Baker's Dozen

Artists discuss the 13 records that shaped their lives

Virtual Mentors: Arooj Aftab’s Favourite Albums

Arooj Aftab takes Jessica Wrigglesworth through thirteen albums that have defined her life and career, from her childhood in Lahore to studying at Berklee, the "New York hustle" of her 20s to her rise to international acclaim

Photo by Blythe Thomas

When she was nominated for Best New Artist at the 2022 Grammys, Arooj Aftab had in fact been making music for the best part of two decades. A clip of the then teenaged musician and composer singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ from her bedroom in Lahore went viral in the early noughties, and bolstered her dream of moving to Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee College Of Music, which she did in 2005.

After graduating, Aftab relocated to New York (where she still lives), and forged a career working across all aspects of sound; from audio engineering for online video platforms like HuffPost and Vice to composing scores for film and video games, or providing backing vocals on a track by Puerto Rican rapper Residente. All the while, she was making her own music, honing a distinct sound which took the qawwali music she had listened to growing up in Pakistan and applied the innovative approach of a Berklee student and a Brooklynite. Her debut album, 2014’s Bird Under Water and 2018’s follow up Siren Islands were well received critically, but never quite enabled her to give up her various side hustles.

All that changed with the release of 2021’s Vulture Prince, a devastatingly beautiful record which saw Aftab imbue traditional music and ghazals with a thrillingly contemporary sheen. It was widely lauded as one of the albums of the year, and earned Aftab not one but two Grammy nominations; she lost out to Olivia Rodrigo on Best New Artist, but won the award for Best Global Performance for her song ‘Mohabbat’, becoming the first Pakistani artist to have ever won a Grammy.

Love In Exile, released on Verve last week, is not the follow up to Vulture Prince, although she says that is underway; “I’m working on that. And, you know, having my fair share of excitement and anxieties, as I do, but this [Love In Exile] feels like a chill thing that we’re doing.” The ‘we’ refers her collaborators, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. It was Iyer – a composer, pianist and Harvard professor – who brought the group together in 2018. Initially the idea was to play a few shows as a trio. “I don’t think anyone had the intention to become a band or do a collaborative record, we were just playing some shows and having fun, and we could all explore our musical neuroses and personalities together without feeling a pressure to do anything at all. It felt really fluid. And that, I think, is an extremely rare thing. It felt very special, it kind of surprised us, you know? So we wanted to return to it, and then we recorded this album in late 2019.”

Then came the pandemic, and Vulture Prince, as well as a solo record from Iyer. The trio began to question whether they should release the project at all. “We felt like; ‘Are we going to leave this record on the shelf? Because it’s going to feel less and less relevant if we keep letting time pass.’ So we were in consensus to put it out this year, just to share it, I guess, because we like it a lot.” As well as the record, the group are playing a series of collaborative shows in the US and Europe this summer. “I hope it goes well – there are 14-minute songs on there, everybody’s really scared about that. I’m like, “Guys, human beings are not idiots. Their brains won’t have a meltdown if they’re presented with the 14-minute song.’ But who knows? It’s not really about that. It’s about me wanting to be able to just play it on Spotify, as opposed to like, going into Dropbox when I want to listen to it.”

Love In Exile by Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily is out now. To begin reading Arooj Aftab’s Baker’s Dozen, click the portrait below.

First Record

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