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Meet HIRA, a shining light of The Paul Institute

Meet HIRA, the Paul Institute artist making future-nostalgic pop

We talk with the British-Indian songwriter and producer as he opens up with two new AI-inspired tracks

The London-based music collective, Paul Institute, founded by Jai Paul and his brother A.K., has been consistently pumping out exciting and forward-thinking pop music since its first release, A.K.’s “Landcruisin’”, in 2016. The collective now boasts an impressive roster – Jai and A.K. Paul, Ruthven, REINEN, Pen Pals, Fabiana Palladino, and HIRA – whose releases are touched with the magic of the Pauls, but are all undeniably distinctive artists in their own right. 

HIRA’s journey with the group began when A.K. picked up on tracks he released under the name HIRA KING, and they then joined forces for his first release with Paul Institute, “Eve“, in 2017. “Red Light Drive“ followed a year later, this time produced solely by HIRA. “I’m honoured that they both believe in it,” he told Dazed at the time. “I just wanted it to sound like how Akira looks”.

Back in August the Institute put out the Summer 2020 EP featuring HIRA’s “Unreal“, further showcasing his abilities as a powerful vocalist and a strikingly original electronic producer. Now he’s blessed us with two new singles, “Don’t Question It!”, described as “an R&B hit from the future built in the vein of Prince or Lenny Kravitz” in the press release, and “Just When I”, a throwback to the late 90s and early 2000s when the likes of NSYNC and Britney Spears ruled the airwaves. We caught up with HIRA to chat about his new music and what he’s been up to in 2020:

Great to connect with you, how are you doing?

HIRA: I’m good thanks, I have to do this outside though if that’s cool, I can’t be in my house because I have a parrot who doesn’t shut up.

That’s OK, how long have you had the parrot?

Hira: He is 18 now, we’ve had him since he was four months.

Cute. Do you have any other pets?

HIRA: We used to have a big aquarium that was like my dad’s hobby, he had this massive fish tank with all these marine fish and corals and stuff. We had this one mad fish that had these blue teeth that were really sharp, and it ate all the little fish. It’s quite raw when you see that while you’re eating dinner.

OK well you’re outside now, safe from the animals. So how was lockdown for you?

HIRA: I was in the studio pretty much every day before lockdown, like non stop, and I can’t really make music at home. So I was like ah shit, how am I going to make anything? But it was actually interesting to figure that out. And I ended up learning new ways to write, and found a new process. A lot of my lockdown time was spent on FaceTime with Mahir Mistry (one half of Paul Institute artist Pen Pals) who I did these new tunes with. And we just set a challenge every day. 

We’d give eachother an hour to make a beat and we’d give each other words or cues, a beat that sounds like a swamp or something like that. It was pretty fun, we made a lot of tunes like that. With ”Don’t Question It!”, Mahir had this idea for the drums that he said was inspired by a dream he had. And then later on I was adding stuff, and then Harry Craze  is also involved in a lot. We all definitely have input in some way in production.

How did you pass the time when you were taking a break from music? Did you go on your state-sanctioned daily walks?

HIRA: Most of the time me, Mahir, and Keen (the other half of Pen Pals) would link up on FaceTime pretty much every night to watch a film. I’ve got a list of what we watched from that time, and... it’s a lot.

I’m gonna have to hit you up for that list...

HIRA: I mean, not all of them are good. Like we purposely watched shit films.

What was your favourite shit film?

HIRA: Birdemic. The effects are fucking atrocious. It’s a mess, but it’s a good watch. And there’s a Netflix film called The Circle: It’s this faintly philosophical film about how you could possibly choose which person to kill in a room full of strangers. It’s just a bit naff.

I watched a film during lockdown called Full English Breakfast, the only way to describe it would be: extremely low-budget patriotic British crime thriller. 

HIRA: Oh yeah? 

Yeah worst film I’ve ever seen. Anyway, while we’re on film, I read that your recent track ’Unreal’ was partly inspired by Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Are there any cinematic reference points for these new tracks?

HIRA: I don’t think they were inspired by films actually. But they are definitely of a time, of like early 2000s or late 90s vibes for me, those kinds of textures.

You said that, ”Don’t Question It!” started over FaceTime? How about ’Just When I’? 

HIRA: They were written really close together actually. In the exact same way as well. There’s this sound on ”Just When I” I don’t know if you clocked it, it’s like a ’wooow’, and when I heard that I was like,  ‘oh my god, this what a party sounds like, I could hear this in a party’. And that one sound pretty much inspired the whole vibe of the melodies and the lyrics. I really want to know who made that sound, it’s sick, but we can’t trace the origin, it was just hidden in a sample pack we had.

I hope you find it one day. Speaking of very specific samples, I wanted to ask about the snare on ”Just When I”. It sounds like it sucks the entire track into vacuum for a split second, and then releases it. How did you make it sound like that?

HIRA: We’re just always trying to find weird ways to get new textures. On that one we were kind of inspired by AI-generated music. You hear a lot of weird bending of sounds and stuff in the beats so we’re kind of trying to replicate that. There’s this website, I think it’s called Jukebox, and you can just type in an artist and it comes up with AI versions of their tunes, it’s quite mad. And it scares me to think that this is what the future is going to be like.

People are just going type into Jukebox ”HIRA type beat” and get a perfect tune...

HIRA: 100 percent, and they’d probably be better than my tunes. Some of it sounds so sick, and you just think, how can I as a mere human do this?

“Writing films and writing tunes is like having a world in your head that you’re trying to make real for people” – HIRA

Speaking of AI, what do you think music will sound like in 100 years time?

HIRA: I know it’s probably going to be some integrated into your brain shit. Like I don’t think we’re even going to have to use any device, we can probably just think about it. And probably frantic. I imagine that it’s not going to be a nice collaboration between humans and machines, there’s a disconnect there.

So it’s not going to be a machine-human collab, we’re actually going to be competing with one another?

HIRA: I’ve thought about this, and I think that we’re probably going to have a chart-topping hit that’s made by AI. And that’s probably going to, like, probably piss people off.

”HIRA type beat” is going to beat the real HIRA to the top of the charts. But maybe we’ll have a separate Billboard chart for pure AI tunes.

HIRA: And then like, Silicon Valley can think they’re musicians as well.

I was thinking, at some point there’s going to be a total rejection of technology, like you were saying, people will get pissed off, and then there’s probably going to be a retreat to a kind of post-tech choral vibe in caves and stuff.

HIRA: I’m down for that. Sounds sick. Retreating to primal living.

Should we start a choir?

HIRA: Yeah, a choir cult.

So I read that you went to film school, does that tie in with your interest in design? I understand you make your own atwork and merch.

HIRA: I’ve been designing since I was a kid. I cracked Photoshop and it went from me putting my name on car numberplates to what I do now. It’s a natural part of my art process I guess. Film was actually a bit of a spontaneous decision when I was going into uni because I was really into photography as a teenager. That was my main thing, apart from singing. But I wanted to take it to the next step at uni. That didn’t turn out really, I dropped out. The tutors were not very inspiring and yeah, I preferred music.

Were you writing or producing any music around this time, or did you decide to switch into music after you dropped out? 

HIRA: I think I just had my first EP out around the same time. I can’t listen to it now, it was like my first attempt at making tunes. I’ve been singing since I was a kid, but actually producing stuff and writing songs was still pretty fresh, I only started when I was just leaving high school. 

Was there a similarity in the creative process from, you know, photography and filmmaking to music, or was it something totally new and exciting for you?

HIRA: Lyrically I’d say there’s a big similarity with filmmaking, I try to see a world in all of them. Writing films and writing tunes is like having a world in your head that you’re trying to make real for people. And also, in the studio we’re always describing sounds with colours, so I can take them and use it for the artwork and stuff like that.

Are you thinking about bringing out any merch for these two tracks?

HIRA: I’ve got some ideas. I don’t want to say just yet. But yeah, let’s see. I’m really excited by merch, I just did a run of T-shirts for Unreal which was fun.

What about a HIRA Covid-protective visor? 

HIRA: That would be sick but I’d want make one with mad colours and you wouldn’t be able to see much so...

But then people could truly be immersed in the world of HIRA.

HIRA: Absolutely.

HIRA’s “Just When I” and “Don’t Question It!” are available on all streaming services now