Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Prateek Kuhad: the Indian singer on making Barack Obama's list and defining his musical sound

The 'heartbreak' singer also explains his choice to write in English and Hindi

Indian indie-folk singer Prateek Kuhad performs live at the The Rotunda, Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai in January 2020. Courtesy Live Nation
Indian indie-folk singer Prateek Kuhad performs live at the The Rotunda, Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai in January 2020. Courtesy Live Nation

Prateek Kuhad is certainly not the new kid on the block. As a singer, songwriter from New Delhi, India, he has been working on his craft since 2011, with a diverse and much-loved discography under his belt.

It is possible, however, that the NYU economics graduate-turned-indie folk singer was only brought to the attention of many at the end of last year, when former US president Barack Obama included his single cold/mess on the list of his favourite music of 2019. Kuhad, 29, was certainly in good company on the list, ranked along the likes of Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen, Frank Ocean and Lizzo.

To kick off 2020, he was in Dubai to perform at The Rotunda, Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai, where we caught up with him ahead of his gig to discuss writing from the heart, going from a career in finance to music and, of course, that nod from Obama.

You're best-known for your emotional songs. Do you think that is representative of you as an artist?

I am certainly known for a lot of emotional and romantic songs, but there are also a bunch of songs I have written that aren’t completely romantic. There are two songs I wrote for a film called Karwaan (2018) called Kadam and Saansein [that come to mind]; both songs are completely non-romantic. With cold/mess [the single] and cold/mess being a ‘heartbreak’ album, and that being the most successful record I have had to date, it is what I am known best for. cold/mess is definitely a deeply emotional album.

When you're writing, is it autobiographical or do you find inspiration elsewhere?

A lot of the music I write is autobiographical, but it is not that black and white – any song I pen is one-part personal experience and one-part songwriting craft. But I think most artists work like that. You use the tools that you have learnt along the way – how to present it, make it sound good and flow with a narrative, if you want it to be that way. It usually ends up being a mix of personal experience and emotions, so it’s semi-autobiographical for sure.

How do you define your sound?

Of late, based on my last record, I would describe it as indie-folk-pop.

You write in both Hindi and English. Was that your intention from the beginning?

I have always just written in both languages. Growing up it was very normal to speak and express myself in both languages. At home, at school and with my friends, everybody spoke both languages, but that is very common in a lot of cities in India, especially north India. So, when it came to song-writing, it came pretty naturally to me to write in both. I have good control and can speak and express myself well in both, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to write in both. For me, it’s not about the language difference, it’s about the songs. As far as I am concerned, it’s pretty irrelevant whether the song is in Hindi or English, it just has to be a good song.

Do fans respond to songs in either language differently?

I think it’s pretty much the same. I have had a Hindi EP and a bunch of Hindi singles out, as well as a bunch of English singles and albums – so there are enough songs in both languages. And there are songs in each that are popular – Yeh Pal and Raat Raazi in Hindi, and cold/mess, 100 words and Oh Love in English. I don’t think people think about language difference that much any more, either.

What about Barack Obama and his 2019 playlist? Did you have any idea that 'cold/mess' had been included before he posted it?

No, I had no idea at all. I was hanging out in Delhi with my family on the night of December 30, when at around 11pm I got a message from somebody with a link to the Instagram post saying: ‘This is amazing, congratulations!’, and I was wondering what it was about. I was in utter shock.

And how did that feel?

It felt really great. Obviously Obama is a very influential figure and anyone like that sharing your music really helps put the word out. It also gave me perspective on the fact that the music is clearly spreading on its own and organically, even in the States. That was exciting. We have been trying to push the music everywhere in the world – I have been doing this in India for a while, but the goal will always be to do this in as many countries as possible, so this really, really helped.

I started out with no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t know anyone in the industry ... I was starting from scratch, with no blueprint

Prateek Kuhad, singer-songwriter

You have been very close to giving up at times what kept you going?

That is just life, I think everybody deals with it differently – but I have come close to giving up several times in my career. I started out with no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t know anyone in the industry, either – so I was starting from scratch, with no blueprint. I just made my way in the beginning by reading up on the industry online and figuring it out as I went. I came from a maths and economics background and I don’t think I was a very good musician when I started out. It took me a few years of playing and practising to get up to speed. That is when I started to see success.

What ultimately changed your mind?

The little victories here and there. The first record I put out was Raat Raazi (2013) and it got a little bit of attention in India, as a result of which I started getting calls from people – that was encouraging. Then we put out In Tokens and Charms in 2015, and I started doing more shows. I applied for South by Southwest and I went there to play a bunch of showcases – it was very uncommon for an Indian artist to do that. Every year and every time I felt like giving up, something would happen and make feel like: ‘OK, let’s keep on going.’

Prateek Kuhad's track 'cold/mess' has found favour with former US president Barack Obama. Sambit Biswas
Prateek Kuhad's track 'cold/mess' has found favour with former US president Barack Obama. Sambit Biswas

If you weren’t a singer, what would you be doing?

[Laughs] I don’t know! When I started to do this, I was working at a consulting firm. I was planning on a life in consulting and finance, so maybe I would have continued doing that. I was also always very interested in architecture and building homes. That, as an idea, sounds very fascinating to me, so maybe I would have explored that, if I were going on passion. I could see that as something I would like to do.

Your videos all feel artistic and 'cold/mess' is like a short art film. Is that a creative side to your career that you enjoy, too?

It is different for every video. Cold/mess is my only video that has a very strong short-film feel. That was definitely the idea. I had a clear narrative in my head when I wrote the song; everything with that record came to me very naturally – from the artwork to the visuals. With the video, I wanted to show a very real and intimate relationship, which was toxic. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I was working on that dynamic between two people. I wanted to portray that in a very real way, but with underwater scenes that were metaphors for the relationship: they look very beautiful, as things do underwater, but in reality, it was suffocating. So I had these two central themes and wanted to showcase that and the dichotomy of the two – there are happy moments, sad moments, but at a base level, it’s just not working. I found the filmmakers and a production company that I really liked. And Dar [Gai, the writer and ­director] just really crafted, finessed it and made it come to life.

Updated: January 29, 2020 03:57 PM

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