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Music can be therapeutic. But what makes it so? Studying math and economics at university, being a musician wasn’t necessarily the life path Prateek Kuhad had chalked out for himself. But a quest to express his innermost self drew him towards the artform. Passionate about singing since early childhood, Kuhad started his songwriting journey at the age of 16, as a tool to introspect and contemplate emotions that often tend to get buried underneath the hustle of everyday life. And it’s also what makes his music resonate with the younger generation, believes the artiste. Best known for his romantic numbers and intense lyrics, the singer rose to fame in 2016 with cold/mess, which also made it to Barack Obama’s Favourite Music 2019 list. Kuhad has since enjoyed a permanent place on indie playlists with songs such as Kasoor and more recently, CO2, leaving a deep impression on the Gen Z audience. The singer-songwriter also became the first Indian artiste to be signed by Elektra Records, part of Warner Music Group. Kuhad, who was recently in Dubai for The Way That Lovers Do tour, shares his journey and what it takes to become a top-performing independent artiste in today’s disruptive music climate.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What were your formative years like? When did your interest in music take root?
I grew up in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and it was a very ‘regular’ upbringing. A big chunk of my late teen years was also spent in New York, where I went to university. I studied math and economics at New York University (NYU), from the age of 18 to 23. Those years had a deep impact on my personality, from my taste in music to my songwriting style. Growing up, I was always inclined to singing. I started singing from the age of five. I learned how to play the guitar when I was 16. That’s when I started writing songs.
You studied math and economics. When did you realise music was your calling?
It was towards the end of my degree when I realised I wanted to dabble in music a little more. Something in my gut told me I should do it. Music wasn’t my calling. I don’t believe in the concept of having a calling in life. We don’t have to be obsessed with one thing and say, ‘This is it, this is going to be the rest of my life.’ Who knows what the future holds? There are so many more years to go, I could do many other things. I’m not wedded to the fact that I’m always going to be a musician. I take life a few years at a time.
What were some of the challenges you faced when starting out as a musician?
The biggest challenge was the self-doubt that seeped in. For the first two to three years in the beginning, when you’re starting out, not much happens. During this time, there are very small victories. It’s very important that you hold onto those small wins because there won’t be much else. You need that to keep yourself motivated. You also need to have a lot of faith and not dwell on the failures because there will be a lot of those. Even now, there are many things that don’t work out. You can’t stay hung up on those.
It’s recently been pouring down in the UAE and your music makes for an ideal playlist for the rainy days. Why do you think that is?
When it’s raining outside and you’re sitting in and listening to music, a contemplative and melancholic mood sets in. Not in a negative way but simply as an acknowledgment of those feelings you’re too busy to address on a day-to-day basis. It gets you thinking about life. A lot of my music is very introspective. I’m also an introspective person myself. I get into these bouts of thinking and overthinking.
The younger generation, which is your primary audience, also finds your music soothing and healing in a way that creates a safe space for them. How are you able to evoke these emotions through your music?
It goes back to the introspective nature of my music. I don’t think that melancholy and feeling healed are necessarily contradictory to each other. In fact, getting to know yourself on a deeper level requires you to face a lot of difficult emotions that are hidden inside, which can only surface through introspection. Every emotion has its place in your life. With media, we tend to talk about good things but life isn’t just about positive emotions. All sides of your emotions need to be explored. You also have to face dark emotions, that’s when you can emerge stronger on the other side. That is what healing is. It’s something I don’t shy away from in my own life as well, which is why the songs I write tend to be introspective.
Is the process of creating music healing for you?
Yeah, sometimes it is. Sometimes, I write a song and it feels great. Other times, it’s really spontaneous and I don’t even realise where it comes from. For me, songwriting is a very bizarre process, it doesn’t make sense. It just happens. But listening to music by my favourite artistes does that for me. It can be a song from the past that I revisit, which could really get to me.
In the last decade, there’s been a surge of independent artistes emerging from India. What has given way to this shift?
It’s happened primarily because of the Internet. The distribution channels in the past were very limited. You couldn’t realistically send out hundreds of thousands of LPs or CDs to different countries in just a few seconds. Today, we upload our music online and it’s available in so many different countries instantly. Not only is music from India going abroad, there’s a cross-transfer of music happening across the globe because of digital streaming. That’s where the shift has happened. The gatekeepers have diminished to a large extent.
You’ve contributed to Bollywood music albums in the past with hits like Kho Gaye Hum Kahan, Saansein and more recently, an acoustic version of Kasoor, which was your breakout song in 2020. As an independent artiste, do you also enjoy writing and singing songs for a more ‘mainstream’ audience?
I’ve always seen both Bollywood and the independent space in the same light. It’s very simple for me: I like creating music. Whether it’s for a film project or an independent track doesn’t make a difference. As long as it’s a song that’s representative of me and I can do justice to it, I will do it. I had the same approach when I started out, it’s the same today.
Do you see the indie space and mainstream music industry/big labels converging in the future?
Yes, definitely. It’s already becoming seamless, to an extent, the ‘independent’ and ‘mainstream’ tags have started to lose relevance. I don’t think people, listeners and musicians bother about where the songs are coming from. Artistes are more open to working with each other.
Using music for Instagram reels and TikTok videos has also taken off in the last few years, creating a sub-genre in itself with the rising popularity of Lofi music and Reverbed songs. How do you view this trend?
It’s just one additional way of marketing your music. Right now, it’s a new thing so everyone is obsessed with it and suddenly, people think it’s the only way to market your song. That isn’t the case. The traditional industry models, such as distribution, touring and PR, still exist and hold a lot of value. Social media is an additional way to market your song, which has proven to be impactful.
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