I pressed the flesh for three solid days at BBC Introducing’s Amplify 2018, and lost count of how many new artists I heard perform. When I finally walked away from the ExCel throng one name stood out from the melange: Navin Kundra.
From the moment he’d started to sing, his music had caught my ear. His performance had been well-polished and his songs catchy, but there was something more. Kundra brought something different to the mix – raga. From Sanskrit meaning “colour” or “passion”, raga is an Indian tradition of melodic scales that are used to improvise around. It’s a very distinct and exotic sound made up of notes beyond the common Western scales we’re used to. I love to hear different traditions fused together so set about finding out more about Kundra and his journey.
iSing: How did you become a professional singer?
Navin Kundra: I’ve always loved singing and performing. It’s one of the most natural things for me to do. When I was about 19 I went on a talent show made by an Indian TV station and won it. Then I went on a talent show run by the BBC and won that too. I thought “I’ve done it, I’m amazing”. I assumed everything would kick off. It didn’t.
I realised that I needed to write my own songs, because that’s what defines you as an artist.
Writing didn’t come naturally to me, in the end I had to just pick up my guitar, sit at the piano, and figure it out. My music got a lukewarm response from radio stations, so I put it on online. It found an audience, and things grew organically. After that, radio stations came to me saying, “can we have your music”. It took a year for the first song to trickle through the system. I followed up with a series of singles that did well. I’ve had six number one singles polled with radio stations and world charts on iTunes.
iSing: What is your heritage?
NK: My parents and grandparents come from India, but I was born and bred in the Midlands. I think as a result I can appreciate and create Western and Indian styles of music. Growing up we always had music playing in the house.
We listened to everything from Indian classical to Bollywood music, which is amazingly well-fused music. When I started going into the studio, people were blown away when I started doing some of those Indian runs. They weren’t used to hearing that intonation with those inflections and vocal sounds. I realised I had something unique.
iSing: Have you had lessons in Indian singing or traditional Indian raga?
NK: I learned mainly through listening and trial and error. I tried to learn the technical side, but it took the fun out of it. What attracted me to it was the beauty and the emotion that comes out. When you have rules to adhere to it stops being fun. I have no rules when it comes to listening to that music or creating it. It’s a lovely space to be in.
iSing: How did the traditional Indian singing community respond to your music?
NK: There was a lot of criticism when I started out. I sang and people enjoyed it, but I may not have been technically on point. It’s viewed as an artform that requires a lot of discipline and practice; people dedicate their lives to that style. But because I’d gone to university and had a life outside of music, there was only so much I could take on. I did try and improve myself; at one point I was practising eight hours a day because I wanted to grasp the roots of the art form. Once I had that I was able to ease off and be more creative.
iSing: Has your work featured in the Bollywood music scene?
NK: My music hasn’t but earlier this year I shot my first Bollywood movie. I had a double role in an action film which is interesting because I always thought if I was involved with Bollywood it would be through music. It was a wonderful experience. Maybe there’ll be an opportunity to feature my music in the future.
Bollywood Proposal in BBC Doctors – Mehbooba- Navin Kundra
iSing: What was your experience of working in the Bollywood format?
NK: It looks so glamorous but it’s surprising how much work goes into it behind the scenes. The big challenge for me was the language. I could understand and write in Hindi, but I was a bit out of practice speaking it. I was told my Hindi diction was on point when I sang. But when I spoke, they said “this is a lot cleaner than we would normally speak in everyday life”. I had to ease off a little bit. That’s one of the big differences between Asian music and western music. When I sing English songs, my accent and the clarity of my words isn’t an issue. Sometimes the less clarity there is, the cooler it is. From the Asian perspective, your diction must be on point.
iSing: When you write in another language, say Urdu or Punjab, do you follow a format similar to a western pop song?
NK: The format is similar. The only thing that differs sometimes is they have slightly longer instrumental interludes between the chorus and verses. Other than that, they’re very much the same. When you’re writing pop music or urban music you have a time format for radio. A record needs to be between three and four minutes in length. It’s very similar to writing an English song for me.
Bandagi – Navin Kundra
iSing: What type of gigs do you do?
NK: Performing live is what excites me the most. I perform at a lot of festivals. We have events called mellas, which are the Asian version of a big festival like Glastonbury. I also do corporate events and sometimes weddings because some of my most successful music is romantic love songs. One of my biggest gigs was at Wembley Stadium where I performed in front of 60,000 at an event for the British and Indian Prime Ministers. I travel all around the world – Europe, Canada, the US and Dubai. The two things I love are music and travelling, they go hand in hand.
iSing: What’s your biggest career frustration?
NK: Well artists are very frustrated people [laughs]. Right now I’m at a turning point. I’m starting to write more English music and expose myself to a new audience while still retaining the audience that I’ve cultivated over the years. I’m almost starting from the beginning. I know if I write an Asian song, it will get picked up by radio stations and it will reach a certain audience. But as I move into more English music it won’t be that instant. I’m not far enough along to be frustrated by that, but I know a lot of hard work lies ahead. I suppose also, being independent, it can be frustrating because you don’t have a big machine behind you. You’re competing with household names who have a bigger team supporting them.
iSing: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self about the music industry?
NK: Understand it’s a business and that you need to make a living. Understand there’s a difference between creating music, which is probably what you love to do, and selling music, which you may not enjoy.
It takes hard work, patience and a lot of practice. But if you’re good at what you do, your music will find an audience. Once you find an audience, look after them, cultivate them and grow your base. That’s where a lot of your hard work will be.
Navin playing the Wembley Stadium
iSing: What’s next for Navin Kundra?
NK: I have a new singled called Burning Slow, which I’m excited about. It’s a more urban sound for me, and I think lyrically it paints a beautiful picture. I can’t wait to create that visually for the music video. I think in the past I overlooked that element, but I’m going to focus more on that. I also have some follow-up singles in the pipeline. I don’t want to say too much. I want you to be curious enough to follow me and find out more. And I’d love to have you guys on the journey with me.
Cover photo by: Khalid Bari