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COVER STORY: Armaan Malik | The Making of a Pop Star

The singer-songwriter on his complex relationship with Bollywood, his love for K-pop and how he’s gearing up for the global stage

Riddhi Chakraborty Sep 08, 2020

Suit set by Krish Sanghvi, turtle neck by Zara; Headphones: OPPO Enco W51. Armaan Malik photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

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Armaan Malik believes in manifestation. “Have you read this book, The Secret?” he asks me when we connect over video call one afternoon. I tell him indeed I have and he smiles. “That is what I believe. The more you think about what you want, that’s what you get.” In the bestselling book, author Rhonda Byrne advocates that if you focus on something enough, have faith in yourself and in the universe, you can achieve your biggest dreams. And Malik certainly isn’t afraid of dreaming big.

The 25-year-old singer-songwriter’s career in Indian music is like no other. He’s been deeply involved in the industry since he was 10 years old, starting out as a playback singer for several iconic films, including Taare Zameen Par (2007), Bhoothnath (2008) and 2.0 (2018). He’s sung for films in over a dozen Indian languages, including Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam and Assamese. In January this year, his track “Buttabomma” from the Telugu film Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, blew up across the Internet, clocking in 360 million views on YouTube and over 13 million Spotify plays, cementing his nation-wide fame. He’s a household name at this point, having performed more than 200 shows around the globe—including one at SSR, Wembley when he was just 20. He’s also the youngest Indian singer to be a coach on The Voice India and the youngest recipient of Filmfare’s R. D. Burman Award for New Music Talent. But even with all these incredible achievements, Malik felt he wasn’t the artist he truly wanted to be.

Armaan Malik on the cover Rolling Stone India’s September 2020 issue. Headphones: OPPO Enco W51. Photograph by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

Malik hails from one of the most illustrious families in Indian music; his father is Daboo Malik and his uncle Anu Malik—both prominent composers in Bollywood. His brother Amaal has also made his name in the same field. But for Armaan, the need to carve an identity outside this legacy was greater. “I had this dream of becoming a pop star and doing my thing globally,” he confesses. “But obviously, in India, Bollywood is the mainstay.” In a country where there wasn’t exactly a space for independent pop artists until quite recently, the only option for Malik to pursue music was via the film industry.

“My dad actually sat me down and told me, ‘Armaan, this is a country where Bollywood is consumed a lot. And in order to become a successful musician, you would need to become a playback singer,’” he recalls. “And I was like, no I want to sing my own songs, write my own stuff and feature in music videos.” He says while his father understood and supported those dreams, reality wouldn’t be quite as kind. The advice he got was to make a name in Bollywood first, work hard towards success and eventually build a fan base. It’s advice he took and appreciated, but while he was grateful for his subsequent success in the Indian film industry, there was a tinge of bitterness he couldn’t quite chase away.

It wasn’t long until he hit a slight lull. Music wasn’t exciting him as much as it used to, and that was the motivator for the massive change he was about to undertake in 2020. He wiped his Instagram clean save for one cryptic post that declared, “I can’t take it anymore.” It sent his fans into panic, heralding a flood of concerned messages and comments. While the words may have come off a little darker than he expected, they weren’t quite the cause for concern; they were lyrics to his first English-language single “Control.”

Dark, sultry and dangerous, “Control” dropped in March and was about the push-and-pull nature of a toxic relationship. It marked Malik’s first dip into pop-R&B, plus the debut of the artist he likes to call ‘Armaan Malik 2.0.’ Written and produced by Malik in collaboration with American producer Wayne Wilkins (whose resume includes hit tracks for Beyoncé, Jordin Sparks and Natasha Bedingfield), it was a big step away from the boy-next-door image he had built in his Hindi music videos and performances. “I realized that I have this intense side to me,” he says. “I think with my music and my whole artistry, I am in a phase where I’ve outgrown that cute boy thing.” In the neon-lit music video that accompanies the track, Malik sports a leather jacket and slicked-back hair to pursue a mysterious woman who has him under her spell. It’s sexy, playful and tinged with a sweet desperation that works incredibly well for him.

The shock of Malik’s image change plus the brand new sound were the building blocks of a hit—”Control” took off immediately, sitting at Number One on iTunes India and earning Malik a billboard in New York City’s Times Square, promoted by Spotify. The singer-songwriter created a massive buzz on social media, drawing the attention of international audiences and media, who saw similarities to Western pop darlings like Charlie Puth and Shawn Mendes, plus all the makings of a new pop phenomenon. Indian fans began to see him as India’s answer to Western pop, with many considering him close to a messiah that could lead the country to global pop domination. A top comment on “Control”’s YouTube page declares, “Now India will also rise in the field of English songs, just like K-pop has done for Korea.”

His following English track “Next 2 Me,” which dropped in June, wasn’t an official single but still went on to hit Number One on Billboard’s Top Triller U.S. and Top Triller Global charts—a first for an Indian artist. As Malik gets closer to releasing his second official single, he’s confident things will change on an even bigger scale— even if it might come with bigger risks. “When you’re doing something new, you always hope it doesn’t make a negative impact or people don’t write it off,” he says. “I’m trying to change my whole direction, and if people don’t accept this, then where am I going to go and what am I going to do?”

In this honest and in-depth interview with Rolling Stone India, the singer-songwriter opens up about his long-term but complex relationship with Bollywood, being inspired by K-pop to fight for representation, and reinventing himself to become the artist he always wanted to be. Excerpts:

Over the past year or so we’ve been seeing so much conversation about who India’s breakthrough global pop star will be, and you are one of the names leading the mix along with artists like Raja Kumari and Prateek Kuhad. Why do you think now is the right time for Indians to make that jump to international pop recognition?

I think India has so much talent, so much culture. Just like how you’ve seen recently, the K-pop world has blown up globally, I think it’s time for India to do its thing internationally. Musicians haven’t been represented on a global scale before. A few artists like A.R. Rahman sir have really made a mark in the international space, but it’s never happened that a pop star has taken birth. I’ve had this dream of becoming a pop star and doing my thing globally. But obviously, in India, Bollywood is the mainstay, it is the big industry here. So I took that route first and I think it did me well because today I have the strength of my fandom. My ‘Armaanians’ as I call them, all of us together kind of take this journey to push my music out internationally. I think it is the best time for Indian artists to be recognized on a global scale because things are opening up. You know, people really don’t care where the music is coming from, who the artist is—they just want to hear good music from a talented artist. So being an Indian artist is so special at this point in time because there’s so much riding on us as the new wave of musicians from our country. If we do this right—which I hope we do—we kind of open a whole new pathway for the musicians that follow us to make their name and make their music popular.

Recently there’s been a lot of attention on you from international media because of your charting success. Do you ever feel a sense of pressure because you are representing our country on such massive platforms?

Honestly, no, I don’t have a pressure to perform better or be like, ‘Oh, everything’s on me now. If I don’t do this, right, nothing’s going to happen.’ I don’t think on those lines. I’ve always wanted to do this, this is my dream and more than just my own journey, it’s me taking Indian artists, Indian music, the whole thing, global. More than pressure, it’s pride. For me to be able to be an Indian artist and, like you said, be on the Billboard Triller Chart amongst such big names from different countries… that’s such a moment of pride. Obviously, there are going to be expectations in the future. But I’ve always had my vision very clear and I know what I want to do and I think it’s been working really well. So I just want to keep the momentum going and put out amazing new music for all my fans and all the new fans that might happen to listen to me now.

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Speaking of new fans, a lot of people are discovering you with “Control” and finding out who you are. So let’s go back to the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I was around eight when I decided I wanted to take up singing professionally. I didn’t decide at that point that I wanted to become an artist, because becoming an artist means writing your own music, producing your own thing, having control over the whole narrative and how the video is going to be. I knew at that point of time I didn’t have any idea of how that’s supposed to be done. But I realized that I have this talent in me, and I wanted to take it forward professionally, not just as a hobby. In 2011, I attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston—I got a scholarship to do a summer programme there. That’s when I realized that I want to become an artist, I wanted to write my own songs, tell my own story. As soon as I returned from Boston, I started making my own bank of songs and started compiling all of them together and released my debut album Armaan (2014).

At that point of time in India, not many people were featuring their own videos; they were only actors and actresses and playback singers. But I always had this feeling that singers need to be known more than just a voice behind the mic. We don’t really have a separate music industry because the film industry and the music industry is pretty merged. No one was doing albums, singles and music videos because the market wasn’t too receptive towards it. My dad actually sat me down and told me, ‘Armaan, this is a country where Bollywood is consumed a lot. And in order to become a successful musician, you would need to become a playback singer.’ And I was like, no I want to sing my own songs, write my own stuff and feature in music videos. He said, ‘I know you want to do that, but do this first, get some success and create a fan base and then you can do whatever you want with your original music.’ So after all these years now, in 2020, I’ve gotten the chance to do what I really, really wanted to do. I’m becoming the artist that I always wanted to be.

Denim jacket by Zara; Hoodie by H&M; solid Jogger by GAS Jeans; shoes by Zara; Phone: OPPO F17 Pro. Photograph by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

You come from such a prestigious family in the music industry in India. When you began your career, what was your game plan to forge your identity as an artist in your own right?

That’s a very interesting question. It started when I was nine years old, and I was auditioning for Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Little Champs. It is a huge platform for any Indian singer and some of the biggest actually have been associated with it, be Sonu [Nigam] ji, Shreya [Ghoshal] di. When I went onto that show, I obviously belonged to such an illustrious family. But I never wanted that to weigh me down or let people make a judgement on me because of it. I submitted my name as ‘Armaan from Mumbai.’ That’s it. I never gave my surname in. And I think that was one of the early steps where I decided that I’m going to create my own identity. My dad actually never knew I was going to go for that show. It was just my mom and me that went. And actually, it’s because of the fact that they later realized that I was from this musical family that I was eliminated. They said, ‘Aapko aage kaam mil hi jaayega.’ I mean, I came up till the top 10 on my own mettle. I worked my way up from the auditions to the final rounds… But my mom took the mic and said, ‘I think in a few years you’ll meet a different Armaan.’ That confidence from my mom made me realize that I need to create my own musical identity in this world. As soon as that show ended, I made a demo CD and went to different composers. Gave them my CDs and said, ‘This is how I sing, I sing in English as well. If you have anything for me, let me know.’ I started my own little struggle of going to different people, making sure that they know what I’m capable of.

Do you feel it’s the same path aspiring artists need to follow today, that a career in Bollywood is necessary to then become a pop star in India?

I don’t think so now. I don’t know why, but this year has changed my perspective on things. I get asked this question, ‘What is the advice you would give a youngster,’ and my only advice is listen and find who you are. I think that discovery is very important for an artist. And at this point of time, I think if if a person who knows who he is knows what kind of music he or she wants to put out, it’s the best thing. Yes, I’m definitely at an advantage with my Bollywood fan base. The kind of fans that I have became fans through my Bollywood songs. So I’m not going to negate that I am who I am because of my Bollywood playback singing career. In 2014 when I was trying to do my own pop album, it wasn’t the right time to do it, it wasn’t the right environment to do it. Now there are a lot of new avenues, new independent labels, artists are creating their own labels; A whole revolution is happening in the Indian music space and I’m here for it. I’ve waited for this for a very long time. So I think it’s the best time right now for an independent artist to just do what he wants to do. There’s obviously a journey that is involved in making an artist and making that name and credibility in the market, but I don’t think you need to start with a Bollywood movie today to catapult you into something.

In terms of what Indian audiences want from artists, did you notice a point where pop was suddenly in demand rather than just Bollywood music?

I saw it actually unfold in front of me since 2016. While I was doing my Bollywood playback stuff, I didn’t leave the pop music space even though I wasn’t in the music videos. “Main Rahoon Ya Na Rahoon” was a song of mine which was released in 2015 [featuring actors Emraan Hashmi and Eisha Gupta] and it was a non-film song. That came out of nowhere because people weren’t doing non-film stuff at that point of time. The Punjabi music industry has been doing it since a very long time and they’ve never really depended on movies, but in the Bollywood space, I think no one had ever branched out and done singles at that point of time. Then I followed it up with my own single “Aaja Na Ferrari Mein” (2017) which featured me in the video, then there was “Ghar Se Nikalte Hi” (2018), “ Tootey Khaab” (2019) and then recently I did “Zara Thehro.” So for me, I’ve never left non-film music on the sidelines. Even though it didn’t blow up as much as it is doing right now, I always knew that this was going to happen. 2020 has been a breakout year for non- film stuff. People can’t shoot movies right now, so I think it’s the perfect environment for people in non-film music to [take over.] Everyone’s just putting out singles. [Punjabi actor and singer] Diljit Dosanjh just put out a whole album and that’s also doing really well on the Billboard charts.

Solid round neck T-shirt by Bhaane; Jacket by The Source; Denim by American Eagle; Photograph by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

In an interview you did earlier this year, you said you needed to change in your life and a change in the music that you were making and “Control” was the answer to that. Once you released the track, did you feel a sense of catharsis?

I definitely feel that’s what happened. It kind of felt like I came back home and there was a sigh of relief. Like, ‘Finally! It’s out there!’ It’s my original music stuff that I’ve written, composed and it’s my baby. For a long time, you know… in Bollywood, you sing other people’s songs. The composer composes the melody, the writer writes the lyrics and you just come into the studio, cut the vocals and off you go. That’s the process. But I felt it was very impersonal. Even though that process has worked for so many years—I mean since legends like Mohamad Rafi sir’s time or Kishore Kumar sir’s—but I’ve always been the kind who wants to be super involved in the sound. What are we saying? What’s the story of the song? What’s music gonna be like, what are the beats we’re using? Okay, can we put this guitar riff here? Can we put this drum pattern here? I get to be involved when I work with my brother Amaal, but otherwise, I don’t usually get to do that with other composers and other creators. With “Control” I just had this sense of freedom, like this whole rebirth kind of thing happened to me. Which is why I also cleared all my posts on Instagram and started a whole new journey that felt like Armaan Malik 2.0.

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It really was like seeing a completely new artist.

I was a little scared that my fans won’t accept me the way I want to be accepted and might not like the direction I’m going in, and every artist has that scare. Are fans gonna get alienated with this whole new persona with this whole new music and direction? But that didn’t happen. And that was the biggest relief for me. It was so humbling to see such an amazing response.

The music video for “Control” is really dark and sexy and so different from anything you’ve done before. How involved were you in creating the concept, directing it, the wardrobe?

This is the first time I actually got to be involved so much. Be it the styling, be it the storyline—pretty much from the word go I was on it and Bobby Hannaford who directed the video, you wouldn’t believe it, we talked about the whole song concept like two days before the video shoot. It was all cut to cut and I just finished completing the video, I came to Bombay and… the lockdown happened. So, if I hadn’t gone and shot the video in such a haste, we wouldn’t have the “Control.” music video. I think everything happens for a reason. The way it happened was quite fast and I couldn’t process many things, but I was very involved in every department. The whole imagery and the styling of the video was me taking a departure from this ‘cute boy-next- door’ thing that I had going for me. I wanted people to get a peek into that kind of dark, sexy vibe to me which I have, but I didn’t show as much because I didn’t know how to go about it before or I didn’t have the right song to go with it.

High shine Bomber by Superdry; Tee by Replay; Denim by Replay; Track sneakers by Balenciaga. Photograph by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

Do you want to continue with this sexier vibe for your future projects?

Through the process of doing my English music and international music—and even shooting for the Rolling Stone India cover— I realized that I have this intense side to me. I think with my music and my whole artistry, I am also in a phase where I’ve outgrown that cute boy thing. I was growing with my fans and I was growing up from the teen boy era into kind of a young adult vibe.

Tell us a little bit about your plans for the rest of 2020, what have you got brewing?

A lot of amazing projects are brewing. I’m working on two projects for my English stuff. One is obviously my big single that I’ve been planning to put out. “Next 2 Me” wasn’t my second single—I never planned to put it out. It happened because I felt it so strongly during lockdown. But this second single, I’m planning to put it out very soon, shoot a music video for it as well. Let’s hope the lockdown helps us shoot a good music video! And I’m doing an international collaboration as well. I’m pretty excited for that. The fans have an inkling of a big collaboration happening. So yeah, very excited.

Can you give us any hints as to who the artist on the collaboration is?

[Laughs] I really can’t say much! But I can say it’s a big asian collab for the international market. That’s it!

You know what, we need to talk about K-pop. You’ve expressed your admiration for so many Korean artists on Twitter for a couple of years now. When did you find the K-pop industry and which artists did you connect with at the start?

I was on a flight from Mumbai to Dubai and I was getting bored of seeing movies. So I went to the music section to see what I can hear from another country. So I went to K-pop. It was just the beginning, I think, where people were just starting to understand K-pop in the world. I came across this album called 13th Unchanging by Shinhwa.

Oh man, the OGs of K-pop!

Yeah, they are one of the first or the early boy groups to have been formed in K-pop, that’s what I got to know about later when I read up on them. But when I heard that album, it was so emotional, so lyrical. Even though I didn’t understand one word, I could understand the emotion behind it. I heard about all these amazing groups coming out of Korea; there was EXO, BTS and BLACKPINK. But at that point in time I only delved into EXO, I was attracted towards their music for some reason. And you know Chen [of EXO,] that guy’s a great vocalist. So for me, I’m always searching for artists who inspire me. I’m always listening to learn. BTS really rose to superstardom in the last two years with all the new albums they were putting out. They were doing features and collabs with different artists. They did a song with Lauv, that’s when I got to know more about them. Then they did a collaboration with Halsey, “Boy With Luv”, right? And “Jamais Vu” is one of my favorite songs. So that’s when I started discovering these artists and knowing what their world is like. Seeing their music videos was definitely a highlight for me. I don’t think that anyone does music videos better than the K-pop industry. When “Dynamite” happened—I think it’s amazing what BTS has done. Honestly, in such hard times when you listen to something so upbeat, uptempo and so uplifting, it just makes you feel so good. They’ve come Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, so I think it’s unbelievable how they have created this whole outlet for Asian artists to go international. They’ve been pathbreaking. All the K-pop artists, I’m sure there are so many other groups as well that I may not know of, but all of them have done such incredible work to create that pathway for Asian artists to be recognized on a global platform or in the West. And now I think it’s India’s time.

Phone: OPPO F17 Pro. Sneakers by Prada. Photograph by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

Why is it so important for young people to see themselves represented on these platforms like the Billboard Charts and the Grammys?

Winning a Grammy is the lifelong dream of any artist. So for all of us, we’re just working. We’re not working towards winning a Grammy, we all are working towards making great music and having fans. I think even BTS or EXO, their main driving forces are the fans who consume the music. [Being on these platforms] it’s this feeling of, ‘Hey people recognize my work.’ It gave that confidence to move on and do better work. We haven’t seen a lot of Asian artists breaking through internationally and for the first time we are witnessing history. My dream is to get India up there on the global platform.

It’s a declaration that yes, we exist. We are also making music and we also deserve like a day in the sun.

For sure! I think we’ve always been very limited to our local music and local markets. We’ve never gotten that global exposure. Finally that’s happening and it’s amazing. Which is why when coming back to where you asked me why do you think this is the right time for India, I think it’s the right time because Asians are really putting us on the map, and it’s high time that an Indian artist takes this pathway. Because all of us are in this together.

Do you think you could completely walk away from Bollywood?

I’m not going to forget my roots. I’m not going to forget the stuff that I have been doing all these years, but I’m going to be very selective about it. I’m going to do things that really mean a lot to me. It’s going to be a tough task balancing both simultaneously but I will never forget anything that I’ve always been doing. Be it singing in regional languages like Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada… all these will still keep happening alongside the Bollywood music and English music and someday Arabic and Spanish and Korean! I am Armaan Malik, because my Indian music, my Indian fans, my work here in India are all part of me. It will always be a part of me.

 

Armaan Malik photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Styled by: Pratiksha Jain
Assisted by: Kartik Jain
Harstylist: Arjun Kumar Sharma
Makeup: Soumen Debnath

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