Prateek Kuhad: Heartbreak Party

Rohit Chawla
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Prateek Kuhad has become the most sought after voice of a generation. The singer-songwriter talks about his breakup album

LIKE MOST SUCH THINGS, IT DIDN’T quite go to plan for Prateek Kuhad. In 2012, he’d just graduated from New York University. Since childhood, music had been a part of him. But he was also a studious chap who’d been quite good at school. After college, where he studied math and economics, he decided to do his “analyst year”, apparently a tradition in the finance world where you work as an analyst before moving on to bigger things. That job, at a consulting firm, was supposed to last for one year. “Make a little bit of money, save up, and then move to India and take up music for a year,” he tells me. We’re sitting at a restaurant in Delhi’s posh Khan Market. He’s hunched over, shoulders drooping just a bit, sipping on something called Arnie’s Pineapple, a citrusy mocktail that he instructs our server to not make too sweet.

“That was my plan,” he says. “But then I got fired! Four or five months into it, I got my termination notice.” Much else has happened since, but Kuhad is still puzzled at this development; the slightest bit annoyed, a tiny bit bemused. “I don’t know, man. Those kinds of things are so subjective. I think it shows when you’re depressed at work; I hated it. And they probably saw that. But I wasn’t considering quitting at all. I’m not that sort of person. I’m a pretty diligent person; I don’t, like, shy away from responsibilities or anything. I was showing up on time, doing my job. Maybe I wasn’t very good at it, because… I’m the kind of person who, if I’m not fully into something, I don’t always do a good job. Even in school and college, I was a really good student. I’m not trying to be immodest. I was never that kid who fails in class or is a slacker. I was a good kid! I was very surprised.”

He considered getting a different job, sticking to the path. But within six hours he had decided: Screw this. He came back to India to make music instead. First up was a self-titled three-song EP which Kuhad barely acknowledges. He hates those songs today, and refuses to talk much about the release; instead, his real debut, he feels, was with the EP Raat Raazi, which is when people first began to take notice of this gifted songwriter.

Last year, Kuhad released what is undoubtedly his most popular work yet, the six-song EP called cold/mess, his “breakup album”. The release, and the video accompanying its title track, elevated Kuhad’s status to dizzying new heights. He now has, let’s say, a rabid fan base that engages deeply with his songs. Kuhad’s approach is nominally a simple one. He writes songs of love and heartbreak. A lyrical singer-songwriter in the ‘confessional’ mould, he speaks of his life and experiences in both Hindi and English, most often armed with an acoustic guitar and a stripped-down supporting band. The music is compact, based around his affecting words and gentle, accessible melodies and arrangements mapped out on the guitar or, of late, the piano. There remains a recurring strain of soulful longing.

He’s not strictly an independent artist, given his last album was funded by Saavn (now Jio Saavn) as part of their Artists Originals programme, which allowed him the freedom to travel to Nashville, US to record and produce cold/ mess. However, it’s not like he’s a part of Bollywood either; aside from a tryst or two, he’s more of an outsider. At the risk of resorting to clichés, Kuhad has a wandering, troubadour-like sensibility, remaining open to all sorts of new experiences.

He writes of universally relatable emotions, presenting them with the kind of frankness and sincere vulnerability that echoes. As the earworm chorus of ‘cold/mess’, possibly his most-loved song till date, goes: ‘I wish I could leave you my love / but my heart is a mess / My days, they begin with your name / And nights end with your breath.’ Its much-discussed video, written and directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Dar Gai (Daria Gaikalova), tracks a relationship, following the path of the words it gives movement to. It has two million views and over 2,000 comments on YouTube, each one a passionate heartfelt scrawl. Kuhad is visibly overwhelmed by the reactions, and the intensity it evokes from his fans. He struggles to articulate his response, attributing the success to, perhaps, the song’s subject. “It’s just an emotion that’s not, kinda, been done before,” he says. “Even in Bollywood, it’s either really happy love songs. Or it’s just like, ‘mera dil toot gaya’. It’s Devdas. This is in the middle. You know, that it’s cool. You can break up,” he says, matter-of-factly.“It’ll be bad, and you can still move on.”

He’s grateful at how his music has been received, starting from Raat Raazi, to In Tokens & Charms, his full-length album from 2015 which brought him more attention. It’s been a steady rise, as opposed to an overnight development, thanks to a breakout hit or a lucky moment.

“I don’t think too much of myself,” he says. “I don’t have a very, like, high opinion of myself in terms of my songwriting. It’s craft, man. When I started, I was a very below-average songwriter. I’ve gotten better. My skill has slowly built, which is why it hasn’t happened overnight.” Cold/mess is the one record he’s proud of as a whole. “This is the first time in my life I’ve done decent work, overall, as a record. I feel like a better songwriter but I have a long way to go.”

KUHAD SEEMS DEEPLY introspective, someone who often gets lost in his own head, and appears a touch introverted. He plays with his round-framed glasses which he puts on briefly, then removes, then puts on again, then removes them again. Twenty-nine now—we’re meeting a day after his birthday—he walks with the stroppy, spluttering strut of a college kid (not the mischievous kinds; more the kid who’d always finish all his work with minimum fuss). He’s still conflicted about the attention he’s garnered, and how his life has changed thanks to the success and adulation.

The earnest delivery, the fluid melodies, the confessional timbre of his words, often let his fans feel a direct connection and familiarity with him, like they know and understand him, like they relate on a deeper level. From the point of view of the listener, it’s a way to feel less alone. It’s an enriching process of catharsis.

“Words are more important to me. A lot of pop songwriters say melody is the most important thing. But I disagree. It’s still a line that gets with people,” says Prateek Kuhad, singer & songwriter

But from the artist’s perspective, from Kuhad’s view, things get more complicated. Given his personality—he’s reticent, somewhat shy, self-reflective, generally soft-spoken, reluctant to be part of any music ‘scenes’—it can get a bit much. “Human beings individually can be wonderful. The moment group dynamics come in, something weird happens. It’s very strange; they just start behaving completely differently. I don’t know how to explain,” he says.

The issue here isn’t just fame—which in itself isn’t quite as huge as, say, the kind of fanfare Bollywood artists evoke, as he points out—but the intensity and passion with which it is delivered to him. Kuhad has, it must be stressed, the sort of fans that adore him, that trust him with expressing emotions that the listener herself feels but isn’t quite yet able to vocalise. He sings, with understated depth, of feelings we all feel all the time. “If you’re a creative person, one of the crucial qualities is you have to be very, very non-judgemental. About yourself, your process, the world, people, emotions. Everything. You have to be really fluid, you have to accept and reject things at the same time. Or neither. You’re just observing and absorbing. You have to be flexible otherwise creating new things and forming new connections in your brain isn’t going to happen. Rigidity and complacency is going to set in,” he says.

It’s an insight into the workings of an artist with an intimate understanding of his own creative process, and trying to reconcile aspects of the music business that don’t quite fall in line with his personality. “Plus, I don’t know. I don’t like being around people. In the actual physical sense of it all, after shows, with photos and everything. It’s just exhausting. I’ve become way more comfortable and social over the past two years though. I used to have a lot of social anxiety, where I couldn’t smile or be around people at all. Couldn’t even talk. I’ve become so much better now.”

His connection with his fans, which goes beyond compliments and into catharsis, has helped him come out of his shell. Kuhad has, since the last record, become far more active as a touring musician. In fact, as we speak, he tells me how consumed he is with the logistics for his upcoming tour of the US. He will be on a month-long, 15-city tour of the US, with five dates at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. The burdens of touring have affected his songwriting. “I’m trying to figure that stuff. Writing is barely happening right now. I’m in a strange headspace with respect to songwriting. It’s a little because, I feel, with writing you need to have that headroom. Or it’s something I need to adapt to now because I’ve become busier as a touring musician.”

Kuhad grew up in relatively comfortable conditions in Jaipur. As a kid, he’d be made to sing at, like, family get-togethers because he was good. He picked up the guitar soon after, and heard just about all kinds of music. Then came stints in a couple of bands, including, bizarrely, a metal band where he sang Megadeth covers. Were you any good? I ask. “We were really bad. Like we were really bad.” Could you pull off the style of metal vocals? “I couldn’t. That’s why we were really bad!”

At NYU, he had been dabbling in music and songwriting when he was introduced to Dhruv Singh, who was in Sydney at the time, through friends of friends. Singh had wanted to manage bands and work in music, while Kuhad wanted to play his songs. The two struck up a friendship and decided to move to India to give it a shot. Singh founded the label and agency Pagal Haina Records, which had been managing everything Kuhad-related up until October last year, before they parted ways. Recalling their association, Singh tells me: “It was the initial days. It was a struggle, much like it is with everyone else. He was the only one willing put time, energy, resources into building a career. It was us trying to find ways to move his career forward. He was very hardworking, always working on his craft, which comes through in his albums or the music he’s put out over the years. We were careful of how that was presented.”

Kuhad’s outlook to performing has slowly evolved over the years. He confesses disliking the act of playing his music live, instead preferring the confines of the studio to write and record. However, that’s changed slowly over the years, with a large part of it having to do with the devotion and affection his fans show him. As Singh says, “He has warmed up to the idea of performing over the years. He still doesn’t dig it, but he’s become a lot better at it and understands it is part and parcel of it.”

Live and in the studio, his supporting band comprises Dhruv Bhola (bass), and Nikhil Vasudevan on the drums. He’s been playing with them for some five years, and today they’re all great friends. Vasudevan points out how Kuhad’s complex relationship with playing live is natural. “Honestly, some people will say, ‘Oh I love playing on stage.’ Some will say the opposite. But in reality, they will all both love and hate it. There’s been growth, in terms of him [Kuhad] becoming a lot more comfortable with his thing. Earlier, it was more about how he had to execute things on stage a specific way, and if not, then he’d get very upset. Now it’s not like that. Back then and now, he’s very hard on himself. He was much worse earlier. But now he’s comfortable with the idea of making mistakes on stage. We know it isn’t going to break you.” As for the part of working together, Vasudevan points out that Kuhad is clear-headed and sure of what he wants.

“He’s quite on-point and hands-on,” says Vasudevan. “He’s not that musician who’s half-assed ever; he’s very thorough.” He most often will bring a few songs where Vasudevan and Bhola have some room to play around with—both of them understanding their role and taking a deliberate backseat—while in some cases, Kuhad will know exactly what he’s looking for. The melodies, words, and structures remain under Kuhad’s purview, but there is some space to work out arrangements together. It’s somewhat a democratic process, and Vasudevan is glad that Kuhad is neither too controlling nor too lackadaisical with his approach, unlike his past experiences with other singer-songwriters. It’s that balance in between that they’ve struck over the years, with all three working in service of the music, and ultimately understanding that “these are his songs”.

Kuhad’s maturing sensibilities as a songwriter are evident in the trajectory of his past records. Each one displays a more confident, a more poised composer who seems to be growing, not with force but with a gentle nudge. He’s constantly working on his craft, and the introduction of the piano—which he cites as a very important tool for songwriting—is a sign of his measured evolution as an artist. The words, the lyrics, are at the centre. He feels that they remain the most integral part of his music. “Words are more important to me. A lot of pop songwriters say melody is the most important thing. But I disagree. The songs that do really well—even from the commercial perspective, even though they’ll have tacky words and all that—it’s still a line that gets with people.”

His style of lyric-writing, the part which connects so vividly with listeners, can broadly be called confessional. However, that’d be a disservice to Kuhad. It’s about finding a balance between his experiences in life, as also aesthetics and the art of writing a powerful song.

It remains a part of the process, but Kuhad is clear that the process of songwriting brings a lot of factors together. “Whether it’s the words, the meanings, the poetic quality, my life, fact, fiction, somebody’s story. It’s all a combination. Everything comes together. Finding that balance between all these aspects— that’s what makes a good song.”

He’s tried to broaden his approach from purely the aesthetics, the prettiness of songs, to make a deeper impact. The one constant, though, remains his ability to emote with depth and sincerity. “It can get really emotional. But I’m OK with that. I feel I am pretty in touch with my emotions; I’m that sort of person. So I don’t really run away from feeling things. If I want to cry, I’ll cry. I don’t try to suppress emotions that much. If I have anxiety, I will admit to it. I like to be very transparent about my feelings.”