“My music is unique to me”: Arooj Aftab, the brightest new star at this year’s Grammys | The music
“Now I’m a full-time artist, maybe I won’t just die of natural causes sitting at my desk,” says Arooj Aftab relieved. “Maybe I made a record that can support me.”
The Pakistani-American singer and songwriter speaks from her Brooklyn apartment, six weeks after her third album, Vulture Prince, earned her two Grammy nominations. This harrowing and heartbreaking collection of reimagined Urdu verses and ghazals (Arabic verses of loss and longing) earned the 36-year-old a nod as best new artist – one of the ‘big four’ awards from the ceremony – and another for the best musical performances in the world, against heavyweights Angélique Kidjo and Yo-Yo Ma. It was a rapid rise after more than a decade of creating music; it wasn’t until 2021 that she quit her day job as a sound engineer to pursue music full-time.
“I’ve always emphasized delivering music with integrity,” she says. “People love this record and it just doesn’t happen in the music industry that you can get popular appeal and critical acclaim. So two Grammy nominations, that’s crazy – that’s me restores confidence in the industry and in auditors.
While the best new artist category has long been an international launching pad for stars such as Adele and John Legend, the global categories are more controversial. Renamed from “world” in 2020 to avoid connotations of colonialism, Aftab thinks any catch-all term for music of non-Western origin still seems reductive. “You have Burna Boy with people like Anoushka Shankar and it doesn’t make sense to put them all in one category,” she says. “I’ve spent the last 20 years living and growing up musically in New York, so I don’t feel like a ‘world’ or ‘global’ artist. My music is a product of my experiences and I don’t want to m engage in this nonsense of being put in a box, but these awards advance your career in a big way, so I have to care.
Born in Saudi Arabia, moving to her parents’ hometown of Lahore when she was 11, then settling in the United States, Aftab is absolutely global in so many ways, and that’s what helps confuse traditionalists. After a taste of viral fame with a tender cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as a teenager, she won a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston to pursue a degree in music production and engineering. . Graduated in the midst of the 2008 recession, she arrived in New York to start her career.
Although she was not trained in classical South Asian singing, her 2015 debut album, Bird Under Water, fused atmospheric acoustic jazz instrumentation with the centuries-old tradition of Qawwali music she had listened to. during teenagehood. His 2018 sequel, Siren Islands, then experimented with modular synthesizers to create an ambient soundscape punctuated by Urdu lyricism. Aftab’s breathless and quietly powerful voice is what unifies him.
“It’s not just any style, it’s something very personal,” says Aftab. “I realized that heritage is what you inherit wherever you are. I’ve witnessed so much beautiful music, but you can’t just walk into a community and be part of it, it takes time and honesty to gain trust. That’s why the music I make has gone beyond a tradition, it’s just unique to me and what I feel in my life.
The purest distillation of this personal music comes from Vulture Prince, which unexpectedly reached Aftab’s widest audience. Pitchfork called it “a deeply layered and multifaceted album, each sparse note and repeated pattern building on the emotional resonance of the last”. Following critical acclaim, she signed to major label Verve.
The record didn’t come as easily as the praise. “Some of these songs, I spent 10 years figuring them out,” Aftab says. “I wanted Vulture Prince to have structure, to have a sexy, dark side to it.” The title came very early on, Aftab says, because the juxtaposition of the two words fired his imagination and made him think of everything from “shabby, androgynous character” to Zoroastrian burial rites and vulture mythology. Then she sought to make sounds that would align with that emotive concept. She turned to the poetic form of the ghazal, adapting the Mohabbat of Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, as well as the poetry of Rumi and Mirza Ghalib.
Rejecting traditional classical instrumentation, Aftab began to emphasize the glissandos of harps and violins. “As I worked on these songs with my band, they developed into something much more minimalist, delicate and graceful than I had originally imagined,” says Aftab. “Then a stupid tragedy pushed me completely into this zone.”
The “stupid tragedy” Aftab refers to is the death of her younger brother, Maher, to whom she dedicated the album. “I didn’t write the album out of grief, because the songs were already forming,” she says. “But their overriding essence – that hopeful sadness, the layer of emotion that was added in the final moments of production – is what relates to the loss.”
Thinking the album would just be a “silent ode” to that loss, Aftab hadn’t anticipated how strongly his expression of mourning would resonate. “It was difficult having to talk about it at every interview,” she says with a pause. “There are days when you do your own thing without thinking about it and then someone brings it up and it completely changes you. But that’s what I get for dedicating it to him.
Has repeatedly talking about grief changed the way she now feels about her loss? “It was cathartic to release the record – something about the sound waves being released into the air was ritualistic, like letting go. It was healing in a way to immortalize that moment.
Although her music is largely in Urdu verse which many listeners won’t understand, she has touched Aftab’s global audience and also got them to tell stories of how she helped bear their own losses. “I get a lot of personal responses and it’s pretty intense to read, but I enjoy it,” she says. “If there’s anything I can do to help people through the collective grieving process, then why not?”
She is currently working on her next album and beginning research on the poetry of Chand Bibi – a female warrior and ruler of the Deccan Empire – as well as preparing for the release of a jazz trio project with pianist Vijay Iyer. , Love in Exile, and a repressing of Vulture Prince with a new track featuring British-Indian artist Anoushka Shankar. “I’m in a good position right now,” she said. “For once, I’m not fighting. I have already won.
Vulture Prince is out now on New Amsterdam Records, the Grammy Awards are Sunday, April 3.