Talking Childhood, Music, and the Making of ‘Ghost’ with Parekh & Singh
Last year, Parekh & Singh debuted Ocean, a nine-song album full of sleepy but bright pop melodies, along with a host of music videos. ‘I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll’ quickly amassed more than a million views and brought the Kolkata-based duo international attention for their matching suits and Wes Anderson-inspired whimsy.
But it’s ‘Ghost,’ with its preteen protagonist, that caught The Swaddle’s attention. Below, The Swaddle speaks with Nischay Parekh, one half of the duo just off a five-city tour of India, and the team behind the video for ‘Ghost,’ to learn the story behind the story of a little girl in search of her dog. Interviews have been edited for clarity.
The Swaddle: ‘Ghost’ has a childlike quality, a sort of whimsical seriousness to it. Was it inspired by your own childhood? How did the song and video come about?
Nischay Parekh (songwriter, vocals, guitar and keyboard): Out of the nine songs on Ocean, about 75% were written before I was 19. It was that – it had the swing of childhood. ‘Ghost’ was construed as a relationship between two lovers. But me and Jivraj (Jivraj Singh, percussion), we like turning a perception on its head. So the song can be about anything. Art that survives is usually open to many interpretations not just one.
Misha Ghose (director, ‘Ghost’): We spent a lot of time art directing.
NP: Our visual aesthetic is very intentional. We’ve always been interested in bands that create an overall experience. From the color of socks to type of guitar to lyrics. We’ve always been interested in the design aspect. I think it’s just a conduit. We consume music visually, too. Back in the day, in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, even then people would want to pick up a record that had interesting cover art. The YouTube video is the vinyl of the 21st century.
MG: The idea was to make the video colourful. A lot of it is kind of childlike in terms of the colours and art direction. Also universal in some ways.
The Swaddle: You both grew up in Calcutta, where the video was shot — did that influence the song/video?
NP: We showcase Calcutta in a lot of our imagery, but it’s really idealistic — what we see in our heads, in our imaginations, in our music. That Calcutta is something that’s super lush, almost akin to a dream.
MG: The magical side of Cal, we’ve all experienced it. Every frame you see is distinctly Calcutta, but we’ve put a lot of effort to make each frame stand out because it’s a short story we’re telling in three minutes.
NP: Calcutta has changed a lot in its fabric over the years, but one of its biggest influences is how slow it is. It’s not a hustle-bustle city. Right now, it’s drizzling. I can just imagine how most people have put down the shutters of their shops. There’s a languidness that permeates our imagination and music. The tempo of the album is around 90-94 bpm, which is quite slow.
MG: We all kind of grew up in a similar fashion. Jivraj and I are family friends. It’s very slow, no one does anything. You go for walks, you eat amazing food. It’s a great city to grow up in. I have an intense love for the city, and also an intense frustration.
NP: I’m still bored in Calcutta. I don’t have anything to do today. There are many days in Calcutta where there’s absolutely no agenda. Nothing — just stare out the window at the monsoon. I spent a lot of my childhood just doing that, just being still. It allows your mind to do different things like dream or imagine.
The Swaddle: Nischay, you’ve said the best music always comes when musicians are in their hometowns.
NP: It comes from a place of truth – that’s not to say other musicians haven’t migrated and made awesome music. But a lot of soulful, authentic music – Motown, R&B – is associated with a specific city or region. Classical comes from Europe. Even when you hear Louis Armstrong sing, you can hear New Orleans, you can hear where he comes from. We create best when we’re at home in Calcutta. At least we have so far.
MG: Whenever I hear their music, it takes me too a happier, bells-and-whistles space. There’s almost an adolescent quality to it, and you feel younger and happier. That’s what we wanted to convey. But we didn’t want it to become a romantic boy-girl story because that would be obvious. We worked on the story for ‘Ghost’ for quite a while.
The Swaddle: How did it go from a romantic song to a story about a little girl?
NP: The idea of the ghost of the dog and this little girl – that popped into my head. People love dogs. The love of animals and pets is another theme that has permeated our music for a while.
MG: Once we started developing it, the story kind of fell into place. We’re all dog lovers. The loss of a dog is something we could all identify with, as well as what dogs give you. It became about a child who lost a dog and the hunt for it. But we didn’t want to make it sad. It was supposed to be almost an adventure the child goes on, after she’s lost the dog, to find the memory of the dog again.
NP: It’s fun to work with animals and children. There’s so much immediacy and energy they inject into anything they do.
MG: I always envisioned a girl. Obviously, because I’m a girl, it’s easier to visualize a girl’s story. I think a little girl and her dog – it just felt more correct than a boy and his dog.
NP: We did do some auditions. We were thinking, ‘Oh we would need to cast a real actress, someone who can handle the camera and all that.’ But then my mom said, why don’t you try out Prathna. My mom had seen her grow up for a long time. She’s super athletic and super confident and sporty.
Prathna Rai (actress, age 10, ‘Ghost’): Nischay bhaiyya asked my mom if I could play the role of a small girl who loves dogs. I was 9 when I did the video. I just do acting with my friends in school.
NP: She’s up for anything. And she has an infectious energy. We did a little audition for her and she was fantastic.
PR: For the audition, I just did some pretend activities. I ran on top of coal. I acted as if I was playing with a ball. I was feeling sad because there was somebody who has left and is very close to me. I had to act like that. It was easy. I wasn’t feeling nervous. I was shy. I’m not shy at all, but I thought that there would be someone else auditioning, too.
NP: She has no fear. She’s way braver than both me and Jivraj.
MG: We tried not to show any adults. We cut off all adults, heads because it’s the point-of-view of the child, and that’s what we wanted people to see in the video. At certain parts, we see Jivraj and Nischay, but they were sort of the shadows that followed Prathna around.
When adults look at kids and their sorrow, it’s always the sympathy and childish offerings – give them a doll, give them something. That’s a part that’s possibly annoying to kids. How the child feels at a given point of time – she doesn’t necessarily want sympathy or adoration from adults, she just wants to be on her own. Possibly hanging upside down….
The Swaddle: You filmed the whole video in just two days. That’s quite a feat. What was the most difficult part?
PR: After the audition I knew that the dog was going to be a beagle. I felt bad that it wasn’t my own dog. I have a Cocker Spaniel – Jelly. She is six years. She always follows me after I wake up. She’s very happy when I call her and fetch her. And especially after I come back from vacations, she gets very excited.
MG: The scene with the girl hanging upside down. I’d visualized it from the beginning and it didn’t come out quite as per I had visualized it exactly. We obviously didn’t want to make it uncomfortable for Prathna, so we’d have to do it in spurts. To get the timing right was really difficult. We basically tried it again, and again. By the end of it, we got one take, that’s it, with no other option for the edit. That was a really difficult shot.
PR: It was fun. When we were doing the scenes, it was serious. In some scenes, Misha told me what to do. In other scenes, she told me to just play with things.
MG: Both days were really long. We were really worried about losing light because everything was outdoors. We were just running from one scene to the other. And there was a jib, which is this massive equipment, which had to go from one place to another.
PR: I had to wear many, many clothes for the video. They’re not my style. The skin was not being shown on my arms. I was in full sleeves, but I like sleeveless or half-sleeves. It was a bit hot.
MG: But shooting with Jivraj and Nischay – it’s quite fun. They’re funny boys. Them, in their suits, in the middle of nowhere in Calcutta — that in general is fun to watch.
We also kept chasing the dogs in the field, and they kept running back. The crew kept having to chase them out of frame. It was a small little village – lots of people watching.
PR: At the end of the whole video, we all played with the red and green balls that are in the video. And after the whole video was done the next day, we went for a treat. Nischay bhaiyya gave us lunch and cake.
The most surprising moment was when it released on the day I had my district for swimming. So, I couldn’t scream or anything. But my heart was jumping like anything at that point of time. It was awesome. The feeling of my music video coming out – I was feeling extremely proud.
The Swaddle: Music videos that aren’t from Bollywood — how much has changed in the music scene since you were a kid dreaming in Calcutta?
MG: There’s been a digital revolution. Things have changed a lot for everybody. India was the kind of place where there was a certain sort of content. Growing up, everything had a certain look and feel, dictated by television or Bollywood movies playing at that given point.
NP: The relationship that all audiences have toward music in general, but specifically toward non-local-flavour/Western-influenced music. That relationship is evolving very positively. Now is the best time to be an artist in India. Add the Internet and social media to that – anyone can do anything. You can do anything any band in the world is doing.
MG: There’s space for so many more voices. There’s a lot of clutter – standing out is tough. But you have the voice and ability to put it out there, which was never there before.
It’s difficult to say there’s overall more freedom to be creative. But there are definitely more jobs that allow you to be creative. From web designer to digital specialist to online content creator, there’s a content boom right now. Especially in metro cities, there are more and more kids going into creative fields. That will only increase, slowly. But 100% there are parents who won’t let kids get into anything creative. But it’s only a matter of time. People will realize it is a way of life, and you can do it.
NP: Both my and Jivraj’s parents have been super supportive in various ways. It’s not the stereotypical story of the Indian family. Lawyers, doctors – that was not our parents’ pressure.
Them giving us the confidence to do this, to be ourselves and create this journey and this world — we’re very fortunate to have that. Being a songwriter and being your own boss, playing your own music; that’s going to be a challenge for anyone in the world. It’s still not super easy, but it’s getting better.