Bilal Maqsood’s voice is soft, almost lyrical. We sit in an open-air seating area in his home — surrounded by plants, a little fountain gushing in the background and friendly cats — and, as Bilal speaks slowly, carefully, I’m reminded of all the many, many times I’ve heard him singing. The serene setting suits Bilal’s particular vocal quality: fluid, melodious, effortless.
Of course, he doesn’t sing during our meeting — although the music aficionado in me would have been enthralled if he had. There is, however, much to talk about. Bilal is a solo artist now — he and fellow Strings frontman Faisal Kapadia decided to wrap up their band’s 33-year-long journey in March last year. Since then, both Bilal and Faisal have been forging their own separate paths.
Some few weeks from now, Bilal will be launching three solo singles, possibly one after the other. This is one of the reasons why we’re meeting. I also have so much more to ask him and, inevitably, our conversation often steers towards Strings. How could it not?
Strings has been part of the local musical landscape for many, many years now and it’s also an indelible part of Bial’s journey as a musician. This is, in fact, the first time that I’m meeting Bilal as a solo artist. All my earlier interviews with him have been while he was still part of Strings, and usually featured both him and Faisal.
Bilal Maqsood is one of Pakistan’s leading music icons with three decades of music-making behind him. He’s also about to launch himself as a solo artist. In an exclusive to Icon, he opens up about why Strings called it quits, about corporate sponsors and why he’s more comfortable now in speaking his mind…
“I’m in a very happy place right now,” he tells me. “When Faisal and I decided to end Strings, things felt strange for a while. I kept thinking about what I wanted to do, but then I decided that I would go with the flow and go wherever life takes me.”
And life took Bilal by the hand and led him to new avenues. He sang covers of songs on his piano at home and floated them out on Instagram. He took on the mantle of music producer and helmed a thumping, groovy Soundstation. He revamped the jingle of a well-known tea advertisement and, most recently, collaborated with SomeWhatSuper for the Pakistan Super League franchise the Quetta Gladiators. Now, he has some new projects in the pipeline.
“The new songs that I have been working on are all uplifting, lighthearted, desi pop,” he says. “I’ve also written, composed and sung eight nursery rhymes in Urdu for children. They are all completely original and every rhyme has a message within it.
“Right now, there is hardly any content in Urdu for children and whatever is available online seems to have been done in a rush, without much hard work or thought put into it. I have wanted to do something for children for the longest time and I’m excited to see how the rhymes turn out. The animations are getting created for them right now, and they look great.”
“I’m also getting my live band ready and preparing to go on stage, alone, for the very first time. I don’t know when that will be though.”
Is he also going to be helming the next season of Velo Soundstation (VSS), the show which he launched as executive producer in 2020, and which made its mark with its digitised, edgy take on pop?
“So far, there are no plans for a next season,” says Bilal. “The show was a success but the brand kept running into a lot of legal red-tape because the main sponsor is, ultimately, a nicotine-based product. YouTube put gates on the videos so that they couldn’t be viewed by people below 18 and even stills posted by the artists on social media had to be accompanied by ‘Health Hazard’ statements that were required by law.”
That’s a pity, I comment, considering how successful the show had been. Bilal agrees, “It did wonders for the brand and I’m told that it’s considered a benchmark by them. When they initially approached me, they just wanted to put together a music show and suggested that it could be ‘like Coke Studio’ [CS] if I wanted. I told them that if they dabbled with the same format as Coke Studio, they would fade out immediately, even if their show were a hundred times better.
“Coke Studio had come at a time when Pakistan’s music industry had been struggling to survive. Record labels were no longer around and music channels were closing down. It literally saved Pakistani music and regularly churned out new music for the audience.
“At the same time, it ended up restricting Pakistani music and, from around 2008 till 2020, commercial Pakistani music tended to be identified [only] by fusion and Sufi genres.
“Other experimental sounds were also being created, but only in niche circles and hardly ever on a wide commercial scale. The reason why our youth was listening to a lot of Western music was that they couldn’t find the same sound within Pakistan. But before Coke Studio came along, we had had pop — bands such as Vital Signs, Junoon, Awaz and Strings that had dabbled with new sounds. With Velo Soundstation, I decided that it was time to bring pop back into the spotlight.
“And it worked. If you notice, there has been a 180 degree change in the way music shows are being presented right now. Even Coke Studio this year has come up with a completely different feel.”
VSS also highlighted Bilal’s individual vision without Faisal Kapadia by his side. This was, incidentally, before Strings had disbanded. “Faisal had been on board for the show but then he backed out right before the contract was going to be signed,” reveals Bilal. “He wasn’t comfortable endorsing the product. I, on the other hand, wanted to avail the opportunity to do something new.
Faisal and I had often talked about how we would end Strings on a high note,” says Bilal. “All around us, we saw musicians, actors and sportsmen who remained in denial that they were still at the top. We didn’t want such a time to ever come upon Strings. We always used to say that we would end things before the band’s popularity started going down.”
“Musicians in Pakistan get very few chances to keep their careers moving. It can be tough — and there’s so much at stake. Fans are expecting new content. There is a need to remain relevant. But doing a show on your own — or putting music out on your own — isn’t easy.”
But he is about to put out music on his own — is he in search of a sponsor?
“I will always look for a sponsor for every one of my songs,” he smiles, “because every song needs to be given a monetary push so that it can be heard by the audience.
“If tomorrow I upload a song on YouTube and assume that at least my fans would hear it, I would be mistaken. There is so much paid content on the internet that my song won’t even appear on my audience’s timelines, unless I invest and pump it up. If I don’t find a sponsor, I’ll put in my own money into the song because I know that it’s necessary.”
Does he also think that Twitter trends need to be purchased in order to increase visibility?
“It’s quite evident when a trend is boosted artificially on Twitter. You just have to look at the trends to know what is genuine and what is purchased. I’ve never done it. The only time that I — and Faisal — trended on Twitter, it was when we had announced that we were ending the band. Within half an hour, we were trending organically.”
Fans were heartbroken, of course. But Bilal insists that ending the band was very necessary.
“Faisal and I had often talked about how we would end Strings on a high note,” says Bilal. “All around us, we saw musicians, actors and sportsmen who remained in denial that they were still at the top. We didn’t want such a time to ever come upon Strings. We always used to say that we would end things before the band’s popularity started going down.
“It took us five seconds to decide that it was time to end things. I remember making the announcement on Instagram in the evening and telling my parents about it a few hours before. They were appalled and kept telling me that we shouldn’t do it. But Faisal and I had made up our minds.”
Bilal continues, “I remember driving my son to the gym the next morning and a Strings song was playing on the radio. For the first time, I listened to it as a fan. Earlier, we would always look at our work critically, finding faults in it. Now, I was just enjoying the song rather than overthinking about it.”
Can we expect a Strings reunion concert sometime soon? “People keep telling us that we need to have ‘one last concert’,” he says, “but how would that be possible? If we plan one in Karachi, won’t we have to plan more in other cities, in other parts of the world? It would end up not being the last! And if we keep looking back, how will we move forward?” Bilal is emphatic.
“Over 33 years, we recorded six albums as well as lots of singles, produced Coke Studio for four years and did lots and lots of concerts. We were very proud of our live act and we loved going up against Ali Azmat in the Red Bull Sound Clash concert in 2018. Ali has always been known for his live concerts and we held our own against him and suddenly people sat up and took notice of how great our live act was,” he smiles.
“There were many other times when we had considered disbanding or taking a break. In 2013, we were at the airport, having just come back from India after a concert tour and we were very tired,” Bilal recalls. “We were exhausted, and Faisal suggested that we should take a break for a few years, get refreshed and then come back with new music.
“I agreed, and we were discussing this when, at that very point, director Asim Raza called us and told us that a friend of his who worked at Coke wanted to meet us.
“We flew to Lahore for the meeting. We were told that other people were also being considered. They asked us what we would do if we were to take over Coke Studio. I told them that we would go back to the second season, using it as our model, and taking it from there. I suppose that this clicked with them.
“We really wanted to widen Coke Studio’s spectrum and explore so much more with it — shaadi songs, film songs, classic Pakistani pop. It had to be a celebration of all that encompassed Pakistani music.”
During their four-year stint at CS, Strings helmed a number of very memorable songs. But is it true that the presence of a heavyweight corporate sponsor can curb creativity? Bilal muses over this.
“It depends on how strong you are as an artist and how much you can resist the pressures placed upon you,” he says. “Producing Coke Studio was exciting. It helped dissipate the monotony of just creating songs for Strings. We got the chance to work with so many diverse artists and explore new musical territory.
“Every year, there were times when we had to compromise and other times when they had to listen to us. A lot of times we gave in, because it was, after all, their money on the line and they were making their decisions based on their own market research and the algorithms worked out by their digital agencies. We figured that perhaps we were only looking at the creative angle and needed to agree with them.”
However, agreements weren’t always forged smoothly. “We would get a call asking us to consider someone for the season,” says Bilal, “and we would say, yes, perhaps for next season and not this time. Then we would get another message. Again, we would refuse. After this, the tone would change, insisting that we take a particular artist on board. There were times when we had no choice. We’d take solace in the fact that, in a season that comprised about 25 songs, if five of the songs were according to the sponsor’s choice, it shouldn’t matter.
“There were times when we hung up the phone on them, when they were particularly intent on something that we didn’t agree on. Two days later, a call would come in, asking, ‘Aap naraaz hain?’ [Are you angry?],” laughs Bilal.
“It was draining. Once, we were midway through the season and we were on set, shooting, when someone from Coke visited and said something which made me very angry. I had the lights turned off and the shoot got packed up. After an hour or so, they finally realised that they were wrong, they had to see my point of view, and shooting commenced.”
I comment that this is a new side that I’m seeing to Bilal — both Faisal and he have always seemed very calm and collected. “Faisal always is, which is why he used to handle the business end of things,” he says. “I can get very angry.
“We constantly tried to make changes within Coke Studio,” Bilal continues. “In our first season as producers, we brought in a lot of artists who hadn’t been part of the show before. We wanted Mekaal Hassan to be included, but he was banned because he had said something about the show once. We insisted upon him and, in our second season as producers, he was part of the show.
“Then, in the ninth season, we decided to incorporate different producers who would work on separate sets of songs. I remember Coke wanting commercially popular names, but we refused. The producers who work behind the scenes are the creative forces behind the success of most top-tier artists. They had to be part of the show.”
Then came the 10th season — Strings’ last season as CS producers. “We had been planning the 10th season ever since Season Eight, but Coke wanted to stick to the format of separate producers for different episodes. When they refused to agree with us, we decided not to tell them what our plans had been. We would keep our trump card to ourselves and maybe, one day, we would implement it in a show of our own. Maybe that won’t happen now.” He shrugs.
This was the year when Strings had completed three decades in the business of making music. “It made leaving Coke Studio easier for us. We had so much more to do and we needed to celebrate 30 years of the band.”
Even though the CS chapter has long been closed off for him, I have to ask Bilal: what does he think of the ongoing controversy where CS’ latest producer ‘Xulfi’ Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan has been accused by an up and coming singer, Nirmala Maghani, for having lifted the initial notes from her composition, implementing them in the CS song 'Tu Jhoom'?
“This could happen to anyone who is producing around 25 songs for a season. Certain parts of a song can turn out to be similar,” says Bilal. “However, we cannot ignore the fact that the first 11 notes in both songs are exactly the same. If Xulfi says that he has not copied, then I would like to believe him. Why would he copy anyway? And even if he had wanted to copy, musicians and composers have techniques where they tweak the sound so that it gives the same feel but doesn’t sound the same. Xulfi did not do so because he did not copy.
“Still, there is no harm in CS putting out a statement saying that the resemblance in both songs is unintentional but since there is a similarity, we don’t mind giving Nirmala Maghani credit for them.”
Is this on the record, I ask him — Bilal, in past interviews, would always stay away from controversial topics. “Yes, it is.”
This is a new change in him, I observe. He pauses. “I think that earlier, I would always be representing Strings. Faisal and I would often have very different opinions and we would disagree on a lot of things, but we wouldn’t put our points of view across. Now, I’m only speaking for myself, so I find it easier to say what I feel.”
It is, also, perhaps, more than three decades of experience that has brought on this change in Bilal Maqsood. He’s one of the country’s most popular music icons, his fan following extends far and wide, he has seen highs and lows and he knows his craft.
He may be a debut solo artist right now, but he has years of experience guiding him on and he’s ready to speak his mind, create music that he likes, and march to his own beat. New beginnings can be exciting.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 30, 2022