"I've always been into improvising," says Jitwam when we meet in New York, on a warm August afternoon. He's telling me about his relationship with "first thought, best thought," a concept popularised by legendary American poet and writer Allen Ginsberg. Abstracted from ancient Buddhist practices, it advocates for improvised creativity as a form of meditation, and a way to create out of nothingness from instinct alone. "I feel my best thoughts, best lyrics, [and] best songs come from improvisation into oblivion," he continues. "The first thing is to press record, and let the sounds dictate where you need to go."
The multi-hypehnate (producer, vocalist, DJ) and I are sitting on a bench in a yard on Brooklyn's Marcy Avenue. We're talking about things like "first thought, best thought," and musical improvisation. They're central to ज़ितम सिहँ (self-titled), the new album he's releasing through Berlin/New York-based, but New Zealand founded record label Cosmic Compositions.
"In terms of music, or art in general - I have an affinity for things that are hard to place, or [are] out of place. Things that hit you on the head, and make you think, where the fuck did that come from?" says Jitwam. He refers to the experiences of hearing some "super weird shit" outside of context on late night radio, or bugging out to the syncopated sounds of Chicago footwork for the first time. This liminal zone of in-betweenness and uncertainty hangs heavy over ज़ितम सिहँ. Across it, Jitwam pairs his soul-inflected vocals with stumbling cyberpunk beat loops, cinematic jazz arrangements, shades of psychedelic blues-rock, sultry lounge/AOR touches, and delicate flickering guitar.
"ज़ितम सिहँ recalls the oddball pop songwriting explorations of Willis Earl Beal, Connan Mockasin, Jai Paul, and Dean Blunt. Like these eccentrics, Jitwan's music lurks in a space where the ghosts of the past walk arm in arm with the possibilities of the future. "I feel as if my best music inhabits that hypnagogic state between wakefulness and dreaming," Jitwam confirms. "It's something that feels alien, yet comfortable. Whether or not all my music achieves this is a different story."
Born in Assam, Gauhati, in Northeast India, Jitwam spent his formative years in New Zealand and Australia. After finishing university, he travelled through Asia, Africa, and South America. Jitwam spent months in temples practicing silent meditation, volunteered in orphanages, and hitchhiked with truck drivers across South Africa. "Growing up in the city, you don't realise how dependent humans are on the natural world," he reflects. "Hanging out in tiny villages on the foothills of the Himalayas, or the river banks of the Amazon, you see how connected we truly are, and in some cases, how disconnected we are. All our shit goes somewhere; it doesn't get flushed down the toilet and disappear into thin air."
After his travels, Jitwam relocated to London to pursue his lifelong passion for music. He recalls playing guitar, and using recording software like audacity as a child, and recalls a love of RnB, hip-hop, and Bollywood blossoming into teenage interests in psychedelic music, art rock, 60s pop, and electronica.
While studying at university in Canberra, he started collecting records and DJing at house parties. "This all served as a gateway to enjoy all things in music," Jitwam enthuses. He developed a taste for jazz, gospel, disco, Brazilian music, field recordings, and ambient music, and started to connect some dots.
In 2013, an EP release on The Jazz Diaries (an independent label he co-runs with friends) got him some early attention online from Andrew Jervis' Bandcamp Weekly podcast, but in London, Jitwam's music caught the ear of French-born, English DJ Gilles Peterson. He also connected with IZWID Records co-founder DJ Kutmah, another likeminded musical misfit. When they began championing his music, opportunity knocked. Soon enough, Jitwam was co-writing with producers like Paul White and Inkswell, and his song "Keepyourbusinesstoyourself," popped up in DJ Moodymann's K7! DJ Kicks compilation. DJ support from UK/US tastemakers Henry Wu, DJ Spinna, Alexander Nut, and Funkineven followed.
Last September, Jitwam moved to New York with his girlfriend. She wanted to complete a Masters in Creative Writing at NYU, and he, not so simply put, just isn't that wedded to any specific geographic locale. "Out here, I'm doing the same shit I do everywhere," he laughs. "I make money, so I can eat, sleep, put a roof over my head, and make music. Nothing's really changed. Urbanscapes everywhere in the world are the same, buses, people, and trains. It's how you do things that is the most important."
As his attitude towards being in New York, and affinity with "hard to locate" art suggests, Jitwam isn't particularly wedded to the idea of his music being connected to any specific location or scene. He does however, acknowledges the influence Indian music and culture has had on him. "Indian music has always been about absorbing different music from all over the world and synthesising it to create something new," he explains. "You look at the [film score] stuff RD Burman was making in the late 60s and early 70s, and it's all interconnected with what was happening in Spain and America at the time. You look at any great movement in thought or the arts, it's always been about incorporating different influences and evolving the worldview."
Also, after watching a documentary about the Krautrock scene, Jitwam found himself using this framework to rethink the influence the cosmic sounds of late 1960s Germany have had on him, and how they fit with his "first thought, best thought" approach. "Besides the Indian connection, it's now clear to me why that music struck me so much," he enthuses. "They didn't give a fuck about environmental noises seeping into the recordings. They didn't give a fuck about song structure or getting the lyrics right. They would, for the most past, just work themselves into a trance and go."
For Jitwam, ज़ितम सिहँ began several years ago, following the death of a close friend in extraordinary circumstances. He doesn't really want to discuss them, but admits the album was spurred on by the circle of grief. "This album has been an ever-evolving process, one that has caused me both joy and pain," he continues. "At the heart of it is me coming to grips with life, and my musings around that. I've thrown everything in there, from the cyclical nature of all things, to really mundane observations around our use of social media." Across its running time, he worked with a cast of session musicians and co-writers including DJ Godfrey Ho, Quentin Kane, Nick Walters, Loretta Smith, and Henry Wu, putting the vibe ahead of any real planning. "It was about creating the right conditions," he says. "We're still listening to records from the 1920s even though they were recording the whole band with one microphone in the room."
"To me, Jitwam's music has always oozed soul and emotion, much more so than most new music I hear these days," writes Cosmic Compositions co-founder Addison Chase. "He can do anything, house, hip-hop, soul, psychedelic, jazz, and folk. He's a collection of all of my favourite sounds and styles rolled into one package."