Watching Natasha Noorani, 28, speak about the music “ecosystem” as she prefers to call the ‘music industry’ is a lesson in her sharp perspective; it is reflective of the open-mindedness and a non-judgmental observation with which she approaches things. She seems to be clear on what are some of the problems within the music scene and what is needed long-term for it to develop in a way that is all-inclusive.
As she logs into our Zoom interview and the conversation begins, I can see that she knows how to articulate her views passionately and without an ounce of chagrin.
These days Natasha Noorani is one of the breakout stars of Velo Sound Station, where her debut song - a fun-poppy ditty called ‘Baby, Baby’ - has crossed 4 million views. She managed it while being in an episode that also featured grand superstar of our times, Atif Aslam, and rising superstar, Umair Jaswal.
As Bilal Maqsood, producer of the show, shared prior to this interview, Natasha had to be convinced to do the song, ‘Baby, Baby’. The single is in complete contrast to her musical reality where an EP - dripped in melancholia called Munaasib or an ambient dynamite like ‘Iksvi Sadi’ (with Zahra Paracha as Biryani Brothers) - sounds much more like her than a corny electro-pop song. There is nothing wrong with corny electro-pop songs but is it Natasha was a question that continued to run through my head.
We cannot help but discuss ‘Baby, Baby’. To have Bilal Maqsood compose and write for you as well as convince you to be a part of the show is not an everyday occurrence for well, many musicians.
“It’s a little mind-blowing for me to have that happen,” she says. “When I was working with Strings on Coke Studio and for their album (Thirty), luckily both Faisal (Kapadia) and Bilal (Maqsood) created this wholesome environment, which is hard to find in the industry. I was 25 when I joined Coke Studio. I was very young and I was like ‘what is this’ and I was very much rallying for the cause like: ‘you must listen to Takatak’ and they were so polite that they would actually listen to the things, which is why I have immense respect for them.”
“Even if something could not be done, they would sit and listen to my tirades. I was simultaneously working on Munaasib, my EP and would share my work with them. Bilal would critique and say what he did or didn’t like. He understood what I was capable of doing musically. I did vocals for their track ‘Hum Dono’ off Thirty because he understood what my voice could do.”
Why were you reluctant to do ‘Baby Baby’, I asked Natasha.
“There was a part of me that was like, if I say ‘Baby, Baby’ would that diminish my credibility as an artist? Basically, I didn’t want it to be a gimmick. That was my fear.”
It was Bilal Maqsood who made it happen by explaining to Natasha that it was a crossroads situation and she had to decide what road she was going to take.
“Because I had released a body of work, so I thought now is the perfect time to do this because it doesn’t take away from my credibility. Just to be able to put my trust in Bilal and how he followed through is one of those incredible moments. How many people does Bilal Maqsood specifically write a song for?”
However, a single and an EP do not begin to define Natasha either.
In terms of achievements, the LUMS graduate is the co-founder of Lahore Music Meet (with Zahra Paracha), which is easily Pakistan’s most immersive music symposium; she has managed Strings and worked as General Manager on Coke Studio. She also earned a Master’s Degree in Ethnomusicology from School of Oriental African Studies, University of London, U.K. in 2018. A collaborator herself, apart from Munaasib, she has collaborated with a slew of artists including Ali Suhail, Talal Qureshi, Gentle Robot, Shorbanoor and Strings among others.
Our conversation, irrespective of making several segues, begins with ‘Baby, Baby’ and easily branches out…
“You only see what your eyes want to see/How can life be what you want it to be/You’re frozen/When your heart’s not open” – ‘Frozen’, Madonna
“I’m sorry for the time crunch; I hate doing this,” begins a very humble Natasha Noorani, who could be arrogant given her achievements, but isn’t.
You managed Pakistan’s most formidable pop music group. What was that like?
“It was a run-up from being General Manager for Coke Studio.”
Natasha followed it up with a degree in Ethnomusicology, which she notes is the study of music and culture together. It was the desire to learn about Pakistan’s music history. “I wanted to immerse myself in Pakistani music history in any way possible, including learn some vocabulary, framework and just work in an environment where no one rolls their eyes at you when you say you’re studying music.”
Through the degree, Natasha Noorani understood the finer points of audio production, Islamic sound art, the role of women in South Asian music, amongst other things, while her dissertation was on 20th century popular music in Pakistan since 1947.
Through it, admits Natasha, she gained more confidence in her skills as a “researcher, writer and as a practitioner.”
“Sweet dreams are made of this/Who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas/Everybody’s looking for something” - ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’, Eurythmics
At present, Natasha is honing skills outside music. In her current job, she begins, “It’s hard to find employment primarily but also I think that along with my music expertise, I’m very happy developing brands and campaigns by thoughtfully integrating culture into modern-day marketing. That’s my forte beyond music…”
Brand management is also a huge part of Lahore Music Meet, a music festival dedicated primarily to issues pertaining to music. LMM was founded by Natasha Noorani and Zahra Paracha.
In just five years, it has become the music festival to attend and it caters – contrary to reputation – not only to a certain kind of music but is inclusive of folk, independent, mainstream and everything else in between. It is free and not for the privileged or entitled but people from every strata of society. The effort to be more inclusive and add classical in that setting is something that is on Natasha’s mind. The fact that it is an all-female based festival, she admits, happened by chance.
“It wasn’t that we said ‘no men’. It’s just how we aligned and two years later, we were like ‘oh wow, we’re an all-female board’. It’s good because it happened naturally and you’re not being contrived in anyway.”
The core female team includes co-founders Natasha Noorani and Zahra Paracha as well as LMM Art Director Sana Nasir and Creative Director Munizeh Sanai.
Unlike other music festivals that cater to other topics – not necessarily related to music – Lahore Music Meet is a place where the past meets the present to build a possible future through dialogue, debate and performances.
But it is a daunting task to take on. How did you manage this in just five years?
Recalling the early years, Natasha explains, “Zahra and I were in college together; we had great synergy making music but coming out of college, there was no path to take. We were already playing but there was no space. Whatever connections we’ve made is through the hard work that has gone into the last five years. That’s how we are where we are right now, both collectively and individually.”
Starting LMM was at first due to a lack of space even though Natasha has never taken the stage or played a set.
“We wanted to create an industry standard we could be a part of, is the selfish part,” she says, truthfully.
But it does come with its challenges. “If two kids can make a festival happen, who is anybody who has actual power in the industry, to say this cannot happen? We worked with the smallest budgets, and it is also the goodwill of the artists. We work as musicians all year long so we know what the problem is. We ask other experts about recommendations with respect to folk; we go to gigs for scouting…”
“LMM is a space where people who would not get a chance because of the horrible nature of the industry - to perform. We’ve also created an audience that is listening and actively engaging and we are simply facilitators. Whatever opportunity an artist gets through their performance – be it a scout, a record label – we do not dictate.”
“Oh my God I see how everything is torn in the river deep/And I don’t know why I go the way/Down by the riverside” – ‘Riverside’, Agnes Obel
As a musician, Natasha Noorani has been working in the music ecosystem for the last 10 years. However, by releasing her solo EP, Munaasib, a 5 track EP containing melancholic elegies in 2018, she now has a solid body of work.
Reading through some of the lyrics, I wonder where the emotions and feelings come from.
“It was a very dark period in my life,” she says. “Munaasib was from a dark time in my life and I was going through like emotionally-stunted. It wasn’t a great time and I’m very lucky that I could articulate that at least. Munaasib was never going to be a popular album and I knew that. When I was writing it and I released it, I think I needed to get over my fear of releasing music; there’s enough hate to go around in the music scene. Munaasib was just me saying ‘I’m good enough and my music is good enough.’”
Expanding on it, Natasha explains that there is a lot of insecurity in the entire music ecosystem. “When someone new is entering the scene, there is a lot of negative energy directed at them and (as someone new) I felt very insecure. This was my way of saying that okay, I haven’t been doing this for so long, let me have a body of work that I can stand by and listen to. I feel like every album I make will have a different sound.”
Discovering Naheed Akhtar five years ago, Natasha realized that she could do an array of things like her favourite singer once did, and successfully.
To that end, Natasha has recently released a single called ‘Trace’ featuring Shorbanoor and has moved on to her second album, which is called Ronak. It will be a full-fledged album this time, she notes. “Singles will start coming out in the next few months and then the whole release will happen… sometime in the middle of next year,” Natasha reveals, on a parting note.