It needs guts to leave your high paid job and listen to you calling for music but Atif Afzal took that leap of faith! A KPMG Engineer by profession, he went on to pursue his passion and became a music composer, who has been doing noteworthy work not only in India but in Hollywood and other international projects. Atif who also sings as well as writes songs love scoring music for films as it gives him a cinematic experience. On the occasion of his newest song, Chalti Hai Zindagi, we got a chance to know about how composing for films, TV series, and a song differ. In an exclusive interview with Music Beat, the multi-faceted New York-based musician talks about his journey how he took this big decision of leaving a high paid job, his popular American TV series, Indian songs and more! He was also approached by Marvel for a project. Do read about his noteworthy journey!
You left your highly paid job as a KPMG Engineer to pursue your passion for music. What inspired you?
The only thing that inspired me was my faith in myself and my music. I just knew one thing - When I grow old, I don't want to say 'I wish I had done that'. Life gave me two options. One was a certainty to live a secured life and drive around in a luxury car, and the other was to chase my dream. The decision was not tough at all, however, the journey was not the easiest either. When I left KPMG, to my surprise, I had no fear that I was entering uncharted territory and was all full of excitement. Let’s talk about your newest single ‘Chalti Hai Zindagi’ released in a week and sung, composed, written as well as produced by you?
Chalti Hai Zindagi' is not just a song, it is me. It is reflective of the life that I live and the way I think. The words are simple, easy, naive, and young, and so is the composition. This song resonated really well with the youth and that's what I am really happy about. It is composed, produced, and sung by me and written by Nishit Singh. I am really excited to see the response that we have got so far. Independent music is finally getting the attention it deserved. My favorite line of the song is 'Life is in love with me'. How do you manage your multiple talents? Which do you prefer more?
I believe every successful artist is also an entrepreneur. It is not just about being a great singer, but it is also about where you take your talent so that the world recognizes it. I have majorly been into film scoring and singing-song writing. They both give me a different experience and its unique. When I compose original scores for films, it gives me a cinematic experience. I love movies and transforming emotions into my scores. On the other hand, being an artist or a singer-songwriter, I get to express myself through my songs. Additionally, I get to do it all my way. There is no one telling me what I need to do, what I need to change or providing me any brief. Let’s talk about your ten year long music journey and how has it been?
When I look back, I have to say that it has been a great 10 years. I set out to do some good work and never knew then that I would be working in Hollywood. I didn't even know this till 5 years back. It was quite a setback for me when my first film with Salman Khan was shelved in 2012. However, if that didn't happen, I would have never worked on Prague. My music for Prague was western and we recorded with musicians all over the world. This gave it a really international sound and I started getting work on international films quite early in my career, which eventually lead to me working on America's two really popular television series. You have composed music for international television Series ‘The ‘Twilight Zone - Season 2’ and NCIS: Los Angeles’. Tell us more about it and how different is it composing a track of a television series from a film song?
Yes, these both were with CBS Television Network, USA and I was approached by their music supervisors to compose music. Composing a track for a television series is no different from a film song at all. The only difference was that NCIS: Los Angeles is in its twelfth season, which means the huge amount of audience watching it over years have a particular taste of sound they connect with. I had to keep that in mind and watch its previous seasons to get an understanding of its soundscape. For example, if one day we just remove the main lead of the series and replace it with another actor, the audience would never relate to it. It is something similar with the sound too since it is airing since more than a decade now. As far as the composing or track production is concerned, it is all the same. Your Arabic hip hop track from the American TV series has been quite popular. Can you tell us more about it? Did you write and sing it as well?
Yes, I wasn't expecting it to get popularity in a western country, but people here love and appreciate world music and art forms. It is a fusion of Arabic folk and Hip-Hop. I wrote it and sung it myself. The process of writing it was quite interesting as I had to first write it in English and then translate it into Arabic. It is the first time I was singing in Arabic, so I had to make sure my pronunciations are perfect. Middle Eastern singing also has a particular style which I had to train for. The first time for everything is always special. When I heard my song being broadcasted on American television, it was a great feeling. Let’s talk about your Hindi songs ‘Tenu Pyar Karu Sona’ and ‘Moroccan Chaabi’ released by international record label BMG. How was the association?
I have done two albums with BMG so far. We just completed the second album and that is set to release in 2021. 'Tenu Pyar Karu Sona' is a contemporary Bollywood style song. However, my music production is intentionally simplistic, yet groovy. My focus is always to have a good melody line and this has the right blend of melody and groove. I also wrote the lyrics for the track and we just wanted to keep a bit of Punjabi influence in the lyrics. It just adds to the taste of the song. You have been approached by Marvel for some Hindi songs requirement. Can you tell us more about it?
Yes, the music supervisor for an upcoming Marvel film approached me for a hardcore Bollywood track. This was totally unexpected as Marvel is actually a big deal. No composer or singer would ever say no to a Marvel film. For this track, they needed a really pumped up and groovy track that can be danced on. I can not reveal much more about it, but if that works out, it surely will be one massive film for me. We heard you are working for Hollywood and European films. Can you give us more details?
I have worked on European films like 'Gift' and 'Then a Hero Comes Along'. I have also worked on American films like 'Horn Please', 'The Alternative' and was offered a Hollywood film 'Somewhere Quiet'. Unlike my Bollywood films like 'Prague' and 'Monsoon Shootout' which were thrillers, all of my international films have been of different genres. So, I got to work on a variety of scores and songs. I like to experiment as much as I can in every film. For example, in 'The Alternative', I recorded live music instruments using tape machines, just like how it was done 50 years ago. This added warmth and tape saturation to my music thus giving it a retro feel.
You have worked across different cultures and formats. How different has been your experience of composing?
Every single film is different in its own ways. Sometimes, the directors are closely involved in working with me on the music, and sometimes they just leave it entirely up to me. Here in the USA, I work alongside Music Supervisors and not the Directors. Once, we lock the music, they play it to the Director. I must admit that the amount of creative freedom I get here is unparalleled. They will only hire you if they feel you are the best resource for that film. However, some of my Bollywood and Marathi films have been quite experimental too and it's all thanks to the vision and faith of the directors. How different is the music composition process internationally when compared to Bollywood projects?
The music composition process is exactly the same. However, it’s planning and execution is totally different. I compose the music exactly the same way for any film that I do, whether it is Bollywood or Hollywood, or any other region. I translate the emotions of the scene into music and song. But, here they plan it way in advance and the music briefs are all documented for every scene. It just helps things be clear to the entire team.
Any Bollywood or Indian music project you are working on?
I did a film called 'Trip' which was produced by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Viacom18. I have also finished two Bollywood films 'DNA of Love' and 'Blackbud'. I don't really know about their release though. I am working independently on my next Hindi single called 'Naadaaniyon Ke Gul Me'. It is one of my best compositions and is really different from the current sound of Bollywood. This single will release early next year.
Which genres of music you are keen to explore?
I am keen to explore American Pop music and I am working on an album, which will release in the second half of 2021.
What skills according to you should an aspiring music composer must-have?
An aspiring music composer should first prepare himself/herself to be able to compose for any genre of film or style of music because you never know which project will knock at your door. So, preparation is an absolute must. These days, I often see young composers working with loops and pre-cleared samples. You need to back your creative ability. Digital platforms have made putting out your work easy. Any tips you want to give to aspiring musicians to make the right use of social media?
Yes, digital platforms have made it easier to put out your work. But, on the contrary, it has also made it equally difficult to get noticed with the amount of content that is being generated on a daily basis. I would say that one should not only use social media, but also traditional styles where you physically meet filmmakers and showcase your music. I used to also go with my guitar and play live. It worked wonders for me as they don't only connect with your music, but also the performance! Any message you want to give to the Indian audience?
I really have to thank the Indian audience for supporting my music throughout. I would only want to request them to keep showering their love and support. It means a lot to an artist and every single fan counts in the making of an artist.