“That fictional character became more somber, like a passageway, through which I could channel what I was experiencing and relieve myself of sadness and grief…”
Appearing alongside Cardi B and Lil Nas X in Time Magazine’s list of Best Songs Of 2021 So Far, Arooj Aftab’s music could not be further from the maximalist production, which propelled such songs to the top of the music charts and TikTok challenges.
Instead, the Pakistan-born and Brooklyn-based artist’s latest record Vulture Prince presents a much more intimate image. Drawing from South Asian tradition, minimalism and jazz, Vulture Prince was shaped by personal tragedy. Experiencing the death of her younger brother whilst working on the album, the nature of Vulture Prince instantly changed.
What was initially intended to be a record inspired by Aftab’s appreciation of afrobeat and the idea of the titular ‘Vulture Prince’ being an androgynous, “groovy” character transformed into a personal, sombre record. Reminding her of the “cycle of life and death”, Aftab’s imagined “Vulture Prince” ended helping her to “stay on track” with finishing the album.
Clash spoke to Arooj Aftab about her acclaimed new record, its tragic backstory and her avoidance of genre classification, seemingly jumping from afrobeat to jazz and minimalism.
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Could you tell me more about how you started working on 'Vulture Prince'?
'Vulture Prince' was meant to be my second album, and a sister album to 'Bird Under Water'. I thought that to show the passage of time and the growth of myself as a musician, I wanted to push the envelope a little bit. And make the next body of music a little more edgy and a little more fun. A little bit groove oriented. So that's where I started. That's why I was even thinking about 'Vulture Prince'. It even sounds kind of sharp on the tongue.
You've mentioned that you were interested in afrobeat whilst preparing the album. What were the key musical influences on this album?
I was listening to a lot of afrobeat or just gravitating towards certain music that has a very “chill” upper layer. At the same time, they have a very fun groove going on. I was analysing and listening to music like that. Sometimes, you make a certain type of music, but then you listen to a completely different type of music.
And as a musician, you wonder - are these two supposed to meet? Are you a musician, and also just a music admirer? So there were these questions knocking around in my head. I also stopped listening to any music at all. When I'm actually getting down to the writing part of it and working on the songs, I have to turn off all types of music completely for a long period of time.
Your album titles and music has avian themes. In the public release to the album, you talk of Zoroastrian towers of silence, vultures and life and death. Was this shaped by your brother's death?
It's just a really freakish coincidence. I was thinking of vulture being this shady character, but also this mystical being. It has existed in the heritage of South Asia, and in many places in the world for aeons and shows up in folklore and rituals. And it’s a revered ancestral being. There's a lot tied to this animal. Lahore is an extremely old city, and it has a lot of old trees, and it has a lot of vultures just hanging around. The Zoroastrian significance was there, but I wasn't thinking about it too much at the time. This bird is capable of existing on many parallel universes. Its significance is in lots of different places.
But then, completely derailed by these bereavement incidents that occurred while I was writing [it], the Vulture Prince transformed. That fictional character became more somber, like a passageway, through which I could channel what I was experiencing and relieve myself of sadness and grief. And reassure myself that there is a cycle of life. This carrion bird actually contributes to the circle of life, and it is a passageway for death to go back into new energy.
So that helped me stay on track with the album, as opposed to completely derailing it.
How important are ghazals and sufi poetry to your music? What about Abida Parveen?
The Sufism that exists in my music comes from the cyclic, repetitive structures. I think that is structurally the only thing that could be called Sufi in the way I write music. From that, every now and then I choose something that could be considered a Sufi poem or in line with how Sufi poetry is written. But otherwise, it is not in any way really connected to traditional Sufi practices or musical tradition.
I hate to use this word, but it's more of a Sufi vibe, where the instruments are all revolving around rather than standing out. There's a sense of oneness. And within the songs, it's all going in a loop. That is Sufism to me.
What role does religion play in your music?
There's a lot to be found in Sufism that can help secular thought. The Sufis have been able to play with gender, substances and the question [of] who is God. They talk so much about just being beings - like genderless beings. Abida Parveen is quoted very famously to have said that she's not a man or a woman. She's just a vessel for her voice and her projection of sound.
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Is sparseness important to your music?
It's 100% integral to me. I base my practice around being very careful with sounds. Less is always more. I'm always trying to find the grace and create dynamics.
There's a philosophy of playing that goes into how we play together as a group and how we record together. And it's almost strict. There's a perceived loudness and there's a simplicity. But at the end of the day, what you're hearing seems simple and calming to you. To me, it is a really fantastic thing. And I have to approach it through minimalism and repetitive shapes. That's my thing.
As someone whose first language isn't English, I was quite interested in how you approach singing in Urdu. You've previously said that lyrics can be quite corny sometimes - do you prefer using Urdu in terms of capturing lyrical themes?
As a singer, languages definitely sit in different places in your resonance, your throat and your nasal capacity. On a technical level, there's definitely a big difference. Your whole sound can change from language to language, and it takes time for a vocalist to develop their sound. I need to really spend time with a new language. I feel like I would love to spend more time developing a specific type of style when I'm singing in English. But as someone who's just lived in so many different places and has inherited so many different heritages… And when you're singing, you can't really do weird shit like that. There's a degree of finesse and consistency… So there are all these layers of being in a different language.
But lyrically… There are some people who are just focused on writing incredible lyrics. There's this young artist from the UK - dodie. She can put really beautiful thoughts together in a very simple way. And I overthink the sound and everything, I think about the production and the things. To me, I don't want to just write lyrics for the sake of it and sound like a fool. You can get corny really quickly. I try to be careful about not falling into that area. In the same way, if I was singing these songs, and there was just a bunch of tabla and sitar, and some techno beats going on in the back…
Musically, I would enter a corny space as well, you know? We're just trying to fight the corniness. Just trying to avoid that at all costs.
In terms of musical corniness, I know that your album has been previously described as new age on your Bandcamp. How do you view these terms? Is it something that’s relevant to your album or is it something you would like to fight?
I don't really know what's going on with the genre situation. Are we edging towards a post genre world? This album - it's not world music. It's not classical. It's not folk. At the same time, it has all of those things. It has clear jazz elements, it feels like pop sometimes. I don’t know what new age is. I thought New Age was like Deepak Chopra music. It's very confusing to me, this approach has never really made sense to me.
And even more so now, as cultures continue to blend. People aren't really from one place, you know? I don't know, I feel very crazy about this thing, about genres and the categorisation. Time magazine put out their Best Songs Of 2021 So Far and it's like - Cardi, B, Lil Nas X. And me. And two others. And I'm just like how am I even there? How does this work?
That is quite an eclectic list.
But do we need to be related? Or do we need to be not related at all? This whole part of the industry feels a little bit confusing to me. And it always will I guess.
How do you view yourself as an artist? Would you say that your music is representative of Pakistani music or has life and your studies in the US shaped the nature of what you play as well?
I think I'm someone who has roots in many different places. Being from Pakistan, and coming to the US, and being in New York, where every musician, and every artist, at some point, comes through the city. I think it's more situational for me. What defines me as a musician, is what I've inherited along the way from lots of smaller and bigger things that I've experienced.
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'Vulture Prince' is out now.
Words: Adam Zamecnik
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