Thought Brownie, a.k.a Hari Shenoy, is a naturalised Irishman from India, a man in his early 40s releasing what he himself describes as an unlikely rap album. It’s the consequence of some life changes: tackling autoimmune disease that came up during Covid, and finding the power of artistic persistance as he began writing four lines every day to create a larger whole, the product of which is the record ‘Man Of Subtance’.

Referencing everything from the history of his native India to the war in Ukraine to Studio Ghibli as influences, Thought Brownie’s diverse cultural explorations ooze out in his music, making for one of the more unusual, mesmerising and thought-provoking records I’ve heard covering music in Ireland, a startling display of imagination in the face of self doubt.

In what I believe is the first written interview with Thought Brownie about his album, he filled me on just what it’s all about, and how it came to be, asking the broader question: what do you want to do with the time you have left?

You have a background on my side of the music industry. What shifted you over to producing and releasing your own music?

I was a music journalist covering independent music, mainly rock and metal in India. I did that for five years from 2007 to 2012. It was a brilliant experience that gave me access to new artists and to learn why they did what they did. I enjoy writing in general and writing about music in particular.

In my 30s, I went all in on a corporate job. My life was all about running on the hedonic treadmill. I wanted early retirement, after which I said to myself that I will finally relax, resting on the laurels of jobs well done. That perpetual state of being in sprints caused stress, anxiety and burnout, because everything that gave me fulfilment was outside of me. I was chasing the approval of others to feel good about myself, prioritising elusive milestones over abundant moments and neglecting to stay in the present moment.

The pandemic didn’t help either. In January 2021, I got diagnosed with an autoimmune health condition that shifted my perspective. It made me aware of how nothing is promised. I know I can leave my life right now, and I must make sure I can live my life right now.

I felt like the best way I could come to terms with the physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced was to write my way out. What I wrote turned into verse and that gave me the idea to create something. It felt like the right answer to the question I keep asking myself each day – “Yo Hari, what will you do with the time you have left?”

Can you tell me a little of the story behind ‘Man Of Substance’?

The original name I wanted to assign for the album was “Cheaper than therapy”. Then I figured that having a nom de plume that sounds like “Pot Brownie” should give me licence to call it “Man of Substances”. I finally decided that “Man of Substance” sounded right to me in my head.

I began writing the album when Russia invaded Ukraine. I have been to Kyiv and loved the time I spent there. My Ukrainian friends made me feel welcome the way people from India make their international friends feel welcome. It hurt to see them hurting. War made me wonder why we, as a species, are so blatantly invested in acts of self-sabotage. Carl Sagan’s speech about the “Pale Blue Dot” felt more relevant than ever and I decided to adapt it into rap.

All other tracks began falling into place as I explored topics related to time, mental health, ambition, inner peace and growing up.

Before this, I was writing a musical on the history of India. I am so grateful and so inspired by what Lin Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton, that I decided to create an Indian version. What’s the worst that could have happened?

I was making progress there but I’ve since set that project aside for now. I need to understand my own story before I could do justice to telling the story of nearly 2 billion people.

I understand you wrote four lines a day for two years. How complex was pulling all of that together into the full record?

Writing four lines a day gave me a foundation on which to build the album. It was like gathering blocks of marble and chiselling away at them bit by bit. I was able to set the flow by rapping to a metronome or to hip-hop backing tracks on Youtube.

It got complicated in the next stage when I wanted to get it set to music, then record and mix and master the tracks. I tried my hand at making music and beats using a midi player, and I was able to make something basic. My tastes in what good beats sounded like exceeded my ability to create them.

Thankfully I was able to connect with Vlad Tavaniuk who worked with me to compose music for the album. I was also helped along the process by veterans Max Reve (recording sound engineer) and by Chris Jones who was in charge of mixing and mastering.

The complexity of album creation was managed by making daily progress, knowing I could solve problems with patience and perseverance and by getting help from people that are really good at what they do.

A billion seconds makes me filled with bliss

I’ll never own a billion of anything but this

Time no longer spent staring into the abyss

No more squandering, holding on to every bit

The art on the record seems loaded with symbolism. How did the artwork come about, and how did the record help you get your head straight and keep moving forward?

Reuben Bhattacharya (nom de plume Visual Amnesia) is a friend I have known for many years now. We worked together when I was a music journalist. He was the editor and creative director for the magazine. The album cover art is a painting that he created.

Through many conversations, we both locked in on the idea that each human contains a rich inner life, a self-contained island universe. Simultaneously, there is a grand universe out there waiting to be explored.

The album art blends together elements of the cosmos, stoic philosophy (the face is inspired by the bust of Marcus Aurelius), the Japanese art of kintsugi, colours and styles as seen in Studio Ghibli movies and pays tribute to literature and poetry, on whose foundations I’ve learnt to write.

As you say yourself, you’re perhaps an unlikely person to drop a rap album. How have you found the process and the interaction between you as a person and the record as it’s gone out into the world?

I found that there were two big hurdles that I had to overcome.

The first was to convince myself that I could do this, and to suppress the voice of self-doubt in my head. Even now, I can come up with umpteen reasons why dropping an album is not a good idea. However, I found that I needed just one reason to convince myself to do this – which was that it brightened each day. It was hard work to spend an hour after my day job dedicated to working on music, and I found that the effort that went into the album gave me energy. It felt like I was riding an upward spiral.

After overcoming self-doubt, the second hurdle was to let go of what other people would think. That problem was solved when I read “The Creative Act” by Rick Rubin. Rubin (rightly, IMO) says that creating art is like writing a diary entry. That the audience comes last. Everyone can choose to experience it, but if it doesn’t speak to them, they can find something else that is meaningful.

One album down, I still grapple with both problems and I find that the best way to remedy that is to keep writing and keep creating each day.

What kind of audience are you hoping for with the record – and, perhaps more broadly, does it really matter?

I wish 20 year old Hari could’ve had access to this album.

This album (and my future work) is an effort to have kinder conversations with myself. Creating this album made me come to terms with feelings of self-loathing and self-doubt, and letting go. It gave me a chance to give all my past selves a hug and go, “Hari, all that you did so far, you did with good intentions. Even when you messed up, you didn’t know better and you tried and worked hard. You got both of us till here buddy. Now you can chill because I’ve got it. I love you.”

I kept wondering what kind of hip-hop my favourite philosophers, writers, thinkers and all round smart and kind people might listen to. My album is an effort at creating something that they might enjoy. It is for everyone who wants to see how another person is doing their best to figure life out.

It is for those that are older (I’m 40) to look at and go, “Of all people, if this random guy can, I can too!”

That said, if no one listens to what I put out, it will not stop me from writing four lines each day from now until the last syllable of my recorded time.

I conform to norms, I fulfil expectations
I’m a brick in the wall, aware of obligations
I’m born into a world filled with complications
Where we don’t get no explanations

How do you feel your Indian background and your Irish influences combine in the style and substance of the album?

My Indian background has given me two gifts – the first is that the people I grew up around, and those about whom I heard stories of had the ability to “hustle” and get stuff done. It wasn’t always easy things that they managed to pull off. Tenacity and self-delusion played a huge role. I think I’ve got a little bit of that in me.

The second gift is that of the Indian rap scene that emerged in recent years. Indian rap artists created something from nothing, and their stories are inspirational. Some of what they wanted to do to better themselves has rubbed off on me.

Living in Ireland for six years has given me the gift of storytelling through writing. When I moved here, I was pleasantly surprised by how everyone I met had good stories to tell, were funny and congenial. I try to be that way as much as possible. I have a long way to go with the funnies. I am grateful how Ireland celebrates art, literature and creativity – that has added fuel to my inner fire.

Can you tell me a little about how Indian music culture fits into rap and the style of album you’ve produced, if at all?

Indian music culture doesn’t directly fit into the style of the album I’ve put out. The music in particular is influenced by contemporary hip-hop, though the words are derived from my own experience of trying to figure life out.

That said, there is an Indian movie named “Gully Boy” which I urge everyone to watch. It tells the story of Murad, a young man living in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia who builds a better life through his music. His story is inspired by two real life Indian rappers, Divine and Naezy whose art provided a voice to many impoverished youth.

That drive to rise above their circumstances and write their way out makes them legendary. So much so that they even managed to impress Nas who has a single with them.

I grew up in a life of relative privilege when compared to Naezy and Divine. The problems and challenges that I face in this stage of my life are different. However, how they did what they did to inspire others certainly worked on me.

Do you have a favourite track or line from the record, and if so, what is the story behind it?

This is the toughest question you’ve asked me.

The 10 min 43 second track, “Unplug me” is the one that I like. I’ve tried to deconstruct all the versions of the Matrix that have been created around me so that I can choose when and how to unplug from them. I am done being a “copper top” (that is what Switch calls Neo the first time they meet each other). I don’t want to be a battery that perpetually fuels all these imagined orders that I have been born into. Not all the time, anyway.

I’ve tried to wrap my head around the nature of work, nationalism, in and out groups, conspicuous consumption, virtue signalling, cell phone and tech addiction, organised religion, schools of philosophy, neo romantic love, life and death, and living in a simulation and what each of these looks like when I choose to view them from a distance.

Through the process of writing this track, I figured out that I can choose all the lies to make everything about my world a paradise. Love and curiosity can free my mind.

Having been in Ireland for six years, have you found the Irish music scene easy to connect with? Do you feel you’ve found a place within it?

I have not. That’s on me. When I started making music, the pandemic was in full swing. Going out was not an option because I am on immunosuppressive medication. Thankfully things are better. Hail science!

I have a small child with whom I want to spend as much time as possible while balancing my full time job and working on music. That leaves little time to put myself out there for now. I do discover and listen to artists in Ireland and I hope to attend events and open mics soon.

I once attended an open mic night when I hesitated and left before my name was called out. I wrote a song about it (Nervous) which I put on the album. Maybe I will go perform it; that will be a full circle moment. I am open to advice from people who’ve been in the same boat as me.

What are your plans for the future of you Thought Brownie?

I plan to write at least four lines every day, for the rest of my days, dropping words like it’s hot. My next album, tentatively named “Grand Ego Disintegration” is in the works. I am also writing a script / screenplay / musical. If anyone wants to collaborate, or even to get some ideas if they are stuck, I’d love to help!

Listen to Man Of Substance, out now, below.


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