Prateek Kuhad's old/mess — the title song from his 2018 break-up EP — made it to Barack Obama's favourite songs of 2019 list. (Photo by Rema Chaudhary)
Twenty-nine-year-old singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad has been on a social media cleanse of sorts for the past week. After performing 30 shows in 2019 across the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain and India, where he began and concluded the tour, Kuhad wanted to stay away. “Social media posts can really affect you sometimes,” says Delhi-based Kuhad. So, when former US President Barack Obama tweeted his favourite songs of the year and Kuhad’s cold/mess — the title song from his 2018 break-up EP — made it to the list, he didn’t have the foggiest idea; until someone sent him the details. He downloaded Twitter soon after and wrote, “This just happened and I don’t think I’ll sleep tonight. Totally flipping out. I have no idea how cold/mess even reached him but thank you @barackobama… what an honour”. Kuhad is in august company. The list included musical icons Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce, and popular artistes such as Alicia Keys and Solange, among others.
In 2018, cold/mess wasn’t released amid much fanfare. One fine day, it just landed in the inboxes of people who subscribed to Kuhad’s music. The surprise release, as his fans figured soon, was a bit different from his usual acoustic, dream pop numbers like Raat Raazi and Pal, the first song he put up online. Kuhad had found fame in 2015 with his record, Tokens and Charms, which comprised bright and sunny ballads about first love and its afflictions. cold/mess was darker, written on a piano, and had Kuhad attempt reinvention through self-discovery. He looked at his own relationship and delivered the dichotomy of cold/mess, where passion and claustrophobia co-exist. The artwork had the imagery of two people kissing under water. To Kuhad, it was romantic and suffocating at the same time. And that’s what the song about modern love attempts to capture. It opens with a synth intro and amplifies unhurriedly yet fiercely. What remained the same was Kuhad’s tendency to create sturdy melodies and weave some simple yet powerful lyrics in them.
“It was definitely more intense. Tokens and Charms was light-hearted. It primarily had 11 love songs, which I had created over a period of time but they were less connected to each other. cold/mess had a narrative and was a bit more personal. The more you do this, you grow as an artiste. The production, the art and the song itself were better because I did better as an artiste on this than I did on my earlier pieces,” says Kuhad. The video of the song, which was created like a short film with Jim Sarbh and Zoya Hussain, found much attention for its realistic depiction of a love story.
Kuhad feels that he began playing music much later in life as compared to most musicians. He picked up the guitar when he was 17, but didn’t like it too much. When he figured that he was likely to fail his guitar test, he began to put in more effort and finally got better at it. Letting go of the guitar and his indie-folk style, which found him much popularity, and finding his space in the indie rock side of things, has worked well for him. As for the piano, Kuhad began learning it only in 2013-14 and wrote cold/mess on it a couple of years later.
“I had been wanting to learn the piano for a while. I have got only a little better at it in the past few years. But I am actually not an exceptional instrument player, be it at the guitar or the piano. I can play a few scales but can never do sessions. I can play it well enough to write a song. I am more of a songwriter. I put a lot of my energy in creating a record, producing it and giving it an identity,” says Kuhad.
A still from cold/mess’s video.
Born in Jaipur to a Rajasthani family, which has no professional musician, Kuhad got music from his maternal side. “My mother grew up in Kolkata. She brought in all the music and to our family,” says Kuhad, who heard anything and everything on radio and television as a child. His elder sisters would hear Backstreet Boys and Bryan Adams, so he lapped that up too. He watched Pyaasa and fell in love with Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry, so there was a phase of Hindi poetry and music in his life. Soon, he went to New York University to study economics and mathematics and would have probably gone on to become an analyst at a bank. “In fact, I worked for four months there. I quit soon. Or they would have fired me anyway,” says Kuhad, who still enjoys doing intimate house concerts despite having the option of sold-out auditorium and festival gigs. “I made music, and since I didn’t know anyone in the industry, I went with my gut about everything. Back in the day, when no one knew me, I did house gigs. You could understand my earlier music only in the quietness. I still love that feeling of intimate gatherings of music,” says Kuhad.
The musician has acquired quite a fanbase in the last five years. But the tactile intimacy of his music didn’t reach everyone in the world of social media, which had a few trolls reminding him how he made music for south Delhi and south Bombay kids. “I would have given you a different answer a day ago. But today, I will say, what the hell, Obama is listening to it!” he says with a laugh.