Jitwam has been building his portfolio for nearly a decade now, and at this point, it’s practically overstuffed. He was born in India, grew up in Australia, and is currently based in Brooklyn; his music is informed by L.A. beat-scene aesthetics, the umpteen sounds of Southeast Asia’s diaspora, and taxi radios the world over. In other words, he’s been all over, and his music reflects that reality. His is a sound that gestures towards countless styles without sounding quite like any of them. At any given moment, a Jitwam album might recall funk, rock, jazz, old-school house, or full-tilt psychedelia, but good luck pinning it down so neatly.
Jitwam’s latest record, Third, is yet another left turn in a career full of them. Here, he’s ejected the heady haze of 2017’s ज़ितम सिहँ and the zonked-out psychedelia of 2019’s Honeycomb, opting instead for a blissed-out combination of neo-soul, disco, and Latin jazz. Each record is undergirded by the same compositional ethos—a “first thought, best thought” approach indebted to beat poet Allen Ginsburg—but the results couldn’t be more different. With Third, Jitwam aims his improvisational approach towards tightly coiled rhythms, resulting in some of his most direct songwriting yet.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to describe Jitwam as a veritable polyglot. His work is as aesthetically elusive as it is musically singular. He has built a career upon folding idioms into each other, creating something that feels bracingly new along the way. In a chat prior to the release of Third, we got the chance to catch up with the Brooklyn-via-everywhere songwriter about his latest record, the sonic possibilities of a good dancefloor, the magic realism of music discovery, and the importance of self-definition. – Michael McKinney
How are you doing?
Jitwam: I’m OK, just [been] kind of a busy two weeks with tours across Mumbai, Bali and Angola. I’m home now, to my birthplace, so just really grateful for the time to chill for a bit, to be honest. I haven’t been here since four or five years [ago] now. So yeah, it’s definitely good to be back.
What’s it like to be back on the road?
Jitwam: I had a run of shows across America and Europe. I think I was there earlier in the year, like February. To be honest, this is probably my first proper tour since Covid, but I’ve been traveling here and there for various work in between then.
What first drew you to music? What kind of stuff did you hear growing up?
Jitwam: I mean, I’m an only child, so I think music was a means to occupy myself. Also, like, my heritage is Indian. We are very not used to leaning into our emotions, so to speak, ‘cause we’ve got that immigrant mindset. So yeah, I feel like music was more a thing for me to be able to express those things that I couldn’t necessarily do in a normal day-to-day human experience.
Was that expression a thing of listening, playing, or both? How did that initially start for you?
Jitwam: I guess it would definitely be listening and then playing what I was listening to. And then it evolved into playing into what I wanted to hear. Just getting more used to being empowered in the act of creation or prioritizing time to create, rather than just consume.
Once you moved into doing that professionally, was it a gradient, going from how you started to going ‘oh, I’m recording music now’? Or was that a conscious motion?
Jitwam: Yeah, I would say it flowed quite easily into one. ‘Cause, you know, I’ve always been making music. Doing it professionally or not isn’t really gonna change that fact, you feel me? Before I was doing it professionally, I was still making loads of stuff. Life circumstances deemed it so that I kinda had to take it a little bit seriously if I wanted to survive, really. I was out in New York and I didn’t have a proper work Visa to be able to get a proper job, so the only thing that I could think of doing was taking these sort of cash-in-hand gigs, really. I was kinda forced into the situation.
How would you say your movement informs your work? Would a Jitwam record made in Assam sound similar to one made in Brooklyn, or would they be intrinsically different?
Jitwam: No, I think.. You know, as with anyone, osmosis plays such a large part in how we perceive the world or how we interact with the world. I would just say, especially with this record in particular, I’m really tryna synthesize all the travels that I’ve done, to create a new diaspora music.
For me, the album really was a reflection of my time in New York. I wanted it to feel like you’re traveling through the different boroughs and soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of each of the stops that you go to. As I was making the record, I found so many parallels with New York, as it is with Mumabi, as it is with London, as it is with Mexico City.
There’s diaspora all over the world that are working at the supermarkets, that are driving the Ubers, that are doing all the same shit and it doesn’t matter where you go, we’re all still doing it. You know, the album goes through so many different styles and tempos and quote-unquote “genres,” but I feel like there is still a sense of oneness in the hotbed of the rhythm or the hotbed of the drums, you feel me?
Yeah, I’m with you. On this record and on previous [ones], one thing that’s really caught my ear is the way you’ve blended recordings of the city and what’s going on outdoors with the grooves you’re working with. To me, that sounds like you’re trying to make that dialogue more explicit. Does that read sound accurate?
Jitwam: He’s a huge influence on me. Amazing composer. Miles Davis said that he was intimidated by Hermeto Pascoal’s greatness. That’s how much in the upper echelon of music this guy is. I saw him perform live and every song started with the band members speaking in Portuguese; all of a sudden, the conversation started turning into rhythm, they’d start beatboxing the beat, you know what I mean? I resonated with that a lot. I feel like a lot of stuff I’m interested in is turning the mundane into the extraordinary and finding magic in the most boring, stupidest bits of life.
The other thread that I’ve picked up on in your records is your relationship with both the act of dance and the broader ideas of dance music. I’m thinking about the track of yours that was picked up by Moodymann, about the number of house records you’ve done, about the amount of boogie and disco in your sets. What’s your connection to dance music?
Jitwam: I mean.. Indians, we love to dance! (Laughs) I feel like, in today’s context, dance music is very much associated with a thumping kick drum, a big buildup, a drop, and then a breakdown. With my DJ sets, a lot of people come up to me and they’re like, ‘oh man, I never knew we could dance to this.’ ‘Cause a lot of times I’ll throw in Brazilian stuff or African percussion records. And it’s the same with my music. I’m really tryna thread the needle between all these genres. For me, I listen to everything. From industrial music to techno to house to jazz to hip-hop to soul to Indigenous music to Asian music.
Once you start listening so broadly, you realize more and more the similarities between all these things, rather than the differences. With this idea of dance music, it’s the same shit. The idea of my albums, like soul, house, funk, boogie, disco.. To me, it’s all one big melting pot. I would say that’s probably more a reflection of my life, having been born in India, grew up in Australia, living in various places of the world, so maybe that kind of stuff resonates with me more just because of my upbringing and what I’ve been through, really.
So—am I reading this right? It’s not exactly an effort to tie styles together, but instead, it’s ‘here’s what I’m doing and I wanna present that as honestly as I can to you.’
Jitwam: Yeah, 100%. When I was growing up, I used to make mixtapes for all my friends and they would always complain to me, being like, ‘man, you’re putting the rap music next to the rock and roll stuff.’ They were like, ‘you can’t do that!’ That always perplexed me. Back in the 2000’s, everything was #1. Whether it be rock and roll, rap, R&B, Enya.. There was so many different things that was considered ‘pop’ at that time.
One thing that interests me about Third is that, compared to your older stuff, there’s a clarity to it. It’s sharp songwriting and I think that’s partially because there’s a focus on Latin jazz and funk idioms—stuff with really driving rhythms. I’m curious if that’s a deliberate change or if it just happened along the way.
Jitwam: I would say yeah, that’s just what happened along the way. I don’t think my songwriting process has changed all that much. It’s just that as I get more deeper into it, I’m exploring recording live drums and exploring working more with other people and involving them in my music. So it just comes out like that. Since Dave Dot, I’ve always been a very instinctual songwriter and musician. That’s why a lot of my tunes don’t really have set forms, they’ll just drift off into wherever I feel like the song wants to drift off to. So none of that has really changed, but the one thing that has is seeing more of the world, hearing more different music and getting to meet individuals that are crazy talented at their given instrument. I’ve been blessed to be able to collaborate with these guys and have their talents included in my sound. So I wouldn’t say there’s a change, but a natural evolution.
My understanding is that this record is the closest thing to a solo record you’ve got at this point, right?
Jitwam: I mean, for me, this idea of ‘solo record’ is so weird, because everything takes a team of people to execute. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the closest thing to a solo record that I’ve got, because it has been such a wild and collaborative affair in every sense of the word.
In the past, you’ve mentioned a whole bunch of different inspirations. In a bit for XLR8R a few years back, you mentioned a whole pile of names. There was Terry Riley, Limp Bizkit, RP Boo.. Names from all over the spectrum, right? That points to what you said earlier, when you put ‘genres’ into quotes. In that XLR8R piece, you mentioned that there was ‘no choice in what inspires you.’ Do you still feel this way?
Jitwam: Yeah, 100%. I feel like a thing that sets my music apart is that I’m not scared about my influences. Whether it be Limp Bizkit or something that’s completely uncool. Like right now, I’m really fascinated with Enya. I’m not really ashamed by my childhood or ashamed by anything that I listen to or that I come across. Rather, I feel like the stuff that is more akin to my childhood is gonna be more genuinely and authentically me. Yeah, I don’t think that’s something to run from. Rather, I think it’s something to lean into.
Tell me about Enya. Why [her] specifically?
Jitwam: The production and the vocals and how everything is an ocean with her. The melodies really collapse on top of each other. I just think it’s a great example of how stuff is so highly executed that it kinda gets forgotten about. Everything comes in cycles, doesn’t it? So I’m sure Enya’s gonna have her time back in the sun. I think she’s a great musician, great vocal producer, great songwriter, great arranger. And the tunes are deep. Just in terms of sonically, I feel she’s taken on the torch of Bobby McFerrin, with a lot of his invocation records. He really took the voice as an instrument into somewhere that we hadn’t really seen before. Besides Leon Thomas, I guess.
Earlier you mentioned that you aren’t afraid of your childhood, that you want to embrace it and your inspirations. I’m curious about what that looks like in your work, if you can name that.
Jitwam: Well I guess, for instance, on this record, there’s a lot of punk funk, you know what I mean? I’ve always made a lot of rock and roll type music, but I never really released any of it until now. The latest single, “Stranger Danger,” is like punk-disco-funk-psychedelic.. I don’t know what it is. So yeah, I guess really having the confidence or courage to lean into more of my [influences]. In my scene and the audience and how my discography has looked so far, the last thing that anyone would think of is me releasing a rock and roll joint. So I would just say having the courage to actually have the balls to get up and do that. And then not only do that, but then also put that as the single. (Laughs) Yeah, I’m proud of that.
In your new record, I’ve spotted psych, jazz, funk, hip-hop, all sorts of things stewed together. It’s almost easier to say what your music doesn’t recall than what it does. What does your digging process look like? Is there a rhyme or reason to how you find stuff?
Jitwam: No, not really. I really love having magic in my life. I’ll leave things to the grace of God to pull me in whatever direction that needs to happen. A lot of music that I find is from sitting in Ubers and taxis and listening to music that the taxi driver is playing. And going on late night drives with my friends and just getting them to bump their coolest shit. In Chicago, I remember rolling around with some friends at night and they were just playing Chicago punk music and I got so many joints from that! I’ve been blessed to be able to listen to what inspires so many people and definitely take or steal or borrow or beg from the ones that resonate with me the most.
To jump off of that, between both The Jazz Diaries and your radio shows, you’ve shown how wide your taste goes. What is the process from taking all of these things that you love, all of these records that you find in the wild so to speak.. How do you take that and curate it? What’s the pipeline from ‘here’s what I love’ to ‘here’s what I wanna put out’?
Jitwam: That is a fucking great question. (Laughs) It’s easy to make tunes for me. Especially when I’m in the flow, it will just pour out of me. I don’t really have to do much, besides just be present. I would say the most difficult thing I find with releasing music is what to release. I think you need to have a conversation with yourself and figure out who you are, where you wanna go.
All these really deep, personal questions to figure out that curatorial process. Because, you know, you can go anywhere with it, but what are the parameters that you set for yourself, that makes you you? Especially now with the internet, I feel like your decision-making, your taste, your preferences, your choice, the things that you love are the things that define who you are. For me, getting to know myself better and learning to trust myself more is what that curatorial process is like.
And, aside from that, it’s also just similar tones and textures. Like especially when I’m DJing, I find it similar to making records. I find that when the mood is right, I don’t feel the need to have everything beatmatched if there’s a similar sort of vibe or similar mood or similar percussion sound or similar instrument that’s going on. The ear gravitates towards things that bring it together.
Would you say that’s a similar thing to how your label operates, in terms of ‘we’re interested in a broader vibe, a broader aesthetic’ and then playing within that? Or is it more specific than that?
Jitwam: I mean, to me, a lot of this music thing.. I see them more as photographs. So when it comes to songs and albums, I find they’re moreso a means for me to remember my life and my journey. I would say that the label is like an extension of that as well—the great people that I’ve met from all over the place. If someone is truly creating something that I think blurs the lines between different genres, that’s my shit and I feel like most of the records that we’ve done have been like that.
Horatio Luna experiments in between the lines of live musicianship and traditional house music. Similar with Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange. We just released an artist, Elle Shimada, who fuses, I don’t know, futurist jungle political feminine rap with L.A. beats and hip-hop type, with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who’s a violinist. Same with Malik Alston from Detroit, who’s taking gospel and jazz and live instrumentation and bringing that into the house/dance music world. I’m interested in the dusty corners that are in between things, and I feel like the label is an extension of that, as are my albums and everything that I do.
I’m caught on the idea of your records as photographs, as remembrances. Is that a result of these records being accumulations of your life, or is that a conscious thing? Are there records you’ve made with a specific moment in mind?
Jitwam: I can tell you explicitly when I listen to any tune that I’ve done, the time, the place, what I was doing, what I was thinking about.. That comes up really strongly with me. I send all my music to my friends and the ones that they bump with a lot are the ones that I get drawn to, because it’s a symbol of our connection. There’s a couple of joints on the new album where my booking agent Vincent said ‘these are the ones.’ He’s turned into a really dear friend of mine—I’m just glad that we have that moment together that we can share. He also provided the New York city police sirens in “Brooklyn Ballers.” Yeah, I can’t wait to be an old ass man, looking back and reminiscing with Vincent or with any of my friends and just being like, ‘yooo!’ Just being able to have that connection documented in some way, shape or form.
I’ve read about chalo, the creative project that you’re a part of. You say it stems from recognizing there’s ‘a gap in the media that we consume.’ Would you be willing to elaborate on that?
Jitwam: I mean, a lot of it was just based on my travels playing in India. In India, there’s so much talent. And I guess—this happens a lot with a lot of local scenes—they just import the headliners in, you know what I mean? And often the local talent is comparable, if not better than whatever they’re importing. I think for a lot of Asians or South Asians, I’m just reflecting on my own experience growing up. There was such a rejection of everything that made me Indian so that I could fit in with the prescribed norm of the school or the society that I was living in. chalo is a really important project for me, just to show to myself moreso than anything, how valued and how treasured and how diverse and how skillful and how artful music from South Asia is. There’s no caricature that you can apply to us.
You know, with that chalo record, it goes from a string quartet, like classical music to broken beat to jazz-metal. It goes through such a range of styles and I’m really proud that it showcases a whole bunch of what it means or what it looks like or what it could sound like to be South Asian. ‘Cause I feel like that’s a question that we’re gonna have to collaboratively come up with an answer [to], because everything that we do can’t be a reflection of a white-centric model. We need to define for ourselves what it is or what it sounds like to be South Asian, irrespective of what the mainstream society is at the time.
I think that was a large genesis for it, and I think it’s just a stepping stone. Since that compilation came out [and following the] Dialled In Festival, some friends of mine in Sydney have started their own thing, and it’s really amazing because it’s also shown me how many South Asians there are in the music industry that are running things! From A&R at Ninja Tune and Warp Records to PR to journalists to managers to booking agents to radio pluggers. There is a big community of us and I feel like this is the baby steps into stepping into our limelight.
Yeah, the chalo record, on first glance, recalled Daytimers, who I know you‘ve worked with in the past. Between those projects, do you feel like there have been meaningful strides towards that representation? Where do you envision it going from here?
Jitwam: I would just hope that whatever definition we have of what it is to be South Asian is defined by us. I tell this to a lot of my friends who are artists, ‘you don’t wanna be yesterday’s news. If you’re authentically yourself, you can never go out of style or out of fashion.’ Because people are buying into you. They’re not buying into you as the jazz musician or you as whatever is trendy at the time. They’re buying into you and what your imprint is on the world. So yeah, I don’t really have a vision, I think that’s a collaborative process that takes time and takes a lot more understanding and collaboration and conversation. I would just hope that the definition is defined by ourselves.
What are you looking forward to, then? What’s next?
Jitwam: So many things! I’m so looking forward to people hearing the album. I’ve got a busy rest of the year planned out. I’m doing a run of shows in America, a run of shows in Europe, then another run of shows in Australia. I’m just excited. I feel like I’ve planted so many seeds and I’m just so excited to see the flowers bloom basically, in so many respects. I’ve got so many things that I’m looking forward to. So yeah, I feel blessed. I’m out here in my place of birth for the album release. It’s also the anniversary of my grandfather’s passing—one year to the dot. That’s when we’re dropping the album. Everything feels like it’s in its right place.