With tousled hair and a wide, toothy smile, Dibesh Pokharel presents an instantly likeable persona. It also helps that he can sing like a young John Fogerty, all passionate, soaring vocals. It was this combination that won the 23-year-old Nepali-American, who performs under the stage name Arthur Gunn, a legion of admirers on this year’s quarantined edition of American Idol, the franchise singing competition.
At his very first audition, where he performed Bob Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’, Idol judge Luke Bryan jokingly asked Pokharel to open for him on tour. Judges Katy Perry and Lionel Richie both waxed rhapsodic, affirming Bryan’s enthusiasm.
“You are the story we need to tell,” Richie told Pokharel after coming in for an embrace. That audition video went viral in Pokharel’s home country of Nepal, turning him into a local celebrity overnight. Nepalis are familiar with Pokharel’s brand of music, with Kathmandu’s bars resounding nightly with the kind of classic rock ballads that Pokharel seems to belt out from the heart.
Pokharel grew up in Kathmandu before moving to Wichita in the US state of Kansas at the age of 16. It was around this time that he picked up his distinctly non-Asian stage name Arthur Gunn, although, like a modern-day Dylan, he has told multiple stories about its origin. Pokharel told Halla, a Nepali music website, that he had simply combined ‘Art’ with ‘Hur’, a “biblical name which means hole”, and picked Gunn because it “symbolised battle.” Later, he told Billboard that he had named himself after Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th century French symbolist poet.
In Wichita, Pokharel performed at coffeehouses and busked his way across Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. He even independently released an eight-song Nepali-language album, Grahan, in 2018. The album is tinged with folk, country, bluegrass and the blues, gleaned from his influences, Dylan, Nick Drake, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. The stand-out track, Nyano Ghar, sounds like a Dylan or a Mason Jennings outtake.
On American Idol, which moved online along with everything else due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pokharel stuck to his style, performing bluesy renditions of Otis Redding, Bob Marley and John Denver. He made it all the way to the Idol finale, narrowly losing out to R&B crooner Just Sam. He might not have won but he picked up thousands of fans along the way. Social media was ablaze after the Idol finale, outraged Gunn fans claimed he had been “robbed”.
Pokharel has taken the loss in stride and although he hasn’t yet been offered a record contract, as he explained in a now-deleted Instagram caption, in July, he dropped Self-Titled, a seven-track album. The album, also released independently, has a few hundred thousand plays on Spotify, which isn’t too spectacular. He has received offers to tour, he said on Instagram, but with a pandemic in place, live shows might seem a distant dream.
For now, his Instagram feed is all moody landscapes and the odd selfie. The young singer appears to be taking it slow and riding out the pandemic.