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Rounak Maiti’s Postmodern Cowboy Music

The L.A. singer-songwriter channels his confusion around ideas of home and identity into his debut album, ‘Bengali Cowboy’

Urvija Banerji Jun 16, 2017
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Rounak Maiti channels the perpetually supine Mac DeMarco on his debut. Photo: Hannah Erskine

Rounak Maiti channels the perpetually supine Mac DeMarco on his debut. Photo: Hannah Erskine

Part of singer-songwriter Rounak Maiti’s new album, the flamboyantly titled Bengali Cowboy, was recorded in the kitchen of his house in Los Angeles. “It’s kind of funny, it’s kind of like this music ashram sort of setup,” says an audibly jet lagged Maiti over Skype from his parents’ house in Mumbai. He’s just flown into India from the U.S. the night before, and he’s blinking sleepily as he describes his kitchen-slash-studio setup back in L.A.

“The drums are set up in the middle of my kitchen and there’s guitar amps near my dining table,” he explains. He’s in L.A., and studio time is expensive, so he and his bandmates, who are also his housemates, do what they can to work around issues of time and money. “My landlords are super chill,” he says. “We make it work. There’s enough room for us to get around,” he says when I ask him if they ever use the kitchen for any actual cooking. “And we cook all the time, because eating out’s so costly in L.A.”

Maiti moved to the U.S. for college–he graduated from Occidental last year–and now works a full-time job at a nonprofit to support himself. He believes that it’s “highly unsustainable” to make a career solely in music, although he expresses a vague ambition of being able to do it someday. “Even if you’re big in the indie world, you’re still not like, doing well. You’re still broke and you’re still scraping by,” he says. But he’s quick to add that music is a high priority. “When I’m not working, pretty much all I’m doing is music,” he says. “Music is my biggest dedication outside of my professional life.”

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Maiti learned the classical piano for a while as a child, and taught himself to play guitar via YouTube videos when he was 15. He counts his upbringing as one of the key factors that influences the folk-country music he makes today. “I’m Bengali, so music is a very essential aspect of our culture,” he says. “I used to wake up in the morning and wake up to the sound of [music], because my parents would wake up at like seven and play music.”

Photo: Hannah Erskine

Maiti’s parents exposed him to everything from “[Bengali] film music to traditional folk songs by Rabindranath Tagore.” Photo: Hannah Erskine

Outside of Neil Young and Simon & Garfunkel, his parents would also play what Maiti describes as “everything from [Bengali] film music to traditional folk songs by Rabindranath Tagore.” Though it doesn’t have a direct influence on the music in Bengali Cowboy, Maiti says that his cultural background is a big conceptual theme in the album. “My life has been very transient, and my family’s been very nebulous, we’ve been spread out all over the world,” says Maiti. “It kind of leads to this very warped sense of home and family and identity.”

Country music, according to Maiti, serves as a perfect foil to his own confused sense of identity. “This idea of expansiveness and where home is has always been very strong in country music,” he says. “It’s very much about your own identity and being grounded in a certain place, and loving that place.” The idea of the cowboy, on the other hand, is tied to the image of a lone ranger navigating through unfamiliar terrain with no real sense of home. “To me it’s this postmodern idea of the cowboy as someone who doesn’t really have one home or a grounded sense of identity, but rather defines his or her identity through a changing set of experiences,” says Maiti. “And that’s what the album’s about.”

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Musically, the album mirrors the sleepy melancholia that Maiti brings to his lyrics and conversation: wistful guitar riffs and spacey synths keep everything downtempo. Lead single “My Diary” conjures up comparisons to perennially supine alt-rocker Mac DeMarco. Maiti actually recorded the first version of that song while he was still in high school. “And I’ve been rerecording it ever since, I recorded like six different versions of it and landed on this one like a year ago,” says Maiti. Though the music is the result of Maiti’s constant reworking, it still feels effortless””it could serve as the perfect soundtrack to staring out the window, daydreaming about riding to new frontiers on horseback.

Listen to ‘Bengali Cowboy’ on SoundCloud below:

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