Abdullah Siddiqui, 20, has just returned from a photo shoot that is meant for promotional material, press packets and so on.
Sitting before Zoom as we discuss everything from his upbringing to his start in music to his current success, it is obvious that Abdullah prefers talking about his work more than himself. But his story, as one of the brightest musicians in Pakistan, a polymath, is one that is just as important to decipher as his music.
Though the pretext of this interview is the fact that Abdullah has dropped a new album (dead Beat poets) in 2021 after releasing Heterotopia in the last quarter of 2020, we tend to segue to the past and the present.
Abdullah Siddiqui now has three terrific full length albums (plus a multitude of singles) to his name - something few mainstream musicians can claim and yet there is a cadence of politeness in his voice as he shares his perspective on his own records, his generation, Pakistan’s music ecosystem and how it operates.
“Tonight, we are young/So let’s set the world on fire/We can burn brighter than the sun” - ‘We Are Young’ by Fun ft. Janelle Monae
Cerebral, articulate, aware and deeply sensitive, Abdullah Siddiqui started playing the guitar when he was 9-years-old and started producing when he was just 11-years-old. The youngest of four siblings, he started tinkering with music very early on.
“I do have it in the family; I have multiple family members who sing. It’s a genetic thing in my family. There are a lot of musicians. But it wasn’t about environment. Growing up, I always gravitated towards music and musicals. I used to watch a lot of musicals and memorise the lyrics.”
Reminiscing to his younger days, says Abdullah, “I feel like I had a fascination with pop songs, specially the 3-minute pop song. It’s just when you love something enough, you want to be a part of it. I was so in love with pop music, I wanted to share my own voice and meaning in that context. And I just started producing music to see what that was like.”
In what had been a trial and error process, a young Abdullah began producing on a rundown machine in his house, along with “some very obscure and buggy software.”
Over the years, he learned what he could (on his own) and continued to refine the process which led him to create a plethora of songs. By the age of 15, Abdullah was ready to put out his own music.
“I just started hitting buttons until something sounded good…”The first song he put out was a jazz-moody instrumental followed by a song called ‘Force Field’ and it still has fans, confirms the singer-songwriter and music producer.
“After that I performed at Lahore Music Meet, which was sort of my big break because a lot of people saw me at LMM. Right after that, my song ‘Telescope Heart’ came out and that got a lot of radio airplay.”
The LMM set was mostly acoustic but Abdullah performed one electronic song at the end. The song was called ‘Blackhole’, first released in 2016 and that song is featured on his latest album.
“It’s like a full circle thing because I wrote it a long time ago and it is very much about my musical sensibility five years ago. But it just felt so appropriate that I went back and re-recorded it and refined it.”
Releasing ‘Fiction’ with Karachi-based label Forever South (FXS), Abdullah went onto release little things here and there until ‘Resistance’ happened and got him on Nescafe Basement and things jumpstarted from there.
“For the love you bring won’t mean a thing/Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing” - ‘Sing’ by Travis
Studying at a Liberal Arts College in the USA now (while taking classes online from home post-Corona pandemic), it was after moving to the USA that Abdullah’s fascination with domestic music began. With a need to understand the theory of something before jumping in, Abdullah took a course in SouthAsian music. It’s obvious on Heterotopia, where he has used qawwali samples among other things. ‘Magenta Cyan’ also has those reflections.
Moving to America had an effect on Abdullah, he recalls. “It put a lot of things in perspective for me back home.”
“I’ll be there for you/Cause you’re there for me too” – ‘I’ll Be There for You’ by The Rembrandts
If Heterotopia had traces of philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the same name, dead Beat poets has a connection with the Beat poets who rose in the post-war era in the 1940s and 1950s. That, however, does not mean Abdullah’s latest album is drenched in obscurity, especially unlike his first two albums. He is willing to be vulnerable.
As Abdullah notes, it is an album about his friends.
“It’s just a very young album; it’s an album where I stopped trying to be cerebral and started being more sensitive. I was trying to be very clever with my music (compositionally, lyrically) with other records; they were packed with nuance and I had never been very literal about my life before this [record]. So, I decided to write something very honest.”
“Once the quarantine started there was a big shift in the global mental state. At that point, I was very reticent to keep making the sort of expansive music that is in Heterotopia. I wanted to make something that sounded more domestic, contained and a bit more somber. It’s an album that sounds like it’s for a room than an arena.”
Abdullah started making it in March and was done by June. “I added some songs last month. This is probably the quickest I’ve ever made anything because this artistic territory was so unexplored for me that when I got into it, it was a very quick process.”
How does the Beat poets and the concept of Heterotopia by Michel Foucault provide context to the album? Says Abdullah: “I think that takes a backseat because first I have to see what is coming out of my head. Writing for me has become a very free-form process. There wasn’t a process before but now there is and the process is that I’ll sit down. I’ll have a feeling and urgency and I will write down everything that I’m thinking in just complete prose. Then, I’ll just have a jumble of words and phrases and I’ll start picking and choosing from those and make it out to be more poetic. I’ll get halfway through the album and I’ll see some patterns and recurring themes including sonic themes and I’ll see what the overarching narrative is. That informs the second half of the process…”
As for what connection Abdullah found in the Beat poets that informed this album, he notes, “It didn’t really inform the album. It started as just dead Beat poets because I was thinking of the contrast of this being an album about my friends and the larger scale being about there is something very poetic about this generation. It goes back to not only are we exposed to travesty, we’re also exposed to art. We’re constantly exposed to how people express themselves globally and so we’re all kind of in touch with our sensitivity. At the same time, there is such a dysfunctionality and desensitization and cynicism.”
Abdullah admits it is a reference to the Beat generation “because thematically that kind of hedonism and romanticism is very well-reflected in every generation, in the youth.”
He reiterates, “My generation exists in extremes because it is the greatest level of sensitivity and awareness and at the same time there’s no generation more jaded than ours. I don’t think any other generation has had issues of depression and anxiety by the age of 17. There are these broad emotional extremes.”
Moving on, I ask Abdullah about being nominated for ‘Resistance’ twice at the Lux Style Awards.“I’m amazed that they cut the album of the year category,” he confesses.
“Had to have high, high hopes for a living/Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing/Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision” – ‘High Hopes’ by Panic! At The Disco
Where Abdullah is steadfast in releasing full length albums, the musical trend in Pakistan is fast growing into a saturating situation where artists are mainly releasing singles ahead of full length albums. While independent artists are still dropping EPs regularly, several bigger names have stuck to singles for far too long. The idea is singles have a higher chance of making a mark while no one spends time with a full length album.
However, albums are a body of work; they tell you what the personal narrative of an artist is – both sonically and otherwise. Is it a dependency on the corporate world or lack of record labels that operated in different fashion years ago? The result is the same; irregularity in albums while younger, lesser known names continue to release EPs after EPs.
For someone who has used singles to build up to what are eventually three full length albums since 2019, the question seems appropriate.
Abdullah shares his perspective, “I am very stubborn and a hardcore believer in the value of albums over singles. I have released singles and music videos because that does better commercially but with this album, there will be no singles or music videos – I’m just dropping an album. It’s a very deliberate choice because I want the album to be consumed even if it hurts the numbers – there is no single, the album is the product.”
The space that Abdullah occupies in the industry is a bridge between independent and mainstream where he has worked with artists like Maanu to Fawad Khan and Meesha Shafi to Shamoon Ismail to Aima Baig and certain others.
Aware of this dichotomy, this aberration, Abdullah admits that it’s a surreal space he occupies where he is neither completely mainstream or completely indie.
“I’m somewhere in the middle and that’s because I think I bring something to the table as singer-songwriter that is inherently not mainstream, which is to say I use the English language and as a producer I’m bringing something to the table, which is very much in demand. I think this industry has begun to take notice of the fact that the sonic palettes they’ve been using for all these years have become outdated. It’s purely on that basis that I think so many mainstream people were ready to work with me.”
Abdullah Siddiqui is far from done.
“There are a few collaborations in the pipeline,” admits Abdullah, one of which will be out next month.
“I’ve already started working on the next album. It is a very specific sound and I’m really proud of it because I think it really hasn’t been done before. It’s very Southasian album but has a twist on it that I’m really excited to show people. I have a few songs ready and that’s underway. I’m hoping to get that out by the end of this year.”
Abdullah is also doing some standalone collaborations and brand work as well. “I’m also doing a score for a TV show. I’ve never had this much of a difference between my brand work and my personal work under my own name. It’s a very holistic point in my life where I’m doing a bit of everything.”
Abdullah has taken the leap to do records, collaborations and wants to do everything. The great news is not only is he talented enough to pull it off, his focus from his own work hasn’t diminished.