"I’m glad Bollywood was able to shed light on the gully rap scene in India." - Karsh Kale on Gully Boy

One of global music’s brightest stars, Karsh Kale has earned the reputation of a genre-blending musician, famous for mixing Indian classical sounds with electronica, pop, and rock. His ever-evolving sound that fuses East with West has also been recognized by the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, and Kale was invited to perform at the White House for the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month Celebration.

Closer to home, Kale worked on the soundtrack for Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy and it saw him branch out from his signature electronic fusion elements. Regarded as one of the pioneers of the Asian Underground genre, the multi-instrumentalist enjoys collaborating with artists across different genres and his latest offering comes in the form of ambient and dreamy “Disappear” with Komorebi. With a career that spans over two decades, Kale continues to reinvent his sound, and taking a break from his projects, the American musician goes OnRecord about his new song, Bollywood, and the future of Asian Underground.

Tell us about the composition of “Disappear” and the recording process of the song.

I talked to Taranah Marwah (Komorebi) about wanting to go into an orchestral space. The track features minimal bass and drums that happen, but the composition is very orchestral. Taranah and I talked about dynamics, we talked about attitude, the message we were trying to convey, through the melodies, through the textures. I wanted to orchestrate her voice, which is something she hadn’t really done before.

I wrote cello parts for her voice, viola parts of her voice, violin parts. So, as I directed her like I would for an orchestral instrument but we did it for her voice instead. I treated her voice like an instrument and layered it. I directed her like a conductor and she totally understood what I was trying to achieve because of her talents as a multi-talented artist. I came to Delhi, and we spent two days in a studio working and recording the song.

What was special about this collaboration?

One thing that comes to mind is that there’s a mix of old-school and new-school approaches in terms of production, and also the storytelling and the aesthetic that we want people to feel. It’s both modern and nostalgic. I want it to be timely while still being timeless.

What I’d like for it to encourage in the independent music scene, is that there is a benefit for younger artists to work with artists who have experience. It doesn’t happen enough, and it’s not encouraged enough. If we go through the best music, some of the best music, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones comes to mind, is a result of collaboration across generations, with the older voice bringing experience and technique, while the younger bring that freshness and energy.

What was unique about working with Taranah?

Taranah is special because she’s somebody who’s not only a singer, she’s also a producer, a composer, and a keyboard player. Her ability to do so many things is what makes her so interesting as an artist.

What’s the message of the song?

Lyrically, it’s actually specific to something I’d described to her. She penned most of these lyrics, but it came out of this idea that all of us have somebody in our lives whom we desperately want to be able to reach, but we just can’t. Sometimes it’s a lover, sometimes it’s a sibling, sometimes it’s a parent. You’re in this profound communication void. 

So is that what you mean by the line: “oh they say what you run from is what you run into. You watch me watch you disappear.”?

That’s the literal meaning but for me, the lyrics are also very abstract, so people can take their own meanings from that, and make it personal if it resonates with them lyrically (or melodically). 

They’re lost. Whether it’s a mental illness, drugs, or something else, there are so many different reasons why you might lose someone. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost someone. You’ve lost someone, and you’re having a hard time reaching them. When I was working on the track instrumentally, we started with the word “disappear,” the idea was watching somebody disappear, without being able to do anything with it. 

The bridge is giving some hope. The bridge feels good when it’s happening in the song, “maybe the lights will guide the way through the stormy weather, maybe we’ll find another way for us to be together.” But until then, back to the pain. 

That’s how the story arc is. There’s a moment of light, there’s a moment of hope there. People interpret music based on their own space, so I don’t think it matters what I say the story about. When people listen to music, they take their own experience and make it about that. I want it to still feel universal and open-ended. So some people will hear it and say: “This is about my sister. This is about my boyfriend. This is about an old experience I had.”

Do you think this record is for your old fans, or to win you new fans?

It’s a little bit of both. I know that there’s a big audience out there for me that’s waiting for new music. I haven’t released anything since 2016. But there’s an entirely new generation of listeners who want to hear new stuff. For me, people are used to hearing something totally different from what I’d put out before. The last thing that caught people’s ears was “Train Song” from the Gully Boy soundtrack. I think listeners have always understood that I’m willing to stretch the artists I’m collaborating with.

Throughout my career, I’ve always said that collaboration is about taking me out of my comfort zone, just as much as a producer, I’m always trying to take the artist out of their comfort zone. It’s a learning experience for all of us, as is working with younger artists as I’ve done here. My job as a producer is not only to create my aesthetic but also to go into the Komorebi experience, to get the best out of everything we had on the sonic palette for this track. 

How did your formative years in the UK and the US influence your musical taste? 

I was exposed to a lot of music from an early age. I was thirsty for it so I’d check out anything I could find and listened to the radio a lot. My father also was instrumental in playing a lot of Indian classical folk and film music as well. 

What differences or similarities do you see between the Western hip-hop scene and desi hip-hop

The western hip hop scene is over 40 years old with legends who are grandfathers. The scene in India has a long way to go but will evolve in its own unique way. The artists are young and just starting out in the game. What is similar is that the music truly represents the voice of the streets, that’s hip hop all over the world.

What kind of impact has Gully Boy made on your year?

Gully Boy has definitely given a hell of a lot more eyeballs and ears to what I was doing before. There were millions of people that were reached that had maybe only heard of me through Coke Studio, or one or two of my other works, or had heard my name at some point.

Train Song” connected a lot of those dots for people, and as the song started to do well, we realized this was the right time to release something. Not a day goes by without some sort of response to “Train Song,” some sort of love on social media.

I’ve been lucky to do some amazing things over the years, I can’t say anything other than it was luck. I know so many people who were super talented, who just couldn’t hack it. It’s a tough business. So I can’t say anything but that. I always feel lucky to be able to keep making music and keep being involved. The idea of relevance comes from your ability to adapt. Growing up, I always admired artists who kept being able to evolve, who kept on growing and trying new things, as opposed to those who only made one sound and stuck to that. Curiosity, too. I’m still curious. I want to make new music, and I’m not done yet.

This brings us to the fact that, before Gully Boy, desi hip-hop was a niche but ever since Bollywood got involved in the equation, it has grown by leaps and bounds; did Bollywood have any impact on your sound or your career?  

Not at all. I have worked on a few Bollywood scores and soundtracks but most of my work has been outside the film industry and most of my fans know me for that material. I’m glad Bollywood was able to shed light on the gully rap scene in India. The film itself is a good film as well regardless of its considered Bollywood

What according to you are the essential elements to make a typical Karsh Kale track? 

Emotion. I always try and make something that will move and stir the listener. Instrumentation, style, and genres may vary, but I always try and keep a level of emotional content and story in my music. 

From working with Zakir Hussain to Sting, and now with Komorebi on the latest Artist Originals track, you have a wide range of collaborations spread across multiple genres; we want to know how do you choose your collaborators and how do you manage to keep your sound alive on each track?

These things tend to just happen naturally. We are drawn to people who artistically resonate with our own sensibilities.  For me collaborating is also a learning process where I get to take away something from the exchange and perhaps apply that knowledge later in another collab.

You’ve seen the transition from cassettes to CDs to digital downloads and streaming services like JioSaavn; how do you think streaming has changed music for you, first as a musician, and as a listener? 

There are advantages and disadvantages with the way we consume music today. It has become super convenient to access and stream millions of songs in a way we have never seen before. However that convenience comes at a price, music simply isn’t worth what it used to. The ritual of going and buying a record from the record store has been replaced with the ease of streaming. I do find it analogous to food – we have many convenient new ways to access food and have it on the go, but sometimes at the expense of sitting down at the dinner table.  I find today’s music business seems to be in the business of fast music, like fast food. Music tends to be a bit more disposable nowadays.

What is the future of Asian underground music in your opinion and how are streaming services helping introduce more people to this music? 

It went overground a long time ago. The influence of Asian underground can be heard now in pop music, film music, ad films and just about every corner of music at this point. The artists that existed back then are all still making new music. I think that the artists have now transcended the genre and are pushing in many different directions.  

Listen to Karsh Kale‘s newest single Disappear only on JioSaavn