Karsh Kale: ‘It’s Easy To Buy Your Own Hype When You’re Young’
The Indian-American composer/instrumentalist talks about his biggest creative dilemmas and his introspective new album, ‘Up’
If you thought identity crisesÂ are most brutal in your mid-twenties,Â you only have to hear KarshÂ Kale’s story. The Indian-AmericanÂ musician found himself at the biggestÂ crossroads of his life at the peak of hisÂ success as an artist. All of a sudden, theÂ weight of the many identities he carried ”“Â composer, producer, tabla player and drummerÂ ”“ bogged him down. This was aroundÂ 2011-2012, when Kale the music innovatorÂ found himself doing everything from performingÂ with the likes of Alicia Keys in theÂ US to collaborating with Indian musiciansÂ back home. It was about time that KaleÂ caught his breath.
“I had so many questions ”“ Who the hellÂ am I, and what the hell am I doing? I gotÂ sick of my own face ”“ like it was that kindÂ of situation,” says Kale, who has releasedÂ six solo albums and dozens of other recordsÂ ”“ collaborations, live projects, EPs and remixesÂ ”“ since 1996. In his upcoming album,Â Up, Kale reflects on his career of twentyÂ years. Like many of his crossover projects,Â the album features collaborations with anÂ array of artists. From the domestic musicÂ scene, there’s guitarist Warren Mendonsa,Â drummer Jai Row Kavi, singers BennyÂ Dayal, Monali Thakur, Papon and others.Â On Up, Kale also worked with AmericanÂ guitarist-songwriter John Shannon, bassistÂ Tony Grey and vocalist Priya Darshini,Â among other musicians.
In an interview with ROLLING STONEÂ INDIA, Kale talks about ridding himself ofÂ the labels that came with being an influentialÂ part of the Asian Underground movement,Â and making music that is honest.
Tell us about the new album andÂ how it chronicles the busy, creativeÂ life you’ve been leading.
After I released Cinema , my last record,Â things started going cuckoo. And itÂ wasn’t just happening in India, it was happeningÂ in the States as well. I did the BlackÂ Ball with Alicia Keys [in 2011] and then immediatelyÂ came here and the NH7 [WeekenderÂ festival] was happening. Then CokeÂ Studio happened [in 2012] and I also playedÂ at the White House [in 2013]. It was justÂ back-to-back. And then I kind of crashed.Â And I started working on Up. There was thisÂ moment of realization that I hadn’t stoppedÂ since I was 18. I just started second-guessingÂ all the things I was doing. All of suddenÂ I was being a tabla player and DJ andÂ drummer and a keyboard player, and startingÂ to sing ”“ all of this was too much. I hadÂ about eight months of very confusing time.Â I think all artists when they get to an ageÂ they kind of look back; alsoÂ you feel like anÂ ”˜uncle’ [laughs].
But does it happen at a stageÂ when you have accomplished soÂ much?
Yeah, absolutely! It’s easy to buy your ownÂ hype when you’re young. All of the labelsÂ that get put on you ”“ visionary, pioneer ”“ youÂ kind of take it as a torch and you run forward.Â But at some point you kind of questionÂ it.
So were you able to find answersÂ to your questions while workingÂ on the record?
Well, I had to convince myself that I don’tÂ have to do everything and listen to everybody.Â I didn’t share the record with anyoneÂ for two-three years, not one personÂ knew, except the people I was collaboratingÂ with. There are around seven people in thisÂ world that I trust and I played it to them.Â They said, ”˜This is you.’ That’s all I neededÂ to hear”¦ The idea of Up was also about howÂ I was constantly flying, traveling. Being outÂ and going home are such polar opposites ofÂ spaces that you live in. When I was doingÂ this constantly, the one place where I couldÂ figure things out was when I was on theÂ plane. We live out of suitcases and we neverÂ really unpack, even when we’re at home. IÂ have a second packed suitcase at home whenÂ I go back home to pick up and travel again.
You were one of the significantÂ voices in the Asian UndergroundÂ scene back in the day. Where doÂ you think that movement standsÂ today?
When my first record came out in 2000,Â there was a need internationally for thisÂ kind of music to come out. There was aÂ whole generation then that needed thatÂ identity. We fit in that space ”“ myself, [producer/Â composer] Nitin Sawhney”¦Now,Â that’s changed. Now there’s a new generationÂ ”“ the Internet and social media generationÂ ”“ who are connected already. They don’tÂ have the thirst for their homeland and allÂ of that. So for me, it kind of became about,Â ”˜Now why are you doing this?’
Do you think your role as a crossoverÂ musician has become lessÂ important because you don’tÂ need to be an interpreter of sortsÂ anymore?
As artists, we project a superhero image ofÂ ourselves, and we wrap the music up in allÂ these clothes, that’s what we do as peopleÂ also in our twenties and thirties, but it’s justÂ a projection, it’s not our real selves. At someÂ point you want to unravel that and revealÂ your true self. In the beginning of your careerÂ you just want to put everything out butÂ as you grow you realize”¦
You know, I had tabla fans, electronicaÂ fans and holding all of this stuff up andÂ keeping it relevant and inspiring people, itÂ becomes a heavy weight. And then you needÂ to ask yourself, ”˜Are you actually responsibleÂ for all of this stuff?’ It became very complexÂ for me”¦
Indian music is the bloodline of what IÂ do like blues is for rock musicians. But IÂ have also absolved myself of the responsibilityÂ of thinking I am a classical musicianÂ and being responsible for anything that hasÂ to do with holding up that institution ”“ andÂ same goes with electronic music or whateverÂ it is.
But if you were a struggling musicianÂ today you probably wouldn’tÂ be reflecting”¦
Probably not, but I am doing it for a differentÂ reason. I’ve a got a lot of things out of myÂ system ”“ that desire to reach a lot of people.Â For me, it’s never about making a hit song”¦Â I want to make sure the music is good and itÂ means something to them.
What do you make of the currentÂ non-Bollywood music scene inÂ India?
The one thing about the scene is that nowÂ it’s like everybody has to be this polishedÂ package immediately. In the old days youÂ watched artists develop and evolve. ButÂ now since everybody wants to post videosÂ on YouTube and all, they feel they need toÂ create a very polished package, and for meÂ as an artist, I can see through all of that. InÂ the old days, we used to sign developmentÂ deals with record companies; we’d spentÂ time with mentors and producers who’d polishÂ you. And by the time you’re done, you’reÂ not pretending to be a polished thing.
As artists, we project a superhero image ofÂ ourselves, and we wrap the music up in allÂ these clothes, but it’s justÂ a projection, it’s not our real selves.
I have a 14-year-old daughter and evenÂ the simple stuff like posting a picture onÂ Instagram, all of that has to be perfect theseÂ days. I feel that pressure is not fair.Â As an artist you need time to create a rapportÂ with the audience and that’s how youÂ grow.
But the big missing piece here isÂ A&R. Labels don’t want to investÂ in artists.
Yes, that’s happening all over the world.Â Executives look at YouTube views andÂ Facebook likes. These days, everything’sÂ DIY ”“ you have to come off as a finishedÂ package.
Now that ”˜Up’ is done and dusted,Â are you working on anotherÂ album already?
Yes, I am working on a song-based albumÂ [with] less collaborators. I’m singing myselfÂ and that is the last layer of unraveling.Â As a producer I have fired myself as a singerÂ ”“ when you have such great singers aroundÂ you don’t want to sing!
With such a busy career, is it veryÂ challenging to take time out forÂ your family?
For years it [the music career] wasÂ paramount; you’d throw your career in theirÂ [family’s] face but as a father you realizeÂ that they don’t care, [the fact] that you haveÂ thousands of fans. There’s always that guiltÂ of being away. But when I am at home inÂ New York, she [his daughter] gets all of myÂ time.