COVER STORY: The Incredible Music Journey of Darshan Raval
India’s biggest breakout star discusses Bollywood, YouTube and the politics of creativity
Darshan Raval is both the calm and the storm. There’s something peculiarly tranquil about the way he talks and moves. Not a word is spoken out of context, not a demand made out of habit—something you barely expect of a 24-year-old mega-celebrity. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know that Raval is currently India’s biggest breakout music star. And–as we soon find out–perhaps its humblest too.
The stormy bits in Raval’s life are courtesy of this newfound stardom: his days are now a whirlwind of back-to-back concerts, shoots, press engagements and fan interactions. He’s been on tour for almost two months straight since December and has yet to break the streak, so scheduling a conversation with him is a tiny bit of a challenge. “I’ve been shooting and traveling every day,” he says over the phone when we finally do connect. He’s flown into Mumbai this morning after a sold-out concert in Rajkot the previous night and is due for a studio session with Bollywood producer Pritam next, after which he has to head to Kolkata for yet another show. It’s a lot to handle, but multitasking seems to be his best friend. “What I’ll do is I’ll take the stairs and I’ll still keep talking to you,” he tells me cheerfully as he begins leaving for the recording session, and we wrap up a few more questions that way.
We finally meet in-person for the first time two days later when he’s back in Mumbai for the cover shoot. He’s got a big smile on his face when he arrives. “Our flight was preponed so we had to leave Kolkata earlier than we planned,” he says, explaining that they arrived in Mumbai at the crack of dawn the same day. He’s a little bleary-eyed but enthusiastic, breezing through the five-hour shoot fueled by nothing but a cup of coffee and some eye drops (“I just don’t sleep,” he says with a laugh.) He makes casual conversation with the crew between looks and decides to take selfies with a few fans who glimpsed him through a window of the restaurant we’re shooting at and then came in to meet him.
The singer-songwriter’s story is a fascinating one. He first planted the seeds of his singing career by putting out covers of popular Bollywood songs on YouTube back home in Ahmedabad. It got him enough attention to get scouted to audition for the reality singing show India’s Raw Star in 2014, and although he didn’t win (he was the first-runner up), it put him on the path to fame outside the webspace in less than a year. His Bollywood debut with “Jab Tum Chaho,” composed by music producer Himesh Reshammiya for the 2015 Salman Khan-starrer Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, granted him his first bout of mainstream attention but it’s what he did with it that made all the difference.
Raval rose to super stardom by understanding and balancing an organic digital growth with a successful Bollywood career, while simultaneously cementing a reputation as an artist who is unwilling to sacrifice creativity. It’s a new definition of what it means to be a mainstream singer in India, and perhaps an answer to the question of how to establish yourself in a country that’s obsessed with Bollywood, but also hungry for new forms of content outside it. “It’s not an overnight process,” Raval says. “If I start telling people that I am an independent artist, they won’t know what it is. India mein ‘independent music’ term hi naya hai (In India, the term ‘independent music’ is still new to a lot of people.)” Because when the definition of ‘independent music’ changes depending on who you ask, the process of creating an identity around it is more complicated than one might think.
He does credit Bollywood for the massive push it gave him to begin his career, but also points out the importance of consistency in putting out one’s own music outside of it, especially when someone discovers your work within Bollywood and wants to know more. “People will want to find out who the singer is so they’ll say, ‘Let’s go to YouTube’,” he explains, adding that they’ll need to find something solid once they get there for an artist to make a lasting impression. “That’s how they find out, ‘Oh he does his own music too’.”
Raval is dynamic and forward-thinking as an artist and is fierce in his determination to make a positive change in the world through his music. Much like he balances Bollywood and the digital space, he seeks to create art that can create a balance between his urban fans and those who are more traditional. It’s a very millennial approach to an age-old industry, and it’s a fascinating journey to map.
In this exclusive interview, the singer-songwriter talks Bollywood, YouTube and the politics of creativity in the music industry.
You started making music when you were relatively young, but when did you first know it was what you were meant to do with your life?
When I was very small, I was away from my parents–I was in day-boarding and every kid had to take up an activity. People took up things like horse-riding or other such activities but I failed in everything! Now there was a huge hall where students used to practice music. One day I was very homesick so I went and sat there and listened to them and it was so pure and beautiful and that’s how music came into my life. It’s how I started to listen to music and then I wanted to make songs, I wanted to make melodies like that, I wanted to write songs. The entire purpose of my life started.
How did your entire experience with India’s Raw Star happen?
Every kid wants to go to Mumbai and try his luck. So after a point of time during my school life, I realized that music was what I wanted to do. I told my parents I wanted to do music as my career. My father started laughing and said this is not a serious profession. He said you can do this as a hobby, but not as a career. So then I started making videos on YouTube, because that was easy and I could make them anywhere in the world. I did original songs first, but they weren’t successful then. So then I started doing covers and people knew the song, so the covers started getting popular. Though it wasn’t my interest, I had to start somewhere so that people start to know who I am.
So that’s when people started to recognize you and share your tracks, like ‘Check out this guy’s cover of the song I like.’
Yeah, exactly! I used to change [the songs] a little bit to my style because I could never sing a song the same way another singer has done it. I thought it was a weakness back then and that turned out to be my strongest point. That’s how people started knowing about me and I started performing in Ahmedabad. I did a lot of shows, like three shows in a day. I had a band and it was three people in the band and we performed everywhere. We used to do a lot of Bollywood songs, but then we’d add one song at the end that was original. Then people used to ask, ‘Oh what song is this?’ and we’d say it’s an original and they would love it. Slowly people started following our band, come every weekend to listen to us. One fine day I got a call from a girl who said she likes my voice and that I should participate in an upcoming reality show. I told her, ‘I’m not interested in any reality show because I don’t think they’re real. I can’t a song the way it is, so maybe it isn’t my thing.’ She said it’s a different kind of reality show and that I’d be able to do the songs my way. So I did my online audition and sent it in. At the same time I was earning pretty well [through gigs] so I took my parents to Europe and I didn’t think I would be selected. While I was there, I get a call telling me I had been selected for the Top 40. My father said, ‘Yeh sab se kuch nahi hota (Nothing can come from this.) Enjoy your holiday instead of going back.’ But my mom, she saw I was happy. She said even if I don’t get selected, this would boost my confidence. Now I’m a Gujarati kid, so I also had business in my head! Even if I come on television for 10-15 seconds, I’ll utilize that. So I came back, auditioned, shooting started for the first episode… I just wanted to come on for 15 seconds, that’s it! I thought I’d be the first person to be removed from the show! [laughs]
Was being part of the show what you thought it would be? How much creative freedom did you end up having as an artist?
This particular reality show did give me a lot of freedom to select songs and do it my way. I even used to write a few lines and add it to a song. So it was different from what I had seen on television.
What’s something you learned from the experience that you still carry with you?
Somebody told me that a lot of people come on reality shows, and what happens is that with time, they change themselves. They change the way they look at music, the way they have been doing music. If you change yourself, you lose people. If you’re on television and you [create a persona], that is going to be temporary. This stuck with me, that I don’t want to be somebody else. And now that I’m here, I want to stay. I think there was no cover on my face. That’s why people who saw me on Raw Star are still there with me today, supporting me.
Do you feel like in general for a lot of singers, Bollywood is still a necessary step in establishing a fan base in India?
That time YouTube wasn’t the mainstream, it was just blowing up. So I remember that when I used to do shows, I would hear people say, ‘Arey lekin yaar yeh toh YouTube singer hai na? Issne Bollywood mein toh kuch nahi gaaya.’ (But isn’t he just a YouTube singer? He’s not done anything in Bollywood.’) My management was also facing issues [booking shows] because people would say, ‘Issne kya mainstream kiya hai?’ I wanted to do my thing but people weren’t interested, they wouldn’t count that because it came from a personal space. So then I went to a lot of composers and a lot of people but things didn’t work out. I thought that maybe this isn’t the right place for me, I should go back to Ahmedabad and keep doing what I was doing. Before leaving I just called Himesh Reshammiya. During [India’s Raw Star] he had told me to call him and meet him, that he’d give me a song. I just wanted to see if that was just a cinematic line or did he really want to work with me. He said, ‘Come to the studio tomorrow.’ The next day I go to the studio and that was the song I recorded for Salman Khan’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. That’s how I started in Bollywood.
After [a few more tracks] is when people came to know that I was more into releasing independent songs and then my own songs also got popular. “Tera Zikr” was the first song that people in India thought ‘Oh this is not a Bollywood song, but we love this song. Yeh kiska gaana hai? Oh, issne khud banaya hai! (Whose song is this? Oh he wrote it himself!)’ I think that was a good change that came from that.
Now obviously things have changed, people don’t really say, ‘Lekin yeh toh YouTube singer hai’ about new singers…
Now they don’t. I think now people are with time getting very smart. They’re understanding that if this is a talented person, it works because of the music, on any platform. What I was focusing on initially [with YouTube]… is technically what has happened now. I wanted to reach people with my music on YouTube, and that now that’s happening everywhere.
“If you change yourself, you lose people. If you’re on television and you [create a persona], that is going to be temporary.”
In terms of digital platforms rising, you recently did a song “Yaara Teri Yaari” for the Amazon Prime show Four More Shots Please–how was that entire experience?
They knew that I was doing a lot of independent stuff and they had seen my work. I got a call from them and went to meet them and they showed me a web series. It’s a very different story and I loved it. I had not seen anything like that for an Indian audience. For me, anything which is changing the mentality of people, I would love to be a part of that project. Like with (LGBTQ+ themed 2019 Bollywood film) Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga being a very different film subject and I got the opportunity to sing [the title track] for that… Even this story of four girls with very modern thought processes, what most people don’t agree with… This is what I want people to understand, this is the current scenario and you cannot run from this and nobody has to run because it’s okay.
That these realities are not something to fear?
Yeah! For me it’s always about equality, so wherever I get a chance, I try to get associated with things like this. When I first saw the series, the first thing that hit me was how amazing these four girls are and how amazing their relationship is. This is what happened with me as well–I have such good friends supporting me.They’re imperfect, they’re very different from me and yet there’s a bond. Very less often do you see a song about friendship on girls. Matlab dosti sirf ladkon ke beech toh nahin ho sakthi! (Friendships like these aren’t exclusive to just between men!) [laughs]
It does make a big difference for sure, to see a young male artist like you creating music that connects to women’s rights, friendship, sexuality–it’s part of the new India we’re talking about, where we need young people with platforms like yours to push forward acceptance.
That is what I completely believe in. My mother has always taught me to respect women and it has never been about men above women, or women above men; it is about being completely equal. I believe everyone has a right to speak and think what they want to. It’s what I would want to tell people: that this is me and this is what I believe in.
Since you’ve started writing and composing at such a massive professional scale within the industry, what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
When an artist is growing, spending time in the field and learning from people, an artist gets spoiled. I always believe that music is a business of emotion. Sometimes we lose the innocence in it. When I made “Tera Zikr”… it was an emotion for me. [After its success] people said, ‘Arrey, yeh gaana hit ho gaya! Let me make something like this. (Wow this song was a hit! Let me make something like this.)’ But you can’t duplicate that. For me, it used to just be about making a song but now I know the big business behind making music, but I don’t want to go there. Because I know that if I go there, the soul of my music will die. That’s why I don’t make a hundred songs a year… I cannot. For me it’s about one song, living it and giving it all my focus. I now know everything that goes on behind a song or what could happen behind a song, but I don’t want that. I know that if I make something like that, it’ll get picked up, but it won’t have any soul.
How are some ways in which you’ve learned how to cope with all the fame and the attention on you? Because you’re immensely famous, but still so young.
The only pressure I get is that I don’t sleep. I need to perform and I need to rest but that’s the one thing I’m not getting! [Laughs] Pressure for me… I don’t think about what people are going to think or say about me. I am what I am and I don’t care what happens. I have to be in the present scenario and I have to give my best and that’s all. I know how beautiful a feeling it is when you get up in the morning knowing that there are millions of people behind you. What bigger strength could you have in life? I think that motivates me and keeps me away from all the negative things and keeps me positive.
What’s one thing that you hope people learn from you as an artist?
I think people always learn what they want to learn, I can’t tell them what to see. But I remember when I was young and people used to ask me, ‘What do you want to do in the world?’ I used to say I wanted to make songs people could cry to, that people could feel safe. I want to make songs like that because you can only cry with a person that’s close to you, feel safe with people who love you. I always want to make songs through which people can feel loved and safe. You know what I’m saying? Songs that evoke feelings that only other human beings can.
Photographs by Munsif Molu
Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Assisted by Aabha Malhotra
Hair and Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine
Clothing by United Colors of Benetton
Location Courtesy: Carter Road Social, Mumbai