20 Aug 2017 16:01 IST

Cowboy on the move

Rounak Maiti’s debut album sings to his confused state of belonging and yet not belonging

Back in 2012, the Tehelka Music Project showcased a timid 17-year-old singer/songwriter in rubber slippers playing the guitar on a park bench in Mumbai. Rounak Maiti’s quiet debut performance on YouTube was one that you could have easily missed, but those who chanced upon it felt in him the makings of a seasoned poet and musician. Maiti himself looks back at his first few songs with some amount of “cringe”, he said. His musical journey has seen him mature, but without having to tame his love for country music.

He recently released his debut solo album, Bengali Cowboy, at a gig at Delhi’s Oddbird Theatre in the presence of an intimate audience. More than just a dive into country style, the 10-track album hints at influences ranging from rock to indie folk. His poetic touch remains nimble throughout, as you would expect of a country singer, often drawing parallels with the works of artistes like LA Salami, at least to this writer’s ears. “I grew up in a household where I listened to a lot of Bengali traditional and folk music,” Maiti said, “But also a lot of western folk musicians like Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, and James Taylor. I got interested in country as a genre not just for the music, but also the themes and ideas it represents.” It meant a representation of one’s roots, poetically expressing the sense of being grounded to one’s origins.

Born in Los Angeles to parents who constantly shifted base between LA and Mumbai, among other places, Maiti has led a life that seemed to be constantly in transit. That state of limbo pushed him to demonstrate, even truly understand, his sense of identity and belonging. “A lot of the lyrics are about growing up, my parents, and my feelings of alienation.” A teenaged Maiti struggled to resolve the conflicting realities of his early life — an American-born kid trying to fit into Mumbai and an Indian kid suffering inferiority, even ignorance, at the hands of LA’s culture. The angst found its way into his lyrics, where he edges away from the norm popular in country music. The title ‘Bengali Cowboy,’ he explained, was born of his reiteration of what country music means to him when stripped of its traditional Southern American essence.

Tracks such as Heavenly Machines, Fable, and My Diary share sprinklings of indie and alternative rock tendencies re-imagined by a country-loving kid. The varied influences seem to have resulted from a merging of musical sensibilities, predominantly between Maiti and bassist Campbell Scoot. The two of them met at college in LA and went on to spend a large amount of their time working on music that spawned acts such as the indie-pop-rock band Campus Security, and lo-fi indie alternative band Small Forward.

“All the members [for Campus Security and Small Forward] have a different set of influences, and working dynamics,” Maiti said, “But, at the end of it, we’re all best friends, so a lot of our music came out of us just hanging out and making music together.”

It was in 2011 that Maiti was noticed by Dhruv Singh and Lucy Peters, founders of Pagal Haina Records, which boasts of musicians such as Shantanu Pandit and Prateek Kuhad in its roster. Maiti believes that his experiences in LA and with Pagal Haina in Mumbai have jointly nurtured his music into what it is today. Even with the added support, he likes to keep firm control over the creative and logistical processes. He has proved himself to be quite the multitasker, working on everything from the album’s recording to its mixing and mastering. He and Scoot tinkered with the recordings in their apartment studio in LA till they had what they believed was their ideal record.

The idea of touring with the debut album escapes him for now. He likes to believe that he worked on the album more out of a need to create music that would eventually find an outlet. That, combined with the fact that he continues to travel constantly between cities, makes the idea of a tour unviable for him. Currently working full-time with a non-profit organisation in the US that deals with creating more spaces and venues for art and culture performances, Maiti rarely gets a chance to come to India. But he does seem hopeful for the future. “I really like the music community in Delhi,” he said. “Delhi has a lot more diversity in options with its music scene, and that really draws me to it.”

(Aditya Varma is a freelance writer based in Delhi. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)