Arooj Aftab knows you love her sad music. But she's ready for more.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, June 14, 2024

Arooj Aftab knows you love her sad music. But she's ready for more.
Arooj Aftab in New York on April 17, 2024. The genre-crossing songwriter’s introspective “Vulture Prince” was a pandemic hit. Now she is returning with “Night Reign,” an LP that reveals her many dimensions. (Luisa Opalesky/The New York Times)

by Sam Sodomsky

NEW YORK, NY.- In a remote studio in north Brooklyn, actress Tessa Thompson stood behind a camera and instructed a young model how to project a precise but elusive expression of longing: “Almost like you can’t help it,” she suggested from beneath a black beret. Thompson was making her debut behind the camera, directing a music video by Pakistani composer and vocalist Arooj Aftab.

“This is a dream come true,” Thompson said between takes on an afternoon in March. “A dream I didn’t know I had.”

The clip was for Aftab’s latest song, the dusky “Raat Ki Rani,” from her fourth solo album, “Night Reign,” due May 31. Drawing inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 thriller, “Persona,” the treatment weaves an imagistic love story between two women into a trippy meta-narrative that takes place on the set of a perfume commercial. Accordingly, the room was filled with fragrant bouquets as Aftab, 39, observed quietly from the sidelines.

If you didn’t know she was the star of the show — not to mention, the beautiful, Auto-Tuned voice pouring from the speakers all day — you might have assumed she was one of the crew members assessing the scenery, keeping the mood light, checking if anyone needed bottled water. As the team reset for a complex shot accompanied by a relentlessly looped fragment from her track, Aftab whispered offhandedly to a cameraperson, “Thank God the song is good!”

“Raat Ki Rani” is Aftab’s first official music video and a rare instance of the musician outsourcing her distinctive vision. Many listeners first encountered her hypnotic and immersive style via her 2021 breakthrough, “Vulture Prince”: a minimalist blend of jazz, folk and ghazals, a form of Urdu poetry that incorporates themes of longing and loss.

The album became a rare pandemic-era success for an independent artist, partly because its quiet, introspective music aligned with the times. It was forged in grief as a tribute to Aftab’s younger brother, who died in 2018, and the emotional intensity often came through her stunning vocals.

With more than 6 million plays on Spotify, the slow-building, 8-minute ballad “Mohabbat” has become something like a signature song. Its fans include Barack Obama, Elvis Costello and the Grammys, where it picked up best global music performance, making Aftab the first Pakistani artist to win the award. (She was also nominated for best new artist but lost to Olivia Rodrigo.)

“‘Vulture Prince’ bridged a gap in the industry,” Aftab said. “There were renditions of old poems and traditional songs, heritage material from Pakistan and South Asia.” She referred to “Mohabbat,” an oft-covered ghazal written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, as a “national treasure” among South Asian artists and is proud to exist in this lineage. But she has consciously avoided instruments or textures that Western audiences might associate with the term “world music” — a philosophy she boils down to “bitching about tablas.”

“Night Reign,” Aftab’s first solo release for a major label, Verve, offers a more comprehensive self-portrait, with vivid songs veering as close to pop music as she has ever come while still making room for explorations like “Na Gul,” the first time the writing of 18th-century Urdu writer Mah Laqa Bai Chanda has been set to music.

“‘Vulture Prince’ was a sad record because I was sad,” Aftab said with a lucidity and self-awareness that seems to come second nature to her. “But in the years that passed, I’ve had this joy inside of me. It would be unfair if it didn’t translate in my music.”

The success of “Vulture Prince” put Aftab on a different track. “I was finally financially free,” she said. “I don’t have a desk job. I don’t have a supervisor. I can be in a different city every night playing.” As soon as pandemic restrictions eased, she got on the road — “like 200 shows in a year” — and observed the way her sound evolved to fit each space. “We learned that it goes in a big room, it goes in a small room,” she said. “It goes in a festival where there’s a rock band onstage next to you.”

GROWING UP IN Lahore, Pakistan, Aftab attended a school with what she called “all-girls convent vibes,” where she played sports and acquired a spirit of collaboration, competition and “solidarity with women.” Much of her free time was filled with music. She learned from her parents’ tradition of curating mixtapes to soundtrack parties — that sprawling, genre-agnostic approach remains crucial to Aftab’s art — and made friends with acoustic guitars and record collections.

Soon, she was fronting a band, performing local gigs and boasting a songbook of heartbroken originals and popular-demand covers. (Her first brush with fame was a performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that went semi-viral on the pre-YouTube internet.)

At Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied production and audio engineering, Aftab was electrified by the local jazz scene and the community of musicians. Many of her fellow students moved to New York with her upon graduation, and several appeared on her debut, “Bird Under Water” from 2014, a record she looks back on as an early stab at her multidisciplinary aesthetic.

Touring “Vulture Prince” and its follow-up, “Love in Exile,” a collaboration with jazz musicians Shahzad Ismaily and Vijay Iyer from 2023, shaped the nocturnal reflections of “Night Reign.” During a trip back to her hometown, the smell of the raat ki rani flower (its name translates from Urdu as “Queen of the Night”) flooded her with memories of childhood. She connected these images to the nightlife in Brooklyn, which she has called home since 2009.

“I am really an extrovert,” she said. “But there’s also the silence of the night, the calmness.” She reflected for a minute. “Also, you know, everyone just looks better when it’s all shadowy and unclear. I don’t want to be seeing people in the daytime.”

A lot of Aftab’s thoughts evolve this way: She will summon the wisdom of her music and quickly swat it away with a self-effacing joke or conversational aside. Despite her rising profile, she remains an unassuming presence. Casually chatting about the album at a hip Brooklyn social club, she drank a cup of tea. She was wearing a North Face vest and a pair of sunglasses, standing out from the loudly dressed attendees of a nearby fashion show. “I don’t know that it’s in my persona to become a persona,” she said.

On “Night Reign,” she seized the opportunity to express different sides of her personality. There’s “Raat Ki Rani,” which features an uncharacteristic use of Auto-Tune that emerged from a whimsical studio experiment. (“I was like, ‘This is not a T-Pain record. We need to dial it back.’”) And “Whiskey,” an English-language love song she started writing in college, with a depiction of drunken intimacy that represents her most direct, unguarded moment as a writer. “I think I’m ready to give in to your beauty and let you fall in love with me,” she sings over a starry folk arrangement.

To match the range of the songwriting, Aftab enlisted her familiar collaborators, including harpist Maeve Gilchrist, bassist Petros Klampanis, guitarist Gyan Riley, veteran percussionist Jamey Haddad and her “Love in Exile” bandmates Ismaily and Iyer. She also extended her circle to Costello (who plays Wurlitzer on “Last Night Reprise”), guitar virtuoso Kaki King, Philadelphia spoken-word artist Moor Mother and Joshua Karpeh, the R&B songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who records as Cautious Clay.

Describing their collaboration on “Last Night Reprise,” a jazzy interpretation of a poem by 13th-century Persian writer Rumi, Karpeh recalled Aftab taking the vantage of a film director, using visual cues to encourage different takes. “There’s a trust in how we approach our music,” he said of their shared approach. “It felt very free and raw.”

Aftab said Karpeh embodies her ideal player: someone who gravitates to the unique. “I search for people like that because that’s 80% of the thing,” she said. “There’s nothing I can write down and ask you to play if you don’t have that innate feeling.”

In Tessa Thompson, who Aftab pinged with a friendly DM on Instagram, Aftab found both a natural collaborator and a role model for navigating the business on her own terms. (She had previously met some musical members of Thompson’s family: her half sister, Zsela, and her father, Marc Anthony Thompson, aka Chocolate Genius.)

“I haven’t been around that type of person who has been in the industry a long time and still manages their mental health and knows how to be chill and natural and not overwhelmed by stuff,” Aftab said of Thompson. “Maybe I’m just a baby!”

ON A WARM April day, Aftab was ready to premiere the final cut of the “Raat Ki Rani” video. In her Brooklyn brownstone apartment, a cozy spot with a lush backyard garden, she made tea and explained the history of a rare instrument she found on eBay — the Sonica, a synthesizer in the shape of a guitar. Discussing her excitement about the video, she zoomed out to place its imagistic depiction of queer romance in a larger context. “It feels natural to me in this moment in culture for the center of desire to not be a man,” she said firmly. “We are in a time that is fluid.”

When the conversation turned to a recent Instagram post in which she announced the imminent retirement of “Mohabbat” from her set lists, Aftab laughed. “I was just [expletive] around,” she said. “Obviously nobody’s going to let me not play that anymore.” Her tone quickly turned more serious. “I’ve never had a hit, so I don’t know what to do. I guess Norah Jones still has to play ‘Come Away With Me.’” Eventually, Aftab confirmed that she still connects with the song every time she sings it, but her impulse to move forward is no joke.

“Let me be more personal,” she said, leaning forward. “Let me be me and not a representative of culture.” She paused. “People still call me, like, ‘the Sufi fusion singer,’ or whatever. And it’s just, like, I actually don’t really know anything about Sufism.”

“I see a lot of artists saying this,” she added. “We want to run away from being labeled — but we can’t. So we have to do it in our music.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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