COLUMN: Alumnus Nikhil Korula credits music success to practice

When he began our 5:30 p.m. interview by ordering himself a shot of espresso, a mocha and a tea, I could tell Nikhil Korula had not grown complacent in his success.

“Don’t be afraid of not having a schedule like anyone else’s because the best musicians, or the best businessmen — they’re not sleeping away the entire day,” Korula said.

Korula is a singer-songwriter who has shared the stage with music giants as wide-ranging as Herbie Hancock and John Mayer. A 2001 graduate of USC’s opera program, Korula has found his own musical niche writing what he calls a world-infused strain of pop meant to make you dance. But he doesn’t let his achievements stop him from maintaining a fastidious practice and songwriting regimen.

“The one thing that’s really hard to do as a musician is: How do you balance your time?” Korula said. “I could spend all day practicing. I want to spend all day practicing. But you have to find that balance if you say, ‘I want to play, I want to arrange sessions, I want to find work as a performer, as a producer.’”

That means Korula starts his day off with two songwriting sessions with his team, one from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and another in the afternoon. He spends the evening managing his business, returning emails and booking shows and tours. And at night, Korula practices all alone.

”Your best moments practicing are when no one’s listening,” Korula said.

Korula’s hard work paid off. Last year, Korula shared writing credit on “Start It Up,” the lead track from Ziggy Marley’s eponymous album, which went on to win this year’s Grammy for Best Reggae Album. Korula said that his musical achievements have led him to appreciate musical concision.

“The funny thing is, it’s come full circle, where the simplest things start to hit you more,” Korula said. “I was producing as an artist, and I was doing guitar tracks for this one song, by myself, in the middle of the night, when I started weeping. I was playing the most simple, two-note line, but the song was hitting me, and the parts were so perfect for the song. I said, ‘I’ve learned all this crazy stuff in music just to simplify.’”

Part of the success of Korula’s band, the NK Band, is due to his music’s
emotional vitality. Korula’s songs project joy and hope. That, plus the band’s unique ensemble sound, has earned it a diverse and loyal following.

But I wondered if Korula has ever felt confined by the expectations of his fans, or burdened by the task of uplifting them, show after show. Korula answered that the emotional dialogue he builds with his fans through music is what gives him energy.

“Being a creative, it is not all a parade,” Korula said. “You’re going to have ups and downs throughout your life, your career, and you have to document how you’re feeling in each moment. A lot of times, in my darkest moments, I would end up writing some of my happiest songs, almost to lift me up out of that place. And I think for me, the more I understand about myself, the more I’m able to be that vessel of positive energy.”

Understanding himself means that Korula also practices a healthy amount of self-care. He makes a point of avoiding creative projects he can’t put his heart into.

Korula’s success, then, hinges on his ability to balance creativity with self-compassion and business skills. He returns his emails every day, but he trusts his abilities enough to follow a creative thread even when the payoff is uncertain. And he knows when it’s time to take a break.

“When I’m on the road, I don’t always sleep as much as I want to sleep, but that day when I come back,” Korula said. “I make sure I have nothing to do. And then I sleep.”

I asked Korula to share a favorite story from the road, and he chose one that he said reminds him of how committed he wants to be to his fans. The show was a 2009 gig in Carbondale, Ill.

“It was the University of Southern Illinois, right around late June,” Korula said. “So I’m outside, and there’s lightning, and they’re covering instruments … And I’m like, ‘But [fans are] waiting in the rain. Those people are waiting outside, and they’re not going home, so we’re not going home.’”

Korula and his band waited it out and played their full set when the rain lightened up. He told me that such moments affirm to him the power of music.

“We are gifted to embrace a moment, and express that moment through sound, to affect people,” Korula said.

“That is a tremendous responsibility that people may take for granted, but every moment is like a soundtrack.”

The NK Band’s next local show is June 25 as part of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco Weekend.

Max Kapur is a junior majoring in jazz studies and East Asian languages and culture. His column,  “Ears to Hear,” runs every other Thursday.