Meet Kenisha Awasthi, the musician with a flair for Urdu, and an ear for global music

The young musician has produced, written, composed, crooned her first single Junoon – a tragic ballad on her YouTube channel.

Kenisha Awasthi

By Mayur Lookhar

Throw a big name and most scribes would gleefully jump at the opportunity to interview them. However, the ones that get most scribes nervous are the unknown commodities. Two days ago, we didn’t even know of her existence.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a tiny bunch of scribes walked into Kenisha Awasthi’s apartment, mostly blank. As others munched onto the Diwali goodies offered by the host, yours truly roamed around the living room gazing at the interior décor. There were trophies, fine cultural paintings, including one of Buddha. There was a captivating clay head of Lord Hanuman. We spotted many crown designs on the wall paper. The wine bottles all kept perfectly in a rack. There was plenty of stuff on the table too, including Ayurveda products, plus a bag of medicines on the sofa. Even the floral design on her bodycon dress added to the overall charm of the living room.

The one that drew our attention the most was the citation for playback singer Sapna Awasthi. The ignorant me asked Kenisha about the relationship and she shot back in a stunned tone, “She is my mother!”. Pardon our ignorance.

We came like ignorant souls, but left enriched by Kenisha’s beauty, her passion, knowledge of desi and videsi music. She’s recently launched Junoon – her first ballad on her YouTube channel. The lyrics are Sufi but the music is all western. Despite the tragic theme, we liked the vibe of its groovy tunes. Kenisha described the genre as alternative soul. Truth be told, the Awasthi living room. Kenisha truly imbibed that alternative soul spirit.

Excerpts from the exclusive conversation.

In an industry that is often about entertainment, bringing smile on people’s faces, we don’t tend to warm up to ballads unless it is an Arijit Singh song. And your ballad Junoon is about a tragedy.

I wrote the song for my late grandfather. The lyrical content of the song is such that it is catering to anybody who ever loved someone deeply, only to have lost them. That is not necessarily always a lover.  People need to understand that love is a multi-dimensional concept.

My grandfather was the inspiration behind this song. I wrote it many years ago. Now it’s come into fruition with a very modern, contemporary arrangement. You are right that ballads don’t really work unless they are packaged in a contemporary way, which is what we’ve tried to do in our musical arrangement. My music producers Joshua Singh and Adam Jai Malvi are both incredibly talented. They have lot of knowledge of world music. Their influences are eclectic, global. You can feel that in the sound of my song. Even though the lyrical content is heavy, almost dark, we have lot of dance Reels happening on it.

You mentioned about writing this song many years ago. Did you write this as a child? Did your grandfather live with you?

This was about 7-8 years back when I wrote this song. No, he didn’t stay with us. But I used to visit Delhi to spend my summer vacation with my grandparents. I don’t want to indulge too much, but this was a pretty dark chapter of my life. I was very depressed for many years after he passed away. I used to really trip on the [British singer, musician] Phil Collins song In the Air Tonight. I started living so much in that song that this tune [Junoon melody] also came to me in sleep. Initially, the arrangement was to be acoustic almost like In the Air Tonight, but thanks to Joshua and Adam that they made it very contemporary. That was so much a better call.

We have Sufi rock, but I don’t recollect such music being played to Sufi lyrics. How difficult was it to produce a fine mixture of these vastly different lyrics and music?

Yes, it definitely was a long haul. It was never going to finish in one sitting. It took us many months, in fact there were many drafts of the song, we went through so many alterations and transitions along the way. My process is always to come with a melody and then write lyrics on it. Or the other way is that if someone sends me a demo of their beats, track and then I start developing a melody over it. By default, I mostly end up writing in Urdu. Maybe, because I’ve listened to lot of ghazals growing up. I’ve also listened to a lot of international music. I could listen to R & B music and at the same time, I could also listen to a Mehdi Hassan. Now this has become my sensibility. While my tunes could be extremely modern, of course my collaboration will always be with people who understand global sound. It is not that an Indian artist can’t go viral worldwide. It’s the sound that has to resonate. If people in Mexico, if a Maluma [Columbian artist] has done it, I don’t see why an Indian artist can’t do it.

So, I look at audio production as a two-fold process. One is the melody and the lyrical aspect; the other is the audio treatment/music production. The two necessarily don’t have to match. In my head, they are two standalones. Just because my music production is hip/modern, it doesn’t mean that my lyrics, singing is suddenly anglicized.

Your mother [Sapna Awasthi] represents an altogether different music. What is the kind of the conversations that you have about your music with her?

She likes my music. She approves of my melodies. That is most important for me as everything else is an addition. The melody is the backbone of a song. If there is no soul in your melody, then no amount of visual production nothing can work.

When you create a melody, do you always play it to your mother first?

No, it is my sister Priyanka. She has a solid sense of world music. My younger sister is also my idol.

Is she too into music?

No, she is a hardcore B-school student from ISB [Indian School of Business]. She is starting a business. At the same time, she is also doing a top brass corporate job. She is my idol. Be it anything, for me the first opinion is always hers.

Your sister, the world will have their opinion. However, I believe that most artists are best judge of their own work.  What did you make of your own singing?

I believe in my product at every level. I was more than happy with the output. That is evident from the fact that within week of the audio release, we have garnered more than a thousand Instagram reels. There are dance reels, but there are also mothers using it for their young ones. People are also sending, park, fitness videos, maybe that is their Junoon. Just today, I saw people make a reel with their pets. So, it is exactly what I had thought in my head that this is not necessarily a song for a lover. 

Earlier I heard you say that you relate to the intensity of the character. But is you junoon self-destructive?

I loved my grandfather to that level. I love my mother, sister at that level. There are some people in one’s life that can push one to that level.  

But the climax of the song is such that it doesn’t bring hope to people who are depressed.

Hope is not a worldwide applicable concept. There are people who are cynical. There are Nihilists. There are different schools of thoughts. There should be space for everyone. We talk of freedom of expression but we can’t say that if you are not optimistic then you have no right to live. That is not democratic. Everyone has a different expression. Who are you and I to judge? I’m not here to preach anyone. I’m not here to set the yardstick of how they should process their grief. Everyone has a different threshold. Some of the greatest art in the world has come from people like Franz Kafka, Albert Camous. They were not necessarily optimists.  My song came from a place of melancholy. That is why it is as soulful as it is. If you take out the grief factor, then there is nothing.

Hypothetically speaking, tomorrow if you are called to spread a positive message to depressed people to never take your life, would you be able to do it?

Of course, I’ll do the right thing. I’ll tell them to seek counseling. There are people educated to do this. I can redirect them, tell the importance of medication and counselling. Who am I to preach anyone though? I’m no Tony Robbins [American motivational speaker]. The day I become one, then of course I will.

It is not often that we find one singing, writing, composing and even producing it. Did you approach the music labels though?

Not at all. I want to navigate the music journey on my own. There are so many artists who have emerged independently. There is MC Stan. Emiway, Krishna Kaul, now Yohani. So, why not I?

When did you start your musical journey?

I started five years ago with cover versions. Back then, I was with Culture Machine. I was their inhouse talent. Rapper Dino James was part of it at the same time. It was a great experience working with them. Some of my covers did really well. Today it is a different landscape. If that big career break came at the cost of my music, I wouldn’t want it. I want the freedom to do whatever I want to. I haven’t really tried playback singing but I have sung a song with Javed Ali for a small film. I don’t know why it hasn’t released.

For someone so learned on desi and global music, how do you see Bollywood music of the last five years?

I just feel sad that there is not a lot of original content and we have got lost in lot of remixes. The 90s, the legacy of Nadeem-Shravan ji… Nadeem uncle is like my family. I think we should put out original content. Why are we rehashing old content? The last great album I had on loop was Ae Dil Hai Mushkil [2016].

Are fresh writers getting an opportunity? ‘

I wouldn’t know that. I’m not in that race. I will do all on my own. I’m not a whiner.

How do you like to place yourself – a singer or actor first?

I’m a singer first. I’m a musician at heart. Everything else is very ancillary to me.

So, all this social media brand image that you have built over the last few years, is that all part of a larger…

[Cuts in].

But to me, musicians are not playback.

No, what I meant was the social media image. The moment I Google you, I see lot of images where people would see you as a pretty young starlet.

That is just me. I’ve always been a glamorous person. Since I was five years old, I’ve been dressing up, wearing wigs, having nylon hair and what all. I’ve been a crazy fashion freak all my life. At 5, I put on make-up, stole perfume from my grandmother. This is who I am. Having said that, I’d like to point out that not everyone who is big on fashion is frivolous.

I haven’t got criticism. If people appreciate my glamour, beauty, it is great. I’m grateful for it and I’ll work it to my advantage.

What’s lined up for the future?

I have about eight tracks lined up. They are all original tracks. One track will come out every two months, all on my channel. But if there is an exception where I want to put it out on another label, then I’m not shutting my door completely.

You said you like ghazals. So, Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hassan. How would you rate them?

Oh my god. Who the hell am I to rate these legends? I love Apni Dhun Mein Rehta Hoon by Ghulam Ali, Koi Faryaad by Jagjit Singh. Phew, it is like asking who is the better god between Shiv, Brahma and Vishnu.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s