A Conversation with Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya’s newest solo album Part-Time Woman is packed with feminist power ballads and pop-country hits. We caught up with her to talk about Part-Time Woman, her thoughts on collaboration, and Sex and the City.


You’ve been involved in so many different kinds of artistic projects since your first album in 2002, but still you’ve put out more albums than you have anything else—how does it feel to be back making solo music?

It feels great. It’s a little nerve-racking. Music is my first love and where my path started as an artist. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer, but I always wanted to be a musician. Anytime you try to make an art into a career, it can be a painful process. When you layer that with systemic racism and homophobia in the music industry, it just made for a heartbreaking experience. I needed to take a break and explore other mediums, but now I’m back.

In a lot of ways, though, you don’t have control when the art is in the world, you just have to let it go.

 

This idea of letting the album go is so interesting because there’s a bit of specificity to how the album should be taken up: you’ve dedicated the album to “anyone who has been misgendered, made to feel not feminine enough, or struggled to find a home in language that resists complexity.”

One of the things I’ve learned from being an artist is not to underestimate the audience. You never know who will connect to an album or a piece of work. A couple of years ago, I wrote a novel called She of the Mountains, which is a contemporary bisexual love story interwoven and reimagined with Hindu mythology. Every time I think about that elevator pitch, I think, “Who is going to read this book?” Yet I’ve been consistently surprised that readers have connected and have been excited about it. And I really hope that Part-Time Woman reaches a variety of different people.

Last fall, when I was touring with Tegan and Sara with my band Too Attached,  I was really inspired by how many young queer, trans, and gender non-conforming kids came up to me to say “thank you so much for being visible on stage, this is the first time that I’ve seen a trans person on stage (to my knowledge).” Visibly trans musicians and musicians of colour exist, but we’re still few and far between. So while I hope it’ll reach a lot of different kinds of listeners, this record is very much for trans and gender non-conforming listeners.

 

Your artistic range is so diverse, how has your experience making work in other genres and mediums changed the ways you approach songwriting?

Writing books and exploring storytelling really impacted Part-Time Woman; this is the first time that I made an album that I think tells a story. Of course I’ve cared about track-listing and the order of albums before, but I really feel like this album tells a story from beginning to end, from track 1 to track 6.

Because music was the first artistic avenue that I explored, so much of my career as a musician had been about restraint or hiding. I’ll never forget recording a song on my first album which, because of its use of pronouns,  could have been considered a gay song; the producer stopped the song and came over and said “you know, this is a really critical moment in your career, is this something you want to do?” I ended up not putting it on the album.

I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve been encouraged, warned, advised to hide parts of myself, and one of the wonderful things about taking a break from music was that I stopped doing that in my other art. I don’t know what it was about writing books and making films, but I was really able to start expressing myself and my politics.

Coming back to music, not only was I excited to apply the storytelling element, I was really curious about applying a more political element to the songs—what might it mean to express transness, or browness, or queerness through song. This is something I’d never really explicitly done on an album before.

Throughout the album you write feminist, girl power anthems that account for misogyny, racism, and lateral violence. How do you balance celebrating womanhood without ever setting aside your critiques of systemic oppression?

When I started working on the album, Kanye West tweeted something which I’m going to paraphrase  poorly: “think about the albums or art that matter to you, now think about how you want to contribute back to them.” The idea of the album originally was to write 90s power ballads—in a Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston kind of way—because I just fucking love that music. I don’t have that range, so maybe that’s why it wasn’t working out. But part of the problem, and young artists do this so often, is that we see something we like and emulate it, as opposed to enhancing or contributing a different angle to it. Kanye’s tweet really reframed what I was doing, and I was like “what if I stop trying to recreate 90s power ballads and think about how I might contribute to them?”

I started thinking about 90s feminist albums or feminist artists who really impacted me, like Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, and Fiona Apple. These are women who were, of course, singing about love and heartbreak and were also singing about abortion, miscarriage, and sexual violence, and I felt I owed a debt to them. Even though I wasn’t identifying as a girl back then, I learned so much. I was wondering how I could contribute to this legacy of feminist music, but from a trans, racialized lens, as a gesture of repayment and owning the distinction of my own experiences.

 

You work with so many artists on this album, including Choir! Choir! Choir!, TiKa, and Queer Songbook Orchestra, as well as visual artist Ness Lee. What’s your relationship to collaboration? Why was collaborating with these artists important to you?

To me, collaboration is exciting because it’s an opportunity to have whatever you’re working on be developed through a new perspective. I have very strong ideas and I’m very passionate about my ideas, and, a collaborator will often reveal a new side or a stronger side to the work and that’s ultimately what I care about the most: what can we do to best realize the art. The more I develop as an artist, the more I realize that, no matter how attached I am to my creative ideas, I can’t always realize them on my own. I rely on artists around me to help realize the piece of art, especially in a way I might not have conceived.

With this particular project, it’s been very different because I tend to be such a minimalist as an artist. I tend to collaborate with one or two artists at a time. You’ve seen the credits on the back of Part-Time Woman, there’s like a million people on the album. This is very much a maximalist project.

The non-sexy answer is that I received a grant and having funding means being able to make art in a way that you can’t make on your own. I’ve realized that as much as I’m a minimalist, this is also a default state as a result of lack of funding. Without funding, you’re forced to work within limitations and having funding from the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council meant I had a lot more room to think about what the vision of the album was. With some songs especially, like “Girl It’s Your time,” I was imagining a whole choir singing on that song, and the budget allowed me to expand my vision beyond one collaborator. The other thing about the album is it’s very much a snapshot of Toronto talent, and that really excites me. Choir! Choir! Choir!, TiKa, the Queer Songbook Orchestra, Ness Lee are movers and shakers in the city and it feels exciting to make a project that features all these groups that don’t necessarily connect to each other. TiKa inhabits a very different world than I do, for example, and it felt great to bring these worlds together on the album.  

It makes so much sense to think about how resources enable different creative possibilities.

That’s the thing. You could have the biggest vision in the world—but without the funds you are really limited to what you can afford. I’ve always tried to have an ethical business practice and pay the artists that I work with, but it is limiting what I can do as an artist. This is the first time in a fourteen-year artistic career that I got a music grant, and it just really opened up the potential of what I could make.

                                   

Bless the grant! You’ve tweeted about Shania Twain’s new single. To me, “Sweetie” really has a little bit of a pop-country sound. How do you think about your relationships with genre?

This was a very strange album for me to make, because I know nothing about orchestral-pop—is that even what we call it? I don’t know anything about how to categorize this genre. With this particular album, I tried not to think too much about genre because this is a new experience, this is live instrumentation. There were four arrangers for the album and each of the arrangers got reference tracks. Both “Sweetie” and “I’m afraid of Men” in my mind had a sort of country element to them, but beyond that, it was really left up to the arranger, because I don’t know what it means to arrange for nine different instruments. I had to relinquish genre for this album.

That’s so great. When I was getting these pop-country vibes, I was like, “woah, this is a big intentional, radical queering of country.”

Perfect. It’s not like there wasn’t intentionality there; it was more that I didn’t focus on the genre of the album itself. If anything, I was thinking about references and specific sounds for each song. The arranger for “Sweetie” got very clear Patsy Cline references. And for “I’m afraid of men,” there was a cross between the Beyoncé, Dixie Chicks version of “Daddy Lessons” with Lorde’s “Royals.” And the references were varied for each song, and that was a little bit stressful during the arranging phase, like “how are these songs going to sit together on an album?” I was really trying to do what’s best for the song, but also leave the arranger a lot of room to explore.

 

In addition to Shania, what are you listening to, watching, or reading right now?

Musically, the Shania single. SZA’s ctrl, it’s really good. I recently revisited All Saints. And I’ve really been liking this trans artist, Ah Mer Ah Su, who has this song called “Meg Ryan.” The bridge is just her saying “I’m a white woman, I can do whatever I want,” the track is really genius.

I’ve been rewatching Sex in the City, which has been very strange as a thirty-something girl who is also a writer. It’s weird—as a nineteen-year-old that maybe had my own internalized misogyny, Carrie seemed a bit out there to me—and now I get it, like “girl I get it, loving men is so hard.” It is a very different experience.

 

And are you a Carrie?

I’m a cross between Carrie and Miranda, that’s what I’m finding. Miranda’s hardness is something that I really connect to. She’s met Steve and he just wants to love her but she needs to keep him at a distance because she needs to prove that she’s independent and she needs no one. I feel like I really understand that as well.

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