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COVER STORY: Zaeden Won’t Stop!

The poster boy of Indian EDM is now making his mark as a pop star

Riddhi Chakraborty Dec 16, 2021

Photograph: Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India

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“There were so many people doubting me,” Zaeden tells me. “My family, friends and even people from the music  industry all had their doubts. But I was so sure about this decision in my heart, that I just went through with it.” It’s not been an easy couple of years for the young DJ-turned-singer, but he admits it has all been rewarding. With the release of his debut album Genesis 1:1 in July, Zaeden unlocked a brand new avenue as an artist, leaping from EDM to Hindi pop with almost no hesitation. While it took a lot of courage and trial and error to get to this point, he’s confident it was the right move. “I felt restricted as a musician when I was a DJ, as I wasn’t able to express myself as much as I wanted to through my originals. Being a singer-songwriter opened a lot of doors for me.”

I first met Zaeden in 2016, right after the release of his single “Never Let You Go”—a breezy collaborative number with DJ duo Nina & Malika. At 21-years-old, he was the first Indian artist to sign with Dutch label Spinnin Records and one of the only Indian names touring the global EDM festival circuit. The mid-2010s saw the height of India’s obsession for dance music, creating the perfect platform for several fresh new artists to make their debuts. Zaeden was one of these new faces, winning over audiences with his breezy yet powerful remixes and collaborations with other Indian rising stars like Nucleya and Sickflip. Despite this burgeoning popularity and the increasing demand for his presence at major gigs, he kept his feet firmly on the ground, introducing himself to me as Sahil (Sharma, his real name) and asking me how my day was going.

Zaeden on the cover of Rolling Stone India’s December 2021 issue. Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Bomber jacket by Zara, tee by Wake your dreams, denims by Calvin Klein. Bike: Pulsar N250 

We kept in touch as the years progressed, often meeting backstage before his sets at Supersonic, Sunburn or NH7 Weekender. Before long, he was sharing his excitement about opening for international acts like David Guetta and Justin Bieber during their India stops, then going on to headline at international mega-festivals like Tomorrowland. He began touring non-stop, doing sold out shows across India and Europe and it was a thrilling growth to witness first- hand. But as time passed and India’s interest in EDM waned, so did Zaeden’s. “I was doing 10-15 shows a month, getting good numbers too, but something just didn’t feel right,” the now-26- year-old confesses to me about his last couple of years as a DJ. It’s been a long time since our first conversation, he’s older and wiser, but at his core he’s still the same Sahil with that brilliant smile and feet firmly on the ground. The only difference now is the path he’s about to take. “I genuinely felt like I wasn’t evolving as an artist. Being surrounded by noise and materialistic happiness, it felt like I’d lost my purpose.”

Genesis 1:1 saw Zaeden rebrand his artistry and build a new identity to give himself creative freedom as well as a strong foundation in India’s current pop renaissance. He began testing the waters a few years prior, putting out covers and honing his skills as a singer. “I’d started my vocal lessons and slowly after giving it time and practice, I was confident about the transition,” he explains. “The first cover I put out was ‘I Like Me Better’ by (American singer-songwriter) Lauv and it was heartening to see it being appreciated and loved by so many. Even Lauv himself reshared it.” His 2019 original single “Tere Bina” was the first dive into singing and acoustic pop, surprising fans with the turn in his artistry, but also opening doors to new audiences outside India’s dwindling EDM craze. During the pandemic, he dropped several more Hindi singles while in lockdown; “Kya karoon?,” ‘’Dooriyan,” “Intezaar,” and “Socha Na Tha” were widely praised by audiences, cementing him as a budding pop phenomenon. These tracks would go on to be the building blocks of Genesis 1:1, an 11-track experimentation with pop, alternative R&B, and acoustic folk. It was of course a bold flip from what fans had fallen in love with five years ago, and Zaeden admits he was wary of their reaction, but at the same time he was confident they wouldn’t walk away. “A part of me always knew in my heart that my fans would support me in every journey that I take,” he says. “I guess that confidence really pushed me to finally make the transition.”

“There were so many people doubting me. My family, friends and even people from the music industry all had their doubts. But I was so sure about this decision in my heart, that I just went through with it.” Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Jacket by Dhruv Kapoor, tee by Wake your dreams, denims by Calvin Klein, sneakers by Zara.

As our country’s pop sphere evolves and Indian artists take bolder steps to try different things, Zaeden’s decision to invest in the various branches of his own creativity could not have come at a better time. He shares that he’s interested in strange but exciting mixes of music—Punjabi R&B and Eighties-style 808 synth pop up during the conversation—and it’s   a pretty fantastic representation of where young India wants to take their music. I ask if his goals include evolving the Indian pop soundscape as a whole but he says his aspirations aren’t quite as grand as that. “It’s not my objective to change the landscape of Indian pop or anything anymore,” he admits. “I’m happy that I can contribute to this change with my music along with like-minded artists in India who’re leveling up and polishing their art with every song.”

As we continue our conversation to discuss the Zaeden of today, he agrees that the journey to Genesis 1:1 was just the first page of his new chapter. He’s just finished shooting for Rolling Stone India’s cover at India Bike Week and it’s the tail-end of one of the busiest weeks in his schedule, but he’s keen to sit down and open up about his evolution. He’s excited for the future, determined to balance both Sahil and Zaeden, and eager to discover where his own mind will take him next.

I remember we first spoke in 2016, right after you dropped “Never Let You Go”— it was one of your first interviews, as well as mine, and it was a pleasure to introduce your artistry to more people. So much has happened since that conversation and now we’re here doing the cover interview for Rolling Stone India. How do you feel about your own growth in the music industry? Are there any achievements that make you particularly proud?

Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you guys about music and life. I think the last five years have been transformational for me as an artist, and more importantly as a person. Quitting DJing to focus on my singing and writing was a major step and a lot of people around me questioned the decision and really doubted me, since I quit right after playing one of the biggest stages at Tomorrowland. I was doing 10-15 shows a month, getting good numbers too but something just didn’t feel right— I genuinely felt like I wasn’t evolving as an artist. Being surrounded by noise and materialistic happiness, it felt like I’d lost my purpose. This led to me challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone. Around this time, I’d started my vocal lessons and slowly after giving it time and practice, I was confident about the transition. The first cover I put out was “I Like Me Better” by Lauv and it was heartening to see it being appreciated and loved by so many. Even Lauv himself reshared it and asked me to cover his upcoming song “I’m So Tired” with Troye Sivan. All this and more importantly the belief in myself and God, made me chase this and then after I released “Tere Bina,” I was certain that I’d made the right decision. Singing and writing helped me express so much more as an artist that I was able to create my debut album, Genesis 1:1 in just a year since this transition. I’m blessed to get so much love for the album and it’s all very motivating. I think this was all God’s plan and his timing is always perfect.

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Over the past couple of years, you made the jump from EDM to pop and established yourself as one of the key rising singer-songwriters of the Indian pop scene. How would you outline your evolution as an artist since you first started? How did you know this was the right move for you?

I have talked about this deeply in my Genesis 1:1 documentary. I remember when I announced the transition from a DJ to a singer-songwriter, there were so many people doubting me. My family, friends and even people from the music industry all had their doubts. But I was so sure about this decision in my heart that I just went through with it. Initially, it was a little difficult, but I learnt so much more about myself as an artist in this process. I felt restricted as a musician when I was a DJ, as I wasn’t able to express myself as much as I wanted to through my originals. Being a singer-songwriter opened a lot of doors for me. I felt like a little kid in Disneyland. This transition was easily one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career.

What were some of the biggest challenges about making the transition in your artistry? Was there ever a fear around how your fans would react?

I think the back and forth of making a final decision was the biggest challenge for me. As a DJ, I believe I was in a very good position career wise. For me to choose between a stable career and development as an artist was extremely challenging. Yes, that was probably my second biggest fear, but at the same time a part of me always knew in my heart that my fans would support me in every journey that I take and I guess that confidence really pushed me to finally make the transition.

“Being surrounded by noise and materialistic happiness, it felt like I’d lost my purpose.” Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Jacket and denims by Kanika Goyal, sweatshirt by Dhruv Kapoor, sneakers by Adidas Originals.

As you mentioned in your documentary, you were touring constantly, working 22 days a month, going city to city to perform and it did take a toll on you. Do you feel making the change in your artistry at that point helped reduce some of the pressure?

For sure. It reached a point where I stopped taking shows and started spending a lot of time in the studio. I started working on covers, original ideas and I guess that’s the time when the spark of becoming a singer-songwriter arose. I slowly understood that as a DJ, I was in no way challenging myself as a musician. I always like to explore, challenge myself and experiment with new styles. So yes, the entire pressure of not doing enough was reduced once I changed my artistry.

You still work on so many different projects throughout the year—what is the key to balancing such a jam-packed schedule without burning out?

I like to pray, meditate, work out and stay connected to my loved ones to avoid a burnout. My pastors Ryan and Rachel and the amazing fam at Selah Connect have been super supportive and kept me on the right track.

We didn’t get to talk about Genesis 1:1 when it initially released, so I’m eager to dive into that with you now. Congratulations on all the success on the album, I was thrilled to see you explore so many new soundscapes. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of making the album and do you feel you met your own expectations for it?

I think it all started after I released “Kya Karoon?” as a single. It was the first song that I wrote and to see people sing along to each and every single word of a song I recorded in my bedroom was just crazy. That’s what really moved and motivated me to make more songs and I think I was just in the right zone. Sonically, without Julian (producer Polar Beats) this album would have taken ages. Both of us understand each other so well artistically and he just always gets the sound right. Since I was in a relationship back then, some songs that I wrote for her like “Socha Na Tha” and “Kya Karoon?” just flowed. It never felt like I’m trying too hard to write a song or finish a demo. Even the collaborations were smooth. There was never any creative conflict with any artist, producer, engineer or writer. Everyone giving their best, along with my ace team at Represent that never sleeps, made the entire process seem less like a ‘process.’ I definitely feel I met my expectations but Genesis 1:1, as the name suggests, is just the beginning and I can’t wait to share the next songs that I’ve been working on.

What was the starting point of the album? Was there a particular theme or message you began with?

I think love is the purest emotion and just living with that emotion gives me purpose as  a human and as an artist. Most of my songs have been about loving a partner and people around you. That is why I wanted my debut album to have that message. Making the songs was literally like a healing process for me. From the phase of falling in love, to being so happy with someone, to then being heartbroken and living in the memories— I lived it all when I was with someone for four years and tried my best to express it all on this album. Love is just the most incredible thing ever. That was the message I began with. Even on my upcoming worship songs I really wish to talk about my journey dealing and healing from the hardships and how I was saved by Jesus through it all.

This album showcased so many different and new sides of both Zaeden and Sahil. What were some of the things you learned about yourself as an artist and as an individual during the process of making Genesis 1:1?

A lot of times I think about this alter ego that I’ve created for myself which is Zaeden. Initially, I viewed Zaeden and Sahil as the same person. But over the last couple of years and especially while working on Genesis 1:1, a lot of realizations at a deeper level took place. Since all my songs are deeply rooted from personal experiences and observations, this relationship between Sahil and Zaeden kept growing. At the current stage, I feel that Zaeden will always be inspired by Sahil, his thoughts, feelings and emotions. On the other hand, Zaeden is the one who articulates these instances and feelings musically. Both work as a team to bring out the best versions of themselves.

Something that I particularly enjoyed was the way you incorporated both Hindi and English on the record, especially on “1000 Pieces” and “Days.” I think it’s a great representation of young urban India and how we express ourselves— and so are you. Why is it important for our generation to see ourselves and our histories represented by artists?

Growing up, Hindi and English were the two core languages that I was surrounded by. While writing songs I never decide the language beforehand. I like to let the process, vibe and emotion of the track guide me. For “1000 Pieces” and “Days” in particular, I wasn’t able to put out what I wanted to express in only Hindi or only English. I tried experimenting using both, and it was exactly how I wanted the track to sound like. I knew it was risky but honestly, it was a risk worth taking. I’ve seen a lot of people in my generation and even the younger ones always prioritizing English music and artists over Hindi or other regional languages. But it’s so important for everyone to educate themselves about the history of music and it’s roots. After looking at international artists getting inspired by Indian music and talking about the diversity in our language and culture, I finally see a shift in the perceptions of people. They’re more open to other languages and have actually started to dive deeper into this beautiful world of music. I’m glad to see this change happen and I hope that it continues evolving like this.

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How important is it for a fan to see themselves in an artist? Does it work the same on the other side, do you as an artist see yourself in your fans?

(American record producer) Rick Rubin said, “Art creates a profound connection between the artist and the audience. And through that connection, both of them can heal.” That is so true and pure. Sometimes just reading DMs of fans expressing how my music has saved them or changed their lives, is all I need to pick myself up during a low time and bounce back.

“There are times when success feels like a huge burden, but there are also times when it acts as a factor to motivate me.” Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Bomber jacket by Zara, tee by Wake your dreams, denims by Calvin Klein. Bike: Pulsar N250

You brought in touches of several genres in Genesis 1:1, including R&B and acoustic pop. What are some of the sounds you’re eager to try next?

Working on so many different genres right now. It’s actually pretty crazy! I have some Hindi afrobeat, Eighties synthwave and even Punjabi R&B songs sitting on my laptop. As I mentioned, I feel like my true purpose is not just putting out these songs, but songs about my love for Jesus. I’m working on some worship and gospel music at the moment for which I’m very excited. I just hope I can really touch lives with these songs. All in 2022.

How did you go about choosing your collaborators for this project? Were these artists those you had in mind for a long time, or was it a process of looking for the right fit for a particular track?

I guess it was a mix of both. All artists involved on this project are people who I genuinely look up to. There were hardly any demos or different versions that the featured artists sent. Everything was done in such a smooth flow.

What do you hope your fans take away from Genesis 1:1? Is there a particular message that you want them to hear?

Honestly there isn’t any specific message that I want my fans to take away from Genesis 1:1. More than an album, it’s an experience. An experience filled with relatable experiences and a lot of emotions. More than a message I just want my fans to reconnect with the feeling of pure love, joy and hope while listening to this album. After everything that we’ve been through in the past two years, I just want to focus on the power of healing and giving everything time and that’s exactly what I want my fans to experience.

I often hear from artists that it’s difficult to write the songs you want to write and also get good results on music charts. Is that something you can relate to?

As an artist, I try my best to focus on what I truly want to put out and not care about numbers. I used to care a lot at one point… so yes, I can relate to that. I try to strike a balance in such situations and try to prioritize what I truly want to put out rather than the result. I see an extremely positive shift in the Indian music scene now that people are more open to new sounds and styles. The change is gradual and honestly some kind of resistance is still there from listeners, but I’m happy to see this shift.

Lots of artists in India are trying to evolve the scene and take us to international platforms like the Grammys or the Billboard charts. You’ve also stated your goal is to make music that stands out from the current mainstream sound in India. What change do you think needs to happen in the Indian music industry for us to make a mark at a massive international level? What’s holding us back?

I believe that the music scene in India is slowly evolving and in the right direction towards going global. The only thing that I hope for now is for people to be more accepting and open towards new styles and  sounds than  they already are. I think that’s the only aspect holding us back. People really need to understand that formula- oriented songs and remakes aren’t the only sounds to exist.

“It’s not my objective to change the landscape of Indian pop or anything anymore.” Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Jacket by Dhruv Kapoor, tee by Wake your dreams, denims by Calvin Klein, sneakers by Zara. Bike: Pulsar N250

How do you see yourself changing the landscape of Indian pop today and in the future?

I’m just making what I like and will continue to do so. It’s not my objective to change the landscape of Indian pop or anything anymore. I’m happy that I can contribute to this change with my music along with like-minded artists in India who’re leveling up and polishing their art with every song.

You’ve also mentioned that all the massive early success in your career was overwhelming and had you feeling lost. How would you define ‘success’ today and has its meaning changed for you?

Definitely. Earning fame at a very young age was fun in the beginning but it took a toll on me soon after. I think the reason for this was me viewing success in terms of only numbers and always comparing myself to others and their success. I’m literally the opposite now. Numbers are not everything and looking at other artists grow and succeed genuinely makes me really happy.

Is success ever a burden?

Success is a very subjective term in terms of its measurement. Although numbers do matter to an artist and every artist releases their success to metrics, I try not to compare my numbers to others as I genuinely believe that every artist has a different and special journey. As long as I’m able to instill the feelings of hope, purity and love in my fans, I view myself to be successful. There are times when success feels like a huge burden, but there are also times when it acts as a factor to motivate me. I like to focus on the latter.

Right now, you’re one of the frontrunners in the Indian music scene because you’ve already made the jump to international festivals, labels, collaborations and concerts. Your growth has been exponential and the only way to go from here is up—How do you navigate this rise? Who are your mentors or guiding figures?

It’s not me, it’s God. I have a lot of people to thank for being a part of my journey and for helping me pass every hurdle. My manager Aayushman has worked so tirelessly, the entire team at Represent, my family, and my friends have really pushed me to be the best version of myself. The entire music industry has also inspired me and guided me in a lot of ways. There’s definitely a lot more to learn and I’m really looking forward to it.

“I hopa lot of healing in 2022 at a personal level.” Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Jacket and denims by Kanika Goyal, sweatshirt by Dhruv Kapoor, sneakers by Adidas Originals. Bike: Pulsar N250

What is the best piece of advice someone has ever given you? Is it still something you follow today?

“Don’t look back and wonder ‘what if ?’ Put your trust in God.”

The second one was, “get off your damn phone.” Trying my best to follow the second advice! [laughs]

What can you tell us about your upcoming releases? I read that you’re planning an English EP sometime in the future— Any hints that you can share about the style of production or theme that you will be exploring?

Let that be a surprise!

Now that we’re at the end of 2021, which has been such an important year for you, what do you hope 2022 will bring? Do you have any particular goals you would like to accomplish?

I hope for a lot of healing in 2022 at a personal level. From a career point of view, I have a lot of exciting projects to work on. I want to explore more sounds, touch more emotions and just learn more about myself as an artist. Hopefully I get to work with a lot of artists too, so all I can say is watch out!

Listen to Zaeden’s debut LP Genesis 1:1:

Photographer: Rohit Gupta
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Styled by: Krishna Bhanushali
Assisted by: Neha Malhotra

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