Approximately two weeks before 'Main Tera', the first single of his new album that hit the airwaves, Azaan Sami Khan played me three tracks ('Jadugari' and 'Tu' being the other two) from it, at his new under-construction house in DHA.
As I watched a cut of the 'Main Tera' music video — the green screen obvious behind the talent in a few shots — Azaan began pacing a portion of his lawn connecting to the veranda (that is, I think it would be a lawn; the work was all over the place).
Azaan paced back and forth, his expression that of a father who wants to show the world his baby, but is anxious — perhaps unnerved — by potential reactions. The gesture was natural and sweet, but it didn’t take my mind off the wonderful tunes that played out of the speakers he had set up.
The three tracks have a unique vibe. A sort of subconscious rhythm flows through them. They sound like they belong to a set. Azaan tells me that they need a bit of tweaking in the mixing stage. I could hardly tell.
Azaan is the same as the day I first met him: humble, anxious, young, ambitious. Born as the golden boy of celebrity parents who have international following — Zeba Bakhtiar and Adnan Sami Khan — brought up and pampered by an industry people spend lives trying to get a foothold in, he knows things might have been a tad easy for him.
So, whenever we speak — which is usually after long spans of months — he appears to be aware of his privileged space…and that is why he is always so adamant in making a mark for himself. That is what Parwaaz Hai Junoon, Superstar and Parey Hut Love’s music — all of which he composed — was about, and more importantly, this is what this album is about. He doesn’t want to be known as the rich kid of well-known parents, he told me a year or so ago when we last met for an interview for Icon.
'Main Tera', directed for the screen by Mohammad Ehtashamuddin — the director of Superstar — is the first of six singles he plans to release. The plan is to release one single every month for six months, and then let the album roll out.
Why make an album in this market, I ask — and out comes a very long reply, with a backstory.
“It came out from a place…” he starts, stopping and restarting. “I would be making songs for movies and I would find myself trying to break the fourth wall and put [or rather impose] my feelings on to the characters, and just as I was doing that, I would realise that I was doing something wrong, because the situation that this character was going through is something I haven’t gone through.”
He interjects his own train of thought to reference Michael Jackson’s 'Billie Jean' — a classic whose depth and story one realises is very different if one listens to its lyrics. He then returns to the question at hand: “The producer would never allow me to do a song like that in their films. Woh bolay ga ke dance track chahiye, matlab everybody get-up-and-dance type [They would want happening dance tracks]. They wouldn’t want “she was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene” [a line from 'Billie Jean'] type feel, which would be fitting for an album.
“So, I really felt that I wanted to achieve that…I needed to do something that is vulnerable, that is personal, and that’s what this is. The album is as personal and vulnerable as I’ve ever been. When you hear it, you can tell what I’ve been through.”
Isn’t that what all artists do when they make an album, I ask.
“Absolutely. And that’s what I wanted. I’ve been inspired by many artists from around the world, and I felt that I know them very well because of their music. When I listen to an artist’s album, you can tell how they were as human beings. You can tell who they are, if they were having family and children [issues], and tell when they were breaking apart. You just feel everything. Look at Adele or The Beatles, everyone is the same.
“I feel like, as an artist, I belong to the people. I feel that I want to speak to them directly through my music. That’s the whole point of writing down lyrics for the album myself. I know I’m no great lyricist,” he adds, divulging details already out to the press, at the speed of light.
“The whole point of making the album is to break the norm,” he begins again, before I ask the question.
The question, I reiterate nonetheless, is: why make an album in Pakistan. There are no labels, very few artists make albums because, in the age of the internet — especially in Pakistan — there are no revenue streams. In Pakistan, the music comes in corporate-branded flavours of ice-creams, fizzy pop drinks, edible oils and recently, nicotine alternatives.
“There is an answer that the artist in me will give and an answer the businessman in me might give,” he begins, acknowledging the allure of the money an artist gets from making a branded song. But then he explains the problem with making singles.
“As an artist and a composer, meri neeyat kharab hojayegi [I will get greedy]: I would want to make the catchiest, simplest line [lyrics] and the catchiest song that would instantly click. That is my objective. Making a hit. Because I only have one shot at it. It’s akin to cricket: when you get to bat on the last ball — and say ‘Azaan, play the last ball, and bat it out of the ball park’. You wouldn’t think of playing a cover drive, or do one or two runs. You just want to hit a six. That is where that single comes in.”
As an artist, Azaan wants to have a body of work — not just sixes.
“Nobody gets to know me like this. I will require a body of work,” he emphasises. “I genuinely believe, and say, every song of an artist should not be hit — in fact it’s important that it’s not a hit,” he adds to the conversation.
Most songs, he continues, aren’t designed to be hits. “When you hear Stranger in Moscow [another Michael Jackson song], it’s not a comfortable song. It’s not a song you are hearing in the morning on the radio, going to work, coming back. It’s not a song you hear when hanging out with friends, yet it’s a very important song in his career. So, it is important to have a song that someone listens to when they are alone, when they are feeling they are missing their parents. But I also want a song that plays in every club and every cricket match. I definitely want that. I would be lying if I said I didn’t. I’m the artist of the masses.”
He returns to one of his favourite examples: “It’s a dumb thing to say, but main barri daigon mein biryani banata hoon [I make biryani in large cauldrons] — I love to make crowd-pleasing tunes for the audience. I want my music to be everywhere.”
Coming back to the question — we seem to be doing that often in every conversation — he says that both sides are important. Films will have their style of music, brands will have their own preference, and then there are independent artists who do their own stuff.
“People say [making an album] is unusual. It’s not unusual at all.” Actually, since I was the one who brought it up, I feel kind of targeted.
I ask Azaan what his plans are for the film he spoke of the last time we met. Patakh De was set to be his debut, produced and distributed by Momina Duraid and Duraid Qureshi under their M&D banner for Hum Films.
The music, by Shiraz Uppal, is ready he tells me, but the film waits until Covid-19 gives them an opening.
So, once he was making his debut with Hum Films, and now Hum Music — the brand new distribution label of Hum Network — is making their debut with him, I ask.
“I come from a fairly controversial childhood, in many ways. The kind of support I got from the industry, aisa lag raha hai ke inka bacha barra ho raha hai [It’s like their child is growing up]. Other than me, it feels like this album has been very personal for everybody. I’m very grateful to them,” he says quoting Sultana Siddiqui, Momina Duraid and Duraid Qureshi by name more than once.
There is a difference in the way nepotism works, he answers before I can ask him the question. You only get so many chances to make your mark. “People in the industry who have heard my music give me unconditional love. Composers don’t get the love I’ve got in the past couple of years. I feel truly grateful for that and I felt that I owe it to them as well [to make something of myself] — that’s why the album is named Main Tera.” As in, he says, he’s giving a part of himself to everyone.
So, now that singles from the album are coming out, how does he plan to make money from all this?
From concerts, he replies. The body of work he told me about before is how concerts work. An artist making singles, or a song or two in film, can only do two, three, five songs in a concert. It would be like they are playing the role of a featuring artist, in their own concert, he explains.
But concerts are expensive, I tell him. Not his, he answers. He plans to play to every type of crowd there is. “I told you,” he laughs, “I make wholesale biryani for the masses!” And that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 21st, 2021