COVER STORY: Prateek Kuhad’s Quiet Rise to the Top
The once-reluctant Indian singer-songwriter on opening up, loving his haters and the road to global recognition
“It was literally one of the happiest moments of my life.” It’s not easy to get anything remotely hyperbolic out of Prateek Kuhad. And yet, there it is. A couple of years ago, the New Delhi/Jaipur singer-songwriter might have underplayed a lot of his achievements, but since the release of his EP cold/mess in mid-2018, things have changed. Well, slightly.
In fact, the release of the soul-burrowing, despairing yet moody EP is exactly what Kuhad is talking about. “Even before it got any recognition or before anything happened, just the fact that it was finally out made me feel so great,” he says as he sits down to lunch in his room at a five-star hotel in Mumbai. Later on, in our 90-minute chat, he’s talking about his voice and how he never thinks about how he sings. He feels that people ended up liking his voice because of his often crestfallen, emo songwriting. “I think the songs are good and I don’t do a terrible job of executing it,” Kuhad says, showing a glimpse of how he can still be quite self-critical for someone who’s headlining festivals in India (Vh1 Supersonic in Pune on February 7th), selling out shows in India, the U.S. and Europe and ended up on former U.S. president Barack Obama’s annual favorite music of 2019.
He says, “I’m generally a very wary and cynical person.” We’re talking about his recent Supermoon tour that reportedly sold over 30,000 tickets across 11 cities and how he eventually began enjoying being on stage for the first time. “It almost scared me for a while, like, ‘why am I liking this? Am I changing too much?’”
Introduce anything new to Kuhad’s live set – like the fact that he asked everyone to put their phone torches up when he performed the gentle “Kho Gaye Hum Kahan” (off the soundtrack for Bollywood film Baar Baar Dekho) on the Supermoon tour in December and he’s the cynic in the room. He says, “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like asking people to do anything in general in life. I’d be, ‘No no, I got this. Don’t do anything for me.’”
Kuhad is in Mumbai not just for the Rolling Stone India cover shoot, but also for a corporate gig. Unsurprisingly, Kuhad doesn’t play many of those, but when he does, it’s because he’s doing exactly what he wants. There’s no covers and “it’s very chill” in terms of the general atmosphere and mood of the performance, which could be solo or the full band. “We don’t do anything differently. When you put all these restrictions, it’s only the hardcore fans that want you. It automatically ends up creating a pretty decent vibe,” he says.
This one’s an award function that went off pretty well, but Kuhad’s also played at a rooftop birthday party and weddings in the last couple of years. “I feel like there’s a real reluctance from musicians to play those kind of shows. There’s this image about corporate shows and wedding shows – ‘Oh they’re so bad and evil’ or I don’t know. I’ve not had a bad experience. I’ve had worse college gig experiences,” he adds.
Whether it’s people crying their eyes out to cold/mess or humming along to songs off his 2015 album In Tokens & Charms, Prateek Kuhad is in fact – as a tweet he read out to us in 2017 suggests – a mood unto himself. He may be playing up a lot of heartache and sadness in his music and employing a falsetto that draws comparisons to folk/indie acts like Kodaline, but music and specifically songwriting is where Kuhad’s everlasting focus lies.
“There’s no benchmark for me objectively of good music. You only get subjective benchmarks like success and money and all these things.”
At the Rolling Stone India photoshoot held inside a studio in Worli, Kuhad is dressed in comfortable, casual looks and even carries a boombox. After the shoot, he’s back in a black T-shirt and black shorts. He tells me a day later, “I never give a shit about what I look like.” He liked the shoot and the clothes, no doubt, but he treats it as a “means to an end” like every photo shoot ever. Kuhad has never looked discernably different over the years and that’s actually intentional, according to him. “It’s very intentional in the sense that… I have a few reasons. I want to write really good music, okay? It’s very important to me that my records are actually good. There’s no benchmark for me objectively of good music. You only get subjective benchmarks like success and money and all these things.”
If he did craft a style or a certain look, Kuhad feels he might get “inaccurate feedback about my music.” He adds, “The point is to write good songs and make good records.” In the years spent with his previous manager Dhruv Singh as part of the latter’s label Pagal Haina (Kuhad is currently managed by the Delhi-based artist agency Big Bad Wolf) the singer-songwriter was making good music and making even bigger moves, performing at South By Southwest (SXSW) multiple times in Austin since 2016 and winning the International Songwriting Competition in 2017 (in the folk/singer-songwriter group), thriving for his music albeit in a more indie space. Kuhad parted ways with Pagal Haina sometime in 2018, with Big Bad Wolf going from booking agent to a managerial role. “Dhruv and I, we started together. It was an intense relationship. He’s one of the most passionate people I’ve met, period. But I think by the end of it, we just had different goals,” he says.
Before that shift happened back home, Kuhad was being managed in the U.S. by the Boston-based Nicole Barsalona, who has previously worked with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s guitarist Steven Van Zandt and runs the management company Everyday Rebellion. In raising a toast to Kuhad on Instagram, Barsalona mentioned that a lot of success comes down to the artist. “The last few years have taken a lot of elbow grease from all of us, but it’s been successful because of the person Prateek Kuhad is, because of his work ethic and priority on treating everyone well, on being a fundamentally great person and everyone responding to that energy and wanting to be around it – from fans to industry.”
Right after his first U.S. tour in 2018 playing in sold-out smaller café venues – plus the release of cold/mess – Kuhad had got offers from booking agents there. He recounts, “I had a call with each one of them. One was super sell-y. They said, ‘Next goal is to get you on a support tour with Taylor Swift! This is gonna happen!’ It was just intense. And Nicole was like, ‘Hmm’. After the call, I said, ‘I’m not quite sure.’ The other person was Tom Windish. He was super chill. He, in fact, made no promises. He said, ‘We’re going to do this tour very quietly in a very reserved manner’. I trust people who give me a very realistic idea. You find both kinds of people.”
Kuhad had in fact written to Windish in 2015 when he was sending DIY press kits and packages promoting In Tokens & Charms. The latter’s company, The Windish Agency, was acquired by global behemoth Paradigm Talent Agency in 2015 and since then he has worked with everyone from Lorde to Diplo to Alt-J and Billie Eilish. Kuhad says, “The Windish Agency was my dream agency. It was pretty bizarre when he called and said, ‘I want to work with you’. He’s quite a legend, man.”
Part of regular songwriting workshops and sessions held in American music hubs like Nashville, Kuhad says he’s had a good time navigating the larger industry without much stress. The songwriting and co-writes that he’s been involved in operate like machinery, but that’s not always how he wants it. Kuhad says, “A lot about it is getting things done, versus ‘This song is not working today, let’s try it tomorrow or spend a week on it.’ There’s a real hurry for most writers and producers, but not all of them. Because of that, I realized, ‘Man, I’m actually not that bad’. I can keep doing this. When you’re here, you have this idea that ‘Everybody must be so good in the U.S.’ It’s way massive and it’s not true. There’s definitely lots to learn and the way industry functions as a professional, but in terms of pure skill, not everybody’s that much better.”
He’s come across songwriters working with publishing labels and agencies who co-write and work on over 200 songs a year, just powering through it like a day job seated in their home studios. There’s a noticeable sense of cautious excitement and respect he has for songwriters, perhaps mirroring his own aspirations and tendency to always write songs before ever thinking about recording any of them or taking it to a gig.
Closer home, Kuhad’s most notable collaborations have all been commissioned, including “Kho Gaye Hum Kahan” with singer-songwriter and composer Jasleen Royal or “Dil Beparvah” with seasoned songwriter Ankur Tewari, for the travel and music show The Dewarists. Sitting at over six million hits on YouTube, Kuhad says he didn’t have any expectations from “Dil Beparvah.” He adds, “It did really take off. I think it was just a good song that spread through both Ankur’s combined fanbase and mine. People just really dug it.”
An expression like “zero expectations” could well be Kuhad’s motto for life, if not just for how he’s known to think as a musician. He says not too many collab offers have come his way, but he’s got his own metric in place. “I’m more clear about this stuff – in India I’m wary – I just say, ‘if we’re doing a write, then there’s no expectation with it.’ Other than that, I’m totally open to work with anybody, if I like and respect their work. Two good people working together will only make something better more often than not.”
“I went to a wedding in Delhi last time and so many people came up to me. It gets really awkward, because you’re eating dal makhni and this girl is like, ‘Can I have a photo?’ Really, right now?”
When he was checking into his hotel, an older gentleman recognized Kuhad and confessed he’d probably played “Dil Beparvah” more than 10,000 times. He also congratulated him on getting a mention from Obama. Kuhad obliged for a photo. Kuhad might look like your regular guy, but being a solo singer-songwriter means you’re likely the face of everything you put out. Of course, he’ll get recognized at venues like the Piano Man Jazz Club in New Delhi, but not necessarily on flights. It’s a bit more embarrassing elsewhere. “I went to a wedding in Delhi last time and so many people came up to me. It gets really awkward, because you’re eating dal makhni and this girl is like, ‘Can I have a photo?’ Really, right now?” Kuhad laughs.
Ask Kuhad how he got famous and he’s probably right in saying there’s no single definitive flashpoint. “We’ve literally just followed the rulebook. Just basic things – make good records, do promotion behind them, play shows. We’ve done nothing out of the ordinary in terms of a marketing thing or creative in that sense. It’s very stick-to-the-basics, but do it really well.” He laments that this is perhaps where some artists aren’t always attentive enough. “The basics are so simple, that everybody just sort of runs through them and moves on to the next step and say, ‘What do we do that’s really cool? What do we do that’s really cool from a marketing perspective.’ How do we sell ourselves?’ You’re answering all these questions without really doing the basic things.”
Of course, not every artist can invest in themselves early on and head out to play international shows or make big-budget music videos. To even reach the production quality of Kuhad’s music videos and getting the filmmakers on board, it would take somewhat deep pockets. There’s hard work involved, but also enough of an initial push that many independent artists in India can’t afford to make on their own alone. It understandably invites a bit of snark amongst his music peers, but it’s 2020 and Kuhad loves his haters.
This is even if there’s hate-tweets about how normie his music is (one reads, “Prateek Kuhad is just Arijit Singh for Townies and Bandruh people”). It pisses him off sometimes when people say horrible things but he’s learned to keep a healthy distance. By December, when the capital (followed by the rest of the country) showed solidarity against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Kuhad was just playing shows and not yet taking a stance about the violence that continues to divide India.
He’s ready to explain that he hadn’t formed enough of an opinion of his own to put out his stance and says he wasn’t well-informed. When he was on the receiving end of regular comments asking him to take a stand, he felt differently. “I don’t like being bullied into things. In the initial part, when CAA was new, there was a lot of cyberbullying, online bullying – people messaging on my posts, messaging directly, calling me all sorts of names. That usually pisses off. I’ve always been a bit rebellious, even without a cause. I don’t like people telling me what to do. So when people tell me what to do, then I’ll be like, ‘Fuck you, I won’t do anything at all.’” His job as a songwriter, he feels, didn’t necessarily oblige him to voice an opinion.
And when he did, it was against the current government’s actions. He’s shared a cover of The Economist which analyzes how India has become “intolerant” while also re-tweeting a video of New Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal hitting out against a news anchor in an interview. In the first week of December, he even joined an event called Artists Against Communalism, held at Shaheen Bagh – the seat of anti-CAA protests in the capital. Maybe some fans weren’t understanding, but there was also a placard at his New Delhi show in December that read, ‘You’ll never get lathicharged at a Prateek Kuhad concert.’ The singer-songwriter says, “I think it meant in the sense that it was a safe space.”
With Supersonic out of the way and a few songs written with the band’s latest addition – Mumbai-based producer-keyboardist and vocalist Rohan Rajadhyaksha – it might be another year that sees Prateek Kuhad level up. But he’s also likely to stay his understated self. He says when asked about plans for 2020, “Honestly, there’s no plans at all, because everything is in flux. In terms of the year we’ve had, we’re just trying to let everything sink in and really weigh our options before we move ahead. Should there be a new release? Should there not be a new release? What’s the touring strategy? All of this is very new to me for sure.”
Photographer: Kunal Gupta
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair and Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine India
Wardrobe by Celio