Musician Akash Ahuja On Self-Funding His Own Creative Vision, His Indian Roots & More

Akash Ahuja
Akash Ahuja Image Courtesy: Saint Samuel

Akash Ahuja is an artist unlike any other that’s come out of India. On the surface he’s your quintessential pop, hip-hop and R&B archetype and ticks every single box and then some; combining silky smooth vocals, a masterful flow and lyricism that speaks to the hearts and minds of all of his fans. The production in his songs is layered, melodic and at times even complex but is never over the top or too in your in-your-face.

Beyond all of that, however, is a mind for the business side of music that’s allowed him to bootstrap his way from relative obscurity to occupying an enviable niche among his contemporaries. He’s also able to seamlessly channel his roots and his love for his country of origin to imbibe his music with an eclectic cross-cultural blend of sounds and samples that has found resonance with thousands across the world. There’s a palpable sense of maturity and intention across everything Akash creates and you get the sense that everything he’s achieved thus far can be put down to his drive and hard work, rather than luck.

A few weeks ago, we spoke to Akash from his home in New York City and got a huge glimpse into his musical process, his influences, and how he’s been able to break beyond the often insidious nature of record deals and self-fund his own art as an independent artist.

Your music clearly has a diverse set of influences ranging from RnB to hip-hop to contemporary electronic pop music and the themes you explore are just as eclectic. Could you take us through your creative process? How do you find the right balance of elements from both a songwriting perspective as well as while putting a track together?

I feel like my answer changes a lot. I feel like every time I’m in the studio or making music it’s a whole new experience. I would say that my music in terms of all the different sounds is essentially like a compilation of all the different phases that I went through. When I first started my musical journey it was actually on the tabla and my initial obsession was with artists like Zakir Hussain; you know very classic. And when I go into these phases I only listen to that one thing. So my first phase was like a deep dive into Indian classical music. I’d go to Zakir Hussain concerts and I remember meeting him and just freaking out! That was my first phase and it later went into like hip-hop with things like Eminem and Nas; just hardcore rap. And then it went into reggae and I was obsessed with artists like Collie Buddz and Damien Marley. And then it kind of went into a more pop hip hop route; Travis Scott and Drake. There were also little baby phases in between where I listened to different genres like R&B and jazz. Now my music kind of has a little piece of all of those and that carries with me.

My producer, Davincii always asks me every week, “What songs have you been listening to?” and he gets a taste of what mood I’m in. He’ll make a bunch of beats for me that week according to that, so when I go into the studio I can just choose from an eclectic bunch of instrumentals that are in line with what’s inspiring me. Then from there if it’s more ‘sing-ey’ or pop then I kind of just wing it in the studio but if it’s more rap-oriented then I sit down and write, but that’s the whole process.

You’ve pretty much bootstrapped your entire music career on your own. Could you talk about some of the challenges of being an independent artist in a fairly saturated space? How do you make sure that your music breaks through? Is that something you even think about or do you just create what speaks to you and hope that it does the same for your audience?

It’s funny because this is the first time I’ve heard bootstrap and that’s how I feel, but a lot of times people go, “Oh he’s got it easy,” or whatever but I mean if you look at who I’m competing against it does make sense. People also go, “You’re competing against artists who have nothing.” But those artists are backed by labels who have massive budgets and I don’t have those kinds of budgets. So for my team, when we’re planning everything out, it does really feel like you know, we’re tight on budget and we’re bootstrapping.

I will say this, the mistake I made early on in my career was thinking that you need a lot of money to do well and it’s not really true. You need really creative concepts. And that goes for everything. If you’re creative, every ounce of creativity that you put in means you can spend less cash to reach the same amount of people. So for example, if you spend a certain amount of money running ads, which is a mistake a made at the beginning of my career, you’ll reach a certain amount of people. But you can reach the same amount of people by shooting some really clever concept that makes people want to share and one of the things I think of is, ‘God’s Plan’ by Drake. The video is so clever; just giving away the million-dollar budget. It makes me want to share that and repost it because it’s such a clever concept. You’ll reach more people being creative and organically than you will from just having a bigger budget. A creative video shot on a phone is better than an expensive video that’s just generic.

Image Courtesy: Saint Samuel

While music is artistic and creative, there is also a business side to it that a lot of artists tend to overlook. What are your views on the current state of the music industry and what do artists have to pay attention to while considering embarking on a career? How do you balance passion projects for tracks that have more of a commercial appeal? How important is touring to your business model as an up-and-coming artist?

Our business model is a bit of a strange setup. Artists typically make a lot of money from touring so touring is the backbone of most artists’ finances. We’ve set it up a little differently. We actually run a whole investment branch and we’ve been able to fund our careers through our investments. Being an independent artist I have to make sure that we have an investment branch that can always focus on bringing in the cash. That way I don’t have to worry about doing anything creatively that I don’t believe is right just for money. So I’m free to operate my music on my terms and really do it with passion and love and not be under any pressure to hit a certain amount of money in order to keep going. I also have a division that conducts research into things like the cultural environment, algorithms, and people that are listening. And then we have our music division. So we kind of run it like that. I love touring because it’s a way to directly connect with my fans but I wouldn’t say it’s the backbone of our business.

How influential has Bollywood been for you as an artist and who do you look to for inspiration? Do quintessentially Indian genres of music play a role in your songwriting and who are some artists from India you look up to?

I’m going to be honest. Personally, I am way more excited and infatuated with classical Indian music and culture rather than Bollywood. I don’t really know too much about Bollywood and the artists, so I wouldn’t say Bollywood has played too much of a role in my music.

I would say India and its ancient culture have played a massive role in terms of how it’s influenced me. I think even if you look at it from jewellery; what Maharajas in India wore was so much cooler than the common jewellery today, it’s so much more of a statement. The foods we have are also amazing, the classical Indian sounds; the tabla, the dhol and everything are what I love. I’m more enticed by my deep traditional Indian roots. Sometimes I feel like now, recently a lot of Indian entertainment tries to be western. I feel like we almost forget about the beauty that India has and for me, that’s always been what’s exciting.

It’s no secret that you have a fairly massive following in India. One look at the comments section of your youtube channel is enough to tell us that. Do you have anything you’d want to say to all of your fans from across the Indian subcontinent?

Honestly, I didn’t realize how crazy it was until this trip when I went like a week ago. We were doing shows and interviews and photoshoots and I told my overseas manager Rohan, “In between all the shows I want to meet a couple of these fans.” I see their DMs and their comments and everything. They’re the reason I get to do what I do and I wanted to get to thank them. So we started setting up meet-and-greets with our fans in India and it was insane. They were freaking out, they were crying, they had thousands and hundreds of photos of me on their phone, I was their background, and they had physical photos of me in their room; I couldn’t even imagine that this is what it was and it made me want to cry seeing how emotional they were getting. I felt so inspired after that trip and to all the fans who have supported me and have been supporting me all along, they should know that I love them so much and I would literally do anything for them.

Image Courtesy: Saint Samuel

You’ve just released a new single, ‘Priyanka’. Could you talk a little more about some of the themes and motifs you tried to explore with this one? The music video is also incredibly creative in terms of the narrative that unfolds. Was that an intentional choice to catch your audience by surprise or were you just trying to have a little fun by exploring something a little left of centre for your niche?

The song was more of an upbeat, island-ish, fun instrumental and it’s all about being in love and chasing love and then not quite getting it at the end. It’s just a fun, playful journey of a song. It was nothing too deep. I try to keep my music very fun and lighthearted. Sometimes I can’t help it and it gets deep but I prefer to make fun, lighthearted, and bubbly music. That’s what the song was.

I wish I could take credit for the video but I have an incredible team. The guy that came up with the concept, we call him ‘Crump’, his name is William, he directed the whole video and he recreated the trailer of ‘You’ except it was built to our song and it was just so clever. When he first told me the idea I was like “Hmmm, okay!” I trust him because he’s so good at what he does. When I saw the final product I was like, “Holy crap, you’re a genius.” It was just a really fun project. I got to work with LeA Robinson on that song too, who is so talented.

What can we expect from you in the near future? Is there an EP release on the horizon, maybe even an India tour we can look forward to?

As I mentioned earlier we were in India very recently and I got a ton of footage with Trapperx. We have a song that we’ve done before called ‘By My Side’ which is one of my bigger records actually. We did another song together and I feel so good about this one. I think it’s going to be another home run. We were together in India and we shot a video for it and it is coming out at the end of June or early July. We’re just putting the finishing touches on everything.

We’ll have a couple more releases and maybe a bigger project at some point but I’m really excited about this one!

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