Much of the work of Brooklyn-based, Pakistan-born composer Arooj Aftab relies on reinterpretation, though that is perhaps too technical a term to evoke its emotional impact. A graduate of Berklee College of Music who blends jazz and experimental music with the cultural traditions of her native homeland, Aftab says her new album, Vulture Prince, is about “revisiting places I’ve called mine,” which feels like a more fitting description of her music. Opening with a new rendition of ‘Baghon Main’, a folk song she first tackled on her 2014 debut Bird Under Water, the record employs classic Urdu lyrics dealing in themes of loss and yearning and embellishes them with stripped-back instrumentation that includes harp, acoustic guitar, double bass, and synths. A continuation of her debut and the follow-up to 2018’s ambient project Siren Islands, Vulture Prince is an album of devastating beauty – one whose nature shifted significantly following the passing of the singer’s younger brother Maher in the middle of the writing process. The arrangements are intimate and elegiac, while Aftab’s crystalline, elastic voice carries a depth of feeling that transcends any potential language barriers, transporting the listener into a realm where sorrow can briefly take the form of acceptance. The result is both a stunning artistic achievement and a melancholy lament whose spiritual resonance is amplified in the current moment.
We caught up with Arooj Aftab for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about growing up in Pakistan, her musical journey, Vulture Prince, and more.
What sort of memories come to mind when you think of growing up in Pakistan?
I had nice memories. I guess it’s just being there, having this sort of very distinct crazy magnetism towards music, and just really listening to a lot of music and connecting with music on a level that was more than just a regular listener. I think I felt very connected to it from a very early age – the desire to kind of integrate it into my life was becoming stronger and stronger, and I think I do remember being in school and listening to music and using it as an almost like a friend.
It’s interesting that you say you had a different kind of connection to it. Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say it was like a friend?
I think from a very early age I was experiencing it – and I’m sure a lot of people do – more as a friend or a partner, rather than a commodity, or, you know, not like a consumer. It was more like a lifestyle; it already had started feeling like that for me.
Do you mind sharing some early musical memories that have stuck with you?
I think a lot about, you know, just a young kid listening to music a lot in my room, and listening to different types of music, not just what was popular. And the desire to recreate that music and change its elements. But some of the earlier memories were just – my family and their friends really loved music and they would host musical evenings. They were hanging out with each other, talking about music, talking about different recordings, different versions of live performances that they had seen or heard or wanted to procure – just a lot of music enthusiasm, a lot of music discourse going on. You know, having a music teacher come through and my dad kind of dabbling in it a little bit, learning more of it. And also singing, my mother singing, their friends playing guitar. They were a jolly chill bunch, you know, who loved to celebrate music, and those gatherings that they would have have sat with me quite a bit.
Do you remember forming very strong musical opinions at the time, especially with the discourse that was going on in the house?
I was definitely fascinated by how they would compare the same artists performing the same song live in different shows. I was too young to imagine that, you know, and I hadn’t really gone to any live shows. I didn’t really have a favorite artist, per se, I didn’t really know how to perceive music in that way. But they were talking about it in this other way where they were not only talking about the musician and how the musician performs, but also the variation of each performance from the same musician and the same song, and that was like, “Wow. Mind is blown.” I loved that.
And that obviously forms a large part of the music that you make now, which is based on different interpretations of the same text, so it’s interesting how that kind of started. You said you were starting to feel that you wanted to recreate some of the things that you were listening to, and again, the use of the word “recreate” interests me. What were those first attempts like?
I mean, I started off by writing music that wasn’t a recreation of anything. It was original songs, singer-songwriter kind of pop. And then when I went to study music, I was immersed in this jazz theory situation, and I think jazz theory made my singer-songwriter content a little bit more intelligent [laughs]. But it still felt very stiff, and I didn’t really like the pop-ness of it, and I was trying – I was just really, really searching for a sound that felt unique, that didn’t feel so borrowed. But you know, when you’re younger, you’re just gonna have to try out all the things or some of the things before you get to what can be inherently called yours. So there was definitely a lot of music that I made that I also recorded but like, thank God I never released. Some of that very early stuff is on the internet, unfortunately, but it’s fine, it’s really loved by people, and you can’t censor your own artistic trajectory.
But I think eventually landed into a place of, like, a producer’s mindset, where I had a very sophisticated concept of how I wanted sounds to blend together, how I wanted instruments to blend together, and how I wanted the overall energy of the music to be. And I think, amidst singing and composing as well, imagining this type of vibe that there weren’t many examples of – in fact, I think there were none – to come up with something very fresh. Amidst all of that, I was like, “I’m not going to write – for now, I’m not going to write my own lyrics because that is another entire realm.” There’s such a wealth of beautiful, thoughtful minimal lyricism in the subcontinent, that I was like, “Well, this is all here, so I’m just going to give myself some space and focus much more on the many other intricate moving parts.” And that’s where we are now, where it’s like, a very new sound with very old words.
How would you say your relationship to your voice and singing has evolved over time?
It hasn’t evolved much, I’d say. I don’t really know. I feel like, over time, especially for this album, I wasn’t trying to do anything fancy with my voice. I wasn’t trying to showcase my vocal agility, you know, I wanted to really get the emotion across. On the one hand, it’s like the words don’t really matter because when you hear it, you just feel the emotion anyway. But of course they matter to me because that’s what I’m using to guide my phrasing.
The style is also more minimal compared to your previous releases.
I had a lot of ideas – it’s also because of everything and how things panned out. I had a lot of plans for layers of harmonies or just some brilliant vocal parts that I think needed to be there, but when the energy of the album sort of switched gears, I was like, “I don’t even know if I – I feel so heavy that I don’t even know if I can sing like that.” So, I kind of had to chill it out, but that doesn’t mean that my voice has evolved into this more minimal style. It’s just that I chose to do it.
Did you always feel a strong urge to use your voice as a means of emotional expression?
My whole immediate family, like every single one of them, have incredible – it’s almost like we are somehow a family of singers. Everyone can sing and everyone can sing super well, but they don’t really do it. I’m the only one who actually made it a career. But singing has just been something that we’ve grown up with, you know. You don’t really think twice about it.
How connected do you feel to your hometown now that you’re based in New York?
It’s a little bit of both, where I feel very connected and I feel like there’s a romance that I have with that city that is undeniable and that can never go away. And then I also feel like I have been away for so long – I almost had to leave because it wasn’t offering me what I needed in order to grow and to flourish, so there’s also this weird kind of awkwardness in our relationship. When I go back, because I’ve been away for so long – the world keeps turning so things have changed, the city isn’t how I remember and the faces are different. So it’s just like, I feel like I’m visiting when I go now. But I try to be connected to what I inherited there, what my heritage is, by listening and reading.
How conscious of an effort is it for you to combine the different traditions that you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
I think it’s actually the opposite. I think it’s very effortless because my music is more of just a statement of who I am. Heritage is basically what you inherit, and it doesn’t have to be only one place where you were born; sometimes it has nothing to do with where you were born. I think the roots and inheritance are more about the timing and the places and the moments you experience over the years, and the genuinity of these experiences. So, I think the music that I’m doing right now is basically just an open book of who I am.
When you say it’s an open book of who you are, do you mean more in terms of your musical influences or are you also talking about personal identity?
I mean more predominantly musical influences, but also, yeah, I’m just such an emo little motherfucker [laughs]. I love the sort of play between, you know, sadness is beautiful, but also hopefulness is more beautiful, and the correlation between departure and lament, and also just the complete pure joy of nostalgia. These are all extremely – you’re playing with fire a little bit, you know, like you really enjoy the dark but you’re also kind of funny.
I love that, I would never have thought the word “emo” would come up but I guess it’s fitting [laughs]. Before we get to Vulture Prince, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your musical progression up to this point. Because with the new album you’re sort of returning to the sounds of your debut, Bird Under Water, after going in a more ambient direction with your second album.
I learned a lot from doing Bird Under Water. Siren Islands, the second one, was basically – I was writing Vulture Prince and working on it with my collaborators, and we had started doing that in 2016-17. We were gearing up for Vulture Prince to come out as the second album, but my brother passed away in 2018 – I mean, first what was happening was just that I realized that that Vulture Prince will need more time. But I was like, “I don’t want to spend four years with nothing, with no music,” and at the time I was also getting into analog synthesizers and delving into ambient, dreamscape music. I was like, “You know what, I don’t care, I’m just gonna do a four-song electronic, lo-fi ambient album. I’m just gonna do this for me.” So I just made those tracks, and then New Amsterdam, they were like, “We really like this and we want to put it out.” And I was like, “Really? This is not – I wasn’t intending for this, but yeah, okay, great. Let’s do it. Because I need more time for Vulture Prince, and in the interim, it will be really nice if there’s more material for people to listen to.” So Siren Islands was almost like a detour, but now I kind of like it. Now I’m thinking between each real album I will put out a strange, lo-fi synth album. Just something really experimental, something that really breaks all the rules and something that I do without anybody collaborating with me.
And then, Vulture Prince is Vulture Prince now. Some of these songs are brand new, and some of them are very old. Like, ‘Last Night’ was actually – that recording is from the sessions that we did for Bird Under Water, so I had to go and find that session from somewhere and include it now. I think we did that in 2011 or something.
How did your vision of the album change? Especially since you were working with all these collaborators, and then the sound of the album became more minimal – did that affect the collaborative process in any way?
I think mostly what I did was, I removed any drum set or percussion from all of the songs, which made them just inherently more minimal. I had a bigger instrument pool that I wanted to pull from and make a little bit more than it is right now, but I think mainly I stripped the drums and I took away some of those things that I was thinking of recording. I initially wanted it to be just upright bass and harp, but then there was something that I needed to add with the harp, which was acoustic guitar. So the acoustic guitar and the harp parts kind of playing very complimentary but different and blending them together has created a very beautiful, sort of middle ground sound, which is warm and stringy but also fluffy and bright. So I think it didn’t change the nature of the collaboration, it’s just that I collaborated with fewer people. And I had the freedom to kind of arrange stuff and produce stuff in the pandemic because we were on lockdown.
How do you go about selecting which poems and which songs to interpret? From what I understand, most of them use the same poetic form – the ghazal. Is there something in particular that resonates with you about this form?
There really isn’t one thing or the other. I think it’s a mood, you know. I think Vulture Prince has one ghazal, if we would call it that. To me, it’s more about what the poetry is saying and how it makes me feel. It’s not really about the style that the poetry was in. Like, ‘Mohabatt’ is poetry that was in the ghazal form, but now I don’t know if we can still call it ghazal. I think it has to do more with the words or the poems themselves.
There’s a line on ‘Mohabatt’ that translates to, “The sadness of this is equal to the sadness of the world.” And I found that to be such a beautiful and simple yet striking line. I don’t know if the translation does justice to the original, but was that something that stood out to you as well? Do you feel like it relates to what you were saying before about the album and the mood that you wanted it to represent?
Yeah, it definitely does. The album as a whole represents this kind of disdainfulness for the ways of the world, which could be capitalism or the patriarchy or racism; there’s so many atrocious things that we as human beings on this earth are dealing with. And like I said earlier, the world just keeps turning, and it’s not to be upset about – you know, we don’t have that kind of privilege to be like, “I’m so upset about how shitty the whole entire world is.” It’s like, “Come on, you must have something else to do.” But to kind of channel that into personal stories, to channel that kind of feeling of like, “Oh, this unrequited love feels like the sadness of the world,” I think that that type of writing – I don’t know, it obviously wasn’t meant to be interpreted like that, but personally, it was simple enough and beautiful enough for me to read and just feel like this is really resonating with me. And it resonates with other sentiments on other songs of the album, because those lyrics also resonate, so it’s kind of like the poetry comes together in different ways on the album. It’s definitely intentional and extremely connected.
I wanted to touch on another moment, ‘Diya Hai’, which was the last song that you sang to your late brother in person. And that composition wasn’t fully prepared or complete at the time. I was wondering if you could talk about how your interpretation of it changed over time.
As far as my job in the song is concerned, I think I would have liked more time with the words, particularly because those words are very – maybe not to some, but to me they’re in a very formal style of Urdu. And so for me, I would have liked more time to really internalize the poetry in order to be able to sing it without thinking about how to even pronounce it. You know, you have to wait and you have to spend time with certain things so that you feel actually connected to it enough that it feels like it’s yours and it’s just very effortlessly flowing out of you. And so, I would have liked more time, but at the same time, I really wanted it to be in this album to immortalize this moment.
At the end of the day, it’s your game and it’s your rules, so if I’m only singing maybe one and a half couplets from the thing – the story begins and it doesn’t complete itself, but it’s like, it doesn’t have to, you know, it’s okay. I was like, “These four lines are what I feel good about right now. I’m going to go with them and I’m going to compose these and we’re going to make this a beautiful piece. These are the only four lines that I even actually sang to him, so trying to spend more time and figuring out how to express the rest of the song, maybe that’s not – that’s not even in the stars, maybe it’s just meant to be this much. So let’s do it.”
Do you feel like you did immortalize that moment?
Yeah. I think so.
I’m thinking of that line, “the sadness of the world,” and obviously in the context of the song the meaning is different, but grief and loss are such prominent themes on the album, which comes out at a time when we’re all, to some extent, collectively experiencing those emotions. But it’s also been a very personal experience for you. How does it feel to be offering this album to the world right now?
I think it’s coming out at a time where the global pandemic has just dragged everyone into the ground, you know, it’s really been trying and testing everyone’s patience. So many things have come up all over the world, so many things have come up because of this thing that we’ve been in. And I think that this music has come out at a good time where there’s an inkling of, like, returning to normal in some way, or maybe there’s a very tiny sentiment of hope, a very small sliver of it. It’s like a subtle sliding open of a door that has been closed for a while. And I think that’s kind of what the album is also feeling. A lot of people all over the world have also died, so it’s almost like – it wasn’t timed like this, but it is really well-timed, I guess, that we’re kind of trying to slowly slide out of this weird nightmare that we’ve been in, but in a very gentle and very graceful and a very uplifting way. And I think that’s the message, that’s what Vulture Prince is doing, and I think that’s the sentiment that people are looking for right now.
Is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t had the chance to talk about?
There’s a perfume oil that goes with the Vulture Prince album that I would recommend everyone to try. It’s on Bandcamp. I collaborated with this Egyptian perfumer [Dana El Masri], she lives in Canada and she’s amazing. She does a lot of work where she captures certain moments in time and makes themed perfumes off them. So I asked her to do this and we kind of had a conversation, and then she listened to the album and came up with this. I’d say the perfume experience acts much like the album, you’re kind of guessing what it might smell like, and then when you open the bottle it surprises you a bit, and over a few minutes of wearing it on your skin, it reveals really nice subtle layers and complexities. It’s a very elegant experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.