Senik, also known as Pavan Vasdev, is an Indian-American producer and musician based in Portland, OR. He began playing music on the piano and cello, but quickly learned a wide range of instruments. His passion for music has allowed to him to create with artists worldwide, as well as perform with the award-winning Shankar Mahadevan.
I caught up with the 17-instrument-playing musician to learn more about him and his industry.
Firstly, you have to list all of the instruments you play. For the readers.
Oh, man. Okay: piano, drums, all the guitars (acoustic, electric, and bass), trumpet, violin, viola, cello, harmonium, sitar, veena, dholak, clarinet, saxophone, and that’s about it!
Do you think you were able to teach yourself most of those instruments because you had piano as a background?
Yeah, that’s where it starts. If you start at an early age, you can figure out what sounds good together.
When did you realize you liked music? For me, I was forced to play piano and I hated it, but a little after I quit, I realized I liked it a lot.
Same exact thing for me. I hated piano and cello. In sixth grade is where it changed. With piano and cello, my parents would force me to play it, but with trumpet, I wanted to. In the early days of the internet, I would google, “band camps,” and then go ask my mom, “Can I go to this band camp?” So I guess that’s where it started.
Was there someone or something that motivated you to like trumpet or did you just like the sound? Because the trumpet doesn’t always produce the most beautiful of sounds.
Yeah, it’s not beautiful at all. There’s actually a reason I like trumpet. In fifth grade, I got a Dizzy Gillespie CD for Christmas—I have no idea why my parents got me that—but I listened to it non-stop. He’s very complex jazz, and I was just some fifth grader bumping those tunes.
What’s been your biggest challenge involving music so far?
I think the biggest challenge is the industry itself, because it’s not like any other industry. I’ve only been doing this professionally for a year and already, I’ve learned so much. There’s so much corruption in the music industry. It’s not like anything else. At least with a field like medicine, you work your ass off for ten hours a day for ten years and you know you’ll come out as a doctor. In the music industry, everyone’s doing that and 90% of them fail. That causes people to act in different ways. In just the one year I’ve been doing this, I have been lied to and used by a label. I’ve been cheated out of two songs, both of which have over a million views and have been signed to a major distributor. I created a six song EP for a girl and when I charged her for the work, she sued me. It’s really exceptional. It teaches you that there are people in this industry who, because of the historical precedent, are incredibly cutthroat and somehow it’s acceptable. So the hardest thing for me is dealing with the egos and the uncertainty of it all.
From your perspective, what percentage of the industry is actually in it to make good music?
I think 100%. I think everyone starts with the idea that they want to create. A lot of people want to make it big and be the next Tupac or Biggie, but that just doesn’t exist any more.
What’s been the best thing to happen so far for you in the industry?
In April, I got two songs signed to Universal through a good friend of mine, Dasu, who’s signed to them. He’s a fantastic musician. That was a huge thing for me. The other highlights happened in India, like performing with Shankar Mahadevan was always sweet and scary.
Has it been hard being an Indian pursuing an art, especially with all of the societal expectations in place?
My parents have been really supportive, thank God. But it’s been hard. There’s a lot of judgment from members in the community. It’s such a paradox. When I was leaving for India to work with Shankar Mahadevan, all of these aunties were saying, “Don’t forget me. You’re a big deal!” Then, I came back and they’re asking, “Grad school? Med school?” I’m thinking, “No, I started my career. I’m not planning on switching paths halfway through.”
It’s frustrating to have to constantly defend your career choice. I want to pursue acting but I always present it as a hobby to people. It’s become a defense mechanism.
Adding in your backup plan is totally a defense mechanism, and I still do it. When I’m talking to uncles or aunties, in the context of the conversation, I’m able to explain that art is a sustainable field, that you’re able to do good for the world and earn money. But when it’s close family, I go straight into, “Yeah, yeah, med school in four years.”
Have you noticed race playing a factor in the industry? I think with a considerable amount of art, people of color tend to create something but it only becomes popularized after a white artist performs it.
Thankfully, things are shifting. Historically, I think you’re absolutely right. There’s still an equality issue. As a brown artist, though, I don’t think there’s a better time for me. Even just twenty years ago, to be Russell Peters or Aziz Ansari, it must have been hard. That has to do with our communities looking down on the arts, but it’s changing.
The other side to that is I’ve actually been helped because I’m brown. It’s the hot thing right now. A lot of major labels are rushing to sign Indian-American artists specifically. That’s not fair either, but such is the world.
Has it been hard to find a balance between being Indian and being American? I know I’ve always struggled with retaining enough of my cultural identity while still fitting in.
Yeah, definitely, and it’s something I’m trying to bridge with my music. My friend, Kartik, and I are trying to create music that caters to Indian-Americans here and Indians back home. It’s not easy. There’s sort of an elitist thing that people develop when they move here, and it doesn’t help that the people in India put America on a pedestal.
I noticed that when I was visiting Bangalore, too. A McDonalds had just popped up and the line to get food stretched three or four blocks.
That’s exactly it. People there have associated all things American with good. If you want to take someone on a date, McDonalds is where you go.
If a boy took me on a date to McDonalds, I would probably tell him that we needed to see different people.
Good ten minutes with him max.
What’s your greatest concern for our generation?
Trump. I don’t think he’s as bad as people have made him out to be, but he has given a voice to the xenophobic population. America has worked really hard to suppress that voice, for better or for worse. Obviously, you can’t kill an idea. There will always be racists or people who think I’m a terrorist because I’m Sikh and Indian. They’ve always been there, in the underbelly, but it just sucks that fifty years of hard work to stop aggressions towards people of color is coming undone for a lot of America. I hoped that that would die out with my parents, but it’s scary to realize that a lot of people our age think that way, too.
Back to music, how do you stay motivated enough to continually create art?
You asked me what the hardest part of this industry is and behind the answer I gave you, it’d be this. You have to develop a healthy relationship with flow and with the childish, moodiest emotions that live inside of you. I could be way better, but I’ve gotten better at coping with it. I’ve created a flexible enough schedule so that if inspiration hits at 2 am, I can be just as productive as if I had a disciplined schedule and tried to write at given times. With writer’s block, I’ve been learning when to fight it and when to nurse it and let it have its own space.
If you could give your 18 year old self advice, what would you tell him?
Workout. My 18 year old self was not in shape.
But more seriously—and this is going to be pretty specific to myself—but drop out. Drop out of college immediately. Your degree isn’t going to help if you’re sticking to music. If you’re trying to go into medicine or engineering, where a degree is necessary, then do it. Otherwise, you’re just four years behind.
If someone has a dream that they think is unrealistic or hard to achieve, what advice would you give them?
I’m so young. Right now, the advice I would give is just the stuff I’m trying to follow and struggling with. One thing that’s working for me is to keep going no matter what. I tell you that but I’m saying that more to myself than anyone. With every one step up, you’re going to get beat down four or five times. I’ve told you about all of the stuff that’s happened just in the past year. Every one of those things is like a knife in me. Especially with music, it’s so passion-based. The two songs I wrote that got signed to Universal, I wrote them in two hours because the inspiration just came to me. When you’re constantly getting beat down, the inspiration is the first thing to go. So my advice is to just keep going. I wish I was older and had more wisdom, but that’s my biggest piece of advice.
I think it’s nice to hear from the perspective of someone who’s struggling right now, though.
Yeah, someone who’s failing right now.
Well, I wouldn’t say you’re failing.
Everyone sees failure and success as a linear timeline. That’s something I’ve recently unlearned. Right now, I am failing at some things and succeeding at others. Your mind can go to either one at any given moment. That’s the hard part, and that’s why not giving up is so important.
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