Student Spotlight: Shivaraj Natraj

The vocalist, konnakol beatboxer, and percussionist reflects on his musical journey from Oman to India and beyond, and how he’s working to bridge Western and South Asian musical styles.

March 1, 2024

What’s it like to study at Berklee? Our Student Spotlight series asks current students all about their Berklee experience—what they’re learning in class, what kinds of projects they’re involved in onstage or behind the scenes, how they recharge, and of course, what they’re listening to. In this installment, get to know vocalist, beatboxer, and percussionist Shivaraj Natraj, an eighth-semester contemporary writing and production (CWP) major from Bangalore, India. Shivaraj’s band, Project Mishram, which fuses South Indian classical and progressive metal influences, was recently announced as part of the lineup for the major hard rock festival Louder than Sound this September in Louisville, Kentucky, where they will perform alongside acts such as Slipknot, Judas Priest, and Evanescence.

Follow Shivaraj on Instagram and Facebook.

Tell us about your path to Berklee. What made you decide to come here?

I began my training in the Carnatic (South Indian classical) style of vocals when I was just five years old, under the guidance of my father, Natraj Pushpavanam. I grew up in Muscat, Oman, where I continued my studies until the tenth grade. Later, I moved to Bangalore, India, for high school and started learning how to play the mridangam, a South Indian percussion instrument. 

While in college pursuing a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, my videos on konnakol (Indian vocal percussion)—beatboxing became viral, and this led me to form my Carnatic fusion band, Project Mishram.

In 2020, I had to make a critical decision between choosing music and my career as a business analyst. Eventually, I decided to leave my job and pursue music full-time. I applied to Berklee College of Music and was awarded a scholarship, which was a dream come true. I aimed to expand my music knowledge and create a global music career, which was inevitable with the diversity of musicians coming from all over the world.

Listen to "Sera" by Project Mishram:

Given Berklee's vibrant international community, how do you envision your distinctive role in contributing to this environment?

Although I come from a Carnatic music background, I enjoy different styles of music, including EDM, progressive metal, jazz, and funk fusion. When I applied to Berklee, I was interested in exploring jazz harmony despite my lack of knowledge about the theory behind it. Since arriving at Berklee, I have been able to use my knowledge of swaras (Indian solfège) to interpret the concepts of harmony and arranging and have found it to make perfect sense! 

I create video content that explains how I bridge the gap between these two genres, which can be easily understood by Indian classical musicians and others. Additionally, I have taught five guest lectures where I explain the basics of raga and tala (melody and rhythm) in Carnatic music to diverse classes of Berklee students using Western music notation and references. 

Being one of the few konnakol beatboxers in the world, and one of the few mridangam artists at Berklee, I have had several wonderful opportunities presented to me during my time here. 

What's been your favorite class so far, and what has it taught you?

One of my favorite classes at Berklee has been Writing for Big Band, taught by Manuel Kaufmann. Although I was warned that it would be one of the hardest classes in CWP at Berklee, I surprisingly connected with the subject matter on a deep level. Writing for a big ensemble like a big band, which has around 17 players, can be quite challenging. However, in this class, I learned the art of intricately weaving sections together without creating a traffic-jam-like chaos similar to the ones commonly experienced in my city, Bangalore.

What's a project you've worked on since coming to Berklee that you've been especially excited about?

The biggest project I worked on while at Berklee was a tour across the UK and EU with my band Project Mishram in August of 2023. This was our third international tour and it centered around the prestigious ArcTangent festival, sharing the stage with legends like Devin Townsend, Heilung, Haken, etc. . . . It was a 20-day tour across eight countries where we drove ourselves through a roller coaster of an experience. 

Our latest development is that we are the first Indian independent band performing at the Louder than Life Festival in September of 2024, alongside massive artists like Evanescence, Slipknot, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Slayer, Anthrax, Breaking Benjamin, Skillet, and others.

How do you typically recharge or find new ideas outside of class?

I usually get new ideas from my peers at Berklee. I use Instagram often, but I'm unsure if it's always helpful. It helps keep me up-to-date with what's trending in music nowadays. 

Sometimes I miss listening to full-length albums during my long commutes, but now I have music available 24/7, which is great. To overcome fatigue, I like to work out, do chores, or spend time with my friends.

Watch Shivaraj perform with fellow student Reeshabh Purohit on Berklee's Two Track video series:

When you think towards your future, who inspires you most?

I have been pondering this question for many years. My ultimate goal is to achieve internal happiness without relying on external factors. However, I do have goals such as fusing various genres from around the world with Carnatic music. I desire to have in-depth knowledge about them and do not like doing things halfway. Moreover, I love teaching and the learning that comes with the process. 

I find inspiration in the rounded musicianship of Jacob Collier, the performing skills and mass connectivity of Shankar Mahadevan, an Indian singer and composer, as well as the teaching skills of Berklee’s own Rick McLaughlin, who is one of my favorite professors at Berklee.

What's one piece of advice you'd give to your high school self?

It's funny how life takes us on a journey through different interests and colorful experiences. In my 28 years on this planet, I've had the chance to explore a lot of things. Looking back, I wouldn't give myself any advice, but if I had to advise a high school student who is interested in music, I'd say this—keep hold of those moments that give you goosebumps. These are the moments that remind you of your passion and dedication to the field. They'll help you stay motivated when you're wondering why you're doing this and why you're choosing the road less traveled.

Shivaraj's Top Five Songs Right Now

1. "Cure," Erra

Massive stank face. Heavy riffs, clean writing and a brilliant mix.

2. "All Time Low," Jon Bellion

Great production, and I relate to this song on an emotional front.

3. "Robot Boy," Linkin Park

I grew up listening to this, and it is such a well-written song.

4. "XENA," Skrillex ft. Nai Barghouti

Stank-face-drop kind of dubstep, impressive production.

5. "What About Me?" Snarky Puppy

Pristine production, catchy hooks, and very tasteful writing.

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