Her whole life, Priya Ragu had inhabited two worlds; with her debut mixtape, she conjured up her own. September’s ‘damnshestamil’ announced the multi-talented artist as somebody with little time for stylistic boundaries, melding pop, soul, hip hop, alt-R&B, and the Tamil music of her heritage into a kaleidoscopic sound that defied the conventions she’d previously found discouraging: that Tamil music rarely makes appearances in the Western mainstream, and that music so genre-amorphous always seemed unlikely to make the radio in Switzerland.
“I never even thought about the possibility of my music going international, because that doesn’t tend to happen for Swiss artists,” she explains over Zoom from London, where she’s now based. It’s about to, though; fresh from a run of UK shows supporting Jungle in front of some huge crowds, and with her first UK TV appearance on Later… with Jools Holland ticked off in November, Priya will head out on the European leg of Jungle’s tour in January, before playing SXSW in March.
It’s all pretty damn impressive for someone who only gave up her day job six months ago. “I was constantly travelling back and forth to London, and work started to get stressful. I was making a lot of mistakes, and I knew I couldn’t focus on both,” she notes. “There’s the Swiss mentality that makes you want to keep hold of the security forever. That was my parents’ outlook - ‘You never know how this music thing is going to turn out!’ But I haven’t looked back. I’ve already sort of forgotten what that life was like. I think I made the right call.”
Priya’s Sri Lankan parents are evidently a huge influence; whilst Switzerland itself is a world away from their Tamil culture, the latter was alive and kicking within their home, from the records and movies that she was raised on to her father’s work as an amateur musician himself. By way of an introduction to performance, Priya would even occasionally play as part of his band at weddings and birthday parties.
More than that, they’ve helped inspire her storytelling, too; for the video to single ‘Good Love 2.0’ - eventually shot in Goa, India - she’d wanted to go instead to Jaffna, Sri Lanka, where her parents hail from. “The song was inspired by the story of my parents, and how they met; they were next door neighbours,” she explains. “It would’ve been amazing to go to that city, to those houses, and tell that story there for the video, but there’s a lot of difficulties that come with that in Sri Lanka. It’s still quite militarised, so there’d be a lot of questions, and you can’t move around freely, so we went to Goa instead; we were looking for somewhere that looked similar.”
“I never even thought about my music going international, because that doesn’t happen for Swiss artists.”
Who: Swiss-Tamil R&B star bringing sounds of old into the 21st century with glee.
In three words: Tradition and innovation.
Achievements so far: With debut project ‘damnshestamil’, she ripped open the idea of what an R&B artist can be in 2021, leaving endless pathways for her future.
Most likely to: Encourage you to forget what you know and embrace the unpredictable.
Priya cites M.I.A. as an influence, but hasn’t been inspired to follow her into writing politically by her brush with the complex situation in her parents’ homeland - yet, at least. “I’ll talk about politics in the future, for sure,” she explains, “but for now, I don’t see my lane as being a political path. It was powerful to see how M.I.A. used her platform, but that was also at a time when the war was going on - the situation’s different now. There are still a lot of things to address; the military is still there, there are still no equal rights, and the oppression of the Tamil people goes on, and it’s been happening for over 20 years now. I think there are solutions, and whatever I can do to speak to that, I will do. But there’s nothing too political on the mixtape.”
Instead, the importance of having artists like M.I.A. to look up to came in the sense of representation, something the singer has increasingly come to realise the crucial value of. It’s rare for Swiss musicians to make waves in the western musical world, let alone Tamil ones, and Priya Ragu is avowedly both. The title of her mixtape isn’t just lip service to her background; on ‘Santhosum’, she sings entirely in her parents’ language (“The oldest language in the world - sick, right?”), while ‘Lighthouse’ interpolates Sri Lankan flute and ‘Deli’ fuses South Asian percussion with electronic drums. It’s groundbreaking, but without M.I.A as a role model, she might never have been so daring.
“It gives kids a lot of hope if they can turn on the TV, or put on a record, and see and hear somebody who looks like them,” she enthuses. “It gives you courage. To begin with, for me, it was Black women; I was looking up to people like Lauryn Hill, but until M.I.A. came along, it felt like there were no Sri Lankans making it happen. I remember the first time I saw her, on TV. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is actually possible!’ The way she sounded, the way she looked - she was just totally true to herself, and the western world was accepting of her. I don’t feel like I have to hide any of my heritage away.”
“It gives kids a lot of hope if they can turn on the TV, or put on a record, and see and hear somebody who looks like them.”
A similarly important figure has been Priya’s older brother, who produced ‘damnshestamil’ and records his own music under the name JaphnaGold. He’s a key collaborator in the songwriting process, particularly in the creation of beats, but has been an influence her whole life, from passing down records to introducing her to Tamil film soundtracks.
“He’s my older brother, so growing up, everything he was into, I was copying,” she laughs. “He was a big hip hop fan, so that’s where that side of the music comes from, but a lot of the stuff on ‘damnshestamil’ is just a reflection of what I was into growing up - R&B and soul, past and present. So on the one hand, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone were important, and then on the other, Brandy, The Fugees, Musiq Soulchild. And yet, all that time, my heart was beating for Tamil music; I’d listen to it and sort of daydream about how my life might have been different if my parents hadn’t moved here for work. I’d watch a Tamil movie, and the lifestyles I’d see, I’d wonder if that was how mine would have been. It felt like having two different personalities at times.”
This duality is something Priya has readily embraced in her music, in both sound and themes; ‘damnshestamil’ runs the gamut from bangers (‘Chicken Lemon Rice’) to heartbreak (‘Forgot About’). She’ll begin work in earnest on a debut album in 2022; it’ll be more conceptual than the mixtape, she says, but is unlikely to be littered with features. “If you asked me who my dream collaboration would be with, I’d say there isn’t one. I’m cool with just doing my own thing and putting it out there.”
Musically speaking, it sounds as if anything’s possible. “Style-wise, there won’t be fewer of them,” Priya says. “There’ll probably be even more! According to my fortune teller, anyway…”
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