World music wonder
Nikhil Korula’s jam-rock has taken him far beyond his hometown of Arcadia
By Carl Kozlowski 11/15/2012
There are not many singers who can lay claim to the childhood resume of Nikhil Korula.
Korula was the youngest member of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus at age 7, performed at Carnegie Hall at 10 and sang “The Living Years” as part of a children’s chorus backing the band Mike and The Mechanics on the Grammy Awards when he was 11.
Add in singing with the legendary Luther Vandross at age 12 and serenading Rod Stewart and his wife at Stewart’s 1993 wedding the following year, and Korula would appear to have a life that couldn’t get any better. But he adjusted well after his voice changed at 14 and is now not only a teacher at the Pasadena-based LA Music Academy, but is also getting radio airplay nationwide, as well as playing top halls and festivals as the leader of the eponymously named Nikhil Korula Band.
“It’s music that makes your soul groove,” he says. “We’re a world-influenced jam band, and we improvise quite a bit in concert. We leave plenty of room open in our shows for improvised solos and sections we leave open in concert. I was excited by new frontiers that jazz improvisation offered, and that’s part of the allure for me.”
Indeed, Korula fell in love with jazz because of his appearance on the Grammys. While backstage there, he met and was fascinated by jazz icon Miles Davis. Growing up in Arcadia as the son of a doctor from East India who also “played a little bit and sang in a band called The Hormones during medical school,” the Canadian-born Korula started singing in his church choir at the age of 5.
That choir’s director turned him on to the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, paving the way for his early accomplishments. But after his voice changed, Korula switched to singing in jazz choir during high school and successfully auditioned for the USC Thornton School of Music.
“I studied there for four years and was heavily influenced by jazz there, so I took a songwriting class that changed my life,” says Korula. “It made me want to start a band, and it’s why I have a lot of jazz musicians in my band. The biggest factor came when I saw the Dave Matthews Band live and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
When speaking about music, he bubbles over with enthusiasm, reeling off influences ranging from Sting, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon to John Mayer, Stevie Wonder and Prince. Onstage, the charismatic Korula is filled with boundless energy, as he leads his seven-piece ensemble — featuring bass, drums, percussion, lead guitar, saxophone, acoustic guitar and even a full-time harmonica player — through raucous sets that have earned them a national fan base.
Their top traveling shows so far have included annual sets at Milwaukee’s massively popular Summerfest and Tennessee’s hot Bonnaroo Festival, while local gigs have included the Playboy Jazz Festival and the UCLA Jazz & Blues Festival. But best of all, the band has opened for three of Korula’s heroes: the Dave Matthews Band, Jason Mraz and John Mayer.
The NK band is doing well on the recorded front as well, having sold out of its debut five-song EP before releasing the full-length CDs “The Way Things Work,” Live Vibes,” and “Music of the New Day.” Not only do the songs ride an unpredictable wave of heavily improvised jazz-rock, they also carry a lyrical message of “love, honor, peace and promise,” Korula says when asked about his themes.
“The biggest challenge is getting the awareness of what we do to the masses,” says Korula. “We’re getting on radio in 45 stations in 25 states, played in India, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and one of my songs is being played at Lakers and Clippers games now. We do it all indie, but it would be great if a major label with the right vision for the band came along. I don’t see that happening, and that’s one reason I want to teach: So I can empower other students’ careers.”
And so it is that between nights onstage at hot clubs and in the booths of recording studios laying down tracks for his own solo album, Korula also finds himself teaching songwriting and giving private music lessons to his students. He’s also the creator of the Rock Star 101 class at the academy, instructing students on how to put on a showcase and spotlight their songwriting for producers.
“I think music is one of the greatest healing powers in the world, and that’s why I like to play it,” says Korula. “It not only heals me, but heals other people.”
Learn more about Nikhil Korula at nkband.com.