Prateek Kuhad’s presence and demeanor are akin to the feeling of reconnecting with an old friend, authentic and light. There’s something about the sound of simple strums on a guitar or notes on the keys paired with a voice that is unassuming but ever-present that is familiar. Kuhad has received countless accolades in the last few years, from being featured in Obama’s playlist to Cold/Mess ranking #1 on Spotify India when Spotify was launched in India in 2019.
[Read Related: Delhi-Based Prateek Kuhad’s Story on Rising International Face for Indian-Indie Music]
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With sonic influences from different countries and languages, I spoke with Kuhad a few months ago to learn more about him, his recent album, “Shehron Ke Raaz,” and what the process of making music is like for him. I hunkered down in New York, Kuhad in Mumbai, both of us respectively jet-lagged, but we unplugged for the chat.
Despite being more connected than ever, when consuming music, the dissonance between someone who understands what they’re singing and someone who doesn’t is abundantly apparent. Having written music in multiple languages that feels tonally accurate, do you find yourself thinking in the languages that you’re writing/singing in?
I don’t even like to think about what I’m really thinking. Sometimes I’m thinking in English, sometimes I’m thinking in Hindi, it really just depends. Both languages come very easy to me, in terms of, you know, talking to people or writing. I don’t write in Hindi so much actually, like in terms of actually writing in Hindi script. I think and speak Hindi a lot, and English a lot as well.
In one of your early tracks, “Something Wrong,” you touched on your sonic influences stemming from having just picked up a guitar and consuming alternative rock simultaneously — and retaining our child-like curiosity to inform creativity… And metal head days.
I think everybody should be a bit of a kid. always. Otherwise, you know, things become too serious.
Do you remember the first lyric you wrote where you heard it and felt “I’m really proud of this?”
Actually, it’s from that EP, there was a song called ‘A Shot of Alcohol,’ which now I just like, the title makes me cringe a little bit. Cause I’m like, Why did I write that song. I think it was something like “your eyes and mine under the fire…in the fire under the moonlight,’ something like that, and I felt it was really cool. And like, really, like, you know, warm, and the imagery was really inviting. But now that I look back, it’s still crap. I mean, I’m not really proud of that. But back then I was really excited about it. Yeah.
I think it’s fair, it’s fair for where you were then.
If you are a musician, I feel like your tastes and preferences change a lot. And they grow because you’re always listening and you’re always updating yourself and you’re always like, it’s just like, you know, it’s such a big part of my life. So everything that happens with me, like all my older stuff, stuff kind of gets a little outdated for me, and I start to see a lot of the, you know, shortcomings and I guess I mean, that’s not a good word.
There are different ways to create, from having an abundance of references or creating a niche and leaning into that. Social media posts of fans singing your songs are often accompanied by seasons changing, falling in or out of love and lots of car rides. Has your relationship with nature informed your music?
The moment you have organic instruments in a song, it immediately starts to feel more grounded and earthy. Because, you know, that’s just what you associate with the sounds of a piano or an acoustic guitar. If you listen to really intense electronic beats, you’re not gonna think about nature, but if you listen to a really relaxed song with just the guitar and voice, like you’re gonna think about (it). So I think that’s where people who listen to my music feel like that, but I actually feel very uninspired by nature, weirdly. I really like sunlight a lot, just all the time. It doesn’t inform or inspire my music in any way. Mostly, like, what inspires me, I think, is just kind of like everything else. That’s very normal about life, you know, just like people and things that happened to me and my own thoughts in my life.
While nature doesn’t inform your music-making, sunlight and running are integral to your well-being, which made me wonder how you have weathered the last several weeks in Seattle working on some new music.
Towards the last week, the last 10 days of my time there it was just gray and raining all the time. Before that, it was actually sunny all the time. Like literally every single day. It was sunny when I was there in the studio and my producer kept telling me, ‘You’re really lucky because you know, Seattle’s not so sunny all the time.’
What is new for you and different for us in this album?
Ryan and I had never met so he didn’t know me at all. The first time we ever met was in the studio. I felt very liberated. I felt like I could just really do what I wanted. When you’re working with people who already know you for the longest time, there’s always a lot of checks in place. Every time you do something like if I make a creative decision, if I play something then there’s always a reaction because they are used to me doing certain things or playing things in a certain way. In this case, there’s just no reactions. I was just doing things really unbridled. We would put in a bunch of sounds, play a bunch of things. Every idea I had, every idea Ryan had, we just put it on the songs. Later on we took a break and then took things out, or like left things in so it’s pretty maximal in production which I haven’t done in a while. I feel like I’ve consciously tried to be minimal about things, but this time, we just really went for it. And at least for me, it just felt really free. This is going to be sonically my most diverse album so far.
Kuhad reflected on his time in NY during his studies at NYU, about his first time being in a place where you had to find your people and an in-built community of friends and family wasn’t a given the way it was in India. We recanted the journey one goes through finding cheap beer, the best fondue, chosen family and new comforts, about venues that are staples to play from Rockwood Musical Hall to Bowery Ballroom. They were formative years that would go on to inspire his music.
The differences between India and North America are vast yet not. As an artist often regarded as the spearheader of “Indie” culture for India, what does being Indie actually mean to you?
Even in the U.S. it started off with bands actually being independent. Because of being independent, they could only afford certain things, which affected their sound. So, you know, that sound also started getting associated with indie. If you go to the indie pop playlist on Spotify, you know, it’s a sound, it’s almost like a genre. Half of those people are signed to major labels. They’re not Indie in terms of their ethos, but they are Indie in terms of how they sound. That’s the same thing with India. It almost doesn’t matter these days that much, because you can be indie, and have access to more resources compared to somebody on a major label. For example, the major labels in India, some of them are really small, or just don’t do a lot, or have really terrible deals for the artists. Maybe you’re not indie, but you still don’t have any money.
Prior to your recent signing with Elektra, you had an independent career from funding your own projects to designing artwork, using self-timer tripods and everything in-between. The track you refer to as your break, “Kasoor,” garnered a mass audience of listeners globally.
The major music market in India, in terms of just volume, is everybody associated with Bollywood, right? None of the artists are seeing the royalties. That’s the same case with me, some of the songs that I’ve done with Bollywood I don’t see the royalties. Some of the later deals we did, I started pushing for it and we stopped doing buyouts. But the early deals are complete buyouts. Kho Gaye Hum Kahaan for example.
It’s just, that’s just how Bollywood is and it’s less relevant for this system. It’s antiquated and has been for a long time and the way artists in India make money is through like, branded deals and live performances primarily. But in the U.S. context, it’s really, really solid, for me, like, because I have a career in the U.S. as well, a decent amount of my income is coming in from my publishing. I don’t see that in India at all.
[Read Related: Getting Lost in the Music: The Perspective From a Double Bassist]
An anecdote about “Kho Gaye Hum Kahaan” is that the founder of Lullaby Club and singer-songwriter Axel Mansoor once told me he loved that song despite not knowing the words and had first heard it when Indian users began performing on lullaby club’s nightly show on Clubhouse. The song stays in my rotation and seems to only be growing in popularity with time.
“Shehron Ke Raaz” is Kuhad’s most recent four-song Hindi album, full of keys, strings and sweet whispers. It’s a bit like a whimsical soundtrack that would grace everyone’s “love of my life,” soundtracks. “Khone Do,” and title track, “Shehron Ke Raaz” were directed by filmmaker Reema Sengupta. Kuhad touched on the brilliance of her vision and the trust he has with his team, they’re speaking the same language about visuals. Sengupta’s work made for a multi-media dreamscape. You can stream the tracks designed for sweater weather and cuffing szn here.
Who are some of your favorite artists and would you like to work with them in the future?
Yeah, I mean, a bunch of like artists from India. There’s a songwriter who actually is a friend of mine, and she started putting on music recently, Tanmaya Bhatnagar, My very dear friend and bass player Dhruv Bhola — he puts out really cool music. There’s a bunch of it. I heard about Priya Ragu recently, and she’s really really good. Joy Crookes is amazing. Raveena is amazing. I mean, there’s a lot of really amazing artists. All these people I listen to a lot. Lizzie McAlpine, whose stuff I really like, I would love to work with her. Fineas is awesome. I think he’s like one of the best producers we have today. I’d love to work with everybody who I just mentioned.
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Our conversation felt like a road trip, there were unexpected turns (good ones —duh) and pleasant moments on cruise control. Kuhad’s nature made for responses that felt like he was taking us along on his thought process behind each answer. I’m patiently waiting for his English album, the chance to see him live (when it’s safe!) and suddenly craving fondue. As always follow our playlists on Spotify here and submit your music to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Vansh Virmani