On a video-call, it looks like Abdullah Siddiqui is sitting in a closet.
“My room looks like a closet,” laughs the 20-year-old singer-songwriter and producer who’s taken the music industry by storm. Although he’s been out there for a few years now, he’s been featured on a popular online indie music platform — True Brew, when he first felt he had ‘arrived’ until he really did — most people were only introduced to his work through his breakout performance of his original song, 'Resistance', on last year’s Nescafe Basement.
It wasn’t just the mature songwriting and sleek production of his well-structured electronic pop songs that made it sound like he was more of an American pop artist than a Pakistani one, it was also the fact that he was so young.
“I do get that a lot,” he says. “It’s kind of funny, I still see new articles popping up that say I’m 17. It was my birthday yesterday, I’m 20 now.”
This interview takes place during the lockdown. Doing a video-call with someone I have never met before is a first for me. Off the bat, we’re letting a complete stranger get a glimpse into our most private spaces — our bedrooms — even if through a screen.
Except, when Abdullah Siddiqui comes into the call from Lahore — where he lives — it looks like he is in a wardrobe. Add in his round spectacles and youthful charm, and he reminds me of a Pakistani version of Harry Potter.
Abdullah Siddiqui is the electropop prodigy who has taken the Pakistan music scene by storm. But behind this mature songwriting talent is a painfully shy, young man who still can’t believe where he’s got to
‘Are you getting ready to head to Hogwarts?’ I joke with him. “I’m in my room,” he laughs. “I just had the wall in front of me fitted with a frame and a clock on it. That’s the backdrop of my upcoming music video. I shot the whole thing pretty much in my own room.”
Abdullah comes across as somewhat shy at first, but also very easy to talk to. He seems keenly observant, not just of his own self — evident from his songwriting — but also of the world around him.
Another thing that stands out is that he’s also very eloquent. He has a way with words.
His whole body of work so far is deeply introspective. “That comes from just spending a lot of time alone in my room in the dark,” he says. “It comes from a place of overthinking almost. And not having much to write about, honestly. And this is where the age thing comes in, because I’m just not old enough to have lived many interesting experiences.”
But perhaps that will change now. Abdullah has been making music for almost a decade and has come a long way from experimenting with Michael Jackson covers on an old German audio software, to burning through iPads producing his music on rudimentary applications and still managing to sound like a pro.
He’s now been featured on several major music festivals and shows and is currently releasing his second full-length album, Heterotopia, which features over 14 singles, five of which are collaborations with popular indie and mainstream artists.
The turning point
While True Brew is followed immensely by hardcore music aficionados, it’s nothing compared to the kind of attention a mainstream platform, such as Nescafe Basement, can get a young, budding artist. It’s broadcast on multiple television channels with a simultaneous release online that reaches out to people beyond the country’s borders.
Abdullah Siddiqui was one of the breakout artists from last year’s Basement. To date, his performance of 'Resistance' on the show has garnered a whopping 3.6 million hits. He was not ready for that kind of attention.
“I really felt strangely vulnerable because every time I’d refresh the screen, there were a few thousand more views,” he says. He stayed up most of the night after the day of the release checking the reception online.
“I felt like I had eyes at the back of my head. My likeness is out there and a huge number of people have seen it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
A rude awakening that a lot of upcoming artists experience is that fame changes their relationships with people around them — they start behaving differently. Did that happen with him?
“Not with anyone whom I was already hanging out with, because they had been freaking out since my days at True Brew. But it really did feel like all eyes were on me. People were taking pictures with me in school,” he laughs. “People whom I had had conversations with but they didn’t remember me, but now…” he trails off, clearly still amused.
“It lasted for a couple of months,” he says. “It [Nescafe Basement] really was a seismic shift in everything.”
On meeting an idol and collaborating with her
“From what I’ve heard, Meesha was the one that showed Xulfi [the producer of Basement] 'Resistance',” says Abdullah. He hadn’t met her at that point, despite the fact that he’d also had his own little appearance on a show she has been a judge and performer in, Pepsi Battle of the Bands.
Much like all other times with well-known people he’s worked with in the industry, this time too, it was a call out of the blue that connected them.
“I was super-overwhelmed because I’m a huge fan of hers,” he says. They hit it off from the start and would talk for hours about “all sorts of insane things.”
I remember seeing a Meesha Instagram story, in which she documented attending a music festival in Lahore with her brother Faris Shafi, who is also a performer. In one update, she posted a video of Abdullah Siddiqui performing 'Diamond & Dynamite' on stage. Meesha sang along. She knew all of the lyrics.
I wrote 'Kids' from a place of insecurity,” reveals Abdullah. “A large part of it was the imposter syndrome — being in all these rooms with all these important people and feeling like I shouldn’t be here. But there is also the other side of that…”
Earlier this year, I saw an update on Abdullah’s Instagram, where he was singing Meesha’s song, 'Mein', but he had given his own spin to it — it was stripped down, sans any music and he put a lot of emotion into it. Anyone with a keen eye on social media could’ve predicted that a collaboration was imminent.
But it had already happened, on a dark night way back in December last year. It was raining heavily when Abdullah turned up to record Meesha in the sitting room of her mother-in-law’s house. But things didn’t run as smoothly as he had hoped.
“We started the recording process, which was really sort of undignified because I’m sure she’s recorded in the greatest studios the country has to offer. I just handed her a mic without anything attached to it,” laughs Abdullah, still sounding quite embarrassed.
“On top of that, our extension cord caught fire. We had to put that out.”
But Meesha made the best of the situation. “She just sat on the couch, holding the mic awkwardly trying to record,” he says. “But that’s kind of what I love about the way she works, because she’s completely game to do anything, as long as it makes great art. We formed a very strong collaborative working relationship I haven’t really had with anyone else.”
The video he’s just finished filming for is for their musical collaboration. It’s a song titled 'Magenta Cyan'. Meesha filmed her part in Canada, where she is currently based. The song is a part of the current album, Heterotopia.
For someone who is uncomfortable in front of the camera, this process made him feel very vulnerable.
“I didn’t hire a video crew,” he says. “I did it with just me and a close friend of mine. So I could be open and vulnerable. Particularly because the song really is kind of tragic. Lip-syncing to it, you have to really let out all the stuff that I wouldn’t unless I was with somebody I was comfortable with.”
On creating melancholic art
One of the songs that really stands out for me in Abdullah Siddiqui’s repertoire of music is his collaboration with rapper-songwriter Faris Shafi, on a hauntingly beautiful, somewhat melancholic, incredibly atmospheric track called 'Prosaic'. The sound design can, at best, be described as strange, very similar to the work done by the British-Pakistani band Bat 4 Lashes, but in a way that works.
His collaboration with Faris was purely by chance. Faris might even call it fate.
“I woke up to a call from Faris,” says Abdullah, still sounding surprised, although it’s been well over a year. “The first thing he says to me is, ‘I had a dream about you. We should work together.’ My friends worshipped him.”
They met that night. They drove around Lahore while Abdullah played him different songs he had been working on. “I wasn’t expecting him to like 'Prosaic' at all, but he immediately latched on to it. He was completely sure that this was the one.”
'Prosaic' was originally a part of an earlier unreleased album that Abdullah had put his heart and soul into. It remains largely unreleased so far. “It was supposed to be a melancholic moment and a subtle closing to the album,” says Abdullah.
That’s kind of what I love about the way Meesha Shafi works, because she’s completely game to do anything, as long as it makes great art. We formed a very strong collaborative working relationship I haven’t really had with anyone else.”
“I sent it to him,” he says. “A couple of months later, he sent me a verse that was just so heart-breaking it was breathtaking.”
One could say that about both Abdullah and Faris’s sections of the song. To describe the lyrics as melancholic is an understatement. It is a deep and profound pain in beautiful prose. The lyrics are available on the YouTube link for Prosaic.
“That track is unique in my catalogue of work, in that the headspace in which I made it is not one I’ve been able to recreate ever since,” adds Abdullah.
On struggling with fame
His first release, 'Kids', from his current album, Heterotopia, a collaboration he’s done with another artist who’s broken through and is currently very popular, Shamoon Ismail, talks about grappling with success, industry dynamics and the internet.
“I wrote it from a place of insecurity,” reveals Abdullah. “A large part of it was the imposter syndrome — being in all these rooms with all these important people and feeling like I shouldn’t be here. But there is also the other side of that…”
And that’s where Shamoon comes in. “He has no f**** to give!” laughs Abdullah. “His verse is about how he’s worked his entire life to get here. He deserves this. It’s a great contrast. That’s how I feel about my collaborations, I get someone else on the track to say what I want to say.”
Now that he’s considered a mainstream artist, has his newfound popularity sunk in? Does he struggle with the fame that comes with it?
“For me, I wouldn’t say I have fame, but I would say I have recognition,” says Abdullah. “That in itself brings its challenges, because I am really, intrinsically, deeply introverted. I am somebody that is just viscerally averse to people looking at me.
“But that’s the line that a lot of musicians walk — don’t look at me, but definitely listen to me. It’s a hard thing to balance.”
Abdullah’s just getting the hang of it.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 23rd, 2020