If you're in the market for music that sounds like nothing else, Priya Ragu's your woman. The Swiss-Tamil artist flawlessly pads between R&B vocals, pop beats, rapped bars and even jazzy flutes, with a healthy pinch of Sri Lankan flair, in a single song - and her mixtape damnshestamil showcases the breadth of musicality she's capable of. Working with her brother, producer Japhna Gold, from South Indian instrumentation to Tamil words scattered through her bars, Priya's music is hard to liken to anyone else - refreshingly so.
Her visuals are vibrant and uplifting - often utilising South Indian dancers, outfits and stories to tell each song's story. Just look at Kamali - it's a song Priya wrote about a seven-year-old girl of the same name, the only female skater in Mahabalipuram in India who goes against the grain and takes ownership of her life with the support of her mother. The song that Priya and Japhna wrote in response is a soulful ode to following your heart, half sung in Tamil with a video to match set in India.
We caught up with Priya just as she's landed in London to play a show with Jungle, just a couple days after a set at All Points East Festival. She opens up about making her father proud, learning to embrace her South Asian heritage and getting a message from a longtime inspiration M.I.A., one of the most prominent Sri Lankan artists the pop stage has ever seen.
The damnshestamil mixtape is stylistically so diverse, it’s really like nothing else being made right now. Lighthouse was like flutes with garage with R&B vocals! Where do you start when you and your brother sit down to write a song together?
It's always different. Sometimes he has a beat idea. And he sends it to me. And then I come up with melodies and lyrics, or sometimes he has a lyric idea. So it's really varied. There's not one process. Yeah, we're still figuring out like, what the best way is. You just have to show up in the studio every day and see what comes through. And that's all you can control.
Let’s go right back to where you started, what music were you listening to growing up? I know you had to keep your love for Western pop music secret from your parents!
Growing up, I was listening to a lot of Tamil music, a lot of Kollywood songs. We used to watch movies like every weekend, like Kollywood movies, you know. And my dad, he used to have this band, and we used to play the songs together. But I listened to a lot of hip hop, a lot of The Roots, Common, Mos Def, because my brother was listening to that and he owned all the CDs. So he introduced me to hip hop, actually. But then I discovered Brandy and Lauryn Hill and Boyz II Men. I was really into new soul music and I'm somehow merging all these influences today in my music.
Later on I know MIA was a big influence, obviously she’s one of very few South Asian artists in mainstream music so she’s a natural inspiration. Have you two connected yet?
Actually, she reached out on Instagram, and she just wrote that she really liked my style and that it's unapologetic and she thinks it's cool what I'm doing, and I should keep going. And I think that's pretty amazing to get a blessing from somebody like her, you know, at an early stage of my career. So, kudos to that, because not everybody does that.
That's such a classy move from her. She's like a godmother of this kind of fusion, for her to welcome you into the fold is huge.
I've heard Lady Gaga was waiting for a message like that from Madonna for the longest time. She never received it. And from then onwards, Lady Gaga was like, okay, but I will be that person that reaches out to young artists and, you know, give my blessings. So, yeah, I think that's important, you know, to be the kind of person and include everybody, all the new ones into the world.
The way you incorporate Tamil language, instrumentation and visuals into your art is so refreshing, are your parents proud of how you’ve worked your heritage into your work and how you’re giving Sri Lankan culture so much visibility?
I mean, they never thought that we're going to reach something like that, you know, and knowing that we also fuse our culture into what we doing. They're super proud. And I remember my dad listening to Lighthouse for the first time. And he's like, ‘Okay, this is gonna go places.’ And that was just the mix, you know, before we released anything. I really rely on his opinion, my father, because he has a good ear. And he knows what's good and what's not and what's missing. So it's interesting we're like connecting on a different level now.
I love that you’ve spoken about growing up “between cultures” in interviews, and I love that you say “between” because it really feels like a balancing act when you’re an immigrant kid growing up in a predominantly white society – you don’t want to be TOO South Asian and you don’t want to be TOO white and you get chastised from both sides for being either. Obviously, now you’re so proud of your Sri Lankan heritage, but growing up did you have a time where you kind of pushed that side of you away? Has there been an unlearning process?
Definitely, yeah, because I didn't have anyone to share it with. Like, there weren't many brown girls in the town where I grew up, and if there were, I just wasn't able to connect. I was like, a foreigner in their circle, you know, because I was listening to Western music. I loved hip hop, and I was just, I felt different and so I just couldn't connect with them at that time. At home, it was this one culture. Once you're stepping out, the whole world was different. And it was not easy because you try to adapt, you know, be cool and get along with everybody and yeah, suppress your culture in a way. So, it took time to really embrace this side of me. And as soon as I traveled to Toronto to visit my families, or London, I was able to see like, wow, there are big communities and like-minded people, and that's how I really connected with my culture more deeply. Also with Instagram, you're able to find like-minded people. And you can see how they grew up and that they've been through the same thing like you did. So yeah, I think social media also helped.
I wanna talk about your fashion because you mix athleisure with high fashion with Tamil schoolgirl braids and marigolds so flawlessly, what are you looking for when you’re putting together an outfit?
I think for me, it has to be the first thing it has to be comfortable. Secondly, I have to wear socks. Doesn’t matter if it’s heels or sneakers. I think it's comfortable and looks cool. And it's just a thing! Doesn't mean that I have ugly feet, it’s not that, I feel like it's just me, you know, wearing socks and mules or sandals or sneakers.
Honestly, I don't know much about brands and all that but I do have an eye for you know, putting the right pieces together and wearing them. On ME, I'm not sure if I can do that on others. But for me, I just know what looks good on me and what feels comfortable. And I also work with Nisha my stylist, and she's also Indian. So she knows what I want to fuse and not doing it overly, like not over-using the Indian culture in the styling and everything.
Who is your all time fave artist that you want to collaborate with? Let’s dream it into existence!
Have you heard Donda yet? Did you like it?
Yeah loved Donda, been waiting for a long time for this now, but yeah, I'm a big Kanye fan. I mean, I don't have like an urge to collaborate with somebody, I just admire a lot of artists. For me just like making music with my brother is fulfilling you know? But if I meet somebody organically somewhere in studio, we connect and we create music, then that's the best result ever. But if you ask me like that, it's probably Kanye West and Sunday Service.