On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Atif Aslam and I agree to meet in the lobby of the still swanky Marriott Hotel in Karachi. In town, recording for a Coke Studio session, Atif agrees to an interview without any difficulty.
He walks in, right on time. Dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, black shades, Atif is casual personified. No fuss, no muss.
The lobby of the Marriott Hotel contains many Atif Aslam fans. They walk by, some muster the courage to come and say hi and/or get a picture, and others try to sneak a glance every few minutes. Most of the people who swing by are adults. One is married, another is single, three are dressed in military uniform as they come by and shake hands, and it goes on and on – throughout this interview.
“How often does this happen?” I ask Atif.
“All the time,” he laughs.
In a surprisingly forthcoming and disarmingly direct interview, Atif Aslam talks about marriage, fatherhood and why he’ll never give up on music….
Instep: You’ve been away from the spotlight. You have gotten married and you’re a father now. How has marriage and fatherhood changed you?
Atif Aslam: Life is more chilled out, relaxed cause you know there was one important decision in my life that I’m done with. I was going out with someone for seven years and I ended up getting married to that person. Initially it wasn’t easy because you’re a bachelor, you’re famous, and the success is there and it’s difficult to keep yourself controlled and grounded.
After marriage, I think I’ve changed as a person. I have changed as a musician. And I won’t say I’ve become more mature. I would just say life is focused now. I took some time off from music and I wanted to stay away from everything because I was really stuck in it thinking all this would last forever but then I realized that one day it has to go so just enjoy it while it lasts. I took a break and I wasn’t doing anything other than exploring myself and my life, but now I’m back.
Instep: How does your wife handle your success?
Atif Aslam: I think she handles it well; she’s proud of me and she likes it when people come up to me and praise my music. Not just that but my fans have become her fans so we always get the royal treatment and it’s overwhelming. She keeps me grounded. I really love her. I want to see the world through her eyes.
Instep: Despite your superstar status, you’re not as exposed in the media. You don’t give as many interviews; there are fewer mentions of you in the press — why?
Atif Aslam: I’ve never hired a PR agency in my life to support my music. I never felt the need to do so because I believe my music is original. Not that I am a superstar…
Instep: You don’t think you’re a superstar?
Atif Aslam: It’s like, okay you feel it, that people are treating you as a superstar but the ground reality is different. I’m still attached to my roots.
Instep: Given the terrible incidents that continuously unfold in this country, how do you cope with things around you and this sense of insecurity, darkness and fear that surrounds us all?
Atif Aslam: I was never really worried about myself but I was naturally concerned about my family, which is why I have shifted to Dubai. It’s been almost a year.
To be honest, I’m completely away from the negative. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that I’m disconnected from what’s happening. I see it, but I try and ignore it, though it’s difficult.
We don’t know, as a nation, who we are.
Instep: You think we’re struggling with an identity crisis…
Atif Aslam: We have a lot of problems. We’re preachy, all of us, including myself. We have religion issues; we have political issues so we don’t know who we are. It was becoming very difficult because life isn’t easy here in Pakistan and I needed to remove myself from this cycle of negativity. As a creative person, it affects you; I started writing negative songs, which I then discarded, completely.
I’ve been focused; I didn’t want to give negative songs. I don’t want to add to the depression, I want to reduce it.
Instep: More and more musicians are turning to acting. You acted in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol and made it clear you were lending your name to the film because of its storyline, the social causes and questions it raised.
You’ve had offers to act – will we see you make the transition from music to acting? Is that something you’re seriously considering?
Atif Aslam: I’m fortunate to have been blessed with so many options, so many opportunities that I’m at a place where I can make choices, whether it’s films or music.
That said, I won’t leave music; it will never take a backseat. I’d rather release some independent music, then, maybe get into it.
If the script’s good, and it’s a good project, I won’t say no. People have this misconception about me that I’m unapproachable, for years and years. I don’t sign with anyone, so they tell others that I’ll charge too much money or I won’t show up. No one makes a commission off me, so, maybe that’s it.
Instep: Is there a movie on the horizon, any projects?
Atif Aslam: There are a few projects, but I won’t leave music. Just because I can perform onstage doesn’t mean I’ll make a good actor, right, which is a challenge.
Instep: I noticed that if you do a song in Bollywood, your song has a higher chance of getting airtime, on both sides. In Pakistan, even those who produce quality music videos don’t find as much space as a Bollywood song. What do you make of this descent?
Atif Aslam: We all need to understand that the business model is changing, but it’ll take time for Pakistan to cope with it. We don’t really have digital rights, we don’t even have YouTube streaming, which is why we’re lagging behind. In India, they have a system in place, it’s not that they don’t struggle, but they’re closer.
Here, you can’t find newcomers in the sense that how and where will they showcase themselves? This dilemma has been around for some time.
It’ll take a couple of years for things to settle. Newcomers can find space in cinema, it’s growing, there’s room in playback, and as awareness grows, digital rights will follow.
For instance, in India, when you do a song with Tiger Shroff, it gets noticed, a label will notice that it’s a brand and what’s behind that brand? 1.7 million fans. Of those, at least a few thousand will download the song and my cost is covered. That’s a business model.
Instep: What’s your India experience like? You’re deliberately doing a few songs instead of more – why? There’s room for more music from Atif…
Atif Aslam: Ok, so first, I got married, so I wanted work to take a backseat. It was deliberate and by choice that I wasn’t doing more songs.
I want to make my songs, come out with my album, right? Other singers are doing what I do in my space, but I’m okay with it, as long as they acknowledge it. I mean if you’re singing my songs onstage, that’s an achievement for me.
Instep: You play in obscure places, and tour a lot? What’s your audience like, in Nepal, or South Africa?
Atif Aslam: When you attend one of our gigs will you be able to understand how massive it becomes and what a wonderful feeling it really is.
My first show in Nepal had an audience of about 35,000 people and the show happened in a stadium, so it wasn’t a corporate show. People were screaming from behind the gates. In South Africa, the language barrier didn’t matter. And that’s the thing about music, it goes beyond language. Like a Brazilian guy comes up to me and says I love your songs.
There’s a massive fan-base on Facebook, 17 million fans, so imagine the circulation. And so, my music is introduced to people of different nationalities and they like it even though they don’t understand the lyrics. Music connects everyone, everywhere.
Instep: Your new song, how did it happen?
Atif Aslam: It was Tiger’s idea to come up with something where we could thank our fans. I was game. I know it’s not my genre but I was sick of doing romantic stuff, slow melodies. This was different, and people haven’t seen me dancing before. It was challenging, like Tiger’s been dancing for years and for this song, he had been rehearsing for two months. And I wasn’t even supposed to dance in the video. The director, Ahmed Khan, told me that you have to dance; the shot was ready in 20 minutes and that was the amount of time I had to learn the steps and we pulled it off.
Instep: More than a decade in music – how’s it different now?
Atif Aslam: You’ve done the touring, you’ve played in stadiums and around the world, and you’ve met fans from diverse countries, you’ve given the interviews, but you never want to fall in a rut.
So, you look to challenge yourself like, ‘okay, the last song was good but what’s next’. Self-satisfaction is essential; you can’t always deliver a hit. But in the end, it’s about loving music.
During the past two years, while I was taking some time off, people had started saying ‘Atif’s done’. I heard the rumours, which was interesting. I wasn’t visible. So to comeback was a challenge in itself.
Instep: Who are some of your favourite artists?
Atif Aslam: Tanveer Sahab, he is a multidimensional, Sarod player and guitarist; he’s one of the greats. Folk artist Mai Dhai is pure. The Mai Dhai band is beautiful. It reminded me of something very organic, when I saw her, she took me back to a time long gone. In terms of musicianship, Mekaal Hasan – I haven’t heard the new album – but he’s always been a great music producer.
Instep: And how are you as a father?
Atif Aslam: As a young kid, I was always afraid of pets, like I would never hold any animal out of fear. Even when I had a pet, my friends would take him. Now holding your own child, that was scarier. But when I held him, it was a beautiful feeling. Now when he plays with me, he’s one year and four months now, or when he tries to sing with me, it’s a wonderful feeling.
Instep: Do you sing to him?
Atif Aslam: Of course, and he sings back, he does. You’re traveling and you come back and see your kid and you can’t say no to him, so I’ll play with him.
Instep: Do you still love traveling?
Atif Aslam: I used to but not anymore.We go in and out of places and rarely explore.
Instep: What is your hope for Pakistan?
Atif Aslam: In the coming years, this place will explode with creativity. Things will get better.
Instep: You really have that faith?
Atif Aslam: Yes, I do. It’ll get better. We’ll get there, as a people.
Instep: What about politics? Imran Khan was backed by a lot of musicians during 2013 elections. Some still support him. Are you a fan?
Atif Aslam: No.
Atif Aslam: Yes
Instep: Back to music, we may not care about the music channels but we certainly care about news. What do you think about the hysteria that unfolds on television all day?
Atif Aslam: Content sells. Let me give you a small example: a child is buried under rubble – it’s Nepal devastated by earthquake – and they put a camera in his face and ask him, ‘how are you feeling’? Get him out of there, you’ve thrust a camera in his face! What is he supposed to feel and how would you feel if it were you in his place? It’s that bad, these games and the politics, the decisions are made elsewhere.
What rubbish are we watching on our telly screens? These people, the ones who make decisions, if they can’t feel for others and if they simply don’t want to change, there’s not much you can do about it except do what you do best. You can’t change people. Artists can spread love, give people music, entertain them and make them happy – that’s all.
Instep: What about your own music, a full-length studio album made up of your own songs?
Atif Aslam: The trend of records will come back. People don’t have time for an album. It’s short memory, what they see, they remember, unless and until you find a way of putting those songs on their cell phones. In India, people download. We’re accustomed to free downloads, we’re not true to artists, and we don’t know how to treat them. I’ve accepted the way it is. I don’t want to preach to others about what to do.