A compelling Brooklyn-based Pakistani composer, vocalist, and producer, Arooj Aftab's 2021 album, Vulture Prince, brought her voice and music a lot of attention, as well as a Grammy for Best Global Music Performance. Her recent collaboration, Love in Exile, with Shahzad Ismaily [Tape Op #151] and Vijay Iyer, was tracked and improvised live in the studio and is a beautiful work of art that deserves focused listening. She recently chatted with Lisa Machac, of Omni Sound Project, about her path in music and sound.

How did you get started playing music?

I got into music by being in close proximity to it all the time. My family and their friends are avid music lovers. They liked inviting people over to play. They would be dabbling in it themselves, and there would be a lot of music discourse. Listening to music was an intentional thing in our household. I picked up the respect for music and its depth and generosity from them and their culture of listening; being a kid, and absorbing all of that. In my teenage years, I felt this desire to make music rather than be a fan of it, so I started playing guitar. I didn't really think about songs. I was thinking from an instrumental perspective; I was interested in the sonic qualities of the guitar itself. I was attracted to resonance, tone, and the instrument itself, playing it in an organic musical way.

You were still living in Pakistan as a young person. What was that like?

The rock influence was heavy in Pakistan. There were local bands. The pop scene was also really good and sweet. People were still listening to U2 and the Eagles. I was listening to a lot of different music. I was definitely not limited to what was popular, or what everyone was listening to. I had a real desire to explore and go further out and search for all kinds of music, which is who I am today as a writer.

What made you decide to come to the States and pursue the music production and engineering degree at Berklee College of Music?

I wanted to learn. I was interested in microphones, recording techniques, and digital workstations. I was already self-recording. I wasn't going to a studio or anything, and this was way before so much equipment became accessible for home studios. I had a little mixer and a microphone. I was using Cakewalk, going straight into the computer and recording covers and early compositions. It was a lot of trial and error, as well as reading the manual because you couldn't go on YouTube and find anything. I had heard of Berklee, and I had heard of the Juilliard School. What I wanted to do was more contemporary, and I wanted to do a bunch of different things that would come together in a particular way. That's Berklee's whole tagline; it's not a conservatory. You can study production, voice, jazz, and it can all happen at the same time and it's going to be great. So, I decided to do that. It was out of reach for me, and it was absolutely not affordable. My skill set was nowhere in comparison to the kind of students who go to Berklee, but I did it. We were all that one musician kid in their high school who felt like they were the only ones, and we were now all in the same place in Boston at Berklee. It was like entering the place that I'd always been looking for. That was overwhelming; so beautiful, and so affirming. I got into the MP&E [music production and engineering] program, which was competitive. I wanted to learn everything, but I knew nothing at all. It was 2005, which is different from 2023. It was still all dudes everywhere. I was not explained anything, because – regardless of gender – those people already knew so much in the classroom. It was challenging. Gear is expensive if you're not coming from a place where you can afford it. I was limited to practicing and understanding from a tangible perspective of whatever was accessible at the studios at school, which were booked around the clock. It was hard to get the information, the resources, and the wealth of knowledge that I was looking for, but it was also thrilling. It's a great program, and they have amazing faculty over there. I learned a lot.

Shahzad Ismaily, Vijay Iyer, and Arooj Aftab
Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Now you're a big collaborator with other people. Do you think that got its roots there, or was that later?

That is just part of who I am, and instinctually how I developed my musicianship. Berklee can be given the credit that they taught me the technical skills and the language of jazz. But you have to get out there and figure out who you are as a musician. Are you a solo artist? Are you able to collaborate? Can you even improvise? What situations can you improvise in? What situations do you dislike? There's so much out there that can't be taught.

And after Berklee?

I went to New York. It was crazy and exciting. In my last couple of semesters, I had started taking the bus, going to New York, and I had a couple of friends there. I started checking out New York, and it felt right. It was super exciting, and also super scary. The stakes are so high and there's so much going on. It's all so walkable; you can go from one jazz club to another and run into incredible musicians. It's that kind of kinetic energy that I need. It was 2008 or 2009, so the recession was happening. All the recording studios were closing down, and the technology was changing. Companies were creating USB microphones; they were also making gear more affordable and easy to set up at home. The whole scene was shifting. I couldn't get an internship at a studio because they were closing. Nobody was booking studio time. I was not playing that many shows. I hadn't found my music and musician community, or my favorite band collaborators yet. It was all so new. But I happened to catch the wave of all this video media moving to the web. Everybody was moving from cable to web, so there was a lot of work for post-production audio; at a computer mixing episodes and films. I became a full-time audio and video editor. Video is easy if you are an audio editor. If you're an audio engineer and use Pro Tools, you're editing stuff that you can't see. You're just hearing it. With video, you drag this clip and you put it next to that one, and that's the cut. I was able to do that, and that's what I was doing full-time, deriving a paycheck. On the weekends, I was playing shows and writing music. It was really fun and crazy!

Do you think that having a day job held you back or do you think that it had a stabilizing effect?

It all depends. I had student loans, I had to pay rent, and I needed a job. I'm a vocalist – a specific one – but I was an audio engineer, so that was my skill to fall back on. The corporate American nine-to-five is made up of bad ethics and this scarcity mindset. It's not nice to the employees. You're tired, and there's not a lot of time to do your music, but you're young so you can do it. A lot of my peers were teaching [music]; they had students. A lot of vocalists were going on cruise ships for work. Everybody had a side hustle to support their lead thing. The hope is that your main thing will become successful, and then you'll not have to have that other thing anymore.

When it came time to record your own album, what was that process?

For the first record [Bird Under Water], there were these fans who gave me $15,000. They were like, “We love your work. What do you need?” I recorded it with gear in a brownstone in Brooklyn. We were recording the upright bass in a large parlor room, which was boomy. He [Mario Carrillo] was standing right next to the windows; we could hear the kids playing outside. It had a charm to it. I don't think that the first album sounds great, from a technical perspective, because we were young and recording it in this guerilla way. From a musician perspective, I don't like being in the studio. It's very vacuum-y. At that time, I hadn't thought about going into a studio that wasn't so vacuum-y, or setting it up in that way. You can set it up differently. You can all be in the live room. It can be more wooden. It can be less isolated. That's all what I learned later. But for that record, I wanted it to be grassroots. The vocal booth was a small bathroom. Engineer Joshua Valleau had the sound blankets and was stapling them to the walls. It was my indie release, and it did pretty good. If it had a label behind it, it would've done better. But, for doing it myself, it did pretty good.

Your next couple of albums were done with a label?

The next couple ones were with New Amsterdam [Records], and they still took more time than they would've because of my day job, but they also were funded by the day job.

Where were those recorded?

Siren Islands was sort of a modular synth, sonic, analog experiment. I recorded that right here in my home studio. That's a completely solo project. Vulture Prince, which came out last year, was recorded in parts over three years in different studios and Joshua Valleau mixed it.

I would imagine that your engineering background and skills come in handy when producing.

Oh, yeah. I am so grateful to have that language, even to walk into a studio and be able to articulate exactly what I think is wrong with the sound, without wasting time or energy or hurting anybody's feelings. All the technical language is there. I don't get in the way; I don't like to be the person who does everything. I know there are people like that, but I feel there's a freedom and there's a mental chillness in just being the artist. If I'm the producer and the singer, I can't be the engineer too. I'm caring about the music and how the tunes are supposed to go. It's a lot. I was trusting Joshua and not getting in the way. There's a little bit of, “How do we mic this? How do we mic that? What do you want to do? What kind of sound do you want?” It's so great to be able to say clearly what I want and what I don't want. I know a lot about the processes that makes my vocal sound good too. It's tremendously helpful.

You’ve been nominated for three Grammy Awards and won for Best Global Music Performance.

I felt very proud of Vulture Prince when it was done. From a music composition perspective, from a thematic perspective, and from a sonic perspective, there's so much happening, and it was so important. The mixing component of that record plays such a strong role in its musicality. It was a pleasure to go through that process, but it was definitely a tedious, meticulous, and a very caregiving process. When it was all done, I was proud of it. A lot of us don't believe that we belong in the Grammys, because they have such a mainstream reputation. All the jazz kids, contemporary classical, and the new music people like us, we are not ever sure whether we fit in over there. We also don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. But I was like, “Fuck it, this thing is good. Let's submit it.” I felt that it had something grander than what I had otherwise thought of myself. I felt I had scratched the surface of something new and exciting, and that it had a chance in that competition. We put it in, and it received a nomination for Best Global Music Performance. And then I received the Best New Artist nomination, which felt humbling, crazy, and beautiful. It's been such a wild journey since then.

It's funny to be called a new artist when we've discussed this 20-year trajectory to get there. So, what has changed since you received the award and nominations?

Not a lot, in terms of my process and my day-to-day. There are a lot of new listeners. There's industry attention on me and what I'm doing, which feels great. Otherwise, it felt like a peacock dancing in a forest. No one is seeing it and it's such a beautiful thing. The attention and the respect feels genuine. There are all these people who now love this music, are listening to it, and are sharing it with others. It's all super nice.

What are you working on nowadays?

I am working on another record. This is the most boring answer that every artist says when you ask them, “What are you doing now?” “I'm working on my next record.” I recently put out a record called Love in Exile with Shahzad Ismaily and Vijay Iyer. It's sonically immersive. Damon Whittemore mixed and engineered that record and did a whole lot of creative tape loop processing on it. From a geeky perspective, it's a pretty audiophile record. Shahzad is playing the Moog and bass. Vijay is playing the piano and doing his own electronic processing. It was a lot of layers of people knowing exactly what they wanted, in terms of sound. Damon was doing all of these half speed tricks, fuzzy sounds, and spring reverbs live to the recording after the fact. All of that brings it to that dream state that it's in right now.

What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?

I want to keep making music that is innovative and beautiful, and I want to produce other people's records. I want to make music with and for everybody.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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