Photo by Vanessa Heins.

Vivek Shraya Finds New Fun in Channelling Pop Idols 

Vivek Shraya. Photo by Vanessa Heins.

After 20 years of releasing music, Polaris-nominated artist Vivek Shraya is still finding new ways to have fun with it.  

Baby, You’re Projecting is her recently released breakup record and first offering on Mint Records. It’s an album of glistening, tension-breaking pop with sharp tongue-in-cheek lyrics that tackle themes around interracial relationships, toxic masculinity, and more. While her work may be known for more serious topics, lately she’s been finding pleasure in more lighthearted projects (read: her 2022 children’s book about raccoons).  

That playful approach is part of what sets Baby, You’re Projecting apart, and ​showcases Shraya’s growth as an artist. The album was accompanied by a 12-minute film titled “He Loves Me Until He Hates Me,” set to songs from the record and directed by award-winning cinematographer Gabriela Osio Vanden. The film is inspired by the 90s classic The Bodyguard, as well as erotic thrillers, and expands on the album’s commentary on toxic masculinity and how it can manifest in relationships with men.  

The Calgary-based artist is prolific in her output, which spans music, theatre, visual art, books, and film — she recently won a Canadian Screen Award for her work on the CBC-TV series, Sort Of — but it all started with music. Shraya began writing songs at the age of 13, and released her first album in 2002. In 2010, Shraya published her first book: God Loves Hair. Since then, she has published eight more titles including works of poetry, fiction, and children’s fiction, while also balancing a career as an academic, and releasing (in her words) “depending on how you count them, 10 solo albums.” Shraya has also released music and toured extensively with Too Attached, a band that she and her brother Shamik formed in 2015.  

Shraya is in Toronto when she takes the call to talk about the new record. She had performed two shows with the material so far and was pleasantly surprised by how joyful the audiences have been.

“It’s felt like this queer release,” she says. “For the past three years, queer people have suffered a lot in terms of chosen family and not be able to be connected in the same way. I feel proud to be part of creating spaces for queer joy.” 

As Shraya explains, it was hard to anticipate how the album would be received because it is unlike anything she has released before. Much like her childhood idol Madonna, Shraya is in a constant state of reinvention. Growing up on her parents’ devotional music and Bollywood songs, Shraya credits another formidable pop voice, Whitney Houston, for turning her on to the world of pop music.

“There’s something about the devotional quality in [Whitney’s] singing that, as a brown kid, really resonated in a way that ‘90s grunge didn’t,” she says. 

Baby, You’re Projecting is ultimately a pop album, but it draws on such a dizzying number of musical touchstones that it becomes almost genreless. Vivek is a multi-disciplinary artist whose creative offerings have never been constrained by medium or format — so why wouldn’t her music?   

It’s so cool that you heard a similar timbre in gospel and soul-influenced music to the devotional music you were familiar with. 

Totally. A lot of my early explorations in pop music was ‘90s R&B, which felt oddly similar to the stuff I was hearing in my religious organization. R&B is about hitting a lot of notes in a short amount of time, like a vocal run. Indian music is very similar in that way, and that’s the beauty of it. There was an immediate kinship to the music that was being made by Black female artists in the ‘90s. I was like, “This sounds familiar but different.” It made me very curious and excited. 

That’s one of the things that feels really cool about this record, I mean … you kind of have to look for it. But a lot of [the songs] were built around drum machines that were used in ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop. 

Vivek Shraya. Photo by Vanessa Heins.

This album is so varied in terms of genre. It feels cohesive, though, because the central element of your voice is really consistent. 

One thing that’s different about this album is that they’re all co-written songs, which is really exciting to me. I loved the process. I mean, it was challenging, but in a good way. And I think all the songs are 10 times better than they could have been had they been solo songs.  

[My producer] James is a very cerebral person. Some sessions are just talking about intention. What are you trying to create? What are you trying to say this time? We ended up having a lot of conversations around genre and the usefulness of genre. I tend to streamline my sound and make it more palatable by saying, from the outset of an album, “This is going to be my singer-songwriter album,” or “This is going to be my electro-pop album.” I create those frameworks, and sometimes the limitations can be useful. But when I listen to past projects that we’ve made, they definitely feel like only one facet. What was exciting about Baby, You’re Projecting was trying to think about whether there was a way to make an album that actually holds the range of me. It wasn’t about sticking to one genre, rather focusing on writing the best songs we could possibly write and satisfying them in whichever way they needed to try to make a very strong record.  

It sounds like there was so much novelty in the process of making this record — you were co-writing for the first time, and circumventing genre.  

There was! James and I have been working together for several years, so these new parameters allow us to still be invigorated by the collaboration in a different way. 

We were also limited by COVID. The pandemic definitely set some parameters for us whether we liked it or not.  

It’s interesting how something like COVID limiting a project like this, a collaborative and intentional album, can help with the intentionality by slowing everything down a little bit. Some ideas need that extra space to grow. 

I agree. The whole album was made over the course of three to four sessions, with like three-month gaps in between. When you’re making something in a short period of time, everything sounds exciting, and you’re really in the process. You’re like, “Yeah, yeah, turn it up!” And then when you pull back after six months, you have a different perspective, inevitably. But you’ve already mastered the album, and you can’t go back and make those tweaks. 

This time, we agreed to not give ourselves a deadline. We built pockets of time of space into the process. That was very hard for me, because my excitement is often tied to a desire to complete. In retrospect, I’ll never make an album any other way. I actually think it’s one of the best things I ever did.  

This is very much a mid-career switch in terms of approach. Because of the nature of my work in other fields, a lot of my practice is very much deadline-oriented, so taking on a project that was solely motivated by interest and curiosity was refreshing. 

Giving the record as much time as we wanted was a beautiful gift, especially in a time where things can feel so time-sensitive.  

Around 10 years ago, you started writing books as well as music. How has that changed your songwriting process? 

My approach to songwriting definitely has more of a storytelling slant. After 10 years of writing books, I just think about story differently. 

Songs from the album like “Colonizer,” “Sinister Sister,” even “Quitter” — there are such stories that inform how those songs are written. Being a communicator in other fields has strengthened my approach as a songwriter. Even in the narrative arc of the album, we put a lot of emphasis on sequencing the songs so that you’re starting in one place and ending somewhere completely different. 

Something that really stuck out to me on this album was your sense of humour. Is that a newer element to your songwriting process as well? 

Thanks for noticing! A friend of mine years ago told me that I’m a pretty irreverent person, and that it never really comes across in my art. And that’s very much haunted me! I’m someone who, if I’m known at all, tends to be known for more serious works that challenge racism and sexism and misogyny. I put out a children’s book about raccoons in the fall, and it was just such a joy to write. And it’s been such a joy to promote, and see people engage with. The older I get, the more I want to find places for joy.  

The album was supposed to be called “He Loves Me Until He Hates Me,” which would sit nicely next to, let’s say, “I’m Afraid of Men.” But these days, I want to be having more fun. One of the things that’s been so great is performing live and getting people to sing along. There are all these poignant songs in my set, and then I’m like, “OK, we’re all going to be high school mean girls right now and I want everyone to sing these lyrics with me,” and people get really into it. We need the moments to be sassy, we need the moments to be silly, we even need moments to be rude!  

It’s nice to be creating that space for myself and my work. And it’s also super validating to see that be embraced by audiences as well. It’s just so great to sing “Good luck, you’re fucked!” and have people laugh out loud. Obviously, it’s nice when people sing along, or put their iPhone flashlights in the air, or dance, but laughter is a beautiful thing to elicit.