Artist Session #11: Talal Qureshi on steering the future of Pakistani music and cross-border collaborations

Talal Qureshi's journey into the world of music is as unconventional as it is captivating. His trajectory is a testament to the transformative power of passion and perseverance.

Artist Session #11: Talal Qureshi on steering the future of Pakistani music and cross-border collaborations
Photo: Asfand Beyg

If you know me, you know that I am quite a big fan of the entire Pakistani Music Industry, especially the new era, or “Pakistani Indie 2.0” as I like to call it, and Talal Qureshi, according to me, is the perfect starting point for discovering this entire scene. My partner grew up in Srinagar, Kashmir and thus frequently got all the music channels from Pakistan through his satellite reception. As a big lover of music, he never really stopped following the scene as the years went by. One fine day, he introduced me to ‘Koi Toh Jawab De’ by Talal Qureshi and Faris Shafi; the rest was history.

Talal Qureshi's journey into the world of music is as unconventional as it is captivating. From his humble beginnings tinkering with the MTV Music Generator on a PlayStation to his evolution into a renowned Producer and Artist, his trajectory is a testament to the transformative power of passion and perseverance. His encounter with Faris Shafi, culminating in the creation of 'Koi Toh Jawab De' for the BBC Asian Network marked a pivotal moment in Talal's journey. The experience laid out the foundation for a future marked by boundary-pushing collaborations and a commitment to authenticity in his musical endeavours. 

Even in navigating the complex landscape of cross-border collaborations between India and Pakistan, Talal found himself at the forefront of a movement in the Pakistani music scene. Despite the challenges posed by political tensions and artistic restrictions, he remained undeterred in his pursuit of creative expression. Through his collaborations with Indian artists like Yashraj and Mitika, Talal moved past geographical boundaries, forging connections based on a shared love for music and a desire to break down barriers.

As he continues to carve out his place in the global music world, one thing remains abundantly clear: Talal Qureshi is a force to be reckoned with, poised to leave an indelible mark on the world of music for years to come.

Srishti Das: Can you share some of your earliest memories of music which led you to choose to be a musician?

Talal Qureshi: My earliest memory of music is making music on my PlayStation. I didn't realise until I was 18 or 19 that I used to do that, which was ridiculous. These Japanese dance games taught me about the sequence, the metronome and the timing of the music.

Srishti: Wow, so like Guitar Hero, but way back in time.

Talal: I think it wasn't Guitar Hero; it was just using PlayStation's normal joystick. It was called the MTV Music Generator. It was like a software called FL Studio and even looked like it. My brother used to play the keyboard in a band, so I saw him as a “rockstar,” which intrigued me, eventually leading me to music.

Srishti: Band culture used to be really big in Pakistan, but is it because of your love for making music on computers that you chose to be a producer, or how did you get to that? ‘Jawab De’ is probably my personal favourite. How did that come to be and what was your experience working with Faris Shafi?

Talal: I used to make a lot of music and I met Faris at Meesha's house because we were recording something. This guy walked in. It was weird because he had this half-worn hoodie around his neck, and I just thought, “Who the hell is this guy?” but then when I heard him, I was blown away! I made the beat and when I sent it to Faris for ‘Jawab De’, that was the first song we made together. I have to say, working on this track taught me to simplify things. When he did the vocals, I did not expect it would go to that level. So for me to be able to do that with him was also a statement for myself, rather than saying it to other people. 

Srishti: Somehow, I'm not surprised. You just did a song with Yashraj. You have spoken very highly of Mitika in your interviews as well. Tell me about the whole India-Pakistan artist ban and if that had any impact on you. How did you start to approach these opportunities?

Talal: The first opportunity that I got was back in 2012 when NH7 Weekender reached out to me to play a set in India. At the time, there was a bit of a conflict between our countries, but it still felt like if I applied for a visa, there was a possibility of it coming through back then. But I never got my visa, so I couldn't make it to India even though I really wanted to. Then all these opportunities started coming in like with Divine. We've always been in touch since his first song, 'Mere Gully Mein'. We used to keep sending Snapchats to each other along the lines of, ”Bro! We have to work on something together”, but at that time, Indian artists were not allowed to work with Pakistani artists. I would reach out to my Indian friends like Karan Kanchan, with whom I have been wanting to collaborate for a while now, but that ban got in the way of us creating music for many years. Shoutout to the Indian and Pakistani artists who were brave enough to collaborate with each other without thinking about the consequences. This happened when Young Stunners collaborated with KR$NA for their song ‘Quarantine’. That gave more confidence to people, so I'm always telling my Indian friends that now we've got to do it. That's how I connected with Yash, Rawal, and Karan. I have a bunch of music coming out with Yash. I'm doing a track on his EP. I'm also working with Mitika on new music, I'm really looking forward to it.

Srishti: What are your thoughts on the new age of the Pakistani music scene that is gaining momentum right now? Especially after the success of Coke Studio Pakistan Season 14?

Talal: I think the boost in Pakistan's music scene with myself, Hassan, Maan, and all of those artists changed the perspective of a lot of artists because they’re younger than the ones before. Their passion for music was just different, and it was reflected in the music. 2020-21 was the most wholesome year for the Pakistani music industry because everyone was trying to collaborate with everyone, and it wasn't like you were working with someone for their "market value", it was solely with the purpose of connecting with the person and making good music. We all wrote amazing music, but then came the challenging part, which was the ban, but we are definitely finding ways around it now.

Srishti: We spoke to Natasha as well. One of the things that Natasha mentioned for ‘Ronaq’ was that she was scared of what people's judgments would be of her. She credits you highly for the album, saying that you constantly told her not to be afraid and to go for it. Could you  take us through a little bit more of your perspective on the album?

Talal: I felt like I've never worked with a vocalist like Natasha, so I wanted to try some fresh ideas with her. We made around 20 songs and probably released 8-9 tracks I've produced. My whole career, I would say, is actually not giving a fuck, and that does not come from a place of hatred or superiority. I’ve just always been this way. I've always wondered what's the point of being scared if you want to make music. I think she understood that I have never made music based on a 'formula.' Whatever you hear on ‘Ronaq’ happened naturally in the studio at that moment. I've always had Natasha in the studio when I was making the beat and whenever I would play my keyboard, I would sequence a melody and just leave it for five minutes to see if she comes up with something. As soon as she came up with something, that was it. That was the whole process for me. It also worked both ways because she also gave me the confidence to work with a female artist. 

Akriti: I just have to say this album meant so much to me! The production is tight. You said there's no formula and you can tell because nobody with a formula can make something that sounds so good.

Talal: Thank you. I grew up listening to a lot of music, but that did not shape my approach to making electronic music. That might have shaped my approach to making Pop or R&B, but I've never wanted to go back in the past or bring a nostalgic flavour to my music. I've always thought about what's going to happen in 2050 - That's been my whole thing, whether it's for my album or anyone's work that I've done. I just have one motto: to give it my all because my name is going to be a part of it. If I'm doing this, then I have to give it my 100%. It's one of those situations where music is a drug that I can't live without.

Srishti: It's interesting because these people are asking you for Gen Z music, but you just said you’re making music for the future, which is technically for Gen Z and Gen Alpha.

Talal: I don't know if that is the thing. People used to get offended a long time back when kids used to sing our songs. We always said little kids can't listen to our music, as so many tracks contain profanity. As soon as I made 'Peechay Hutt’, kids of the age of 2-3 years old were singing my song! My own nephew, who's three years old, keeps singing the 'Hutt' part! It's one of the greatest feelings when people of all ages are singing your songs. 

Srishti: One of the things that you said, and I constantly face this problem, is that there is a big difference between Beatmakers and Producers, but it's perceived like they are the same thing. I would love to know what you think about it.

Talal: I've always kept these two separate. A beatmaker is the one who makes the beats and sends them to you. So, it's usually like a folder of beats, and you can choose whatever you like, write, and release. I’ve always been very vocal about melodic ideas. I love writing chorus hooks, so I'm always taking the vocals and chopping them up to create a melodic pattern. In fact, listen to some of the biggest artists whose beat selection isn't that good. It's just that people should know the difference between making a track and a beat. If you give me 15 minutes, I'll make a new beat and send it to you, and I won't even have to do anything. Whereas to make a song, you have to put in the time not because it's a formulated product, but just how much you are interested in it. For example, If Mitika sends me vocals, I take those vocals and I completely change them up, then send them back to her. Then she sings on the same key. If I change it up, I will produce a bit more and then I will send it back, so your input is essential.

Srishti: We did a Predictions piece at the beginning of the year and one of the big predictions was the demand for sampling. How has your experience been with sampling music?

Talal: I have always used samples and I wanted to sample legends like Ustad Tafu, he has created some of the legendary Lollywood music and collaborated with legends such as Mehdi Hassan, Noor Jahan and all these artists who created timeless pieces for us. In fact, I wanted to sample a lot of music by Noor Jahan, but the labels ask for insane amounts of money, making it impossible to sample these kinds of iconic artists and tracks. As much as I enjoy using samples, I now think about the future when making and producing music. I want all the collaborators on the tracks to earn revenue rather than spending crazy money on getting a sample license from a big player and no one benefits from the new track except an entity that owns the sample license. When it came to ‘Turbo,’ I wanted to create music that people could license out from me and so I did little to no sampling on ‘Turbo’ to keep that option of sampling open for others and hopefully provide more revenue opportunities for my collaborators. 

Check out the HIVEWIRE playlist - The Hive

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