A new look, a new sound, a new album. I am sitting across a new Umair Jaswal.

There’s plenty of the old still there, simmering just beneath the surface of his cool new haircut and slight stubble. There’s the husky voice and the matter-of-fact observations that are quintessentially Umair. There’s also the experience gained from a career that spans over a decade, writing lyrics, singing original songs and revamped hits for shows such as Coke Studio and Velo Soundstation, and performing live-wire acts on stage.

Umair is taking all this know-how, amassed over the years, and spinning it to a new tune. It’s the need of the hour, he tells me.

“It’s the beauty of evolution,” he says. “We have to cater to an audience, put up a show, create music that connects with them. Some of the greatest bands in the world have evolved themselves in order to stay relevant to the people listening to them. You have to be brave about it and step out of your comfort zone.

Umair Jaswal was always known as the bad boy of rock. So what has prompted him to change tack completely and get into electronic dance music for his new avatar? Is Umair 2.0 simply a sell-out? 

“And in my case, every time that I have stepped out of my comfort zone, the audience has loved it. Some of my most famous songs … Sammi, Gaagar … were hits because I tried to do things differently. Honestly, I wasn’t very happy while recording many of them, wondering what I was doing. But magic happens outside the comfort zone. What’s the worst that could happen? The song could flop. That’s alright.”

Outside the comfort zone

Umair has only just hot-stepped into a new musical arena with his album, enticingly titled Dance Karain Saari Raat. True to its name, the songs are a far cry from the rock music that is particularly associated with him.

Instead, the album offers a montage of upbeat, technically sophisticated numbers that merge Punjabi, English and Urdu and talk about everything under the sun, from going on a car ride to complaining about a lover’s nakhray (tantrums) to ‘feeling alright, feeling all cool.’

What prompted this about-turn in his music?

For one, he observed that the audience was tiring off rock music. “I have seen the audience change, from head-banging to rock music to just head-bobbing to it,” Umair tells me.

Punjabi has so many fun elements to it. You can say one thing in seven different ways. It’s also second nature to me, because it is my mother tongue. It’s the first thing I hear when I wake up in the morning! I love Urdu too, but it’s for when I want to say something more serious.”

“I would be performing live on stage for 90 minutes until I was completely drained and then, as we left, a DJ would begin playing out music and the crowd would go wild. The beats would simply be playing out from a laptop and the crowd would be enjoying it more than our performance. I realised that if this is the sound that people want to listen to now, then I should give it a try.”

He recalls: “One day, I asked my niece what music she listened to. She said ‘Chachoo’s music’, which was basically a given, but aside from me, she didn’t listen to a single Pakistani band. I realised that we weren’t making music for these kids. They were listening to [Justin] Bieber and [Korean boy band] BTS, and those were the frequencies that they were accustomed to. This was their normal and, in Pakistan, we weren’t making music like that.

“Once I had wrapped up this album, I crowd-tested it and the best reactions I got were from kids ranging from fifth graders to O-levels. They loved it, which is great, since they are my audience for the next 10 years.”

Was it difficult upending his musical technique?

“I just went with what I was feeling,” he says. “I was struggling with an album right before the coronavirus pandemic hit. A lot of people loved it but I couldn’t connect with it anymore, so I didn’t release it. I felt that I needed to go back to the drawing board. I don’t have any regrets, but I wanted to start afresh.

“What could I do? What did I know? I knew music. As I started work on a new album, a friend of mine advised me to think like a music producer rather than just the vocalist singing the song. He said that I would have more fun that way.”

He continues, “Earlier, I had built these walls around me. I wanted to change the world with my music. I wanted to talk about serious things and stay away from frivolity. It was a very emotional place to be in and it would take its toll on me. Now, I decided to take a minute and relax, have fun.

“I never knew that I could write lyrics that way, to talk about things that were fun or just simple, ordinary things. A lot of industry veterans, such as Shuja [Haider] bhai and Rohail [Hayat] bhai had told me that my strength was in Punjabi, and this new album has songs that mix English with Punjabi.

“Punjabi has so many fun elements to it. You can say one thing in seven different ways. It’s also second nature to me, because it is my mother tongue. It’s the first thing I hear when I wake up in the morning! I love Urdu too, but it’s for when I want to say something more serious.

“To be honest, vocal-based music is much more demanding than electronic dance music,” he continues. “My primary apprehension was that, often, electronic music sounds like it’s on a loop. It can get repetitive and lack depth. But then I realised that, with my experience of more than a decade, I could change the dynamics of the songs and bring depth to them.

“I collaborated with Ahsan Pervaiz, who is a genius. We had worked on Gaagar together and, back then, we had discussed that we would work on something again. Now, we sat down and started with one song and, by the time we decided to pause and look back on what we had managed to do, we were on the 36th song!

“We wrote that fast. And basically, we’re on the third album now.”

At a time when many artists release singles spaced out by a few weeks and cash in on their hype, why make the effort to create an entire album?

“I just come from a time when I was exposed to music that was album-based,” he says. “An album means something. When I look back upon it, it will be reflective of the experiences that I was going through at that time. I could have released the songs one single at a time, but I have so much music to share with the world. I want to get all of this out so that I can proceed to the next.”

Why are there no slow songs in the mix? “There are slow-ish songs,” he tells me. Not really, I observe.

“The slower numbers are in the next edition, which will be releasing hopefully before Eid. We’re exploring different kinds of sounds and I am particularly thinking of how the songs will sound ‘live’. The one thing that I didn’t want to change was Umair Jaswal, the performer. I want to amplify the live energy as much as I can and go crazier on stage.

“People don’t want to hear slow music in a concert. In Punjab, the show starts off at a low tempo and then shoots sky high,” he motions with his hand, raising it up towards the sky. “The world is serious enough and I suppose that this is their escape. They want to have fun and dance, and I say sure, Dance Karain Saari Raat!”

Visual magic

How important will be visuals be in his revamped musical journey?

“Very important,” he says. “These songs are a lot of fun and I want people to be triggered by them visually as well as through the music. We’re planning out videos that are very different. The very first video, for the song Khata, is about to come out. It features Kubra Khan and my brother Yasir Jaswal has made it. We have a really great VFX and animation team in Dubai working on it.

“Then there’s the video of the title track, which is in pre-production right now. The album cover is a shot from that video. Even for the concerts, we’re getting custom-made character animations for every song. I really think that we need to think big and try to put up better shows.

“There was this one concert in which I was singing a love song and I noticed that my bass player was in fits of laughter while playing. I asked him, while singing, what had happened and he motioned behind me. There were rose petals falling in the background behind me! I mean, yeh kya hai yaar? [What’s this?]” He laughs.

His concert tour, promoting the new album’s songs, is about to begin. Where all will he be going?

“I am doing things differently. I want to take the music to my audience, the people who love it, I want to take it to students,” he says. “So we’ll be going to the best universities in the country and performing in free-for-all concerts. We take it to the fans directly. Let’s see if they like it or not.”

He’s already tried out some of the songs in concerts. How has the audience reacted to it? He smiles.

“People have loved them. At the same time, my rock music fans have had the strangest reactions. They tell me we love it but we’re so disappointed in you for doing this. This one boy said to me, ‘I’ll bet you I’ll be dancing to this at the next wedding but I don’t want you to do this because you’re a rock musician’. The thing is, I focused on rock music for 10 years. Now I want to do this. That was me, this is me too.

“At this one concert, I was singing one of my new songs, Feeling Alright, and I narrated the main chorus to the audience so that they would sing along. Two days later, I was in a business meeting with some brand representatives and this boy came to me and said, ‘Umair bhai, that day you really made a blunder making us sing a song with those lyrics. But then, when we heard the beat, it became my favourite song. Please give it to me! It must be in your phone.” Umair laughs.

He continues, “And then there are the people who call me a sell-out because I am dabbling with more commercial music.” He holds out his hands. “Sure, call me a sell-out. But I ask fans, how have you contributed to your favourite artist’s life? Most of them don’t want to buy tickets and want passes, they don’t buy albums, they don’t even want to pay for Spotify!

“We keep hearing about well-known artists dying in poverty. Aap ke pyar se kisi ka pait nahin bharta [Your love will not satiate anyone’s hunger]. It’s important to support the artist.”

How has he managed, though, given that he is releasing his own music after a long sabbatical? Music may be a source of income for him but does he also rely on other avenues for his bread and butter?

“There are different ways of earning. Artists do endorsements, corporate gigs, commercial appearances. Also, it is important to invest your earnings intelligently, in things that inspire you. In my case, I own an athletic-wear clothing line. I opened a gym because I am passionate about fitness and wellness. Me riding a bike became a show, Raahi. I am earning in different ways but I am still doing things that I love to do.”

You win some, you lose some

He’s also occasionally dabbling with acting, I remind him. Up until a few weeks ago, he was all set to play the role of Shoaib Akhtar in Rawalpindi Express, a biopic based on the cricketer’s life. Then, Umair announced that he was no longer going to be part of the movie. Some days later, Shoaib Akhtar also dissociated himself from the movie, promising legal action should it be made without his consent.

“I had been looking forward to the movie and I was training extensively for it. My knees had gotten huge from all the workouts that I was doing. I was training with Pakistan Cricket Board professionals. My morning would start at 6am. There would be physical training, mobility training, flexibility, rehab training and net practice every day.

“The makers of the movie, however, had their focus elsewhere. There was some very nasty stuff happening between them and the man on whose life the movie was going to be made. I sensed that there would be many more problems arising in the future, and I decided to leave. The next thing I knew, even the man on whom the movie was going to be based had backed out. So I guess my gut feeling was spot-on.”

He must have been disappointed, I comment. “I can’t say I wasn’t down,” he agrees. “I had invested so much into the project and I even got injured twice. I had literally given it my blood and sweat. The next morning, though, I realised that there was no reason to be sad.

“Here I was, preparing to play someone else when God was giving me the opportunity to simply do more of my own work. I had an album about to release, a second album was ready, a 10-show nationwide tour lined up and then, I was offered the opportunity to work in Raahi Season 2,” he refers to the mini-series that features him motorbiking across the country.

“So this movie has actually given me the opportunity to return to my show.”

He’s busy professionally but there’s also Umair’s personal life, which he keeps far from social media’s roving eye, despite the fact that his wife is a very famous woman, actress Sana Javed. Even their wedding, back in 2020, had been an intimate affair, without the hype and hoopla usually associated with celebrity weddings. Given his penchant for privacy, I ask him the simplest question: how has married life changed him?

“Well, I know how much it costs to run a house now,” he laughs. “I have also started valuing a lot of things. I value my parents more. I appreciate the financial and emotional effort that has to be invested into a marriage. Marriage changes you in so many ways. It is a great thing, and everyone should experience it.”

Has he started watching TV dramas now, given that Sana may be starring in some of them? “No, I can’t watch dramas,” he states. “I do catch the short glimpses that pop up on my Instagram feed, though. I don’t even know if she watches dramas since usually we’re just watching something else on TV.”

It’s an honest admission. Perhaps that’s yet another thing that’s similar about Umair Jaswal, then and now. He’s always been upfront, ready to admit the obstacles that he’s faced while simultaneously rejoicing over his successes.

Now he’s back in the spotlight, with his new album, a groovy new sound, ready to go wherever the soundwaves take him. In his own words, magic can happen outside the comfort zone.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 26th, 2023

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