‘Canada’s well-kept secret’ racking up hits, accolades abroad

Before Raghav became an award-winning, platinum-record-selling singer, he was just a kid living in Fort McMurray, who might have had his dreams crushed by a critical voice teacher.

Before Raghav became an award-winning, platinum-record-selling singer, he was just a kid living in Fort McMurray, who might have had his dreams crushed by a critical voice teacher.

He remembers the singing instructor telling his parents “‘No, this is not his calling’ — that I wasn’t cut out for it. … It’s unbelievable,” he recalled, with a chuckle.

“I should have sent her a platinum record when I got my first one!”

That experience is the reason Toronto-born, Calgary-raised Raghav said he sometimes sympathizes with American Idol contestants who are told to hang up their microphones.

“You should never let one moment define you,” said the singer, who didn’t take his voice teacher’s negative assessment to heart.

And in the ensuing years, the artist who’s been called “Canada’s well-kept secret” has had many stellar musical moments — although, until now, they have largely been in other countries.

Raghav — who performs on Saturday at the International Beer Haus and Stage in Red Deer — sold 1.3 million copies of his debut CD Storyteller while living in the U.K. in the mid-2000s, and later put out the sixth best-selling international album in India.

He also racked up a pile of music awards, including Britain’s MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Award, and is currently working on soundtracks for Disney and Bollywood films with mega-watt music producer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).

While many Canadians haven’t yet heard of him, they’ve almost certainly heard his recent single, Fire. The infectious club hit, with its chorus of “I’m on fire, fire, fire, fire, fire tonight. I’ll take you higher, higher, higher, higher, higher tonight … ” has been all over commercial radio in Canada.

The 32-year-old, who’s also put out the songs Angel Eyes, Top of the World and So Much, dabbles in hip hop, reggae, R&B, and with South Asian influences, but claims that if you dropped all the techno beats from his music, what’s left would be comparable to a country tune.

And that brings us back to Alberta, the place he still considers home.

During an interview last week with George Stroumboulopoulos, Raghav recalled Strombo asking him if there’s something about his upbringing in Calgary and Fort McMurray that’s influenced his music. He concluded, “I think my writing is uniquely Albertan.”

The singer explained that his writing style has been called “different” for the pop genre. “I grew up listening to so much country music. …”

His storytelling songwriting style even prompted collaborators on his first album to suggest calling it Storyteller.

Raghav’s own story began in Toronto, where he was born to Hindu parents from India, and named Raghav Mathur.

It quickly shifted to Calgary when his engineer father got a job in the oil industry.

His singing talent became obvious when, at age four, he performed all the lyrics to Bollywood songs his parents had been listening to — word for word. By age five, he was taking singing lessons.

At 17, Raghav moved to Los Angeles to train with Seth Riggs, who was a vocal coach for Madonna and Michael Jackson. A year later, he was attending the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts in the U.K., a school founded by Paul McCartney.

Raghav also joined a band called 11/7, which led to his MOBO award for best collaboration.

His debut solo album produced four singles and led to a world tour in 2005 that took Raghav to India, Africa, Australia and North America.

While he followed up with his 2009 album Identity, which rose to No. 3 on Indian charts, Raghav was feeling too disconnected from his Canadian family to remain in the U.K. After his mother suffered a heart attack in 2010, he moved back to Canada, splitting his time between Toronto and Calgary.

He figured that after all his international triumphs, finding success here would be a cakewalk.

He was wrong.

“You have a Top 10 hit in the U.K., and there are 40 press reports on you. You have a Top 10 hit in Canada and you can hear crickets,” Raghav said, with a laugh.

At the same time, he got a Juno Award nomination in 2011, and credits Canadian radio stations for being very supportive of his music.

“They’ve just been unbelievable to me,” said the singer, who has big plans for the next year, including putting out another pop release to follow his latest Woohoo album, as well as a first-time country CD.

He also aims to start an independent record label in the province to help promote young, up-and-coming Canadian artists.

“I think artists have a responsibility to support other, younger acts. … There are a lot of talented artists in Alberta and right now there aren’t enough opportunities to hear them.”

There’s a $5 cover charge for the 9:30 p.m. show. For more information, call 403-986-5008.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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