I was fit and healthy.”

Cleaned up and 15 kilograms lighter, he began recording. Sequeira’s skeletal musical ideas, sketched on acoustic guitar, were ornamented with an eclectic sonic scope, placing synths and turntables alongside tablas, violins and flutes – a meticulous mix of indie, folk, world and electro aesthetics which, despite the stark lyrical revelations, rarely feels overbaked or overwrought; the song and story always remain paramount. An ongoing video blog captured the album’s creative arc, from those first home sessions, via overdubbed additions from traditional classical musicians recorded in India, to the final mastering, which was completed in the United Kingdom.

The material’s footage-style genesis gave birth to Metanoia’s conceptual structure, which is split into four chapters themed according to the temporal moment in which they were composed, entitled Premonition, Remember the 5th, Where Do I Belong? and This is the End. Taken together, they plot a pained emotional journey, moving through betrayal, exhaustion and escape to eventual recovery – closing with the epic catharsis of If I Have to Grow, You Must Go. A ringside seat to an internal boxing bout, after sitting down to Metanoia, one cannot help but wonder what the album’s emotional muse makes of the music she inspired.

“She loves it,” Sequeira replies uneasily. “She knows each and every note and word on the album. I really don’t know why she does it [to herself] – there’s a lot of painful feelings there, that I can sing all these things I went through because of her. But it’s not about her, really – it’s about me.”

Listen to Metanoia at www.palayan.ae

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