At first glance, the cover of Prateek Kuhad's captivating new EP, cold/mess, seems utterly romantic. The artwork depicts two lovers, bodies intertwined in a deep and lasting kiss, oblivious to the world around them. Take a closer look, though, and you'll see that the couple is actually underwater, drowning as their embrace drags them further and further beneath the surface. In a flash, ecstasy has turned to agony, and the love that nourished and sustained them now seals their tragic fate. "Relationships can be very dichotomous," says Kuhad. "They can be comforting and amazing and chaotic and suffocating all at once, and I wanted these songs to capture those extremes, that rollercoaster you experience between love and heartbreak."
Written primarily in his native India and recorded in Nashville, cold/mess is Kuhad's first collaboration with outside producers and a brilliant introduction to a breakout star ready to take the world by storm. Hailed as "one of the country's leading singer-songwriters" by Rolling Stone India, Kuhad has garnered a slew of international accolades and honors since releasing his 2015 debut LP, In Tokens and Charms, an album which prompted glowing features and reviews around the world. He took home an MTV Europe Music Award, earned Indie Album of the Year honors from iTunes, was crowned Best Pop Artist at the Radio City Freedom Awards, and captured first place in the prestigious International Songwriting Competition, which helped launch artists like Gotye and Passenger to global audiences.
Sold-out auditorium and amphitheater dates followed, as did arena support slots with Alt-J and Mike Posner, and soon Kuhad was traveling the world for concerts and festivals in Australia, Singapore, Canada, and France. Nike selected him to join their #BleedBlue campaign, Converse invited him to record in Rio de Janeiro as part of their Rubber Tracks series, and when he landed in Austin for the first time, NPR selected Kuhad as an artist to watch among the thousands slated to showcase at SXSW.
While some musicians are born with an instrument in hand, Kuhad was a bit of a late bloomer. After an initial attempt at lessons as a youngster, he enrolled in a guitar class in high school and promptly failed it. None of that managed to dampen his love for music, though, and he consumed as much of it as he could growing up in the small city of Jaipur. The internet didn't arrive in his area until the end of the 1990s, which meant that Kuhad's childhood listening diet consisted primarily of the Indian pop and Bollywood soundtracks that filled the local radio dial, as well as his parents' CD collection, which contained limited Western music.
"After high school, I moved to New York to attend NYU, and that's when I discovered Elliott Smith" explains Kuhad. "His music changed everything for me. It was all I listened to my entire freshman year. After that, I started listening to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie along with newer artists like Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes. It inspired me to get serious about the guitar and begin writing my own songs." For Kuhad, New York might as well have been another planet. The culture shock was intense at first, but as he settled into his new life, he found that the same things that made the city so overwhelming also made it an ideal place to discover himself.
"Living in New York felt so culturally liberating compared to India," says Kuhad. "It was energetic and inspiring, without any judgment or expectation. Growing up in a small city like Jaipur, you feel like you're constantly under the lens. Everyone always has an opinion on what your life should be like. New York was the opposite. There was a sense of freedom in the anonymity that enabled me to be totally vulnerable and become whoever I wanted to be."
After graduation, Kuhad returned to India, where he decided to follow his dreams and pursue music full time. A pair of early EPs (one in English, one in Hindi) put him on the map, and his full-length debut was an instant hit. The record earned Kuhad widespread critical acclaim, as well as an American publishing deal with the LA-based Cutcraft Music (home to Chet Faker, Izzy Bizu, and CP Dubb), which led to regular trips to the States for writing sessions. "I always used to be alone when I wrote," Kuhad says. "I felt like I needed the space and the privacy, so when I first started co-writing, it was really challenging for me to have anyone else in the room."
Something felt different about working with Nashville-based producers/songwriters Konrad Snyder and Peter Groenwald, though, and after two successful writing sessions, Kuhad proposed that the pair record and produce cold/mess with him. Snyder and Groenwald proved to be an ideal fit for capturing Kuhad's sound, an arresting blend of organic folk intimacy and lush pop appeal. His songs are poignant and introspective, transcending genres and borders in order to speak to the deeper truths of our shared human experience in all its messy splendor. "There are six songs on the EP, and each one fuses bits of truth and fiction together to convey a very personal emotion from a very specific moment in my life," explains Kuhad. "The tracks all work together to tell a bigger story about love, heartache, angst, and conflict."
Sometimes whisper soft, sometimes tenaciously resolute, Kuhad's voice is mesmerizing as it floats out over gently fingerpicked guitars and ethereal synthesizers. The music calls to mind everything from The Tallest Man on Earth to The Head and The Heart, but it's all filtered through Kuhad's uniquely global perspective, with vivid, richly cinematic lyrics. Each track is also accompanied by its own unique artwork in a series of stunning photographs that feeds into -- and off of -- the music. "Every song has a color to me," explains Kuhad. "I wanted each track to have its own visual identity so that the images and the music could all combine to tell the story of this collection."
It's a story that's at once joyous and tragic, as life so often is. Much like the photo of the lovers on the EP's cover, Prateek Kuhad's music contains multitudes and demands closer inspection, but the emotional rewards are more than worth the effort. There's beauty in pain, freedom in loss, growth in heartbreak. Sometimes you just need to look beneath the surface.