Prateek Kuhad on finding success, ever-larger audiences: 'I never thought my music would get so popular'

Devki Nehra

Jan 15, 2020 09:10:42 IST

Prateek Kuhad’s quiet-yet-affable warmth drives away the chill of a December afternoon in Delhi, where we’re meeting — he’s right on time! — for an interview.

All my anxieties about interacting with a famous person dissipate once we sit down to talk: Kuhad, 29, would easily fit into my friend circle. The singer-songwriter is then in the city for the last leg of Zee Live’s Supermoon tour, having wrapped up a gig in Mumbai.

Weeks after our interview, former US President Barack Obama would mention Kuhad’s ‘cold/mess’ — from the musician’s 2018 album of the same name — in his list of favourite songs of 2019.

That December afternoon in Delhi, however, Kuhad expressed surprise over how rapidly his work had gained recognition — since his debut in 2013 with Raat Raazi, followed by 2015’s In Token & Charms, and of course, cold/mess in 2018. “I never thought my music would get so popular,” he says.

Anyone who has followed Kuhad’s career must be aware that he didn’t set out to be a full-time musician. When he was let go from his job in finance in New York in 2012, he decided to pursue what had until then only been a hobby.

 Prateek Kuhad on finding success, ever-larger audiences: I never thought my music would get so popular

'Until last year, no one gave a shit about me. Suddenly, lot of people care,' says Prateek Kuhad. Photo courtesy Rema Chaudhary

“I got fired from my job, [so] I thought I'll give myself this one year and see how it goes. It had been irking me for a while…making me want to give music at least a shot. Then it just kept going from there. I put out my first record, Raat Raazi; it did really well. Suddenly I was getting shows. In hindsight, it was a very small thing, but back then it felt really big. So I kept doing it and then I put out another record, which got more attention. Then I put out cold/mess, and the response it got was even better. Then the music video came out. Then I started getting even more big shows,” he says, encapsulating the journey from 2013.

“The past year-and-a-half has been just like...sometimes I cannot believe the things that are happening. I’m still processing it,” he says.

Kuhad has been on tour for nearly all of 2019 (“disorienting” is how he describes he experience, which involves “waking up in different hotels every day, taking flights all the time, being jet-lagged, not getting enough sleep and eating at odd hours”), and 24 January will see him perform in Dubai with his band. Has he seen his overseas audience become more diverse over these performances? “With every tour, more regional audiences are coming. At least it seems like that, I don’t have numbers on it. I can’t say with certainty, but definitely the first few shows I did overseas there was more of an Indian diaspora [crowd] and now it has started to be more diverse,” Kuhad says.

Even as it’s brought him wider audience reach, success has also brought Kuhad some negative attention on social media. A little online sleuthing reveals that Kuhad often ‘likes’ tweets and posts mocking him. It’s just his way of dealing with the pitfalls of fame, I find out. “Until last year, no one gave a shit about me. Suddenly, lot of people care and I’m just like, ‘Why are you targeting me?’ That's one sentiment,” Kuhad says. “On other days I laugh [at it] because it is just funny, stupid stuff. Some days it affects me, some days it doesn’t, and some days I don’t care. All of this is so new to me, I’m still processing how to deal with it.”

To emphasise just how new all of this is to him, Kuhad points out: “I’m neither from a musical family nor do I have a single friend who is a celebrity. I don’t know anybody who relates to this. I don’t have any reference point. I feel very alone sometimes. So I do the best that I can, which is fucking retweet.”

Kuhad doesn’t like to be referred to as an “indie artiste”, preferring to identify as an “independent songwriter”. That, Kuhad tells me, is because the term ‘indie’ simply doesn’t have the same meaning it did back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when musicians began to break away from the hegemony of big record labels: “Not, it’s kind of like a mix… you’re working with certain partners, but you’re also doing certain things independently. Sometimes you’re in certain associations where you’re not really autonomous, but at other times, you are. Not everybody is with a label and if they are, you can switch labels. The whole landscape of the music industry now is very different.”

Kuhad himself has worked in different settings, including Bollywood, having composed tracks like ‘Kho Gaye Hum Kahan’ for Baar Baar Dekho (2016) and for 2018’s Karwaan, ‘Saasein’ and ‘Kadam’. Playback singing is not his preferred creative outlet (“I’ve done it once before and I hated the experience”) but creating music for films, while different from composing for his albums, is satisfying.

“The basic difference is that when I’m writing for myself, I have complete freedom… it is seamless. I can write about whatever I want, in whichever way I want. When it comes to writing for a specific project, it becomes a little collaborative with the director. The director will give you a situation or the character you’re writing for. Suddenly you’re set certain boundaries because you have to emote a certain emotion that is not personal to you. But it is personal to that character in that story. Putting yourself in that character’s shoes makes it a completely fictional journey. It is more challenging because you have to decide how to write and how to express an emotion you’re not feeling,” Kuhad muses.

While his music leans towards the Americana and folk genres, Kuhad grew up on Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and John Mayer to Euphoria, Lucky Ali and Bollywood. This exposure has played a role in his journey to music stardom. In college, Kuhad discovered Elliot Smith, whose influence he states on his songwriting style. His playlist at present is eclectic — everything from pop to hip-hop.

I ask about another artiste Kuhad had previously professed admiration for — Kanye West. “Everyone is really conflicted about what he is endorsing now. Everyone has been conflicted about him in general because of his political opinions. Personally, he’s always had issues. Musically though, he is quite the visionary,” Kuhad says.

Would he, like West, also consider speaking out about his political opinions, weigh in on the ongoing turmoil in India?

“I don’t do it [express political views] publicly at all. My opinions are nuanced, I don’t usually take sides. Sometimes I do, but I don’t think it’s my job. I’m not an expert on political theory or on what's going on. I think half the people who voice their opinions impulsively, emotionally, don’t really know what they are talking about. If I do give out a political opinion, it would be very well thought out and I would be very, very sure of it. If I’m extremely certain about something, I’ll talk about it. Otherwise I’d rather just be silent.”

Do artistes not have a social responsibility at such times, I wonder. “I don’t think so,” Kuhad says, before quickly qualifying with: “Actually, artistes do have a social responsibility, which is why they should only speak out if they are absolutely certain about something. I’d rather be silent than cause damage.”

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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2020 09:14:50 IST