(July 30, 9:55 am)
“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 skies will follow through you.”
– You are Mine (Prateek Kuhad, 2017)
The wistful songs, the melancholic melody, and the soulful vocals; Prateek Kuhad is a mood. He is like a cup of hot coffee on a cold morning. A warm blanket on a rainy night. A soothing balm to a broken heart. Kuhad is unlike any artist, and it’s his music that makes him stand out among a sea of musicians.
For someone who recorded his first song on his iPhone to making it to Barack Obama‘s favorite playlist, the New York University-educated singer and songwriter has come a long way. The 31-year-old has not only found a cult following among desi millennials but has also put Indian music on the global map with his soulful songs.
Here’s the journey of one of the most popular indie musicians in the country.
A guitar – that’s where it all began
It was in Jaipur that Kuhad grew up with his lawyer dad, artist mom, and two sisters. Like every 90s kid, he was raised on a healthy diet of MTV and Channel V. It was in his teens that he fell in love with the guitar and his fondness for the instrument amplified after listening to bands such as Jal, Silk Route, and Strings. VH1 introduced a young Kuhad to American and British music, and soon Cliff Richard, Harry Belafonte, and John Mayer became his favorites. Even though music was an integral part of Kuhad’s life, he had no aspiration of seeking it as a profession.
A good student, Kuhad was preparing to get into an engineering college when he was accepted at New York University for a degree in maths and economics. It is here that he discovered the folk singer Elliott Smith, the classic records of Bob Dylan, and contemporary folk artists such as Laura Marling. These legends inspired Kuhad to get serious about the guitar and songwriting. By the time he graduated, he had already performed a handful of gigs and composed a couple of songs – but all for fun.
While music was always on his mind, Kuhad had plans of becoming an analyst at a bank, and he actually did join a company only to be fired within a few months.
Termination letter led to his first song
It took a termination letter and an overwhelming feeling of depression for him to find his true calling.
In his words, nothing was working out for him and he was doubting himself. And it was this uncertainty that he poured into a song ‘There’s something wrong with the way I think.’
He gave himself dedicated time to make music, a decision that changed the trajectory of his life.
In a conversation with First Post, he said,
“I got fired from my job, [so] I thought I’ll give myself this one year and see how it goes. It had been irking me for a while making me want to give music at least a shot. Then it just kept going from there.”
In 2003, Kuhad packed his bags and returned to India, and went on a travel spree with the intention of making music. But unlike other amateurs, he did not take the route of doing a cover. Instead, he released his first EP (a musical recording that is shorter than a full album) Raat Raazi, which had five songs. It just took a simplistic setting with a guitar for a 23-year-old Kuhad to create magic with his debut song. Raat Raazi was good enough to get him noticed, so much so that he started getting shows. The warm reception of his first EP was enough for Kuhad to belt out more songs.
The beginning of brand Prateek Kuhad
With no collaborations or music labels backing him, it was social media that came to Kuhad’s rescue.
“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. 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,” he told HT Brunch.
At a time when the entire country was grooving to Bollywood beats, Kuhad’s songs spoke of love, melancholy, and pain in their raw form. And it cut deeply for most of his fans. His style of blending minimally arranged melodies with intense lyrics found him a huge fan following.
It was in 2015 that he released his first full-fledged album In Tokens & Charms with 10 songs, and since then he has been headlining gigs across the world that are attended by tens of thousands.
The Indian musician’s international gigs
Two years later, the independent singer and songwriter picked up the Best Indian Act trophy at MTV Europe Music Award for his song 100 Words.
Kuhad, who has created his own space in the independent music scene, has consciously stayed away from Bollywood.
“Bollywood means being in Mumbai, going and meeting people, being seen in the right company. I decided not to take that route but to release my own music and build my fan base,” he added.
Though he has composed a total of four songs for Bollywood, Kuhad is happy to be an indie artist.
“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 said.
But it was his 2018 EP cold/mess that compelled many to take notice of his talent powerhouse. The melancholic lyrics and wispy vocals speak of heartbreak like nothing else. The song turned out to be one of his biggest hits till now. So much so that even Barack Obama couldn’t ignore it.
Barack Obama’s surprise tweet
After bringing his successful run of 30 shows in the US, Europe, and India to a beautiful end in Delhi in 2019, Kuhad was in for a real surprise as he made it to Barack Obama’s favorite annual playlist. His song cold/mess made Kuhad stand tall among the likes of Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Lizzo, and Solange.
Sharing his list of top 35 songs from 2019, Obama tweeted:
From hip-hop to country to The Boss, here are my songs of the year. If you’re looking for something to keep you company on a long drive or help you turn up a workout, I hope there’s a track or two in here that does the trick. pic.twitter.com/mQ2VssyDwt
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 30, 2019
An oblivious Kuhad had no idea how his song reached Obama but he has found a fan in the former US President. The listing also helped in defying perceptions that his music was a hit only with the millennials. That tweet made Kuhad one of the most-googled people in America that day.
Even back home, fans erupted into a social media frenzy to find Kuhad’s cold/mess on the list. Obama’s nod catapulted Kuhad to international recognition and fame.
Making it big internationally
Kuhad has been making the right noise in the international music circuit, and his deal with American record company Elektra is proof of it. Kuhad became the first-ever Indian artist to be signed by the label, which has successful artists like Brandi Carlile and Kaleo on its list.
Kuhad is one of the rare Indian musicians who has put his stamp on the world of music, but he does get caught up in the strings of prejudice at times.
“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 color. 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 added.
When Prateek Kuhad exploded on the internet with his first song Raat Raazi, little did he know that he would become the new face of Indian indie music. His soulful renditions have become a hit across the world. Such has been the magic of his music that former US President Barack Obama picked his song for his annual playlist. Music can break barriers, and Kuhad is a perfect example of it. His story is also a great demonstration of how the internet has democratized the playing field for artists – gone are the days when getting a foot into Bollywood was the only way for Indian musicians to succeed.