By Mollie Eisler | September 1, 2022
The lights dim and the crowd roars. “What’s up, New York City?!” shouts Saleka. More roaring. “Welcome to the Give or Take tour!” she roars back, dressed in a two-piece Area cheetah print fit. The singer-songwriter from Philly has been on a cross-country tour opening for one of the biggest R&B names in the game, Giveon.
Saleka Shyamalan is no stranger to performing. Growing up playing classic piano, she spent her childhood performing in recitals, with her piano teacher and an orchestra at Philly’s renowned Kimmel Hall by the age of 10. It was around the same time that Saleka went to her first concert, a Beyoncé show, which was a birthday gift from her parents. Throughout her youth, while Saleka mastered the piano, she was also being exposed to genres outside of classical music, like jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and world music. By the time Saleka started visiting college conservatories, continuing on her path to become a classical pianist, she felt like a creative outlet was missing. That’s when she started singing–ultimately falling in love with it after doing musical theater in school. Next she fell in love with song writing, a self-taught process infused with the DNA of her classical piano craft.
Back to the show…
Saleka jumps right in with her debut single “Clarity,” voice oozing like honey into a cup of tea (more on tea later). Immediately sucked into Saleka’s orb, you’re boarding a rocket ship to a sonic galaxy. And you’re in for a ride.
While small in stature, Saleka’s voice is big, expansively filling and radiating through the walls of Radio City. She has one of those voices that just makes the hairs on your arms perk up, instantly. Joined by Dai Miyazaki on guitar and Elliot Garland on bass, together, they are stringing together a universe of vibes.
Saleka asks if there’s anyone from an immigrant family in the crowd. More roaring. Saleka’s next song, “Seance,” is dedicated to her South Asian roots with some Salsa vibes layered in and the gripping opening verse:
I had a dream last night
It rippled through my day
Grandma told me, learn the ragas
Since you don’t know how to pray
Sumsara is next, an unreleased song about a heartbreak, infused with Sanskrit to tell the story. She closes with a more jazzy moment, dropping her new song One More Night, which is featured on the hit TV show, Servant.
After singing her last note and the cheering subsided, Saleka thanked the audience and called it “the biggest honor of [her] life” to be on this tour with Giveon. However, Saleka didn’t just dream of going on tour with Giveon, she manifested it.
After her set, we Sat down with Saleka in the green room of Radio City Music Hall to talk about manifestation, activism, tea, and she answered a few questions for the groovement:
First of all, your Give or Take Tour with Giveon sold out two nights at Radio City Music Hall! How did it feel performing in such an iconic venue?
It’s just an honor to be here and to be part of a tour with an artist who is doing these incredible things and making amazing music and selling out Radio City, back to back nights. That’s so crazy. I just feel super blessed and lucky, you know, to be touring. And also last night, getting to watch [Giveon] in this space, watch his show and just learn from that and observe him and enjoy it. I’m also a huge fan of his, so it’s fun to do that as well.
Us too. We heard that you essentially manifested going on tour with Giveon. Can you tell us about that?
I had written up a list of dream artists to open for. As I was listening to people on the season, new people, I would kind of mark them down, and he was top of the list. And I had recently gone back the list and been like, okay, musically and who am I still a fan of, and I had put stars next to people’s names. I put three stars next to his. I was like, ‘This would be so perfect, like a big dream. Like a dream person to open for.’ I sent that list to people I worked with as well, but I never thought things would come directly from that. Because usually opening opportunities are random and depend on the city, if you happen to be there. So when I heard that this was an option, I was freaked out.
Do you have a dream venue to perform at?
I mean, this is definitely one of the dream venues. We also just performed in Philly at the Met. I would love to do a headlining show there and come back to these venues and play my own show here, that’s really the dream. So it’s really cool to open in these venues that you dream about and kind of envision a whole show and just get that experience.
We’ll be back when you’re headlining.
Do you have a set pre-show routine?
I guess I’m figuring it out now. It’s the first tour, and every show’s different, so sometimes you’re traveling. So I guess the normal warmups, and I like to drink tea. I’m a very big tea drinker.
Any particular tea?
Throat Coat, when I’m performing. But I’m Indian, so we drink chai like every day. Masala chai, is a very essential part of my life. And it plays a very important role, I can’t describe to you what role, but it makes me feel comforted. Any time I go home or when I’m traveling and if somebody offers me chai, I’m like, oh, I feel good. I feel like everything’s okay now.
We love chai too. So what was the first concert you went to?
It was a birthday present my parents got for me when I was 10, and they took me to a Beyoncé concert. I think it was Wells Fargo in Philly, the big stadium. And I was just in shock, basically the entire time…like this goddess is in front of me…what do I do?
That’s a pretty good first one. And then how about the first one that you performed at?
I grew up playing classical piano, and throughout my whole childhood, I was performing in piano recitals. I wouldn’t say concert, but when I was actually around the same age, I performed in the Kimmel Center in Philly with an orchestra, and I did the classical piano thing. Basically my piano teacher would tour around the country and play classical piano, and for that show, she was allowed to pick one of her students to do a song with the orchestra, so it was this huge opportunity. She chose me to play, and I was like 10, just playing with this huge orchestra. I think it was a Beethoven piece. That was the first like legit concert concert, not recital. But very different from this, you know, that’s classical music, and it was just a whole different world.
How did you switch gears into singing and what you’re doing now? Tell us how you got started…
It was definitely a process…I think around 16 or 17, it’s about this time you start thinking about college, and I was visiting these conservatories for classical music and just understanding what the next steps would be. At that point, I was playing classical piano three hours a day in the summers; while all my friends were at camp, I was at my piano teacher’s house. It was just my life, and it kind of took over.
While I knew that music was right for me, and that I was in love with music, I just felt like there was something missing and there was like a kind of creative aspect to it that I was craving. Classical music is very much the epitome of perfectionist, and you wanna get every note right. It’s about portraying the piece the closest to the way that you think the composer intended it to be. And I think you can find self-expression within that, but there was a whole other side to me that I was wanting to develop and explore. I started singing around that time. I did a lot of musical theater in school, and it was more for fun, but through musical theater, I developed a love for singing. I wanted to incorporate that and develop that, and from classical music, I started just writing things.
How did leaning on classical music help you write things?
Basically, I would be playing a piece, and then at the end of the piece, I’d be like, oh, I like these few chords…let me just play these few chords…or maybe, what if I changed the second one? And then I would come up with the chord progression and just mess with that and start singing on top of it. It really developed so naturally from classical music into just writing things. So it really just started the songwriting process.
How was it adjusting from playing classical music to being a singer-songwriter?
It was a big change, even for my family, because they had invested so much time in putting me in lessons and all this stuff. And we had imagined this path for me. I was kind of just saying, in my teenage rebellion phase, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore. I just wanna sing songs.’ When you’re 17 and you’re like, I just wanna sing songs, it sounds crazy, you sound dumb. To my parents, like most parents, and especially Asian parents, this is a foreign world for them. There was a lot of fear in, well, how are you gonna do that? What is that life like?
So they were definitely resistant to it at first, but out of a protective kind of mechanism. Eventually, they saw that there’s the same level of discipline, hard work, creativity, and learning process stuff to it that could be applied to anything–whether it’s classical music or whatever they’re doing–they kind of understood it and supported it more. But it was a mindshift, for all of us.
And now you’re really in it! How would you describe your music either by genre or general vibe?
Genre-wise, I would say it’s R&B, but I have a lot of influences, like jazz music, blues music, and a little bit of hip-hop, in terms of production. Also growing up, my mom watched a lot of Bollywood movies and played a lot of Indian music in the house. I’m just very attracted to other cultures. I guess it’s called world music, although I hate that term. Latin music, African music, Indian music, and the textures of that really are a natural space for me, especially in terms of production. So when I’m writing the songs, I would say the bare bone structure of it is very R&B and pop. But then in the production elements of it, I love to bring in a mixture of acoustic and electronic production and then, tablas, congas, or a djembe and just really kind of mix all those things that I feel attracted to and that resonate with me.
That’s awesome, and as you’re talking about your musical influences, who or what else do you draw inspiration from?
Growing up, I would listen to a lot of Lauren Hill, Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, and Frank Sinatra. Those are the albums that defined my childhood. My parents would play them around the house and in the car on the way to school. But even Kanye West and Jay-Z–my dad loves those artists–and we would play their albums all the time in the car, and me and my sisters would sing all the lyrics. So that’s just a comfortable space for me, hip-hop and R&B was just the world that I was kind of absorbing as I was growing up and understanding the world. Artists, like Rihanna and Beyoncé too. As I got older, I came to appreciate jazz music more, especially vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
We appreciate jazz too.
I studied jazz a little bit in college as well. So kind of just getting more into that world and the nuances of that and the spontaneity of that. Especially coming from classical music into jazz– the beauty that you want spontaneity and you don’t want anything to be the same–was very attractive to me and also very hard for me to do. In that way, I was fascinated by it. It was like, ‘I don’t even know how to do that.’ Just watching these artists making up solos, just the idea of even soloing to me was the worst fear I had. But that drew me to it in a way, because I was so entranced watching jazz artists and hearing jazz artists. Live albums, especially, were just like amazing pieces of art to me. And that drew me into loving jazz music.
Speaking of inspiration, who do you hope to inspire?
There’s a representational thing in being a minority woman and a South Asian woman. There’s not a lot of us in the creative space in general, so I hope that there are more of us out there. When I see other South Asian artists, I get so excited, and it just makes me feel like I could do it, and there’s a community there. There’s a place for me there. It’s something that is valid for me to think of myself in that world.
In general, just anyone being themselves in any form of their life, in any creative space empowers other people to be themselves in whatever way they are themselves. Doesn’t have to be inspiring a girl to also play music– it could be–but hopefully I can be at my weird self and wear my crazy clothes and sing the music that I wanna sing, and that might make other people feel like they can just do the things that are natural to them and they feel are true to themselves.
We see you using your platform to advocate for others. What are some causes that are important to you?
Definitely. There’s a lot. If you follow my social media, I post a lot about the Black Lives Matter movement. I wrote a song called “How Many”–which I didn’t perform tonight–but it’s about me grappling with the racism in our country and the systemic nature of it. How I feel like that aspect of it is ignored and it wasn’t taught to me in school. So I kind of went through this period of re-understanding what I’m observing as an adult and realizing how ingrained it is in our society. And even in my life, the way I see things, the way my family sees things, although we’re not white, there’s a privilege there. So just dissecting all of that made me more upset and more angry, but also that understanding leads you to be able to help in a better way. That is something that is very close to my heart.
Also, I’m from Philly and there’s a lot of history in that city. I think mass incarceration is a very important subject to talk about, and unfortunately, Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of mass incarceration, especially youth incarceration. I’ve been able to learn a lot about it because of being in Philadelphia.
Last question, so what’s next for you?
We’ve got one more single coming very soon. And then the album later in the fall–my first album. I’ve also been writing a lot for a TV show called Servant. I released an EP for that this spring, and I’m releasing another EP for their final season this coming spring. I sang one of the songs from that show tonight, the last one I sang. I like to mix it in ‘cause it’s super oozy jazzy, and I think it’s a good compliment to the more R&B stuff. Then I’m doing another smaller headlining tour once the album is out, so I think that’ll be in the winter time. I’m definitely coming back to New York.
Connect with Saleka on Instagram, Spotify, and on her website.
📸: shot by Gian Marco Flamini