NEWTON – Guitar at his side, Ranj Singh sat there "sweating bullets" as he watched a stream of fellow musicians take to the stage, one after the other. It was yet another open-mic night and, rather than confidently showcase the songs he’d written, Singh was too nervous to perform for an audience. Once again, he’d signed up to sing and strum, but bolted for the door just before his name was called by the event host.
"From 2001 to 2006, I probably went to over 200 open-mics and never played a single one of them," explained Singh with a sigh. "I went to them to play, but I just couldn’t do it. I’d need alcohol to even think about going on stage."
Stage fright was nothing new for Singh, who toured with Dal Dil Vog for most of the 1990s. The popular bhangra-rock band also involved four of his brothers; Singh had written songs since he was a kid growing up on his family’s Cloverdale-area farm, but he always felt most comfortable standing in the shadows, not the spotlight.
"I was always the scared guy in the background," Singh revealed as he sipped tea one afternoon at Bistro 72 in Newton.
"I always had a passion for music but I never had the guts to perform on my own. And then when we (Dal Dil Vog) ended that magical ride we were on, I quit playing music and went full-time with the job I’ve had for 16 years now. I sank into that – family first."
A reliable vehicle is crucial for Singh in his work as a courier, a job that has him driving thousands of kilometres each month. Since the start of his post-band career, he’s been a Honda Civic guy. He’s owned three of them, and the most recent, a 1999 model, was purchased used 10 years ago.
"It already had 100,000 clicks on it," Singh said. "Now it has more than a million and it’s still running fine."
These days, his "Purple Haze" car is also used to get Singh from gig to gig, now that he’s dealt with his stage fright.
It wasn’t easy.
One night back in 2006, Singh went to an open-mic in Maple Ridge. He was just about to again "run away" from performing but the event host convinced him to come back the following week. Singh did, this time with a musical partner, and he never looked back.
"That was the first time I’d played in public like that, my songs," he recalled. "I got through it eventually but it took a long time."
With a pair of CDs recorded since then, Singh is now happy and confident to perform music that combines Indian rhythms and melodies with a folk-rock vibe. His first album, the 11-song Simple Man disc, was produced by Wyckham Porteous, and the second, Found a Way Home, was recorded in 2011 with The Discriminators, the band Singh put together for a series of key shows during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
"We got to play seven hockey games, after an audition and all that," Singh said with a smile. "That was just great, and we got to watch the games afterward, too, in the holding area for people just before they entered the rink. And then I was getting messages from people around the world – Latvia,
Switzerland, from people who heard me play, and my website went through the roof. It was time to kick it into high gear, to do what Dal (Hothi, the Dal Dil Vog bandleader) would do: start promoting my music."
Singh’s self-described "big break" didn’t last long, however, as he was injured in an accident that nearly crushed "Purple Haze" for good. Singh didn’t play music for six months after the crash.
"All that momentum we had went boom, down the drain," Singh said. I kind of lost it after that, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had back issues, depression, and I broke up the band.
So now I’m just starting to get back into playing music again."
This weekend (June 5-6), Singh returns to Bistro 72 to perform his own songs in a two-nighter at the Newton restaurant, operators of which have him in a monthly rotation with other local musicians.
"I’m the only one of my brothers to still be playing music, which is interesting because of how much fear I had of performing," said Singh, who lives in the Fleetwood area with his wife, Wendy.
"Years ago, after those open-mic nights, I made a pact with myself to never drink before I go on stage, and that was a big step for me. I still get nervous, the butterflies, adrenaline, but now I’m having the time of my life, so happy with how things have gone."
As for his beloved car, "Purple Haze" is clicking along with 1.145 million kilometres on its odometer.
"I bring it to gigs and people want to take pictures with it, like it’s a celebrity on its own," Singh said with a laugh. "It’s taken me places. I’ve broken down in it a few times, and people have pushed me to go get a new one, and I almost have, but I just can’t. I can’t get rid of ‘Purple Haze.’ It’s still ticking away. I still love it."