Prateek Kuhad Finds His Space
How one of the country’s leading singer-songwriters is making the most of a co-publishing deal in the U.S. and creating unique gig experiences back home
In early July, when Prateek Kuhad was performing at a fitness studio in New York City as part of global gig series Sofar, he told his host he was a huge fan of the late folk singer Elliott Smith. “After the show, he was like, ‘Man, that’s better than Elliott Smith.’ I was almost… I felt strange because I thought, ‘Fuck, don’t say that about Elliot Smith!’ I had this defensive feeling, but at the same time, it was also a huge compliment,” Kuhad says.
The singer-songwriter is seated at his sister’s massive independent house in New Delhi. The back garden – which looks the size of a local park – has peacocks wandering in and out, and Kuhad takes us downstairs and when we sit down, Kuhad’s manager Dhruv Singh says he’s seen a huge garden lizard scurry under the sofa where Kuhad is seated. The singer freaks out for about a minute, but calmly exchanges places with Singh to sit on a wooden chair next to me, not giving the lizard another thought.
Going with the flow
In person, unlike when he’s on stage, emotions are underplayed by Kuhad. In our hour-long chat, plenty of other things are underplayed—fame, his influences, even accolades. For a singersongwriter who packs a club, auditorium or festival on any given day, Kuhad says there’s still a lot of trial and error involved in his sets and songwriting. He says, “It’s not really about production or songwriting or what they’re about, but it’s just gut-feeling. I go with that. If I feel like these 10 songs are working together for an album or these three songs are working for an EP, or a set for a show, then it’s fine.”
Whether he’s playing at college festivals, making audiences sing along at clubs (he doesn’t even have to ask them to), or playing auditorium shows, it’s all about music for 27-year-old Kuhad. He released his self-titled debut EP in 2011—around when he met manager Dhruv Singh via a common friend of Kuhad’s sister—and followed up with 2013’s Raat Raazi, his Hindi EP that drew comparisons with the likes of seasoned songwriter Ankur Tewari. By then, sets at New Delhi’s Blue Frog and festivals such as Escape in Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand were already rolling in for Kuhad. Now, he can choose between the top festivals and clubs in the country (and abroad, considering he’s got a gig lined up in New York in September)—everyone who wants his mellow but catchy, disarming acoustic tunes.
“It’s not really about production or songwriting or what they’re about, but it’s just gut-feeling. I go with that.”
And when he’s not performing, there’s plenty to occupy his time, from networking at conferences to his latest, a co-publishing deal with U.S.-based Cutcraft Music Group, whose roster includes the likes of Chet Faker. It’s taken him to the Midem music conference and festival in Cannes, where he was selected for the Artist Accelerator Program that made things much more exclusive and intimate to interact with mentors and fellow attendees in June. Kuhad recalls, “Apparently, they had 600 entries and they picked out 11 artists. We got people like Wyclef Jean doing a session, where there were only 30 of us.”
Compare that with his previous conference—South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, where Kuhad was selected for a showcase performance in 2016—and you can tell he’ll take the intimate experience over one of the biggest gatherings in music, film and art in the U.S. Kuhad says, “You should already have a bit of a network. If you go there (SXSW) with nothing, you can’t do much.”
Even though he had Singh by his side to hobnob and network, Kuhad is quick to say he doesn’t really like schmoozing when he’s on his own. “The only reason I really force myself to do it is because it’s for work. [Otherwise] I hate networking and going and breaking the ice, going and introducing yourself. I’m terrible at making conversations.” When asked if he could take pointers from Singh, he says dejectedly, “You can’t teach that kind of shit, yaar.”
Singh’s record label and agency Pagal Haina has been going out of its way to work on his branding as an artist—be it through building newer show formats that bring audiences (tickets for his heftily priced auditorium gigs sold like hot cakes, but Singh mentions they’re making zero revenue), launching highly anticipated singles (“Tune Kaha” and “Tum Jab Paas” were important milestones) and avoiding over-exposure at the same time.
Whether it’s using the back garden to shoot the video for “Oh Love” or being part of music collaboration series The Dewarists with Ankur Tewari (“Dil Beparwah”), travel definitely seems to inform Kuhad’s music. He’s been to Rio de Janeiro to record and regularly travels to the U.S. for shows and now, for co-writing as part of Cutcraft’s co-publishing deal. When asked, though, Kuhad doesn’t realize that he travels a lot until Singh reminds him he’s been to see his mother in Jaipur twice in the last month. He says, “It’s seldom that there’s only one thing that I can point out that shapes the way I write or what I write. It does definitely indirectly affect it musically, because just production-wise and songwriting-wise and genre-wise, I guess.”
He quickly adds that his music tastes have changed over the years as well—from the Americana and folk of Woody Guthrie, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith to hip-hop, pop and rock. While he’s best known for his bittersweet love songs, over the last two years, Kuhad has been traversing into tortured pop ballad territory, as well as full-on angst on songs like “Cold/Mess” and “Fighter.” He says about the change in mood, “I realized I’m not very big on being homogeneous with sets or albums or having a concept around them or something very centrally binding.”
That fluid mood and theme is part of Kuhad’s charm and variety. He’s among the first singer-songwriters in India to choose auditoriums and smaller rooms over club venues. In August, he played three ‘unaccompanied’ shows in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with an acoustic piano and guitar on stage, performing at theater venues.
Does that mean Kuhad is paving the way for singer-songwriters to aim for small rooms to avoid the chatterbox club audiences? Singh and Kuhad both say you have to start out in clubs in India. Singh adds, “Outside of India, there are plenty of options for various kinds of music—jazz clubs, small rooms where you can see Indie bands, big halls and auditoriums etc. You get to experience music in the setting it’s best suited to. Not that Prateek can’t play festivals, but personally I feel his music is best experienced when it’s quiet and you can listen.”
Being the ones to set that example, there’s always something in the works for Kuhad—whether it’s his New York show in September, singing a song (“Udi”) for Bollywood crime film Gurgaon (Singh jokes, “He was the playback singer”), a country-wide India tour in November and plotting an EP for release early next year.
There’s an audience waiting all along the way as well. From the front-row fangirls to the appreciative peers like Tewari. At some point, when we’re talking about best and worst compliments from fans, Kuhad flips through his phone, he immediately finds something that he calls a weird but great compliment. He reads it out, “Prateek Kuhad should be a certified emotion.”
Someone even got a tattoo of lyrics from Raat Raazi. Singh says, “Lately, there have been a lot of ‘Are you single?’ messages.” Kuhad shoots back, “Not that many also!” Singh tells him, “There are at least five. This girl is really insisting now, ‘I really want to know’.” Kuhad, predictably, says, “It’s still a small fanbase. It’s very seldom that people get weird about it and then I also get a little weird about it. I tell them, ‘It’s fine, relax’.”
This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Rolling Stone India.