Sparse sounds

Prateek Kuhad’s new album marks him as one of India’s finest singer-songwriters


Prateek Kuhad’s In Tokens & Charms (below) features both dark and feel-good songs.
Prateek Kuhad’s In Tokens & Charms (below) features both dark and feel-good songs.

Most listeners first heard of Prateek Kuhad when he released his Hindi EP Raat Raazi in August 2013. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter’s songs were deftly crafted and seemed to distance themselves from the flash of Bollywood. What was also unusual about Kuhad was his ability to compose in both, Hindi and English. On 21 January, he will release his first full-length album on Pagal Haina Records, and it will be all-English for a change.

The songs on Raat Raazi had bare-bones arrangements and featured only guitar, double bass and drums. The sparseness of the tunes meant that repeated listens were sometimes required to let the full weight of the songs sink in. The intimacy of the EP is present too in the forthcoming album, In Tokens & Charms. But the sound is fuller; in part due to the presence of more musicians.

“I have evolved as a musician and a songwriter since Raat Raazi,” Kuhad says. “I think both in terms of production and songwriting, In Tokens & Charms is a more serious and, in my opinion, superior effort. A lot more thought, planning and effort has gone into the album than into Raat Raazi. The songwriting is better but, more importantly, contrary to Raat Raazi, where I barely spent any effort on the production aspect, In Tokens & Charms has noticeably better production, more layers in the arrangements, newer sounds, and just an overall cohesive soundscape.”

Prateek Kuhad.
Kuhad, who started out playing solo gigs, has increasingly included other musicians to beef up the sound, though he is still not ready for songwriting collaboration. When he was growing up in Jaipur, few would have predicted that he would choose a career in music. He was faring poorly in music classes at school, and began taking private guitar classes. “Something about those guitar lessons got me really hooked,” he says. “It was very basic stuff—the lessons lasted for only a few months and I learnt some standard chords and a few songs (Pehla Nasha and Summer Of 69 among them). It was a very slow process that gradually led me to take the decision of music full-time when I was 22.”

Kuhad’s music has in a way come full circle: He recorded and mixed the tracks for In Tokens & Charms in New York, the city that has played a major role in his artistic development. He had initially gone to New York in 2008 to study math and economics. “The raw, invigorating energy in that city, the people, the relationships that I had there, the music I was exposed to, it all influenced me a lot,” Kuhad says. One of his first friends at New York University introduced Kuhad to the melancholic offerings of Elliott Smith. “I had never heard him before that and I listened to nothing else for six months,” he says.

Apart from Kuhad’s singing and guitar playing, In Tokens & Charms also features Nikhil Vasudevan on drums, Sahil Warsi on upright bass, Jacob Cohen on cello and Danny Severance on violin. Vasudevan is a regular on the Delhi music circuit and Warsi, who is also from the city, was part of Raat Raazi. Talking about the other collaborators, Kuhad says: “I know Danny from my days in New York. We met randomly and started playing gigs together, and became friends. For the album, I was looking for string players, so I got back in touch with him.” One thing led to another, Severance introduced Kuhad to Cohen, and the three of them jammed on some of the prospective tunes. “We all thought the vibe was really great, so a few days later we were in the studio, tracking,” Kuhad says.

"Most of thesongs flow in a quiet and assured manner, and reflect their creator’s personality"
The tunes in the album veer between two extremes: For every happy and feel-good song such as Into The Night and Oh Love, there is also the darker side of relationships strewn with broken dreams, such as Go and Artist. Artist has a slight resemblance to Bob Dylan’s She Belongs To Me and Just Like A Woman, and is remarkable for its disjointed and hesitant character. Most of the songs, however, flow in a quiet and assured manner, and reflect their creator’s personality.

When it came to naming the album, Kuhad says: “Sometimes seemingly insignificant, yet important moments and events in life get completely overlooked. I’ve noticed that many such events have impacted me deeply and in some way or the other almost all the songs on the album have been born out of such events.” While it can be tempting to look for the autobiographical elements in the songs, it is to Kuhad’s credit that he has managed to create something universal out of the personal.

In Tokens & Charms is also different from many Indian releases in its attention to production detail. “I somewhat had a particular sound in mind. It’s hard to explain, but every step of the way I was trying to inch towards the soundscape that was running in my head,” Kuhad says. “I really wanted to experiment with reverbs and delays, guitar and keyboard tones. Both me and Dhruv (Singh, the manager) were really keen to record on tape, so we were lucky to find a studio with a tape machine. A lot of the drums and upright bass was recorded on tape, which really helped in giving the album a certain sound as well.”

Kuhad is a storyteller at heart and few things give him as much joy as writing songs. In Oh Love, he sings, “The rest is yet to come. It’s time.” We agree—with each release, Kuhad goes one step further in fulfilling his promise as a major talent in contemporary Indian music.

In Tokens & Charms will be released on 21 January on Pagal Haina Records. For details, visit www.pagalhaina.com

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