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Dhruv Visvanath: The troubadour with a cause

The 26 year old multi-instrumentalist's new album sees him retracing his family's history for inspiration

Dhruv Visvanath at his home in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Dhruv Visvanath at his home in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The music video for Wild, the second single off 26-year-old singer-songwriter Dhruv Visvanath’s sophomore album The Lost Cause (released on 19 April), follows its protagonists across the Mumbai landscape as they navigate life in the Maximum City. They ride the locals, hang out with friends, get haircuts, and spend an inordinate amount of time staring stoically at the city skyline. And, as the Bon Iver-esque song about the lust for freedom builds to a crescendo, they escape to the woods, answering the call of the wild. It’s the standard “big city kids find themselves in the wilderness" trope, but with a twist. In Visvanath’s version, the protagonists are all sentient mops.

The video is a perfect example of Visvanath’s uniquely off-kilter perspective. He’s a troubadour with a sense of humour, writing songs about deep, existential questions but never missing an opportunity to make the listener smile. Since emerging on the scene with his 2011 debut EP Chronicles—a collection of experiments on the acoustic guitar—he’s quickly gained a reputation as one of India’s most talented young guitar players. His percussive style of playing, as popularized by Erik Mongrain and Andy McKee, earned him a spot on the Acoustic Guitar magazine’s prestigious “30 Great Guitarists Under 30" list in 2014, alongside such heavyweights as Ed Sheeran and Newton Faulkner.

Visvanath spent his childhood as a globetrotter, thanks to his late father’s job with HSBC Bank. Born in New Delhi, he had lived in England, Zambia and Hong Kong by the time he was 16. It was during these travels that he picked up his first instrument, a cheap Casio keyboard, at the age of 7. “My mom wanted me to learn the piano because she said women fawn over pianists," he laughs. “I didn’t really know what to do with that information, but I went for the lessons anyway."

He picked up the guitar at 13, trying to imitate the rock and metal guitarists he had grown up listening to. But it would take a few more years for him to make the shift from self-taught dilettante to serious songwriter. The catalyst was his father’s death in 2008. “I didn’t deal with it very well, I didn’t go to a counsellor or anything," he says. “So music became a way for me to express what I was going through. A lot of the songs I write are conversations I’m having with him."

On The Lost Cause, Visvanath widens that lens a little, digging into his family history for ideas and stories to tell. The title itself comes from conversations with his friends about leaving the city and travelling the world in order to find themselves. “I realized that out of all the people who had expressed a desire to go on this sort of quest, nobody ever actually found the answers they were looking for," he says. “It felt like a lost cause from the moment you hear it. So I took that idea and gave it my own twist. I decided to go and visit places from my family’s history, and see if it helped me understand myself better."

Having written most of the songs in his bedroom, in 2016 Visvanath took them on a 17-city tour, also called The Lost Cause. Apart from the usual suspects, the tour also featured performances in places like Duliajan, a town in Assam where his late father grew up, and Visakhapatnam, where his great-grandfather used to work. “I took a friend along and we put together photographs and videos to document the whole journey," he says. “Every place I played, every little corner of it, had a story which needed telling and I wanted to be that storyteller."

Visvanath has spent the year and a half since the tour putting the record together and preparing for its launch. Having decided to release the record independently—his last album, Orion, was put out on Vishal Dadlani’s Vishal Likes Things label—he has been heavily involved in every aspect of bringing the record to fruition. He even crowd-funded the album’s promotional campaign, raising close to 150% of his original goal of Rs3 lakh. Now, with The Lost Cause finally out, he is gearing up for the launch gigs in Delhi and Mumbai next month. He is also looking forward to playing at the Canadian Music Week in Toronto, along with dates in Montreal, New York City and Washington, DC. But, most of all, he is looking forward to finally taking a breather.

“With all the work I’ve done these last two years, I think it’s time I played tourist for a while."

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