I've always been keen to speak to Prateek Kuhad about things other than music. He took some time off before heading off on a month-long US tour to talk about poetry, the role of art in his life, and what 'home' means for him, among other things. He was also kind to share some artworks he's been making for this interview!
Are you a hoarder? As much as I’d hate to admit it, I do think I’m a bit of a hoarder. But I also have a ‘minimalist’ side, so there’s almost a constant battle between the two urges. So sometimes you’ll find my room looking like a dumpster and other times, it’s spotless and clean.
Are there specific objects that define your sense of home? It’s been kind of hard defining ‘home’ these days in general because I’ve been moving around so much. I feel like I have a mini-home pack that I travel around with - just things I cannot do with out on the road like a portable espresso maker, my iPad, some diaries and pens and a guitar. Relatively speaking, my house in Delhi does definitely feel the most like home to me because I’ve lived there for a while and now I’m used to it. I have almost everything I could possibly need there. I like to know where my things are and have a routine of sorts and I think my house in Delhi supports that well. I have a small piano setup in my bedroom and my studio is fairly well equipped for basic recordings at this point. I find having a desk quite essential as well, so there are a few around my place.
Do you ever make art apart from music? What was your go-to thing to draw as a kid?
I don’t remember my childhood very well, to be honest. But I do remember doing a fair bit of origami and I have faint memories of drawing every now and then. I always liked to sing - I was never very good though - but other than that, I’m sure I was drawing/painting something or the other - most kids do, right? I still suck at drawing and I’ve been really wanting to get better for the longest time.
Were there specific cartoons you watched growing up? I used to watch a bunch of Cartoon Network, I remember getting into trouble because my mother thought I was overdoing it, lol. I watched literally everything that was on TV back in the mid-90s like Dexter’s Lab, Swat Cats, lots of Looney Toons, Duck Tales, etc. I mean, I don’t think I was very choosy. I got an iPad recently and sometimes, I’ll doodle things on that on a flight or when I just want to tune out.
Which is the first piece of art you bought in your life? My mother is an art curator and runs a gallery in Jaipur, along with also running a school - she’s quite a badass! - so I grew up with a lot of paintings and sculpture around me. I can’t really remember what the first piece was that I personally bought, but if I really liked something, sometimes she would get it for me.
In the photo below, there’s a painting of a guy playing a horn next to my bed. I remember really feeling that painting when I first saw it, and my mother got it for me. I’ve bought lots of art in general though - when I’m travelling, I pick up lots of little things that I like if I can afford to get them. Like I said...I’m a bit of a hoarder.
What impact does visual art and design have on your output as a musician? Is there even a co-relation? I really don’t know if there a correlation or not, but I think that visual art became important to me when I was deciding on my first artwork. I don’t think I ever thought about it earlier but when the artwork for Raat Raazi was being made, it was a really long and arduous process. I went through several hundred options with my designer. I realised that the artwork is extremely important because it’s a visual representation of your music, so it’s crucial for the art to be cohesive with what the song represents for me. Otherwise, I’m already biasing the listener.
As the years have gone by, I’ve realised I like visual art independently as well - I like taking photos and drawing for fun sometimes, and just generally discovering/absorbing visual art wherever I can find it.
I feel that one has to be a sensitive person to write music the way you do. Is it difficult to be vulnerable and put yourself out there? The way I do it, I try to keep the songwriting and production process separate from the business side of things. You need to think objectively and independently when writing - so it’s a one step at a time process. When you’re writing, you’re just writing. Then you arrive at the production part and make a record, and once all that is done, you figure out a way to get it out to people in terms of distribution, marketing etc.
I am not yet sure how this is all affecting me - I like to think I’m a rational and objective person who takes rounded decisions. But of course I have ups and downs and writing does affect me from time to time. Some of the songs are very personal and bring back thoughts and feelings that I maybe don’t want to deal with? It’s all very contextual.
Is intuition and trusting yourself a big part of your creative process?
Intuition, in my opinion, is deep knowledge of something to the point where your subconscious is capable of processing a lot of information into a simple decision. If that is true, then yes - a lot of songwriting is just that. You have to trust yourself a little bit, otherwise you’ll just keep stopping and would never be able to finish a song. I try to be completely non-judgemental during the time I’m writing and very, very critical once a song is complete. So I end up scrapping a lot of songs.
Right. And do you feel like you are doing exactly what you were born to? Sometimes I feel I am, and other times, I think I entirely picked the wrong profession. I find the life on the road and live performance aspect of my profession exhausting and quite challenging, even though I love the songwriting and production aspect of it. I’m also a bit extreme in my thought process about most things and tend to oscillate between decisions and feelings a fair bit. So maybe this sentiment is just a byproduct of my predisposition.
I have enjoyed seeing your collaborations with different filmmakers/artists to come up with music videos. Take me through the process of how your music is visualised, either by you or others. Actually I’ve somehow never thought of them as collaborations. It’s been a process for me and I guess it’s just a few people getting together and doing their job to make something nice. I find that when I really trust someone then I completely give over - like with Tum Jab Paas, I got a really good feeling from Reema Sengupta - about her craft, skill set in filmmaking, and her overall vision, so I almost had no inputs there. I also feel like visual art is not my expertise, so when I decide to work with someone and trust them, I try and interfere as little as possible. On the other hand, I almost never work with someone I don’t trust, but if for whatever reasons I find myself in that situation, I can be quite paranoid and controlling. (laughs)
What makes you say yes to one artist and no to another?
That's just instinct with a little bit of rationality. I find a lot of artists have a lot of really excellent ‘ideas’ but no execution skills at all - something you can judge quite easily by the quality or lack of prior work. I try to stay wary of such artists. I’d much rather work with and trust someone who has deep knowledge of their craft and the correct attitude but no unique ideas.
Was cold/mess close to how you'd have imagined the video? Did the film help you process whatever was happening in your life that led to the last album? Yes, quite bizarrely, it was very close to what I had imagined it to be and I am so grateful to the team - Dar, Dheer and Aditya and many others from Jugaad Productions which worked on the video. By the time we started working on the video, it had been quite a while since whatever that happened to me the song and the video was about, so no, not really. I think I had already processed most of my emotions related to it by then.
What are some of your all-time favorite films? No movie has really affected me as much as Pyaasa. I watched it back in 2012/13 for the first time, and re-watched it in 2016 and I wept through the whole thing. I had to keep stopping to take crying breaks (laughs). I’ve loved most of Christopher Nolan's films and almost all of Richard Linklater's films, especially Before Sunrise and its sequels and also Boyhood. I also watch a lot of straight-up action films and all of the Marvel films!
And the books that have inspired you? The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson are possibly the two most impactful books I’ve read. I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami the past year or so, and while Norwegian Woods made me cry a lot, his other books are just plain fun to read.
Which is your favorite poem of all time? Colostrum by Kevin Young might be my favourite poem of all time because I think no poem has ever made me feel such a strong emotion in a mere three sentences: We are not born with tears. Your first dozen cries are dry. It takes some time for the world to arrive
and salt the eyes. I also like a lot of stuff by Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg, but to be honest, I’ve never been an avid reader of poetry. I’ve always read it intermittently and for short periods of time. I never thought of my songwriting as poetry at all, and then later a lot of people started to call it that and I still don’t know if that is true or not. To me, a song needs a certain cadence, rhythm and music to make it wholesome. A poem can sometimes say a lot more than a song without employing any of those tricks.
What kind of mind space are you in at the moment? How's 2019 looking? I'm trying to deal with a lot of new emotions, understanding my songwriting process better and reconciling with ageing. 2019 is looking hectic - we’ve got a month long US tour across almost 20 dates, maybe a UK tour after that and then hopefully a bunch of songwriting in the US later this year. And then I'm back to India for more shows - but to be honest, post-July looks quite hazy as of now, so let’s see what really happens. You never know.
Thank you for letting me pick your brains, Prateek. Have a great tour!