Prateek Kuhad on India's Changing Music Scene, Not Using His Nationality as a 'Selling Point' & Touring U.S.

Gorkey Patwal
Prateek Kuhad

MUMBAI — In India, Prateek Kuhad is arguably the most popular singer-songwriter performing mostly in English.

New Delhi-based Kuhad, who also sings in Hindi, the country's most widely-spoken language, has seen his fame grow exponentially with each successive release. From the 2013 Hindi EP Raat Raazi (The Night Is Willing) to the 2015 full-length debut In Tokens & Charms, to the iTunes-chart-topping 2018 EP cold/mess, Kuhad has progressed from playing 100-capacity auditoriums to headlining festivals attended by tens of thousands. Now Kuhad, whose music has been described as “Simon and Garfunkel by way of Damien Rice,” has his sights set on the U.S., which he will tour this year for the third time in two years.

The nine-stop trek follows a spring 2019 tour of North America that included shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York and Toronto; showcases at South by Southwest (where he made his U.S. debut in 2016); a Billboard Live session; and a surprise set at the Underwater Sunshine Garden Sessions series of gigs co-founded by Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz.

Kuhad, who is signed to booking agency Paradigm, recently spoke to Billboard about breaking into the U.S., changes in the Indian music scene and why he doesn’t want his Indianness to be a talking point.

This will be your second tour of the U.S. this year. What was the composition of the audience like the last time around?

During the last tour, it was primarily [Indian] Diaspora. But from last year to this time, it’s been changing slowly; [from what] I can see online, in the comments and messages, I get that. There were some people at shows who said they heard the music on Spotify randomly or somewhere else. I was at this writing camp in Nashville and one of the music supervisors happened to know me, which was kind of surprising. He’s from Australia but he lives in Chicago.

What was it like playing for Adam Duritz, who compared you to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell on his podcast?

That was really wild. Nicole, my manager in the U.S., knows James Campion (Adam’s co-host, journalist and author). She sent him the music, he liked it and programed me. I was one of the last few musicians on that day. Adam was there. Right after, he came up to me and said it was amazing. Then he put up a post about it and played the songs on the podcast. No one’s ever complimented me so much in my life. After that, we hung out a couple of times in New York. He’s a really wonderful guy, super encouraging of artists.

What are some of the most significant changes you’ve observed in the Indian music industry since you started your career almost a decade ago?

The scale of everything has gone up across the board. There’s more people involved, more money involved. For example, visual content has blown up. There are more web series. All these things need music. So there’s a lot more work. And it’s way more sustainable now than it’s been in a while.

What made you focus on breaking the U.S. market as opposed to other territories?

I’ve lived there so I think maybe just instinctively I went there. [Kuhad has a double major in math and economics from NYU’s College of Arts & Science, which he attended from 2008 to 2012.] We were trying to do everywhere. I wanted to just take [the music] out. In 2016, I did the whole music conference route. I went to conferences in Australia, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada. Things have grown more in the U.S. because I have a manager there who’s amazing. She’s been with me since the past three years and built relationships and a whole ecosystem there where I have a publisher there and I’m doing writing camps and touring. America is the biggest market for music in the world. It’s kind of like the control center. Usually if you have a hit in the U.S., it ends up seeping everywhere else in the world, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

You’re signed to the Cutcraft Music Group and have been working on co-writes all summer. What’s that experience been like, writing for other acts?

It’s interesting. It’s not just for other artists. The writing camp I did was a film and TV sync camp. Every day, a music supervisor would come in and give us a pitch. I’ve done that before in India [where] I’ve [written and sung] ads and commercials.

It’s different [from] when I’m writing for my own records and a lot of times, I’m in the zone where it’s personal and emotional for me. At the end of the day, I’m a songwriter and that’s my profession. I have to be good at it or at least decent at it regardless of what I’m going through and feeling. If somebody comes to me with a commercial for a TV ad, I’m not going to be like “I’m not feeling it today.” I’m going to write the song.

After a while, you’re able to craft those feelings. That sounds inauthentic but it’s not really. For example, I did a song for Netflix last year called “Pause,” for this show called Little Things, and a lot of people felt it’s pretty emotional and real. It’s pure fiction in the sense that there’s nothing personal about that song for me.

How does it compare to working in Bollywood, the playback singing aspect of which you’ve said you don’t particularly enjoy?

I’m not opposed to writing for Bollywood. I don’t like playback singing because [it’s] like [being] a keyboard operator. If you give me a song, let me sing it with minor changes, with some vibe. Playback singing is not really creative, at least the way I did it. I don’t want to be a dick to all the playback singers out there -- they’re doing a great job -- but I do it more because I’m a songwriter. There are a lot of people who enjoy singing and performing. For me, what I love doing is the writing and making the records.

Is your Indianness a talking point in the West?

I think it’s reduced a lot, but it’s hard to say really. I also don’t consciously talk about it. It gets asked sometimes but it’s started happening less. I think if you hype it up, they hype it up. I also get it because it’s surprising for people because it’s rare. You see a lot of British acts coming to the States and they might or might not get asked about their country. Because I’m brown, obviously it stands out. Also I’m very Indian. I don’t have an [American] accent when I talk. So it’s even more like, “What’s going on here?” It’s only natural for people to be curious, but if you don’t make a big deal out of it, then it doesn’t matter. It’s not like I’m actively trying to avoid that I’m Indian. I feel like a lot of Indian artists in the past have juiced that as a selling point. I’m trying to only use my music as a selling point, which is how I think it should be.


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