Priya Ragu is a Tamil-Swiss artist making uplifting R&B that explores her independence while remaining true to her Tamil heritage. Her overnight success took years to develop and her career has exploded in the last few years with her being featured in Rolling Stone India, BBC Asian Network and Vogue. Priya is also being named as an artist to keep an eye on in 2021.
Priya used to only perform in front of a small audience back in her home country of Switzerland which isn’t exactly considered a hotbed of music activity (at least that spills over into the global music scene). For a long time, she suppressed her talent because of a lack of self-confidence, but eventually her love of music helped her overcome this. She was always half-in with music because of her full-time job working for an airline. Everything changed when she turned 30, quit that job and left for New York to make that “all-in” move on music. Her plan was to write 10 songs and go from there. The rest is history as they say.
You talked about your parents being super strict when you were younger (typical of immigrant Tamil parents). I know I used to resent my dad about this, but looking back, my perspective has changed. Do you feel the same way?
Even during that time, I kind of understood why they were strict but I wasn’t happy about it and at times wishing I had non-Tamil parents who would be more lenient on me. Now I can look back and be like, “Okay, I understand”. Although, it may affect other people differently, I felt like my character & resolve were strong enough that I could hande it. They were also very much against me pursuing music at the beginning but eventually realized that they had to let it go. They were like, “Hey, as long as you have a safe job, you can do whatever you want” and that’s what I did.
I could have been like, “Whatever. It’s my life and I’m going to do whatever I want to” but I also just wanted to have their blessings. So, I just balanced both worlds together as best as I could with my full-time as well as pursuing music.
I sometimes forget how blessed I am to be in Toronto, which seems to be the epicentre of Tamil activity outside of Sri Lanka & India in terms of business and the creative arts. You mentioned that a family trip to Toronto really opened your eyes about Tamil culture. Let’s talk about that some more.
When I was growing up there weren’t many Tamil families around me, so, I wasn’t able to connect with most children around me because it somehow felt like it was a different world. I only had one or two other friends from different backgrounds. My parents wouldn’t let me hang out with them.
When I went to Toronto, I had much more family. In Switzerland, I only had a few aunts, but in Scarborough, I had my grandparents as well as other relatives. It felt like home. I was able to speak more Tamil and go to Tamil events like soccer games in Toronto. That was an important phase in my life.
I know historically, the creative arts were often looked down on, in the Tamil community in terms of as a viable career option. Did you experience this or do you see this changing?
We’re not in the US or UK where things are a bit more possible when it comes to music. I was constantly bombarded with messaging from everyone around me who were like “Hey, I think it’s really difficult in music. Where do you want to go with this?” They viewed music as something that couldn’t have a big future in their eyes because my music was in English and in Switzerland, German songs were much more successful than English ones. Also if they want to listen to English music, they would rather listen to musicians from the US or UK rather than music from a Swiss artist.
I only ask as I know your dad had a band (as he loved singing) and you guys would do jam sessions (your brother on the keys). Why do you think your dad (given his love for music) was against you making it a career?
My parents, especially my dad, were like, “Not one child, but two children of mine are into music. What the hell!” They came in the early ’80s to Switzerland when they didn’t speak the language and created this life for us. Then one day we approached them and were like, “Hey, we both want to be musicians.” Essentially I had never really wrote any songs before 2017 so this added to their worry about me pursuing music as a career. One cool thing my dad said to me was that what AR Rahman did with bringing Western elements into Indian music, I was doing the same by bringing Indian elements into Western music.
What inspired your song “Good Love 2.0”?
It was inspired by my parents. When they got together in Jaffna (their hometown), their parents were totally against it. So, they really had to fight for love. When we wrote the song, we wanted to actually shoot the music video in Jaffna but the director who is from Mumbai thought it might be difficult for us to shoot down there given the political climate.
We thought of places that were closest to Jaffna and thought of Goa. I scouted the talent, the stylist, the producer and pretty much everyone else via Instagram. The first time we met was actually in Goa itself. There were about 10 peoplein total and the experience of shooting the music video was one of my favourite memories.