How Harshdeep Kaur Carved a Distinct Sonic Identity Beyond Bollywood
The popular singer-composer has taken to various personas for playback projects, whilst cementing a unique sound of her own
It’s hard to play the part of the Bollywood playback singer and still have a repertoire of non-film numbers that people hum and recognize. But for popular singer and composer Harshdeep Kaur, the medium never mattered as much as the piece. “Meaningful stuff grows on you,” she tells Rolling Stone India.
Having begun her playback career with 2003’s heartbreak ballad “Sajna Main Haari” (from the comedy-drama Aapko Pehle Bhi Kahin Dekha Hai), Kaur truly registered her voice in the public consciousness with the serene worship song “Ik Onkar” from the political drama Rang De Basanti (2006). It was a prayer that cemented her voice as unforgettable, coupled with the cult classic status of the film itself, and iterations of the same found expression in her works to come. Kaur continued to meld and experiment with her music, bringing versatility to an industry that hasn’t always been kind to the volatile.
Infusing some of that spiritualness in 2010’s introspective “Chaand Ki Katori” (from the romantic-drama Guzaarish), she switched lanes with the upbeat romantic track “Jhak Maar Ke” (from 2011’s romantic-comedy Desi Boyz) where her airy vocals accompanied a horn riff that’s now an unmistakable part of desi pop culture consciousness. That very year, Kaur sang the Punjabi folk leaning track “Katiya Karoon” (from the musical drama Rockstar) too; her work with music directors A.R. Rahman, Vishal-Shekhar, Amit Trivedi, Pritam and more pushing her voice to eclectic sonic planes.
It’s been a string of hits for Kaur since, including 2013’s wedding ballad “Kabira (Encore)” (from the romantic-comedy Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani), 2016’s airy sangeet dance track “Nachde Ne Saare” (from the sci-fi romance Baar Baar Dekho) and 2018’s farewell track “Dilbaro” (from the espionage drama Raazi) amidst personal, independent releases such as the Punjabi pop/folk tracks “Jutti Kasuri” and “Dil Di Reejh” and the soulful Himachal folk track “Chamba Kitni Duur.” Her latest track from Bollywood historical drama Tanhaji, “Tinak Tinak,” is a folk inquiry into marriage while the religious ballad “Satguru Nanak Aaye Ne” is a celebration of the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism founder Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Her sound stands out in a sea of remixes and stunted productions and if Harshdeep Kaur is singing, you’re bound to listen.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Kaur delves into survival in the Indian music industry, pushing for experimentation in static spaces, leveraging the digital medium and more. Excerpts:
1. Congrats on the beautiful song (“Satguru Nanak Aaye Ne”)! Tell us a little about when you started conceptualising this ambitious project and share a few memorable highlights along the way.
We are traditionally a very religious Punjabi family and earlier this year, when we knew it was the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev ji, my husband Mankeet (Singh) and I decided that we must do something as a humble tribute to commemorate this significant historical date. I then decided to compose a religious song for this occasion, something that would be simple and hummable so that every single person who hears it, recites it instantly. I got the song written by Jagmeet Bal and Charanjit Singh. Once the song was completed, I realised that this cannot be just about me. It will be much bigger if I get a few industry colleagues to be a part of this too. That’s when I contacted the singers and everyone came on board without a blink. I reworked the music keeping in mind who would be singing which part and that’s how I composed and divided the antara, the mukhda, the alaaps the ad libs so that each one got to sing in their best style. One thing led to another and we decided to not just to leave it as a musical piece but also shot a video with all of us in it together. The end product is so beautiful and so full of devotion and I am blessed that all these legendary singers are part of this ‘Shabad’.
2. The song also showcases your brilliant skills as a composer. Are there more composition projects you are working on currently?
I have been composing since I was in school but I really need a lot of motivation and inspiration to share my work. I have a huge bank of songs and I think now with independent music getting bigger and getting recognition and an audience, I am going to start producing and sharing my music. It’s been very encouraging to receive so much appreciation from our industry stalwarts for this composition for Guru Nanak Dev ji.
I’ve been trained in piano in Western classical music and Hindustani classical music, so that has really helped me in my compositions as I am familiar with chord structures and how a melody would affect a listener. So, I have the sensibilities of a composer but I am still working on it.
3. Your journey in the film industry has been unlike any other’s thanks to your distinct voice and identity as an artist. How important is it for playback singers to balance being versatile on one hand and also unique on the other?
Audiences are much smarter today and they know the distinction between a true artist who can communicate his feelings to the audience. It is very important to identify your own uniqueness and work upon it as there are so many voices and you need to survive. Also, the industry can typecast you to sing a particular genre like sad songs or love songs or rustic songs. So, I have tried to manoeuver my voice with different styles of singing and most of it is due to the constant pushing of my father towards formal training in music. I’ve sung songs from “Ik Onkar” and “Kabira” to “Jhak Maar Ke” and “Twist Kamariya” and it’s not just playback singing as you are the voice of somebody else, so it’s important to have the right emotion while singing a particular song. You act the song just as much as you sing it. In “Katiya Karoon”, [A.R.] Rahman sir had asked me to sing in a funny style with a nasal voice and peppy attitude. So, I had to imagine myself in that situation. In “Jhak Maar Ke”, I had to do a lot of drama that I am angry with (actor) John Abraham. So you have to pay attention to the story line and become that character.
4. What are your goals for yourself as an independent artist — regarding projects outside of films?
In independent music, I seriously want to create a specific sound for myself that people can relate to. I want people to recognise my sound. Also, just lyrics and music don’t complete a song, so my songs will have soul and emotion. Also, I will not run after quantity and not try to create numbers and rather focus on good quality music to play to future generations. Meaningful lyrics are really important. Meaningful stuff grows on you.
5. Your name has become synonymous with a certain quality and genre of songs — profound, heart touching melodies, accompanied by lyrics that are inspiring and at times spiritual. How do you choose the projects you lend your voice to?
When I go to dub a song, I go through the lyrics first, as based on the meaning and substance of the lyrics, I convey my emotions in my voice. I don’t want to come back home and feel bad about singing a particular song. I always need to be comfortable with the words and once I know it is suiting my voice, I give my best to the song. Now, I have kind of established a good reputation among the music composers and so they call me to sing what suits my voice the best and what I am comfortable with.
When a singer is open to experimenting with different styles, the music director feels very happy. Pritam (Chakraborty) da always calls me to do something unique. He likes experimenting with my vocal tone. Also, for Vishal-Shekhar, I sang a song called “Uff” from Bang Bang (2014) which is very different. “Sachi Muchi” from Sultan (2016) is totally unique as I sang it in a Haryanvi style. Amit Trivedi also loves to experiment with my voice and all songs of Manmarziyaan (2018) are very different. Amit instructed me to sing “Grey Walaa Shade” in a husky, secretive, sensual style as it had the flavor of love with a grey wala (like) shade. “Jaisi Teri Marzi” was typically romantic and had a sufi touch to it of submitting yourself to your lover. “Chonch Ladhiyaan” had a very folksy tune and a simplicity that I had to bring in my voice. Lyrics were really unique like “Sutlej de wich samunder nachey (The ocean dances in the river,)” and that naughtiness I had to bring through my voice.
6. What is your message to young, budding artists who want to pursue a career in music?
In today’s digital age, the reach to audiences has become a lot simpler. There are different mediums and even though this may be a boon and you can get a million views so easily, it has its own drawbacks that one may find success easily and get distracted instead of focusing on long term goals. If you love music and are passionate about it, then you must learn classical music and take formal training in music and not find short cuts. A trained singer will have a long-lasting career. Hence learning with dedication is very important with the correct teacher and to keep self analysing your art and making changes in your music style depending on current trends in music.