‘Now I am a full-time artist, maybe I won’t just die of natural causes sitting at my office desk,” says a relieved Arooj Aftab. “Maybe I’ve created a record that can support me.”
The Pakistani-American singer and composer is speaking from her Brooklyn apartment, six weeks after her third album, Vulture Prince, won her two Grammy nominations. This poignant, grief-immured collection of reimagined Urdu verse and ghazals (Arabic verses of loss and longing) has earned the 36-year-old one nod as best new artist – one of the ceremony’s “big four” awards – and another for best global music performance, up against heavyweights Angélique Kidjo and Yo-Yo Ma. It has been a rapid ascent after more than a decade of music-making; it was only in 2021 that she left her day job as an audio engineer to pursue music full-time.
“I’ve always focused on putting music out with integrity,” she says. “People have been loving this record and it just doesn’t happen in the music industry that you can have popular appeal and critical acclaim. So two Grammy nominations is nuts – it restores my faith in the industry and in the listeners.”
While the best new artist category has long been an international launchpad for stars such as Adele and John Legend, the global categories are more contentious. Renamed from “world” in 2020 to avoid connotations of colonialism, Aftab believes any catch-all term for music from non-western origins still feels reductive. “You have Burna Boy with people like Anoushka Shankar and it doesn’t make sense to put them all in one category,” she says. “I’ve spent the past 20 years living and growing musically in New York, so I don’t feel like a ‘world’ or ‘global’ artist. My music is a product of my experiences and I don’t want to engage with this nonsense of being put in a box, but these awards further your career in a big way, so I have to care.”
Born in Saudi Arabia, moving to her parents’ native Lahore at 11 and later settling in the US, Aftab absolutely is global in many ways, and that background is what helps her confound traditionalists. After an early taste of viral fame with a tender cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah when she was in her teens, she won a scholarship to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music for a degree in music production and engineering. Graduating in the throes of the 2008 recession, she landed in New York to begin her career.
Despite not being trained in classical south-Asian singing, in 2015 her debut, Bird Under Water, fused atmospheric acoustic jazz instrumentation with the centuries-old tradition of qawwali music that she had listened to as a teenager. Her 2018 follow-up, Siren Islands, then experimented with modular synthesisers to create an ambient soundscape punctuated by Urdu lyricism. Aftab’s breathy and quietly powerful voice is what unifies it.
“It’s not any style, it’s a very personal thing,” Aftab says. “I’ve realised that heritage is what you inherit from wherever you are. I have been witness to so much beautiful music but you can’t just walk into a community and be a part of it, it takes time and honesty to gain trust. That is why the music that I make has gone beyond a tradition, it’s just singular to me and how I feel about my life.”
The purest distillation of this personal music comes on Vulture Prince, which has unexpectedly reached Aftab’s widest audience. Pitchfork called it “a deeply layered and multifaceted album, each sparse note and repeated motif building upon the emotional resonance of the last”. Following its critical acclaim she signed to the major label Verve.
The record did not come as easily as the praise. “Some of these songs I have spent 10 years figuring out,” Aftab says. “I wanted Vulture Prince to have structure, to have a sexiness and darkness to it.” The title came early on, Aftab explains, as the juxtaposition of the two words ignited her imagination and brought to mind everything from “a seedy, androgynous character” to Zoroastrian funeral rites and the mythology of vultures. Then, she sought to make sounds that would align to this emotive concept. She looked to the poetic form of the ghazal, adapting Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s Mohabbat, as well as the poetry of Rumi and Mirza Ghalib.
Rejecting traditional classical instrumentation, Aftab began foregrounding the glissandos of harps and violin. “As I was working these songs out with my band, they were developing into something far more minimalist, delicate and graceful than I had originally imagined,” Aftab says. “Then stupid tragedy pushed me fully into that zone.”
The “stupid tragedy” Aftab refers to is the death of her younger brother, Maher, to whom she dedicated the album. “I didn’t write the album out of grief, since the songs were already forming,” she says. “But their overarching essence – that hopeful sadness, the layer of emotion that was added in the final moments through production – is what pertains to loss.”
Thinking the album would merely be a “silent ode” to this loss, Aftab hadn’t anticipated just how much expressing her bereavement would resonate. “It’s been hard to have to talk about it in every single interview,” she says with a pause. “There’s days where you’re doing your own thing and not thinking about it and then someone brings it up and it changes you entirely. But that’s what I get for dedicating it to him.”
Has repeatedly talking about grief changed the way she feels towards her loss now? “It was cathartic to put out the record – something about the sonic waves being released into the air was ritualistic, like a letting go. It has been healing in some way to immortalise this moment.”
Despite her music being largely in Urdu verse that many listeners will not understand, it has touched Aftab’s global audience and caused them also to reach out with stories of how she has helped carry their own losses. “I get a lot of personal responses and it’s pretty intense to read, but I appreciate it,” she says. “If there’s something that I can do to hold people through the collective grief process, then why not?”
She is now working on her next album and beginning research into the 18th century Urdu poetry of Chanda Bai, as well as readying the release of a jazz trio project with the pianist Vijay Iyer, Love in Exile, and a repressing of Vulture Prince featuring a new track with British-Indian artist Anoushka Shankar. “I’m in a good place right now,” she says. “For once, I’m not fighting. I’ve already won.”
• This article was amended on 28 March 2022. An earlier version mistakenly conflated the 18th century Urdu poet Chanda Bai with the 16th century Indian ruler Chand Bibi.
Vulture Prince is out now on New Amsterdam records, The Grammy Awards are on Sunday 3 April.