At a dark and intimate lounge on an October night in the Lower East Side, several Indians descended upon the scene, ready to see one of their own embrace her moment in the spotlight. They were there to see R&B and jazz singer-songwriter Saleka perform songs from her upcoming debut album, Seance.
To many, Saleka may be renowned director M. Night Shyamalan’s daughter. But over the last year and a half, she has broken out to create a niche of her own, winning acclaim for her singles and captivating crowds with atmospheric and narrative-driven concerts. Born into a family of Indian-American immigrants, arts has been coursing through her veins for as long as she can remember.
In an exclusive interview with SEEMA, Saleka talks about her upbringing and the inherent pressure to succeed, working with her father on his show “Servant” and movie Old, and the intricacies of the stories she tells through her new album.
Tell me more about your childhood and what it was like growing up in a household where your father is already a worldwide name.
I had a pretty normal childhood, I would say. We’re all super close, and still are. I think that was a big part of my childhood, family was super important. And my parents kind of instilled that value system as well, keeping the family together and seeing each other often, even our grandparents and cousins.
I started music from a young age, with classical piano when I was four. And when I turned 16 or 17, I wanted to try writing my own songs and singing and exploring that. Because of my dad’s career, our household is always filled with art, we’re always talking about movies and music, just artistic things. And I don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t raised that way. I also think that I’m lucky because both my parents are interested in the arts and with my dad having made a career out of film, I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where the arts were perceived as a viable career option and to be supported in that, because I know that’s not the case in every family.
It’s always a little refreshing, when you see households where children are encouraged to follow their own path, especially in the arts. That doesn’t really happen often in India.
Yeah, I think my dad broke that barrier a little bit with his parents because with my grandparents’ generation; they’re all doctors. So he was the first to go into the arts in a serious way. And even when I talk to them [my grandparents] now, my grandma loves to sing, she loves to dance, but it was never something that she could really even consider as something to pursue or take seriously and at a certain age she wasn’t even allowed to do that. It makes me really appreciate being able to sing and be able to do this for my life.
An interesting thing I noticed about your music is you have a range of stories to tell with them. Many of them are about love, but there’s one that’s protest-themed, and there’s “Echo,” which is inspired by Greek myths. What inspires your music and storytelling?
It’s definitely personal and things that I’ve observed and experienced. When it comes to more metaphoric subjects, female characters in a lot of mythology are often viewed as objects of desire and lust, things for the male characters to obtain. And when I first read those myths, I think I was in class at Brown, and I was struggling with feeling like that within the music industry. And it really just hit me, it was something that I connected to. So I just wanted to see what it would feel like to write from a character perspective, of a mythological character. But it’s still very much connected to things that I’m experiencing or feeling or trying to navigate or understand.
And what are you hoping people will take away from your debut record?
It [the album] was my journey of transitioning into adulthood. As I was writing this album, I was grappling with a lot of things like what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a person of color, what it means to be from an immigrant family, what it means to feel love and heartbreak and loss and all those kinds of things. So, I feel like for me, when I listen to music, it makes me feel less alone, even if it’s not something that I’ve directly gone through. So I would hope that it does that.
Throughout your career, you’ve also been quite family-oriented. Your sister has directed some of your music videos, and you’ve also written and performed for your father’s work, most recently for his show, “Servant.” What’s that experience been like?
I actually have an EP coming out this year in tandem with the album, it consists of four songs from the show. One was released last year and the other three will be out this year as the third season of the show goes along, which I’m really excited for.
It’s been so fun! Honestly, I was very nervous to venture into that realm of film and TV, because I’ve watched it my whole life, but as an observer and not contributing to it. My dad’s projects are so large scale and professional, and everything’s just very high quality. And he’s not somebody that ever compromises and he’s very straight up about things; if he doesn’t like something, he’ll say he doesn’t like it. Even if it’s his children or his best friends, he’ll be like, ‘nope, that’s not getting it.’ But luckily, I feel like what they wanted was really in line with the things that I do, and the type of music that I’m drawn to, and I got to work with the music supervisor on the show before I even started writing songs. Essentially all the songs I’m writing for “Servant” are on this album that one of the characters is listening to throughout the show. So they all have to feel like this one artist singing and this one band performing and it’s this through line through the plot. So once we had that feeling established, and I knew what the sound was going to be, which ended up kind of being this minor, bluesy, jazzy vibe, I felt like it was really easy to fall into that. And it’s pretty freeing; They give me the scripts, and I’ll write for a scene or really incorporate elements of what the character’s relationships are going through. I’ll go through the script and find imagery and have little references to that in the song that probably no one cares about, nobody will notice. But it’s just fun for me.
One of the things that I’ve seen people talk about when they come from immigrant families is an inherent pressure to succeed, an internal force compelling them to push forward and justify the decisions made by generations before them. Do you feel that, Saleka?
I think, yes, in the sense that my grandparents are very strong, prideful people, and they want the best for their children and their grandchildren. And I feel like things that I do reflect on them, and they feel that way too. So there’s definitely a pressure in that regard, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing. I mean, it can become that, but there’s a line where it can be a beautiful thing and a motivating factor to want to bring pride and make your family feel proud of you.
When my grandparents came over to this country, and my mom came to the States when she was 17 or 18, they all came with an idea of wanting the best for their kids and the next generation. I definitely feel like I want to do right by them, especially in the sense that they’ve sacrificed so much that we can have these opportunities, and they couldn’t even imagine a world in which they could grow up and want to be a singer and really do something like that.Saleka remarks
My grandparents tell me stories of how they would work overnight shifts in the ER for like $1 an hour, crazy things like that, just to save up money. Now they’re watching their children and grandchildren be able to go on stage and perform and do things and travel the world. So I think it’s important to remember that and not take it for granted.
What’s next for Saleka?
Well, I’m just really excited for this year. The album is here, we have a “Servant” EP coming out. I’m already a few tracks into album two, so I’m really excited to just be digging into getting back in the studio and just writing and finishing that album. Because I don’t want it to be so long before the next album comes out. And then I’m going to go into writing some more songs for “Servant” season four as well. And hopefully, be performing and doing tours and all that kind of stuff. I would love to do some more film and TV gigs outside of “Servant” as well. I’m hoping to get into that space and have some ideas brewing and some family collaborations that will be probably a couple years away before they’re out.