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Karsh Kale: ‘It’s Easy To Buy Your Own Hype When You’re Young’

The Indian-American composer/instrumentalist talks about his biggest creative dilemmas and his introspective new album, ‘Up’

Nirmika Singh Jan 08, 2016
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Karsh Kale Photo by Anja Matthes.

“I had so many questions,” admits Karsh Kale. Photo by Anja Matthes

If you thought identity crises are most brutal in your mid-twenties, you only have to hear Karsh Kale’s story. The Indian-American musician found himself at the biggest crossroads of his life at the peak of his success as an artist. All of a sudden, the weight of the many identities he carried – composer, producer, tabla player and drummer – bogged him down. This was around 2011-2012, when Kale the music innovator found himself doing everything from performing with the likes of Alicia Keys in the US to collaborating with Indian musicians back home. It was about time that Kale caught his breath.

“I had so many questions – Who the hell am I, and what the hell am I doing? I got sick of my own face – like it was that kind of situation,” says Kale, who has released six solo albums and dozens of other records – collaborations, live projects, EPs and remixes – since 1996. In his upcoming album, Up, Kale reflects on his career of twenty years. Like many of his crossover projects, the album features collaborations with an array of artists. From the domestic music scene, there’s guitarist Warren Mendonsa, drummer Jai Row Kavi, singers Benny Dayal, Monali Thakur, Papon and others. On Up, Kale also worked with American guitarist-songwriter John Shannon, bassist Tony Grey and vocalist Priya Darshini, among other musicians.

In an interview with ROLLING STONE INDIA, Kale talks about ridding himself of the labels that came with being an influential part of the Asian Underground movement, and making music that is honest.

Tell us about the new album and how it chronicles the busy, creative life you’ve been leading.
After I released Cinema [2010], my last record, things started going cuckoo. And it wasn’t just happening in India, it was happening in the States as well. I did the Black Ball with Alicia Keys [in 2011] and then immediately came here and the NH7 [Weekender festival] was happening. Then Coke Studio happened [in 2012] and I also played at the White House [in 2013]. It was just back-to-back. And then I kind of crashed. And I started working on Up. There was this moment of realization that I hadn’t stopped since I was 18. I just started second-guessing all the things I was doing. All of sudden I was being a tabla player and DJ and drummer and a keyboard player, and starting to sing – all of this was too much. I had about eight months of very confusing time. I think all artists when they get to an age they kind of look back; also you feel like an ‘uncle’ [laughs].

But does it happen at a stage when you have accomplished so much?
Yeah, absolutely! It’s easy to buy your own hype when you’re young. All of the labels that get put on you – visionary, pioneer – you kind of take it as a torch and you run forward. But at some point you kind of question it.

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So were you able to find answers to your questions while working on the record?
Well, I had to convince myself that I don’t have to do everything and listen to everybody. I didn’t share the record with anyone for two-three years, not one person knew, except the people I was collaborating with. There are around seven people in this world that I trust and I played it to them. They said, ‘This is you.’ That’s all I needed to hear… The idea of Up was also about how I was constantly flying, traveling. Being out and going home are such polar opposites of spaces that you live in. When I was doing this constantly, the one place where I could figure things out was when I was on the plane. We live out of suitcases and we never really unpack, even when we’re at home. I have a second packed suitcase at home when I go back home to pick up and travel again.

You were one of the significant voices in the Asian Underground scene back in the day. Where do you think that movement stands today?
When my first record came out in 2000, there was a need internationally for this kind of music to come out. There was a whole generation then that needed that identity. We fit in that space – myself, [producer/ composer] Nitin Sawhney…Now, that’s changed. Now there’s a new generation – the Internet and social media generation – who are connected already. They don’t have the thirst for their homeland and all of that. So for me, it kind of became about, ‘Now why are you doing this?’

Do you think your role as a crossover musician has become less important because you don’t need to be an interpreter of sorts anymore?
As artists, we project a superhero image of ourselves, and we wrap the music up in all these clothes, that’s what we do as people also in our twenties and thirties, but it’s just a projection, it’s not our real selves. At some point you want to unravel that and reveal your true self. In the beginning of your career you just want to put everything out but as you grow you realize…

You know, I had tabla fans, electronica fans and holding all of this stuff up and keeping it relevant and inspiring people, it becomes a heavy weight. And then you need to ask yourself, ‘Are you actually responsible for all of this stuff?’ It became very complex for me…

Indian music is the bloodline of what I do like blues is for rock musicians. But I have also absolved myself of the responsibility of thinking I am a classical musician and being responsible for anything that has to do with holding up that institution – and same goes with electronic music or whatever it is.

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But if you were a struggling musician today you probably wouldn’t be reflecting…
Probably not, but I am doing it for a different reason. I’ve a got a lot of things out of my system – that desire to reach a lot of people. For me, it’s never about making a hit song… I want to make sure the music is good and it means something to them.

What do you make of the current non-Bollywood music scene in India?
The one thing about the scene is that now it’s like everybody has to be this polished package immediately. In the old days you watched artists develop and evolve. But now since everybody wants to post videos on YouTube and all, they feel they need to create a very polished package, and for me as an artist, I can see through all of that. In the old days, we used to sign development deals with record companies; we’d spent time with mentors and producers who’d polish you. And by the time you’re done, you’re not pretending to be a polished thing.


As artists, we project a superhero image of ourselves, and we wrap the music up in all these clothes, but it’s just a projection, it’s not our real selves.


 

I have a 14-year-old daughter and even the simple stuff like posting a picture on Instagram, all of that has to be perfect these days. I feel that pressure is not fair. As an artist you need time to create a rapport with the audience and that’s how you grow.

But the big missing piece here is A&R. Labels don’t want to invest in artists.
Yes, that’s happening all over the world. Executives look at YouTube views and Facebook likes. These days, everything’s DIY – you have to come off as a finished package.

Now that ‘Up’ is done and dusted, are you working on another album already?
Yes, I am working on a song-based album [with] less collaborators. I’m singing myself and that is the last layer of unraveling. As a producer I have fired myself as a singer – when you have such great singers around you don’t want to sing!

With such a busy career, is it very challenging to take time out for your family?
For years it [the music career] was paramount; you’d throw your career in their [family’s] face but as a father you realize that they don’t care, [the fact] that you have thousands of fans. There’s always that guilt of being away. But when I am at home in New York, she [his daughter] gets all of my time.

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