The indie-folk singer-songwriter is one of the most popular artists in Indian independent music, with a considerable—and very vocal—fanbase. Prateek Kuhad has played on some of the biggest stages in the country, and recently he contributed a couple of songs to the soundtrack for Akarsh Khurana’s just-released film Karwaan. Photoshoots are unavoidable when you’re an artist who is just a couple of steps away from mainstream stardom. And yet, as he poses for a photoshoot, awkwardness is writ large on his face. “I’ve done 50 of these shoots and I still can’t get it right," he shrugs.

The Jaipur-born, Delhi-based musician is in Mumbai a week after the surprise release of Cold/Mess, his fourth release and his first collection of new songs since 2015’s In Tokens & Charms. That record, and the sold-out auditorium tour that followed, established Kuhad as a rising star. He has released a handful of singles in the years since, including the wildly successful Tum Jab Paas, but it has taken a while for its eagerly awaited follow-up. “One big reason I didn’t put out a record for so long was that I just didn’t have a collection of songs that worked together," he says, over a cup of coffee.

The subject matter on Cold/Mess is darker than his previous work. The cover features two lovers kissing underwater, an image that is at once romantic but also carries undertones of claustrophobia. That dichotomy is at the heart of this “breakup" record. The tracks follow a loose narrative that reflects different stages of a relationship, from the warmth of new love to the trauma of final separation. “I had a very intense relationship, which I’ve never had before," he says. “It was quite an intense ride. That ended up in me going through a very emotionally challenging phase."

Recorded at a studio in Nashville, Cold/Mess is also Kuhad’s most sonically expansive release yet, with the songwriter going beyond his acoustic folk roots and venturing into dream-pop and indie rock territory. The title track is one of the highlights, with its dreamy synth intro and its slow-burn build-up, but there’s also the jaunty, Mumford & Sons style ballad For Your Time, and the melancholic string section that adds a touch of pathos to Did You/Fall Apart. Through it all, Kuhad’s penchant for strong melodies and ear-worm hooks remains constant. He also worked closely with (co-producers) Peter Groenwald and Konrad Snyder who “brought their own flavour to the record", says Kuhad.

As his fame has grown, Kuhad has made it a point to maintain an intimate connection with his fans. He dropped Cold/Mess without any press promotion, surprising his mailing list subscribers by emailing them the record. And rather than doing the standard launch tour, he’s going to spend 10 days—starting 6 August—playing cosy house gigs in 10 cities. “It’s so flattering to have people love your music—it’s overwhelming beyond a point. So you instinctively just want to give back. And this was our way of giving back."

There’s a US tour planned for late August, but for now, Kuhad is happy to enjoy the accolades coming his way. “There have been some very strong emotional messages from people," he says. “Today I was reading a message from someone who said, ‘I deal with a lot of anxiety, depression and OCD, and nothing helps me the way your songs do.’ That’s a pretty intense validation."

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