Prateek Kuhad Is Making Himself Heard
Three months ago, the head of the company that handles PR for a number of Indian independent musicians told me how she was having trouble getting journalists to write about a veteran – in Indian independent music terms anyway – Delhi-based singer-songwriter’s new album. Yet, she had few problems getting press for his younger counterpart Prateek Kuhad. The reason for this, I figured, was that aside from also singing in Hindi, which automatically makes his music more accessible, Kuhad, 24, always tells his fans what he’s up to. Through his regularly updated social media accounts and a monthly newsletter, they’re kept informed about upcoming concert tours, new live videos and free single downloads. In other words, he’s consistently doing something potentially newsworthy and finding a way to stay on their radar. He’s not the first act to do this for sure, but in the age of lightning-short attention spans, any such effort gives an artist an edge.
Kuhad’s online and offline personas however are fairly different, we learned during a listening session organised at his Mumbai home for music journalists and musician friends to hear his recently-released album In Tokens & Charms. He barely spoke to the assembled scribes before he put the record on, but talked over the music to his pals while it played. We only spoke with him on our way out when we asked him about his plans to tour in support of the album. While he explained his decision to play only sit-down venues, we chided him for chattering at the event. “It’s very awkward for me to listen to my own songs,” said Kuhad. Three weeks later, during the Mumbai leg of the tour he barely spoke to the audience at the National Centre for the Performing Arts except to occasionally thank the crowd or mention a song name. Towards the end of his set, he said, “I’m sorry I don’t say too much” before adding that he prefers “to stay quiet than say awkward stuff”.
In a scene with a surfeit of guys with guitars, Kuhad manages to stand out even though his music, the kind of folk-flavoured pop-rock that channels Simon and Garfunkel by way of Damien Rice, isn’t drastically different from those of his contemporaries such as Nischay Parekh. This isn’t because of his crisp singing voice or proficient guitar playing, but because of the guilelessness in his tunes that convinces you that he isn’t trying to be somebody else even when there’s a list of influences to pick out.
“This is how I started writing songs – whenever I felt a really intense emotion, I felt the need to express it,” said Kuhad. “I like to believe – maybe I’m wrong – that some of the better songs I write end up coming through very intense and true feelings. They always end up being about stuff that’s happened, people I’ve met, conversations I’ve had, anything that provokes me to think and reflect.” ‘Something Wrong’, the opening track on his debut release, a self-titled English EP, was born of his frustration from feeling shortchanged by those around him while studying in college in New York. “It’s about feeling under-appreciated [and about] – I don’t want to say cheated – not being completely understood,” Kuhad said. “I was very uncertain about what I was doing. I was doing math and economics, to a large extent because my family wanted me to do that.”
Kuhad says his tracks have a “tinge of melancholy”, but you might just miss it in the generally cheery vibe of the compositions, almost all of which are love songs. From his aforementioned English EP through his first Hindi EP Raat Raazi to his latest album, they all document a single relationship, which sadly came to an end while he was still writing In Tokens & Charms. Although he has never publicly revealed her identity, the subject of Kuhad’s songs makes an appearance during a couple of the short videos that chronicle the making of his new record in New York. They can be viewed on his YouTube channel. His girlfriend and he parted over a common reason – they couldn’t sustain a long-distance relationship, after he decided to move back to India.
Yet In Tokens & Charms has none of the sharpness of a break-up album. Second single ‘Oh Love’ plays more like a moonlight serenade than a desperate request for reconciliation. “‘Oh Love’ is about a range of emotions from heartbreak to the feeling of being apart and being away from the person you love and things not working out in a relationship because of so many external factors,” said Kuhad. “[The line] ‘Oh love, be mine’ is a plea. [But] it’s actually not a very depressing song. The plea is very hopeful. That’s how it starts translating for other people’s lives. Hope is melancholic because it’s hope at the end of the day but [it’s what] gets you going and helps you get up in the morning.”
The sole sign of any internal torment is revealed on ‘Go’, my favourite song on the album. It’s where Kuhad’s vocals in the chorus make obvious the fact that the lyrics about being unaffected by a separation are just false bravado. Luckily, his ex hasn’t objected to having their relationship laid bare in song. “She’s totally cool with it,” he said. “We’re still very, very close friends.” Would he like to return to residing in New York? “I base my life around my work,” he said. “If work takes me there then sure, I’d love to go. As of now I don’t see myself moving there because there’s a lot of stuff going on here. I’m getting work here. My house, my family is here. I can’t afford to live in New York. It’s super expensive. There are so many issues, like visas.”
Right now, according to Kuhad, India is a more exciting place for an Indian indie musician than the US. Here, not having to pay rent, for example, enables to him to save up enough during the gigging season to tide through the slow months. In New York, he’d have to be a part-time singer-songwriter and work a day job, an experience he’s had and didn’t like. “I was working at an economics consultancy firm right after I finished my degree [and] had been doing [music] on the side for a while,” said Kuhad. “At some point I decided that I’m going to do this job for one year, or maybe one and half years and then move back to India and do this full-time. But then six months down, I had a very turbulent time at work. I had a tiff with my boss. I was just like ‘I’m done. Why wait for one more year?'” By then, he had met Dhruv Singh, the founder of his label Paigal Haina, in Delhi and released his debut English EP, which they recorded in the capital during his holiday break from college in 2010.
He took the plunge because he had already tasted a bit of the musician life and enjoyed a sliver of success. “I had started playing gigs in New York, I had worked with a few musicians,” said Kuhad. “There was this one blog in New York called Indaba Music that featured me. I won a competition through them. They flew me down to New Orleans to play at a small festival. All very, very small stuff but there were a lot of these things that happened, all little points of encouragement. So I was like let’s give it a shot.” While he does the occasional “corporate” gig here – he’s even played a kid’s birthday party because the dad is a big fan – when it came to his album tour, Kuhad was determined to do it on his terms.
Each of the venues in the four-city trek was an amphitheatre or auditorium, which he believes are the best way to hear his music. “There are people always in a club who are not there for the music,” he said. “If a band is playing they don’t really give a shit at all. That sort of makes it a bad experience for everybody around. When you do amphitheatre shows, you’re ensuring that only the people who want to listen come.” Kuhad will of course eventually return to club shows, for both the kind of money they offer and the challenges they pose. “It’s very, very cool sometimes when you’re in a space where everybody’s come to drink but people actually notice and stop doing what they’re doing and listen even for a little while,” he said. “That happens every now and then. It’s very rewarding.”
At both good and bad gigs, he’s subconsciously filing information that might inspire him at a future date. They’re kind of like the tokens and charms seen on his album cover which he said are things he has “acquired over the years that meant something to me, either somebody gifted it to me or [it’s] something I’ve used a lot”. Said Kuhad, “[The objects are] metaphorically linked with the songs. [Like the objects,] each song evokes a certain memory or is about a certain person or an event.”
In Token & Charms by Prateek Kuhad is available from Pagal Haina Records for Rs120 on OKListen.com. Get it here.