Arjun Kanungo on his evolution as an artist and building a community through his music

The singer-songwriter and composer talks to Cosmo India about his new label, his vision to unify Indian and Japanese music, wanting to mentor budding artists, and more.

Arjun Kanungo on his evolution as an artist and building a community through his music

Arjun Kanungo, who made waves with his hit musical numbers ‘Khoon Choos Le’ (2013), ‘Baaki Baatein Peene Baad’ (2015), among others, breezes into our Zoom call with excitement in his voice and an open heart. Being exposed to diverse music genres pretty early as a child, the Mumbai-based artist laughingly admits that he picked up a guitar for the first time to impress a girl, and has stuck to the instrument ever since. Growing up with a single mother “had its own set of challenges. But she never made me feel like I lacked anything in my life. However, I was always in a room full of people richer than me.” This was also an interesting time for Kanungo—he had to decide what he wanted to do with his life. After almost a decade of serving as one of Bollywood’s leading singer-songwriters and composers, Kanungo is now on his way to finding his distinct sound.

The 34-year-old musician has had six months to reflect on the kind of artist he wants to be. “I was recovering from a personal injury, and a lot of stress and change along with it. It took me a while to recalibrate, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I realised that I don’t have all the time in the world,” he shares. He now knows better. Although cracking the code to his musical rebirth was no easy feat, Kanungo has emerged hyperfocused on writing soulful lyrics and creating great melodies that excite him. “I am going to stick to one thing instead of experimenting with various genres and trying to do everything. I think the hip-hop community doesn’t want me. I will bounce from there and enjoy myself, and at the same time, do my own thing. Like I said, everybody has limited time.” While he’s been firmly boxed under the category of the quintessential Indian pop guy for the longest time, Kanungo is ready to shake things up. A lot. 

Currently, Kanungo is keen on building a foundation, and his 2023 album Industry 2 is symbolic of his global ambitions in more ways than one. A huge part of it is the opening track of the album, ‘India to Japan’, a trap-meets-pop song that features Japanese rapper Cyber Rui and New Zealand-based Indian singer Shirley Setia, along with vocals by IP Singh and Yash Vaid. “The fact that it is the first-ever Indian-Japanese collaboration makes it even more special. Right now, we are trying to figure out what international audiences are looking for from us that we’re not giving them. We have a lot to offer, that is a given because we’re a f*cking talented country,” he exclaims. Among the musician’s other notable strides is the highly unexpected pop ballad, ‘Tell Me’ (2024), in collaboration with J-pop artist Ren, and written by the acclaimed songwriter Kanata Okajima. “She’s (Okajima) written for everyone from BTS to Babymetal. Ren, however, is just about starting, but he is a very talented and genuine guy. Out of all the artists that I have met, I vibed with him the most. He’s about 23 years old (sic) and hasn’t seen stardom yet. It is the first time in his life where he’s going through this period of change, so it is pretty cool to be part of someone else’s journey like that,” he shares.

Kanungo doesn’t consider ‘Tell Me’ to be a breakup song. “It is about two people who like each other, but aren’t perfect for each other. With what everybody’s going through today, it’s hard to predict the right person or situation,” he explains. Talking about love and relationships we casually delve into his married life and how his wife, actor and model (Carla Dennis) remains at the heart of all the music he makes, “As musicians we are constantly exploring ourselves, the world outside is a different place for me and to go back home to a peaceful environment every day is all I need. I think 30 per cent of songs would be inspired by her and 70 per cent happened because of her. She’s the one who facilitates that stability for me to materialise a piece of music from inception to execution.”

Image credit: Helen Froloe

Given his easy-going persona, Kanungo makes even grand plans seem so achievable. If the musician’s superpower is anything, it is this: being opportunistic and ferociously ambitious. Now on the forefront of spearheading a cultural revolution by blending global musical synergies with his new music label, One Mind Japan, which is a sister company to his Indian label One Mind Music, Kanungo shares, “My vision for the label is to unify Indian and Japanese music. We have yet to find that definitive Indian pop sound—Diljit Dosanjh (Indian singer and songwriter) would be the closest that we have to a global Indian pop star, nobody else has really made it. Japan is also trying to figure out who their next global pop star is, so we have a lot in common with them. This is a journey that we can share together.” Outside of Japan, Kanungo has a song called ‘Mahi Ve’ with singer/songwriter Shivvy and other songs lined up with Mumbai-based rapper Gravity, out in June.

As for his own evolution as an artist, this is the year when Kanungo wants to let people into his life. The self-professed low-key musician who revels in the simple joys of life is getting rid of the private persona that he’s carefully curated and protected since the time he started in 2015.

“I feel like I have a lot to give. With my label (One Mind Music), I want to work with younger artists, mentor them, be a part of their journey—that’s who I really am. I want to be a part of a community that’s building something bigger than myself.” Maybe that’s what it takes to be successful—to not sweat the small stuff.

So what has Arjun Kanungo learnt about himself? Feels like he’s still trying to figure all that out. Surprisingly, the way he talks about his music, it almost seems like he’s just getting started. Or started again.“You are about to see a different side to me. I hope it translates into something positive because there are a lot of emotions regarding who, I want to be. What I want from my audience, however, is to focus on the authenticity of my songs and pull me up with whatever they feel is not me,” he says. It’s not a resurgence...let’s call it a comeback.

This article originally appeared in Cosmopolitan India Magazine's May-June 2024 print issue.

Image credit: Helen Froloe

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