An Interview with Saleka

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Video Premiere: Saleka Shyamalan Opens Up On The Gorgeous 'Graffiti'

Saleka is one the rising stars within the R&B scene today. Her voice is smooth as butter, and even though she may wear her influences on her sleeve, she’s had no trouble writing and creating music that is entirely all her own.

Fans of Lauryn Hill, Etta James and Sarah Vaughn will be at home with the music of Saleka. Heavy praise? Sure. But in a short time, Saleka has earned it. The fact that she’s only just getting started, only makes what she’s already accomplished that much more impressive. In a world where music has become somewhat…disposable, Saleka is reminding us that there in fact another way.

So, today I’ve got Saleka with us for a chat. We talk about her origins as a Classical pianist, her vulnerability as a songwriter, working with her sister on her latest music videos and more. If you would like to learn more about the artistry of Saleka, you can head over to her website here and dig in. Cheers.

Andrew:
Saleka, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. This last year has been rough, right? How are you holding up during this seemingly ever-raging dumpster fire?

Saleka:
Thank you for taking the time with me! It’s been up and down for sure. Like so many industries, the music industry has suffered greatly, and it is heartbreaking to see. But I feel lucky to be healthy and safe, and able to keep writing music and shoot a couple of COVID-safe music videos. I was basically quarantined with my parents, sisters, and grandparents for the majority of this year and while challenging at times, it was a blessing to have that time with them. Supporting each other through the uncertainty and fear really reminded me how important family is.

Andrew:
Tell us about your backstory. What was your musical gateway so to speak?

Saleka:
My parents started me in Classical piano lessons when I was 4, and I trained in that for most of my life. When I was 16, I started becoming interested in singing as well and began writing my own songs. It was a significant pivot point in my life because up until then, I had been aiming for a future as a Classical pianist. It was scare to veer off that path, but my years of training were not lost; they went right into the songwriting. Classical piano is what made me fall in love with music, it taught me theory and technique and most importantly- discipline.

Andrew:
Let’s jump right into your new music. You’ve got a few singles out, “Clarity,” “Mr. Incredible,” and the newest as well as my favorite, “Graffiti.” Tell us about your new music. What was the lyrical inspiration behind these songs?

Saleka:
“Clarity” describes my journey of leaving a toxic relationship. I was struggling to see clearly any world beyond the one I was in, and to trust my own instincts. I would just have these fleeting moments of lucidity where I suddenly knew that what was happening was wrong, but the feeling would quickly fade. I wrote this song as a way to try and hold on to one of those moments, to chase that truth and find agency through it.

“Mr. Incredible” is a song about relationships and mental health. What it feels like to love someone who is constantly falling into depression, to try and build something with someone you can’t really communicate with. The toll this takes on both people.

“Graffiti” is about the power of language, how the words said to and about us are like spells and can often define our self-image and our idea of who we can become.

Rising R&B Star Saleka on Her Inspiring New Video and the Power of  Expression | Vogue


Andrew:
Let’s go back a bit now. You’re a classically trained pianist, right? Tell us more about that. How did the piano come into your life as an instrument? Were you drawn to it naturally, or was it offered to you so to speak?

Saleka:
Since my parents put me in lessons when I was 4, it was definitely something offered to me at first. My piano teacher became an important mentor to me. She had very high standards but always reminded me I was capable of reaching them if I put in the work. She took the time to help me realize my potential. Without her, I think my self-doubt would have definitely kept me from embracing music fully. As I got older, it turned into more of a personal passion. I started gravitating to certain composers or even certain chord progressions that made me feel something. My family is very artistically oriented, but my sisters and I were able to each follow the form of expression that felt most true to ourselves with dancing, writing, music, film, painting, fashion etc. For me, it was always music.


Andrew:
I checked into the videos for your three singles, and they’re awesome. You worked on these with your sister Ishana, right? Tell us more about that process and how they came together.

Saleka:
My sister is wildly talented; she is in film school at NYU but is already an incredible director. We had always talked about working together because she is very musical herself, and was really interested in directing music videos. It came together so naturally; she really gravitated towards certain tracks on the album and had visions for the imagery that could help tell each story.

We also have very similar tastes and influences which made collaboration easy. Our sister bond also helped me a lot. I was very out of my comfort zone with the music videos. I had never really danced, acted or even been on camera in that way before. I have a lot stage fright and insecurities when it comes to those things, so having my sister as the person directing me and running the set helped me feel a lot more comfortable and supported. She knows me well and has a great sense of empathy and intuiting what people need. She made the music video sets become a family atmosphere. It was so beautiful, positive and fun. It think that energy also translated to the final products.


Andrew:
Your music is a mesmerizing blend of R&B, Jazz and Pop with tinges of World Music traced throughout. It’s very eclectic and singular to you. Tell us more about some of your influences as a songwriter, musician and vocalist.

Saleka:
Classical piano definitely influenced my playing style and technique, but I grew up listening mostly to R&B, Jazz, Hip-Hop and some Indian music (Bollywood mostly, and some traditional folk). R&B is more of my basis; it is the type of vocals, strong structure and rhythms that I gravitate to and feel at home in. I grew up idolizing Pop and R&B singers, and their lyrics often framed my life experiences. I think the exposure to Indian music really manifested in my production tastes. It drew me to other international music and world music textures, especially in the percussion sounds. My love for Jazz and Blues music came later. I always enjoyed it but the full depth of my appreciation for these genres came with adulthood. They really changed the way I thought about chord progressions, instrumentation, performance, and continue to influence me more and more each day.

Saleka Shares New Single, "Mr. Incredible" | Prelude Press

Andrew:
A bit more on your songwriting now. How do your songs come together? In terms of lyrical content, are your words very personal to you, or are you merely telling stories so to speak?

Saleka:
Writing song is a very solitary and personal process for me. Being a pianist, I usually start with the music of the song, a chord progression and melody or a beat. But there’s always a specific lyrical message and feeling I know I want to create. Every song I’ve written so far has been my way of processing a personal experience, or an expression of something I felt unable to say in any other way. Sometimes, I feel my songs are actually too personal because it makes performing them feel extremely vulnerable and more nerve-wrecking, but making and putting out the music videos for these firsts songs has helped me learn how to start talking about these very personal experiences in a more public form and appreciate it as a form of empowerment instead of insecurity.

Andrew:
Let’s go back and talk about the latest single “Graffiti” some more. When does it officially drop and where will it be available? Are you working on a length record as well?

Saleka:
Graffiti is out now and available on all streaming platforms and the music video is on YouTube! Yes, I actually do have a full-length project that I am in the process of finishing now and am planning to put out in early June! But there are some more releases coming before then too. The next release is actually a song I wrote for my dad’s TV show, “Servant”. It’s a slightly different style from the first few releases and has been so fun to write and work on. I can’t wait to share all of these tracks soon!

Andrew:
Your father is movie director M. Night Shyamalan, right? Very cool. Has your father’s work and imagery had any lasting influence on your music, or the music videos you worked on with your sister Ishana?

Saleka:
Definitely. My sister could speak more to the directorial aspect of influence, but I know we both have a love of scary movies, dark themes, psychology and suspense that comes from him. I would say though, that the biggest influences come more from just watching him work over the years. Seeing his process, value system, how he handles challenges. He has modeled intense discipline, leadership, respect for his craft, and personal resilience for my sisters and I every day. Many of our family conversations revolve around balancing art and commerce, staying true to ourselves while continuing to grow, protecting and directing our mental energy. He is also just a very supportive dad, and always reminding my sisters and I that we are capable of accomplishing our goals as long as we are coming from the right intention and put in the work.

First Look Friday: R&B Singer Saleka Announces Herself With Debut Single  "Clarity"

Andrew:
Let’s talk a bit about the industry now. One disturbing fact I’ve learned over time is that Spotify doesn’t pay artists well, if at all. What are your thoughts on that issue? How do we as fans do our part to help?

Saleka:
As a new artist, I’m grateful for the opportunity to put out music independently, to be able to reach people around the world directly without necessarily needing to go through a record company but I definitely don’t think we as an industry have found the fairest system for distribution through streaming. I am not sure what the answer is, but as an audience member, I just try to buy the music from my favorite artists, see them live, buy merch, and share their music.

Andrew:
In a world dominated by capitalism and social media, can artists really, truly get ahead? How do we keep the playing field level so that everyone has a chance to succeed?

Saleka:
I feel overwhelmed by this thought often. It seems to me the playing field is not level in many systemic ways, which then become accentuated by capitalism and social media. I think the comprehensive answers to these questions would require many plans of actions for how to start breaking down these systemic inequities and rethinking/building something new. But on a personal level, I think we can start by being open to considering our own lives, habits, biases, privileges etc, and work to become part of the change instead of part of the system.

Andrew:
Unfortunately, due to COVID, you’re unable to play live, which must be hard, as it’s a huge part of a working musician’s life. What do you miss most about live music?

Saleka:
I really miss the energy and collaboration of performing with a band, feeling in the moment and connected with the audience. Meeting other artists. I also miss just going to shows so much! There are so many artists I can’t wait to see live when touring is back.

[SPOTLIGHT] Saleka | Symphonic Distribution

Andrew:
Are you into records? Tapes? CDs? Digital? Where do you like to shop for music?

Saleka:
I would say now I mostly listen to music digitally and from records. When I was a younger, I was always walking around with a CD Walkman and headphones (after it was cool) but digital definitely allows for such fast access to anything and everything which is hard to resist. I listen to a lot of records now though, and I love that experience. Having something physical to hold, artwork to look at, and sometimes lyrics or special content to read, creates a more complete sensory experience curated by the artist. It feels like a more active way to listen.

Andrew:
What are a few albums and artists that mean the most to you and why?

Saleka:
Etta James, and her album At Last: This one of course is a classic. My parents used to play this album often while I was growing up and the songs on it were some of the first that I learned when I started singing. I loved the power in her voice, a perfect combination of strong and emotional.

Amy Winehouse, and her album Frank: Amy is a huge sonic inspiration for me. Her blend of Jazz and R&B and her skill as a songwriter and performer, are endlessly inspiring. She had a way of combining sensuality and confidence with vulnerability and pain in a way that feels so genuine and relatable. She writes things that are so specifically her, yet still universal.

Lauryn Hill, and her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: This album really changed my life. It defined my understanding of R&B and is probably what drew me to the genre. It is also just a masterpiece in every way- vocals, songwriting, composition/arrangement, instrumentation. My understanding and appreciation of the songs on this album has continued to grow and evolved as I’ve experienced more life and music.

Sarah Vaughan, and her album Live at Mister Kelly’s in 1957: This live album solidified my love for Jazz. I became obsessed with Sarah Vaughan’s poise and honesty as a performer, her spontaneity, the improvisational nature of Jazz music and the way she reinterpreted all these standards in a completely personal way.

Andrew:
Last question. Hindsight being 20/20, what advice would you have for your younger self? Furthermore, what advice would you have for anyone looking to get started in this business?

Saleka:
I feel like I am still just getting started in this business myself, so I’m not sure if I am equipped to give advice to others, but I would probably tell my younger self to just keep creating and iterating. Embrace the things that make you unique, trust your instincts, and always treat art with love.

Rising R&B Star Saleka on Her Inspiring New Video and the Power of  Expression | Vogue

Interested in learning more about the work of Saleka? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.
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