How A Lifetime Of Absorbing Pop Music & Intersectional Identity Led To Vardaan Arora’s Debut EP

I’ll keep this part brief because there’s a nice conversation below that sets up the story, the artist, the songs and the message for Vardaan Arora.

The brief you need to know: Delhi-born, New York-living, Vardaan’s been making well crafted pop songs to strut to since day dot. This week he releases his first ever EP, HEARTBREAK ON THE DANCE FLOOR, which takes the core of a breakup album and flips it on its head in six slick songs that speak to the loneliest and the most self-confident moments of the rollercoaster of parting with someone.

Nic Kelly in Bold, Vardaan Arora in not-bold, and a deep dive into the meaning of pop music below.

Running this blog, we have repeat offenders that pop up time and time again and consistently deliver. And you are one of the more consistent deliverers.

I’m very happy to be a repeat offender. I actually look forward… like the first time you guys wrote about a song that I did was back in 2016. And that actually took me by surprise because I don’t even know how that happened to be honest, but that’s how I found the blog. And since then, I actually look to your blog to discover some pop music that I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to find outside of it. Every time you guys you guys write about me and you guys have nice things to say about my music, I feel like I almost value that moreso than a lot of other places because I just feel like you’re a man with taste, you know what I’m saying?

That means so much. That’s why we do it. And it’s so meaningful to be this small part of an artist’s story and go on the journey with them and watch them thrive and prosper.

And you guys were around for Feel Good Song. That was like, day one.

I can’t even take credit for finding Feel Good Song, that was our friend Nathan.

I remember that! It was in the summer of tropical infused pop. Oh, I miss it.

We do. I feel like it’s moved for you from tropical infused pop, to a light smattering of EDM and now it’s gone to full, dense, thumper territory. Talk me through that, that ‘sonic journey’.

So a lot of the music that I make is obviously heavily influenced by the music that I’m listening to at the moment. And I just feel like I go with the flow. I don’t try to overthink or over-plan what sound I’m going for, which is why I was doing singles for a long time too, because I wanted to play with different things with different songs. With this longer project, there are definitely some similarities between all the songs – whether it’s a lyrical or a sonic thing, I just feel like there’s more of a transition. Like it starts with 80s-inspired, sort of synthy pop, going into sort of interesting dancey, house-inspired stuff. I just feel like I listen to so much upbeat music in terms of tempo, stuff that makes you feel good, stuff that makes you just want to dance, stuff that makes you want to walk a runway almost. It’s just stuff that makes you feel good.

It’s music to strut to.

Well, that’s probably the biggest compliment that anyone could give me. It’s because that’s the feeling that I want people to have when they listen to it. And I think I do that with this record. I’ve done that with my songs before. But I feel like now is the most confident I’ve been as a songwriter, and having worked with different people and having done this for a few years now, I feel a lot more ready to be able to deliver those bops, you know?

Is that why now is the time to move to release a bigger body of work?

Kind of. I was thinking about doing a bigger body of work anyway. But then I was going through this breakup back in January, and I was like, “you know what, I’m coming out of this three-year relationship, so much is going to change in my life, I feel like I have a lot going on right now. And I just feel like now is the right time to start working on a longer project.” I didn’t try too hard. I feel like I’m such an over thinker, and I’m such an anxious person that I poke holes in everything. But luckily with this record, I feel like I didn’t try too hard to make like, a cohesive body of work, I just let it spill out of me! And I was like, “it’ll come together somehow.” It was like, a one month window that I wrote all these songs. I was thinking, “I’m in this place in my life right now. And I’m just gonna write about all these different things that I’m feeling right now. And then eventually, I just had to trust that it will come together and form this longer record, which I think it did. I see a cohesiveness in it.

Talk to me about the the process of making each of the songs. I suppose not even just each of the songs on this record, but your songwriting journey so far. How do you generally write?

It’s interesting, my songwriting process is very messy. But at the same time, it’s like organized chaos. Like, Feel Good Song, I walked blindly into a studio and I’d never written a song before. And I was like, let’s do this. I’ve never taken any songwriting classes, I don’t have an education in it. My education, when it comes to songwriting, is just being a fan of pop music. I feel like just by listening to it so much growing up, I’ve studied it. But that’s also one of the reasons why I love songwriting is because there are no rules, at least for me, I’m like, if I come up with something, and I’m working with a producer who’s like “that doesn’t really work with the timing,” I would rather take those risks and then fail, than restrict myself by following ‘songwriting rules’. I just write from a really free place and I feel very liberated writing. But I mean, I have been lucky. I don’t know if the Zoom stuff to be honest, would work for me. I did one session via Zoom, but I’ve been busy with this project. So I haven’t really been doing a lot of work on newer stuff at the moment, but a lot of what I make, as long as I’m in the room for the writing of it and for the tracking of the vocals, I’m all good. All the other stuff, I go back and forth with the producer and talk about it or just give them my mixed notes. I have very, very specific production ideas that luckily, I’ve been able to work with people who help me bring those to life, but I do have a very picky ear when it comes to production. So all the production stuff can happen later, as long as my vocals and the writing happens in the room. I don’t know about the whole remote session stuff. I haven’t fully tried yet, I’m a little nervous to. A lot of people are doing it though.

Let’s talk about the title track and the title, as a whole. Talk me through the concept of Heartbreak On The Dance Floor.

I had the title for the whole EP before I had any of the songs written. I was like, I know. I know I want to call it Heartbreak On The Dance Floor. I know I want a song on it called Heartbreak On The Dance Floor. I love when there’s a title track! I feel a little old fashioned at this point, but I do like that and for my debut long project I want to have a title track and I just feel like Heartbreak On The Dance Floor, as a title, captures my long-running theme of heavier lyrics paired with brighter sounds. I think that the title captures that contrast pretty well. So I definitely wanted that and I think when I hear the title Heartbreak On The Dance Floor i definitely hear this like… and the video has a little bit of this too… like, this 80s inspired prom vibe going for it. And I was coming out of a breakup, as I mentioned, and I was like this is this is the perfect title because it touches on feeling lonely even when you’re in a room full of people. Breakups are so unique, aren’t they? Nobody knows what a breakup is like, except for the person who is going through that specific breakup, because it’s so specific to the two people who are in that relationship. I wanted to touch on that. Like, it’s set during a night out almost. It very much lyrically touches on the feeling of isolation and how even though you’re out drinking with friends, you could still feel so alone. It’s so vulnerable from that standpoint. But it was also my first breakup song that I wrote.

Beyond the breakup itself occurring, what allowed you to write about something a bit more vulnerable? What have you learned over the last few years that allowed you to kind of get to that point?

In the past few years, I have written songs that touch on anxiety and I’ve shown vulnerability from that perspective. I feel like I’ve written songs with my heart on my sleeve about struggling with not feeling good enough for constant comparisons and that’s been more existential and introspective, but I’ve found that by writing about it, not to sound cliche, but it’s therapeutic, right? It sort of takes the power away from all of these emotions that cause you pain and makes you feel empowered instead. And it’s the same thing with Heartbreak On The Dance Floor. It’s me being vulnerable in a different way. But it is still therapeutic because you put it out there. And then I think when people listen to it and when people start connecting with it, you realise you’re not alone. It sort of makes you feel motivated to just get up and face it and figure out how to live your life, despite things trying to bring you down. In this specific instance, it’s heartbreak. It’s healing. I feel like healing is the word I would use to describe it. And I just felt like being totally honest about it. It is very personal. And you always wonder when you’re writing songs about a specific person, it’s like… are they gonna listen to it?

You know they are! I DON’T WANNA KNOW is a particularly special, fun track on this record.

For me it’s more than just a song. I just feel like the collaboration is so unique.

Yeah, ‘cos it’s like this trio of powerful queer Asian folks coming together on a track. Talk to me that how much that means?

I think that’s what makes the track stand out on my discography for me is because I think there’s such a lack of Asian representation in pop music, like, period. Then when you add queer Asian representation, when you talk about that, there’s probably like, under ten people that I can name who I know of, and I think we need more of that, especially in K-Pop. MRSHLL is actually Korea’s first openly gay K-Pop act which is huge. That was really exciting for me, because I think he has a voice that’s much needed in pop music. There’s also other similarities in our journey – like he’s between Seoul and California. I’m between Delhi and New York. We come from these different cultural backgrounds and they both form or inform parts of our identity, in a way that’s unique. And same with Ken [Gao, regular collaborator]. He’s Chinese Canadian. So that really made the song for me. The song was actually ready to be out just as a solo. Like, I had a second verse on it and everything, it was all mastered and done. But I found out about MRSHLL through a friend and decided to reach out to see if he wanted to do a verse on it. And he did! If Heartbreak On The Dance Floor is a mid tempo breakup song, I DON’T WANNA KNOW is a confident rebound hookup song. It’s certainly a contrast in that way and that’s why it happened slightly later on on the full record. But it’s definitely also new territory for me. I don’t usually sing about sex. I don’t usually sing about feeling confident. It’s very get to the point, which is really fun to write.

Not just is it get to the point throughout the whole song, it’s get to the point in the first 15 seconds. Vocal production is all you need to get to the point. We know what the fuck is up.

I love the vocoder on the vocal. Ken [Gao] does a great job with vocal compression. On the verses, too and MRSHLL sounds so sexy and I love his adlibs at the end. The whole thing just works together. I wrote it because… when you’ve been with someone for so long, the last thing you want, is to get to know another person from scratch. Making small talk is one thing, but this whole idea of going on dates and having the same conversations with different people over and over again and getting to know them and things about their family, where they come from, it just sounds so tedious! I DON’T WANNA KNOW is very much like, I don’t want to know anything about you. Let’s just cut to the chase. It’s honest in that way, which I appreciate.

It’s vulnerability in a different way, isn’t it? It’s hard to talk about ‘taboo’ stuff…

Especially when it’s like queer people singing about it, there’s an additional stigma attached to queer people openly singing about sex and love. We always hide it.

I feel like there’s something really powerful as well about the three of you on that record, being queer and Asian and having that intersectionality, I feel like there’s a temptation for some artists who observe that intersectionality, to talk about the darker side of being from a diverse background. Whereas this is really the exact opposite of that.

I think a lot of times, underrepresented artists feel a lot of pressure to represent their identities in the ‘correct’ way. There is this heaviness attached to it usually. I didn’t feel that, because I think that no matter what you do, if you’re being vulnerable and honest, no matter what you’re writing about, your identity will shine through just by virtue of the fact that the three of us are doing it. It already is, in my mind, iconic. Like we don’t need to try hard to make it iconic. So the simplicity of that… because I’ve had people ask me before, like, “why don’t you use more Indian influences in your music… because you’re Indian…” I’ve had A&R tell me that before. And it’s just like, my identity will shine through my music. If I’m writing from a place of vulnerability, I will not try extra hard to make it sound more ‘Indian’ or… you know what I mean? Like, try to ham it up a little bit so that it sounds more culturally different? I feel like, then you’re just trying to sell your identity.

It’s exploitative.

And of course, I’ve had white people in the past tell me this and I’m like, well, there’s not a lot of Indian people making pop music. I feel like me doing that alone, in itself, is breaking down barriers for other people who might want to be doing it. Because for so long, I never, ever thought that I would be able to do this. That anyone would even care. That’s where the song Imposter Syndrome that’s also on the record comes from… because like… we’re sitting here talking to each other and I still feel like a fraud sometimes. Like I’ll listen to my music and I will be so proud of it and then I’ll listen to it again the day after and be so unsure of it and all of a sudden not want to even put it out it’s just this feeling of never feeling good enough because you just feel like by the stroke of luck you’re doing this, this is not because you’re actually good, because you’ve just never seen anyone else like yourself do it before! It’s been so ingrained and internalised from such a young age, like all the pop stars I idolise, were all white. And now that I’m doing this… it’s almost like I’m playing pretend. Like a make believe thing. Like oh, this is just a fantasy that I’m living, in my own little world. I’m never going to be able to make actual pop music because people like me don’t do that or haven’t done that. It’s just like this weird, internalised fear of always apologizing for yourself, or always feeling like you’re not good enough, even when people are giving you compliments and telling you that you are good enough. No reassurance takes away from that. I definitely went on a tangent talking about the collaboration with MRSHLL. But yeah.

I’m really glad we could explore that. And that’s again the vulnerability that makes you incredible. The pop music that I’m finding myself gravitating towards, even just in the last few years in general, is pop music with genuine personality and a theme that is unique to that specific artist and that is what you bring in spades. And I think that you make a really good point about Imposter Syndrome, in that if you haven’t seen someone like you do it before, you’re always gonna feel like a fraud aren’t you, because you’ve got nothing to compare it to?

And also imposter syndrome is such a common phenomenon even when you don’t have that added layer. And it’s crazy to think that some people who to you seem like they have it together and they’re so established and so successful, I bet they go through it as well! It’s a very universal phenomenon. That was another song that I had the title beforehand for. I feel like most of the songs on the record, I had the title for before I had any of the lyrics. Imposter Syndrome is also a unique title. We wrote that song in ten minutes. I remember. It’s the shortest amount of time I’ve taken to write a song. That one is the most reminiscent of some of my older stuff with the like, vocal chop dance drop moment, which I love so much.

And obviously Expensive On Me is just such a joy to finish the record on.

That was my intention. I wanted to finish the record on a high note. I had sleepless nights thinking about the order because every night I would go to sleep thinking that a different order was the best order for the record. I think it was always going to end with Expensive On Me, but it was switching Imposter Syndrome and I DON’T WANNA KNOW or something. But as an independent artist, you have so much control over everything, which is great, but at the same time sometimes it’s tough having nobody to bounce these decisions off of but like, at the end of the day, I have complete control and that’s exciting. So the order was definitely something I paid a lot of attention to it starts with Heartbreak… then there’s a Selena Gomez cover in there, so with Rare, it was just like self-love. So it’s like coming out of heartbreak going into self love. Then the anxiety kicks in again with Do You Hate Me? And then confidence comes back up with I DON’T WANNA KNOW. It’s like a roller coaster of emotions of sorts, but I also feel like I’m a multifaceted human being. I can start my morning feeling like shit and two hours later, I’m on top of the world, thinking that I’m unstoppable. It’s this spectrum of emotions that I can feel through the day, I kind of wanted the record to feel like that too. You can tell it’s all coming from the same person and it’s the same voice. But it’s also a little bit messy. It’s organised chaos and I wanted the record to feel like that.

Heartbreak On The Dance Floor is out now.

Photo at the top + Heartbreak On The Dance Floor video by Lizzie Morgan.

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