THE ICON INTERVIEW: GETTING INTO HIS GROOVE

Published September 25, 2022
Photo: Abdullah Naseem
Photo: Abdullah Naseem

Talal Qureshi has become one of the most in-demand music producers in Pakistan with a runaway hit in the last season of Coke Studio with Peechhay Hutt, a song he collaborated on with Hasan Raheem and the Justin Bibis.

Talal Qureshi has produced quite a few of Hasan Raheem’s songs — who himself is a rising star in the music industry — including Paisa (2021), Faltu Pyaar (2022) with Natasha Noorani, Pyaar Hai Asli (2022) and Sweetu (2021) with Maanu, among others. All of these feature artists who are producing some very successful music that’s striking a chord with audiences today.

But while it’s only in the past couple of years that Talal Qureshi’s has become a recurring name, somehow linked to almost every major music production project or song in Pakistan, he’s been around for much longer.

Somewhat of an introvert, Talal Qureshi started out by experimenting with music software on his PlayStation as a child.

Talal Qureshi has been making waves as a music producer over the last couple of years. But he’s been around for much longer, and is one of the pioneers of electropop in Pakistan. Then why, even with his newfound fame, is he afflicted with imposter syndrome?

“I used to make music and I had no idea [whether it was good or bad],” he says. “There was always music playing at home. When I grew up, my brother [Yasir Qureshi] was also in a band [Aunty Disco Project]. I was very inspired by him and the instruments I would see lying around.

“I started exploring that and, this one time, I broke my wrist and I was stuck at home for a month. I started installing a lot of software — and one of [the softwares] turned out to be music-making software. That was it. I feel like that sort of changed everything.”

He was around 13 at the time. Thirty-four years old now, Talal has moved on to more sophisticated software and has increasingly started to incorporate more acoustic sounds and instrumentation into his music.

Talal Qureshi has been at it for years, quietly putting out music consistently online, his earlier notable collaborations being with another giant in the alternative music scene, Adil Omar. Both of them were also among the earliest artists from Pakistan to be invited to perform at South by South West, a tech-friendly, progressive annual music festival in Texas, United States — a feat he’s particular about crediting entirely to Adil Omar.

“I was with Adil, making music with him,” he says. “We played his music. So, I wouldn’t take that credit away from anyone. That happened thoroughly because of him.”

And who can forget the 2018 Mad Decent Block Party in Islamabad? It featured the likes of international American electropop artist, Diplo (Lean On, Where Are You Now?). “It was just insane,” he says from his studio in Lahore, where he’s currently based. “It was one of the best shows we’ve had.”

Talal is, however, tight-lipped about his interaction with Diplo in Pakistan. “I was not too involved,” he explains.

“I was more in the background. I was in a different phase of my life, I was just making music. We had a lot of fun doing those shows with Diplo in America as well. It was a good time. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Diplo personally. Just to see his journey and how he’s taken the music scene on his side. And I keep saying that to him: ‘You’ve helped me a lot, bro.’”

The Faris Shafi ‘Bromance’

Photo: Talal Qureshi
Photo: Talal Qureshi

The real love is saved for Faris Shafi. Talal and Faris Shafi’s first collaboration came out in 2018 with Jawab De, a rap song written by Faris, demanding accountability for the increasing violations of human rights and the deteriorating law and order situation in Pakistan. It was first released through the BBC Asian Network on their YouTube channel.

“He’s my brother and, obviously, this is a love story,” laughs Talal. “I don’t remember when I met him the first time, but it was a really funny encounter. We connected back on music and made Jawab De and didn’t speak for another six months.

“At that time, I felt like I was growing as an artist and whatever I would do, after a week I would think it sounds horrible,” he explained. “I changed the outro for Jawab De four times. He would tell me it’s perfect, but I wasn’t satisfied. That’s the only time I’ve ever had a miscommunication with Faris. But he was right.”

You can see the camaraderie between Faris and Talal in the live music video recorded for Jawab De. There’s an almost palpable energy between them. They laugh, nod at each other and seem almost perfectly in sync as performers.

Naseebo Lal also gave the boys a lesson in humility. “There is a line in the original song that goes, 'Main queen of the industry' [I am the queen of the industry],” relates Talal. “She refused to sing that saying, ‘Main queen nahin hoon. Woh Madam Noor Jehan hain' [I am not the queen, that is Madam Noor Jehan]. We changed it to ‘Sanu wekhay industry' [The industry looks at us].

Since then, they’ve released quite a few memorable songs, including Clap (2018), Nazar (2020), Hum (2022) and Vitamin D (2022). All of them are strong commentaries on our socio-political condition. That might be Faris’ songwriting, but Talal provides the perfect atmosphere, through the music he produces, to communicate and enhance that.

Collaborating with Faris was a great learning experience for Talal that helped him get in touch with his mother tongue. “Working with Adil, I saw that he was doing music in English,” says Talal. “It was great writing and I appreciated that, but with Faris, it was an entirely different thing. I had to dig in deep with Urdu.

“I learned how to phrase things better. Ab humari baat hi rhyming mein hoti hai, meri aur Faris ki [Now, we even rhyme while we talk, Faris and I],” he laughs.

I spoke to Faris earlier this year and he mentioned how the public hasn’t even heard half the music he and Talal have worked on. “We have a lot of stuff we made during the lockdowns, confirms Talal. “A lot of songs [laughs]. Hum and Vitamin D were all made in 2019. It was just their time [to be released] now. It’s also a load off of our shoulders.”

Fangirling Over Atif Aslam

The Faris and Talal bromance doesn’t end there. They collaborated with Atif Aslam on a fun, completely fresh-sounding cricket anthem called Cricket Khidaiye that was released in collaboration with Coke Studio in 2021. It exploded online. It currently has over 13 million hits on YouTube.

It felt that, finally, the mainstream media was catching on to what those following the ‘underground’ music scene in Pakistan knew for years — that both Talal Qureshi and Faris Shafi are incredibly talented, powerhouse artists in their own right, who can make memorable music together.

“Yeah, it turned out nice,” says Talal, mock casually. After its release, the song was everywhere. It seemed like a defining moment in both Talal’s and Faris’s life. How was life like afterwards? “It was the same to be honest!” he laughs. “I was still sitting in my bedroom, making music.

“I didn’t face any pressure in Cricket Khidaiye,” he relates. “I had creative freedom from the get go. The first time they asked me, ‘Who do you want?’, I told them: Atif and Faris.

“Because I’d never worked with Atif before and, second, I’d never heard Atif and Faris together. Third, I think they’re [expletive] dope.”

What was the experience like of working with Atif? “The first time I met him, I was obviously shook,” he says. “I was very quiet but inside, meri fangirling tou next level thi [my fangirling was on the next level].”

Talal admits that, earlier, he used to be very shy about sharing his ideas, afraid that they might be shot down. “But now I’ve learned to trust my gut and let go,” he adds. “That’s how the studio session happened with Atif. He asked, ‘What are we doing?’ I told him, ‘I don’t know. I have this beat and we’re singing to it’.”

Atif heard the beat and sounded surprised. “Singing?” he asked Talal. Talal suggested rapping instead.

I’ve never heard that version, I told him. “There are two, there is one in which Atif is rapping and singing,” said Talal. “[Atif] said, ‘I’ve never had a studio session like this where we’re chilling and including whatever sounds good to us.’ We were singing, recording, laughing, having fun. It didn’t feel like I was meeting Atif for the first time.

“And that’s how naturally it became a nice friendship. It’s still mind-blowing for me, working with this guy, whenever he’s over. I’m like, ‘What the hell is he doing in my house? I mean, who am I?’”

Photo: Zain Peerzada
Photo: Zain Peerzada

Collaborating With Naseebo Lal

One of my top favourite Talal Qureshi productions is when he got Naseebo Lal to rap in Punjabi and heavily Punjabi-accented English in Aag (2018), a song he co-wrote with the bad boy of Punjabi electropop, Shamoon Ismail.

Aag is also featured in the fourth episode of Disney’s Ms Marvel (2022) series, and is set when the lead character, Kamala Khan, visits Lahore.

“That was a lot of fun to be honest,” relates Talal. He mentioned wanting a song written in a Punjabi, a language he’s not proficient in, and how he felt Shamoon Ismail was the best person to collaborate with on this.

“This was very early on,” he adds. “He had released Jutt Blues by this point. When I thought about Naseebo, I made the beat, melody, structured the song in my head and knew that I wanted to get her to rap. I went to Shamoon and hummed the flow and he started writing.”

When Talal first visited Naseebo Lal at her house and played her the demo, she was a bit taken aback but, without batting an eyelid, agreed to do it.

While calm on the surface, Talal had that same feeling of excitement coupled with disbelief on the inside. “I went to her place and she offered me chai made from the milk of her goat,” he relates. “She’s so chill and she’s such a legendary singer. I’m no one in front of her. I was like, ‘Why is she even agreeing to the idea of rapping with me?’

“In the studio, I would dictate every line with the move she had to make. And she would imitate me. She also did the ad libs on her own. It was mind-blowing.”

Naseebo also gave the boys a lesson in humility. “There is a line in the original song that goes, Main queen of the industry [I am the queen of the industry],” relates Talal. “She refused to sing that saying, ‘Main queen nahin hoon. Woh Madam Noor Jehan hain [I am not the queen, that is Madam Noor Jehan].’ We changed it to ‘Sanu wekhay industry [The industry looks at us]’.

“As rap artists or producers, we’re always going on about how ‘I’m the best!’ and here’s this woman who has done more shows than any of us, in places we can’t imagine going, and for her to be so humble… then who am I say, ‘I’m the best producer?’ F*** this!”

‘Masti Mein Music’

Talal has been making and releasing electronic music online for over a decade. But it’s only now, especially in the past few years, that we’ve seen a literal explosion of electropop artists breaking through in this genre — from Shamoon Ismail, Abdullah Siddiqui, Hasan Raheem, Maanu, Towers, Natasha Noorani, Taha G to Rozeo and more. “Now I guess, everyone is in my phase,” laughs Talal.

What I didn’t realise was how closely he pays attention to critique that’s published about his work or that of his contemporaries. “I read some article where they were s******* on my song for no reason. It said ‘It sounds like they’re not taking themselves seriously.’ Which is the main purpose. You do not have to take yourself seriously. It’s just exactly what we were feeling in that moment.”

That critique was actually published in these very pages and the line in question read: “… Shaam by Talal Qureshi, Maanu, Mujju and Towers is a song that doesn’t take itself seriously. It seems to have been put together very quickly, on the spur of the moment and released.”

Shaam was done in two hours,” he says. “The only reason it may sound rushed is because it is the product of two hours. And it was something we felt like we should release.”

From where he is right now, he doesn’t want to sit on songs or linger before releases. “I’ve waited so long to release my music that I have 9,000 tracks on my laptop,” he says, sounding frustrated.

“I’ll tell you what makes a song click: it’s literally that energy which is infectious in the room. Natasha [Noorani] and Hasan [Raheen] made our song, Faltu Pyaar, in a hotel room.

While the current spate of music that’s coming out is incredibly catchy and incredibly well produced, my biggest gripe is that, lyrically, the songs sound ‘dumb’. The vocabulary used is at a bare minimum.

“Do you know what’s really funny? It’s really hard writing dumb music,” responds Talal. “It takes a lot to be simple. There is a generational gap. There’s a change in how we communicate and the words we use. This is how young people communicate today.

“Half of it is just me trying to evolve. We all have to get with the programme in terms of how we adapt to situations. Humans do have to evolve their skills and their language. I used to be very bitter before, in my time, because I was frustrated trying to achieve something, [but now] I try to take it all in a more positive light.”

He relates how Sweetu, the song he collaborated with on Hasan Raheem and Maanu, in which Hasan sounds inebriated (almost) and in which the chorus is basically one line, “Main sab se ziyada sweetu”, was recorded in one go.

“Sweetu is also one-night’s work,” he relates. “We recorded the song an hour before the video was shot. That happened naturally. The song was lower than the key Hasan sings in naturally. I told him I’m going to change the key so he can sound like himself. Humara masti mein music banta hai [We have fun making our music]. For me, there’s nothing better than that.

“You can see from the past three years’ track record I have of doing masti mein music. We didn’t feel like it sounded dumb. Sweetu [the term] is very old. Naheed Akhtar would sing about, ‘I am Sweety’.” He is referencing a song from the 1978 Lollywood film, Kora Kaghaz.

Talal is all praises talking about the new generation of artists. “The creative energy, of all of these people, is something I haven’t felt in a long time,” he relates. “I haven’t seen speed-writing the way they do it… I have to be on the same level. If they’re going to finish a song in an hour, I have to as well.

“It’s a learning process. It’s always fun to hang out with them. They’re chillers. No one’s taking themselves too seriously. They’re happy for each other. The best thing is: everyone is collaborating with everyone. I’ve never felt that in the industry before.”

Dealing With Fame

Talal had earlier mentioned meeting Maanu and Rozeo for first time at the Lahore Music Meet, where both of them wanted to sing for him or shared their demos with him. He was blown away by the talent. But also taken aback at being lauded by them.

“Sometimes I still can’t comprehend…” he shares. “Half of the time, I’ll sit and cry and go ‘What the **** am I doing?’. When someone comes and meets me, they have a story to tell me about my music and how they connected to it.

“It’s a very strange feeling as in, how do I react to these things? I’ve had this problem since childhood. If someone praised me for anything, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’ve realised it’s very important to just be yourself.” Talal obviously has a case of imposter syndrome.

Who’s the one artist he’d love to collaborate with, but hasn’t as yet?

“Abida Parveen,” he responds without hesitating. “I know exactly what I want but that’s Abida Parveen! If it ever happens, [inside] I’ll be freaking out.” Let’s hope it does happen. Maybe it’ll help Talat believe in himself as much as others do.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 25th, 2022

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