HT Brunch Cover Story: Why Prateek Kuhad is the King of Heartbreak among millennials in India and abroad
I held my breath, and so did you
We’ll be okay I promise you
I’ll sing you home, and be with you
And all the skies will follow through
– Lyrics from You Are Mine (2017)
Listening to a Prateek Kuhad song is like sipping hot chocolate while curled up next to a crackling fireplace on a cold winter night, staring wistfully into the void. His music is twice removed from world of mumble rap, trap metal and crunkcore, but that is probably why he has become a favourite with a generation facing the Millennial burnout. The 29-year-old indie folk singer/songwriter who won the ‘Best Indian Act’ trophy at MTV’s Europe Music Awards (EMA) Awards in 2017, made his debut in 2013 and has been building a loyal fan base ever since with a YouTube channel of 1.5 lakh subscribers. He has created his own space in the independent music scene and is just at home at sold-out music festivals as at cosy house gigs.
Now his indie outing, cold/mess, which came out last December with around 2.8 million views so far, has really made people take note. He is equally proficient in Hindi, and if the indie scene is still a bit alien to you, chances are that he has charmed you with his more mainstream Kho Gaye Hum Kahan in Baar Baar Dekho (2016), and Saansein in Karwaan (2018).
Music by chance
However, this Jaipur boy became a singer by chance. “Although I had a school band, was playing the guitar since I was 16 and was also writing a few songs for fun, music was not something I had planned to take up as a career,” he says.
He was always into music. From The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, to Savage Garden, Backstreet Boys, and Boyzone, to Harry Belafonte and Cliff Richard, as well as Indian pop artistes like Euphoria, Strings and Lucky Ali, with a robust dose of Bollywood music, he was listening to everything while growing up.
“The Internet became popular when I was in class 9 or 10, and suddenly music from across the world was available like never before,” he says. “And when I went to New York for higher studies, I was introduced to the exciting world of American independent music. It is there that I got hugely influenced by the late folk singer Elliott Smith and started taking my writing seriously. When I finished college, I already had written a few good songs. I had also started doing a few local gigs while in NYU.”
Life took a different course in New York. “I was doing my major in math and economics and was supposed to land a regular job, which I did,” Prateek laughs. “But about four or five months into economic consulting, I realised I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”
By then, he had become more confident about his music. So in 2013, he returned to India, making Delhi his base. The idea was to test the waters. “I had given myself one year,” he says.
Unlike contemporary indie musicians who tend to begin with amateur videos and covers of old Hindi songs, Prateek cut an EP for his debut. Raat Raazi, released in 2013, had five Hindi songs. He was 23. “For the first six months, my focus was on creating the album,” he says. “When it released, I put it on social media, which got the attention I needed to get gigs. Weekender reached out to me and I played with them in five cities.”
Social media plays a very crucial role in the making of a new artiste, and Prateek’s initial days saw a lot of SoundCloud action. “It is not just YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and SoundCloud, you need to be everywhere,” explains Prateek. “It is all word of mouth. I had put out a live recording of Raat Raazi. It was shot on my iPhone and went viral. My most popular song before cold/mess was, however, Tum Jab Paas.”
But his approach has always been record-centric. “My focus has always been on my writing. In fact, I wrote half a song while waiting for your call!” Prateek says. “But I pay equal attention to music and arrangement. You need everything for a song to work. But for me, words are important.”
50 shades of love
In 2015, Prateek released In Tokens & Charms, an album of 10 achingly beautiful songs. And then came cold/mess, a 2018 EP of six songs. Its exquisitely-shot music video directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Dar Gai (Daria Gaikalova) has Jim Sarbh giving stiff competition to Emraan Hashmi for the title of Serial Kisser. And if you’ve just updated your relationship status to “It’s complicated”, this should be your go-to album. Prateek’s wispy vocals, plaintive lyrics and lilting melodies are the indulgence you need when going through 50 shades of heartbreak.
“It is interesting to see people discovering my music after cold/mess. I wanted these songs to capture the extremes, that rollercoaster you experience between love and heartbreak,” Prateek explains. “Also, I become obsessed once I get seriously into something. So when I decided to take up music as a profession, I wanted to do it the right way.”
The right way means albums and music videos. It also means money. “For cold/mess, we had a music label involved and that enabled us to put in that kind of money. Also, it took me five long years to get a music label interested!” Prateek says, adding that it is not totally true that records make zero money. “Some people still want to buy physical copies. The numbers are of course nowhere close to what they were 40 years ago. But cold/mess was number one on iTunes India. People are buying, but the form has changed. They are paying through subscriptions to Spotify, iTunes or SoundCloud.”
More than the money he gets directly from the records, it is the ecosystem that his music builds that gets him the big bucks. “I am writing for ads and films and brand deals, I am also doing shows. You have to do everything,” Prateek explains. “If you have a popular song, it helps you land gigs because that ensures ticket sales. Also, brands want to work with artistes who have a fan base. Everything is interrelated.”
Although he has also made a foray into Bollywood recently, Prateek is happy being an indie artiste. “Bollywood is a lot of networking. You have to be in Mumbai, go and meet people, be seen in the right company,” he says. “I decided not to take that route but to release my own music and build my fan base.”
Creatively too, Prateek has no need for Bollywood. “Especially today, there is so much happening in the music scene with the Internet and social media helping artists reach out to newer audiences. It is a big enough industry and it is possible to exist outside Bollywood, and also coexist with it,” he says.
Right now, Prateek is focusing on an international career. He is working on ads and indie movies. He is also taking up co-writing jobs and has a publisher.
“I am definitely one of the very few Indians working in the American music industry. There are a few brown people but mostly they are Indian Americans. The music industry is rather chill about them. It is not so much about skin colour. But when they learn that I am an Indian Indian, they tend to think that I want to do world music kind of stuff. So I really need to make them listen to my music to break these preconceived notions,” he says.
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From HT Brunch, June 9, 2019
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