An Interview with Arooj Aftab

Sophie Steinberg speaks to the self-taught guitarist about being inspired by 18th century poems, “kinetic energy” pushing her artistry, the manipulation of synthesizers and harps on her new album...
By    June 27, 2024

Image via Shreya Dev Dube

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On any given night in Brooklyn, you might find singer and composer Arooj Aftab contemplatively walking about.

“Walking around on the street, out at night, ideas are coming to us all the time. That’s what it is to be an artist,” Aftab said. “Your brain is always open and you have to be that way.”

Hearing about the process of making her latest album, Night Reign, feels like receiving an education in personal artistry. Aftab, who became the first woman of Pakistani descent to win a Grammy in 2022 (for “Best Global Music Performance”), believes that everything artists do in their life is reflected in their work.

On Night Reign, which is the result of Aftab’s night visions while on tour with her third album Vulture Prince, nothing is unintentional. Over nine tracks, the Riyadh and Lahore raised Aftab fuses jazz, Urdu poetry, and complex harmonies to tell stories about the different stages of love.

In our conversation, the self-taught guitarist takes me through all the details of her process. She explains how she went about setting 18th century Urdu poet Mai Laqa Bai Chanda’s work to music, and the ways in which Brooklyn’s “kinetic energy” pushes her artistry. There’s a seriousness to Aftab as she breaks down the harmony changes in “Aey Nehin,” her favorite song on the album. Making music about heartbreak, grief, and capitalism perhaps requires it.

Night Reign features synthesizers, harps, and an upright bass manipulated in ways I haven’t heard before. The mastery of jazz instruments paired with Aftab’s light and loud voice feels seductive, inviting the listener to slow dance, cry, or meditate. The poetic, dynamic album dips into all of the senses; Aftab’s celestial voice evokes the smells and tastes of nocturnal existence.

“Bolo Na” is a reinterpretation of an old Urdu love song, featuring spoken-word artist Moor Mother and vibraphonist Joel Ross. But it’s not a love song at all, rather a commentary on the current state of the world. As I listened, I could picture Moor Mother and Aftab in conversation, disheartened by their reality as Moor Mother doles with hard truths, declaring, “Sometimes I don’t feel safe out here / In your arms, no, I don’t feel safe, my dear.”

Aftab was first connected to Moor Mother by Aftab’s frequent collaborator, pianist Vijay Iyer, who is also featured on the fifth track of Night Reign, “Saaqi,” when they shared a moment on-stage.

“[Iyer will] just put together a bunch of people, and then we go out and we play his music, and we just improvise,” Aftab said. “That was the first time I met her, when we were on stage together. I was singing something, and she started to speak, and we both looked at each other and we were like, ‘Whoa. This is great.’”

The album also features other incredible artists such as harpist Maeve Gilchrist, Chocolate Genius Inc., and even a Wurlitzer cameo from one of Aftab’s biggest fans, Elvis Costello (on “Last Night (Reprise).”

Suppressing your feelings is impossible while listening to Aftab’s music as she feels everything – sadness, loneliness, lust, disappointment, and pain. Unplugging my headphones and returning to reality felt like leaving a good therapy session: you feel lighter in one way, and heavier in another.

As Aftab prepares for a European tour and a performance at Central Park’s SummerStage, I spoke to her about her love of “side stories,” parallel universes, and working with Tessa Thompson on the “Raat Ki Rani” music video. – Sophie Steinberg

I saw that Night Reign was charting at number two on Billboard’s “Contemporary Jazz Albums” chart. What does that feel like?

Arooj Aftab: It’s super great. Second only to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. Come Away With Me for life. It’s amazing. I think that I’ve always wondered what that means to chart. I never thought I’d be charting on Billboard, in the top 10 slots, so it’s just awesome. It means people are streaming the album. It means that people like the music. That’s just so great.

In 2022 you won a Grammy for “Best Global Music Performance,” and have spent the past three years touring consistently with Vulture Prince. How did those experiences affect making and creating Night Reign?

Arooj Aftab: I think everything we do as artists directly pours back into our work. I think touring a lot, having all these shows, being all over the world, [and] interacting with audiences more than I ever have before definitely impacted my life and you see that in Night Reign. In the new album, it’s just this melting point energy: beautiful night time experiences all coming together.

I know you’ve talked a lot about your connection to the night time and sometimes the necessary isolation it can provide. Do you think people are more themselves at night?

Arooj Aftab: I think the night is just really cool and super dynamic. It has a lot of range, and people are, I think, more relaxed in the evening. The morning is for work and for the formal things that we have to get done in our lives. The daytime is so bright and we’re so focused, and the night has this canopy of shadows. [At night], you can kind of be and do things in a more chill way, which I really focused on in this record.

I love that phrase, “canopy of shadows,” because that’s sometimes what I felt like I was in, listening to Night Reign. “Bolo Na” was one of my favorite songs on the album, and I was wondering what it was like to collaborate with poet and spoken-word artist Moor Mother?

Arooj Aftab: When she says “This time, I let my light shine / Wash my own feet at my own shrine,” I was just like, “Oh my god, what?” It was very easy to collaborate with Moor Mother because she is amazing. Her pen is so strong and the way she puts words together, the way she says what we want to say, what we want to articulate. She does it so smoothly and so powerfully without being so verbose. She has this unbelievable skill, talent, passion, whatever – she’s just dope. Anything she does, anything, it’s really amazing. I told her, “Yeah, man. This is the song. It says, ‘You don’t love me anymore, or tell me if you do, I’m waiting.’ It’s kind of about the establishments, capitalism, and the state of the world right now. It’s not a love song. And I was like, ‘I’m kind of frustrated. I’m kind of over it. I don’t want anybody to tell me that they love me. I know that no one does, that kind of sentiment.’” And she was like, ‘Okay,’ and then she just sent me the thing, and I popped it into the session, and it was done. She’s great.

How did you first meet Moor Mother? How did your collaborative relationship begin?

Arooj Aftab: We actually met on stage because of Vijay Iyer. He put together a band for one of his projects, and it was me, and it was Ambrose [Akinmusire], and Moor Mother. [Iyer] does that from time to time. He’ll just put together a bunch of people, and then we go out and we play his music, and we just improvise. That was the first time I met her, when we were on stage together. I was singing something, and she started to speak, and we both looked at each other and we were like, “Whoa. This is great.”

That sounds incredibly magical. And yeah. Speaking of Vijay Iyer, I found “Saaqi,” with his piano, to be extremely transportive and beautiful. I was in a different world, and it was amazing to close my eyes and listen to that song. If you had to describe the world you want your listener to find themselves in listening to that song, what would it be like?

Arooj Aftab: It almost feels like we’ve gone into a parallel universe, or a safe place, almost like what people describe as heaven, a paradise kind of state.

There was also a lot of poetry involved in your music and involved in Night Reign, with Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s work being set to song and “Aey Nehin” was based on a poem by your friend Yasra Rizvi. I was wondering if you consider yourself to be a poet as well?

Arooj Aftab: Yeah, I’m a poet, not as great as those guys, but I write some stuff. I’m kind of a shy poet. I don’t really finish my sentences so my poetry is really short. “Bolo Na” is three lines and “Raat Ki Rani” literally is one verse. I guess I am. I’m a poet, but of less words.

I’m also a shy poet. I think it’s hard to feel finished in poetry, maybe you relate in terms of finishing songs as well.

Arooj Aftab: I mean I definitely get songs done. It’s hard because I can say, “Okay, I can sing and I can and I can produce records,” but I definitely haven’t built that amount of skill or passion, or whatever it is with poetry. Yeah, am I a poet? What does that even mean? I think all of it’s poetry, right? Yeah, it’s hard. That’s a good one.

It is all poetry. Life is poetic in itself, even though that sounds corny maybe.

Arooj Aftab: But poets are really poets. I mean, poets are poets, and then there’s a difference between a poem being set to music, because then it has to be melodic and lyrical too, so it’s a whole other world. Whoever does what they do is one thing, and then the ability to take a poem, like you said, Mah Laqa Bai’s poems, they were not at all easy to conform to music. You have to mess around with it and make it fit and that’s another skill in itself, so it’s all kind of quite complicated how all of the pieces come together.

What was that process of making Mah Laqa Bai’s poetry conform to music like?

Arooj Aftab: It took me a long time to understand and try to embody who she was as a person, because that’s really important when you’re trying to voice somebody else’s writing. The poetry itself was really wordy and difficult for me to even understand because [it was] more formal, Urdu my understanding is more colloquial. I had to consult my dad and somebody else who knows Urdu really well and go back and forth a bit. Then I had to literally change some of the words and replace them with more, simpler-sounding words. I didn’t change the meaning of anything, but I had to mess around with the thing so that it was singable even. It took a minute.

Talking about writing and process, I know you’ve previously spoken about being drawn to “side stories,” which is a beautiful phrase in itself and you said that you explored a side story on “Whiskey.” And I was wondering, what about side stories specifically really intrigues you?

Arooj Aftab: I think they’re just cool and they’re not corny. It’s nice – the unsung hero type of thing. The way I write music it has a lot of little other things going on [where you could] listen to the same song again and you’d hear something that you didn’t hear before. There are always little secrets inside of the music. In the same way, I feel like so much is happening in our lives, and we focus on the main stories, and then there are so many of these other beautiful stories that we don’t write about enough. I think I’m kind of really into that. They’re just great and I have a lot of fun exploring them, and trying to figure out how to write about them, and how to put them in song.

With the secret elements hidden within your songs, do you have a favorite example of that on Night Reign, where one the first time you listen to it, you might hear something and then the second time you might hear something else?

Arooj Aftab: “Aey Nehin” is full of that. It’s happening all over the tune. There’s so much stuff going on in there. The harmonies change: the first time you hear my voice with a three part harmony, that line happens, and then it repeats, and the harmony actually changes. That’s cool. That’s a little thing that I did. There are so many other subtle changes and things that are like something’s creeping in, something’s going away, and it’s really fun and really kind of insane.

I also wanted to congratulate you on your first music video for “Raat Ki Rani,” directed by Tessa Thompson. It was an amazing, beautiful queer love story, and the setting was really romantic. I love the idea of the perfume commercial. I know you also released perfume oils alongside Vulture Prince. Are you a perfume enthusiast? Your music is very sensory. Is there something about perfumes or scents that you feel pairs well with your music?

Arooj Aftab: Yeah, I am a perfume person. I’m not like a crazy fanatic. I don’t have a whole dresser full of perfumes. I’m very specific, but I do love scent, and I’m very inspired by fragrance. The music is so sensory and I do like to explore how scent can unlock memories and everything else that it does. Exploring how scent collaborates with music is very cool. I’m into it, you’ll see it come up in my songs and stuff. We literally put out a perfume that was meant to embody all of what Vulture Prince was, which was the previous record. I’m not doing that this time, because putting out a perfume is actually really hard and super expensive, so that’s not happening again, but fragrance is definitely a theme that comes up in my work for sure.

I know that you live in Brooklyn. I’m from Brooklyn and you have talked a lot about your music and sound going beyond genre and being fluid. I was curious, if you think living in Brooklyn or New York City mirrors that feeling? I think it’s a borough and a city that is hard to define.

Arooj Aftab: Yeah, I moved here in 2009 so I’ve been here for a long time, and it’s constantly changing, but also being so strong in its character, unwavering in its melting pot, super diverse, super community-oriented [identity]. Everybody’s just in each other’s face on top of each other. There’s no real segregation whatsoever. Sometimes Manhattan’s where it’s at, and then last few years, it’s like, everybody’s fucking moving to Brooklyn. And then, you know, we go to Queens to eat great Egyptian food. It’s just awesome. It’s just insane being here and it’s so not pretentious. The film industry isn’t here so people are not just walking around obsessed with their looks. There’s a cool sense to it. Obviously there’s so much fucked up about it, but at the same time, it’s constantly moving, a lot of kinetic energy. It pushes you, also, to not stay in one mindset. It’s an extremely inspiring environment to be in and it’s a very difficult environment to be in because it’s so expensive and it’s very unforgiving. It’s not for beginners. Everybody who’s here is a badass, I think.

I think in some ways, New York is a place where people can really be themselves and find themselves kind of within the city. I think that you’re right that it totally does push you, because you are, in a naturally occurring way, interacting with people who make art, who are artists, and who do art that is different from yours or similar to yours. Do you have a favorite place to listen to music or to make music in Brooklyn?

Arooj Aftab: I have a couple of spots. I like being in a particular studio that’s just not too far from here on Atlantic Avenue. I make a lot of it in hotel rooms lately because I’m touring a lot, so I don’t know. Walking around on the street, out at night, ideas are coming to us all the time, that’s what it is about being an artist. Your brain is always open and you have to be that way. There’s no one or two particular spots, just the whole place, I guess. I like listening to music on my patio. I live in a brownstone, and I have a backyard, and it’s very green and pretty at night. I am found there a lot listening to music or trying to figure out my own demos and thoughts.

I really enjoy your tradition of threading your projects together through song. With Bird Underwater and Vulture Prince you had “Baghon Main” and with Vulture Prince and Night Reign you had “Last Night” and “Last Night (Reprise).” Do you have an idea of which song from Night Reign might be the next thread?

Arooj Aftab: I don’t know yet it’s gonna reveal itself. Probably the one we’re least sick of by the time the new one is coming out. The baby just came out. It’s been a week. Once we go on tour, it’s gonna grow up, and then we’ll know more.

How are you feeling about your upcoming tour and playing Night Reign live? Are you excited to kind of see people’s reaction and energy based on your performances?

Arooj Aftab: I think it’s going to be fun. It’s gonna be different and we’ll still play some stuff from the old record. I’m really excited and also equally nauseated and anxious about it, so all the feels. I think playing music live is the most fun part of this whole thing for us. That’s what we live for. That’s what we love doing: being on stage and performing. There’s nothing quite like it.

Back to the “Raat Ki Rani” music video, I loved the motif of the flower in your silhouette. Is that the same flower that inspired the title of the song, the one that only blooms at night?

Arooj Aftab: Yeah, I think so. The director Tessa and Kishori Rajan have their production company, Viva Maude. Then, for the music video, Kishori [also collaborated with] her partner David Alexander, so the three of them kind of came up with the story and executed the whole thing. I think David made that flower projection. It is. Short answer is, yes.

I love that. I was watching, and I was like, “Wait, that must be the Queen of the Night flower.”

Arooj Aftab: It was really cool. I was like, “You guys are gonna do what? You’re gonna project a flower blooming behind me?” To me, that sounded like a terrible idea, but I didn’t say anything, because I was like, “These guys know how to make anything look amazing,” and that’s exactly what they did.

What was it like to be on set and see the other actors performing alongside you?

Arooj Aftab: I think the coolest thing was to watch Tessa for nine hours. I’ve seen directors on set before, but I’ve never seen anything like that. It was really inspiring to watch her direct and get her vision across. You’re essentially telling people what to do, but she was doing it in such a kind, chill, and yet assertive way. It was just awesome. She’s such an incredible person. I can’t wait to see more stuff that she’s directed. I can’t wait to see her back on screen in front of the camera. I’m just so excited. I’ve been a fan of her and her career so far, and it’s one of those people who you cross paths with, and then you think, “I want to grow old seeing the rest of your career go so great.”

She’s an incredible actress and director, and that was her first time directing something, that’s awesome.

Arooj Aftab: Watching the actors act is just like, “Okay, guys I literally cannot do that. I have no idea how you guys are doing all this.” I’m so self-conscious in front of the camera. They nailed it. There was such a big story and they managed to tell us. How are we supposed to know it’s a perfume commercial, and that the actor is intrigued by her own stand? What the fuck? They did all of that. It was beautiful. Hollywood shit went down.

It was magical. I loved when they were standing on the pier, in front of the New York skyline and the shot transitioned from black and white to color. It paired so well with “Raat Ki Rani.”

Arooj Aftab: I love that they were running, that was cool. I love the wind. It was really nice. It’s so pretty and so inviting, it kind of invites you to also fall in love with them.

Definitely, it was super romantic. It was also a family affair, because Tessa Thompson’s father, Chocolate genius Inc., was featured on Night Reign.

Arooj Aftab: Chocolate Genius Inc. is on the record as well, and Tessa’s stepmom [Kate Sterlin] is the photographer who took the photos for the album cover. We’re all just honorary Thompsons at this point.

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