The Storyteller

Born to a musical family, musician and social media heartthrob Neetesh Jung Kunwar always knew what he wanted to do: to tell stories of everyday people with songs that are distinctly his.

Text by Johnson Shrestha

Watching his father and his friends jamming and making music always fascinated young Neetesh Jung Kunwar with its beats, rhythms and harmony. Even more intrigued, Kunwar learnt to play guitar from his father and uncles, which bloomed into this beautiful relationship he has with the instrument today.

Now, with several hits already ruling the imagination of young listeners and a cult like following, especially amongst the social media crowd, Kunwar is coming up with his first studio album in 2019.

Below is the excerpts of an interview with Kunwar.

Let’s talk about your roots. When, how and what got you started?

For this, I’ve to go a little back. I’ve been a daddy’s boy from the very beginning. I got the taste of music since I was six or seven years old. I used to copy my dad a lot and follow him all the time. So, he took me with him to hangout with his friends. My dad’s friend, uncle George, from Prism band was a great musician, and they used to have these jam sessions. I was fascinated by what I saw.

I started going with my dad regularly because I was intrigued by the experience. The colors of guitars, the drums, the beats, rhythms and harmonizing. They made me sing along to their jams, and when I wanted to play the instruments too, uncle Lenny let me play his guitars, which was an unforgettable moment! Then, I asked my dad to teach me how to play; he taught me a few chords. I focused on the beat, the right hand, which turned into an instant relationship with the guitar. I found it comforting and loved its sound.

Further, I am lucky that I grew up in an era of great music – well composed with meaningful lyrics, from all genres, both Nepali and western. There were Nabin K. Bhattarai, Cool Pokhrel, Sabin Rai in Nepali music while I listened to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Metallica, and all in the western music. I instantly connected with all the bands and most of the genre. I also started to listen to progressive rock as well. But everything changed when I got introduced to John Mayer.

Maybe because those great musicians didn’t belong to my generation but with John Mayer, I found what I was looking for. If you check my phone’s playlist now, you’ll see that almost all songs are by John Mayer. I’m addicted to his music. Then, I got involved with bands, did cover songs, rock songs, etc. Then I went solo.

I was mostly inspired by John Mayer, yes, but Ed Sheeran also inspired me. You can say he taught me how to make it as a solo artist. There have been lots of ups and downs, yes, a lot of happiness and then sadness…but with the help of my family and small circle of friends, I got started.

I used to get depressed sometimes, but when you find the ones you can count on, a boundary, then you’re safe. Then I found myself and started writing songs. The love for music, some inspiration and support from my friends and family helped me. And when others started loving my music and appreciating what I did, my hunger to get better increased. It’s still the same feeling today too, when I do what I do, but my plan is to become a good musician rather than a famous one. And I’m doing music for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.

How do you think you have evolved through the years?

My journey of being a musician is just beginning. There were times when there were stereotypes, you know, who shunned youngsters like us with guitars and all. Yes, you carry a guitar and you’re proud! But my family and relatives didn’t think I should’ve been doing that - playing in bars in front of other people. Yet I was a very determined from the very beginning. If I set my mind on something, I had to do it. And yes, that has helped me a lot. And now that I look back to those times, I feel it was all worth it, as it was a driving force for me. I was determined to pursue music for the rest of my life, and it's all determination in the end.

Never look back in anger, that’s one thing I’ve learnt; as your past is a part of who you are. If you’re determined, you will definitely make it.

And it still happens sometimes, you’re trying to record and nothing comes to mind. But that helps you…you’re not satisfied till something great is created. I sometimes stay up until early mornings till I can record something good.

You mean to tell me you don’t sleep until you’re happy with your music?

Well, I start and I record whatever’s on my mind. And I have the comfort of not having to go to a studio. Going to the studio has its own limitations. You have to be there within a preset and time, and then, you may not get the ‘feeling’ and all that. But when recording in my own bedroom, I’m my own person. And nights are the best time for me, as I am free of all the disturbances and alone with my thoughts. And that’s when all the good things come out.

Where and how do you get the ideas for your unique and relatable lyrics?

I am telling stories through my songs. Of course, all of them are not mine. So, I try to put myself in others’ shoes. Most of them are the stories of my friends and people that I know, and fans. You know how it happens.

We sit together and talk. He shares something with me, and she shares something else; I listen to all of them and combine everything, and turn them into lyrics. It generally makes everyone happy, for I like to sing for the hatke people. I don’t really like to share my feelings by talking, but through my music. 

Hamro Nepal Ma, which is the trending now, is a song about today’s scenario of Nepal, where the youths have no choice but to leave the country for foreign employment. Gedai jasto jindagi (Life’s like balls) gave me an identity and it represents the woes of a common man. It’s about someone with no girlfriends, haven’t really been out and about, and nothing works in their favor, and all. Sure, I have to exaggerate a few stuffs here and there, but yeah, that’s how it is.

Okay, can I ask who’s Aashma?

Aashma’s actually something personal. The song was a sorry song, actually, meant to be an apology for ‘her’. We hadn’t really been in contact, and so, I wrote this song to say sorry to her, when she was touring Europe. I didn’t think so many would listen to it, but they did. And I don’t know if she liked it or not, but many of you did. And now, whenever / wherever I perform, people really want to hear me sing Aashma, and it’s a song that’s very close to my heart too.

So, you tell others’ stories through your songs. What made you choose to do it out of all other genres?

Because I wanted to be listenable, first of all. I didn’t want to be a musician’s musician. I want to be a people’s musician. And it’s mostly about the lyrics than the music. And I learnt this from Bob Dylan – he’s only got a guitar, but he’s saying the things, and that’s what counts. It’s about making songs of the people for the people and sharing my messages and feelings through my songs.

Let’s talk about your breakthroughs.

There was this gig in Karma Lounge and that was a good breakthrough for me. I got an opportunity to perform there, when I was starting out as a solo artist. It was a great opportunity, as prominent artists like Anuprastha was also there, which meant a large crowd had gathered. I started with a song by Ed Sheeran, and the crowd gave me such a positive response which motivated me.

I was also appreciated by Adrian [Pradhan] dai, and other artists, and that became another driving force for me. I’m also quite grateful to Sisan Baniya and Paradygm TV for helping me in the beginnings and pushing me forward. Our cover song Sindhuli Gadi was a breakthrough. I guess, everyone does have breakthroughs, don’t they?

How do you look back to your yesteryears?

Looking back, all the decisions I made were worth it. I’m not really a thinker. I’m one to take decisions blindly, it’s in my nature. And even when I did, they’re never really worked out for me, you know? So, I make decisions on my toes and I’m who I am now because of them. Obviously, every decision was not a good one, but that’s what life is, right? There are good moments and bad moments, but we should look at the average. And looking at mine, I think, it’s all very much worth it.

But these days, I’m really trying to be more thoughtful, because you know, now I’ve got many who love me and want me to do better. I don’t want to be someone who gets lost in all the hype. They say that “the brightest flame burns the quickest”, and I don’t want to be the one to burn out.

So, what are your future plans?

I have a tendency to go with the flow, so, I don’t have a clear roadmap yet, but I’ve decided I will dedicate my life to music. I have set some milestones, though. I have four news songs to be released by this May, and an album to be prepared by 2019. After that, we’ll see, but I’d really like to have an album by then. Not for sales really, but I’d like it to be my own ‘trophy’ of sorts, a memoir if you will.

Your songs don’t really have music videos, do they? Why is that?

Yes, until now, you haven’t seen any music videos for my songs, but there are plans. But since I’m a camera-shy person, I won’t be starring in my videos; you will, however, see, me make small appearances as a singer, though. I’m just much more comfortable being behind a mic, with a guitar in hand more that acting.

How was your latest tour to Australia?

It was a great success, yes. I went to Sydney for a show, which was really good. I experienced something new. I felt lucky to have become and artist. Many people remarked that “Neetesh broke his ‘virginity’ with the tour”, you know, cause of the line “…aile samma India ni gako xaina…”. I had an amazing time and a lot of memories. Everybody was singing along with me, and it was really emotional and an amazing moment.

Any special backstage moments?

Yes, I’ve had great memories from all my shows. Just recently in Chitwan, there was this girl, who started crying. It was an awkward moment in front of her boyfriend, but it was tears of joy. And there was a time when a fan shared with me that he got out of a ‘dark place’ listening to my songs, and he thanked me, which feels great, you know! I mean, I have so many frustrations too, and to get that much of love from fans, just adds more to the driving force, and so, I will continue doing what I am, for as long as I can.

Finally, what advice would you like to give to all the aspiring musicians out there?

I’m not in a right place to give advice but what I can say is that if you have a dream, follow it no matter what. A dream, not a plan, mind you, as there’s difference between a dream and a plan. There’s going to be a lot of distractions, lot of interferences, and such but you have to keep going. Listen to what everyone has to say but follow your heart. You have to be afraid too, which is good, because fear, too, will drive you to achieve your dream. If you have a dream, just go for it and you will find a way.