At BHAV, we believe in empowering women to find unique ways to embrace their cultural heritage. We started 'The Culture Connection' to explore the impact (both good and bad) of heritage on a variety of incredible women, and understand how it continues to play an influential role in their lives. We invite you to join us on this journey, with the hope that you find value in these conversations.
Rianjali (@rianjalimusic) is a rising musician, who's worked with U2, A.R. Rahman, and Shawn Mendes. She also dropped her phenomenal debut EP, 'Home', late last year. In addition to her music, Rianjali co-hosts the @mildmanneredtimid podcast, loves cooking, and considers herself a full-on plant and cat lady (she's helping her dad foster 4 kittens!). Read on to learn about her musical inspiration, what she's learned from working with A. R. Rahman, and why she cares deeply about being a composer and vocalist.
On Her South Asian Heritage & Musical Journey:
What's your background?
I’m half-Indian and half-Bangladeshi!
What aspects of South Asian and American music have influenced your style/taste the most? How would you compare/contrast the two types of music?
I grew up learning Hindustani Classical, and while I don’t consciously think about putting it into my music, I’ve definitely had moments where I write something and suddenly I’m thinking about which raag (melodic framework) this is in. It happened with my original song “Yesterday”. I imagined the acoustic version of this very much like a 90s R&B song with Hindustani classical elements (you can find both versions on Youtube/Spotify/Apple Music). I also have to say that working with A.R. Rahman in the studios influenced the way I compose music. I have a lot of film influences in some of my songs – one of them being “Whole Again”.
You've talked openly about the struggle of being a South Asian musician that's breaking the mold (by focusing on a musical style that's not completely Americanized or completely South Asian). Why do you think the South Asian community hasn't fully embraced this style, and are you starting to see progress in this area?
Yes and no. I still struggle to get my name further in the South Asian community, and I've found more success outside of it. I’m constantly asked to harmlessly “sing a Hindi song”, but it's just not what I do; I’m here to create my own original music and compose. I don’t think the South Asian community is entirely ready for it because it’s just something that hasn’t been done. How can you have faith in something that a) you’re not used to and b) you’ve never seen success with?
Despite the highs in my career (like performing with U2), I've also frequently sang at NYC bars - that’s been the nature of my career. I have to do it all despite the big experiences because the support isn't consistent enough. I see progress in the South Asian community, but I think it's still lacking on the music side. I hope that more people can recognize talented musicians that truly stand out, to give them the proper support and platform they need to truly succeed long-term.
You've had the incredible opportunity to work under the tutelage of A.R. Rahman. In what ways has he influenced your style the most, and how else has that experience benefitted you in ways you didn't necessarily expect?
I mentioned how his style of music has influenced mine in that I’m constantly thinking about film even when I’m composing singles. I want everything to have a story-like element. But one of the most important things I learned from him was that inspiration has absolutely no mold. I used to think inside of a box: a song has a certain structure, sit down and start coming up with chords, then lyrics, pick a topic, etc. But when I watched him work, he would draw inspiration from the most random things and it really helped me understand my own abilities.
I also learned to trust my instinct; people hire me or work with me for what I do best. Instead of questioning that, I should just run with it. I’ve been working on my confidence a lot more in the last year or so. Despite his immense talent, A.R. is one of the most hardworking and humble people I know, and I’ve learned to take that with me everywhere I go. Be confident in your abilities and don’t let anyone mess with you, but stay humble. These moments are fleeting and can't be taken for granted.
You're both a composer and a vocalist - why is it important for you to do both, and why aren't there many female or South Asian composers out there?
People ask me all the time, “why don’t you just become a playback singer?”. Playback singing isn't easy, but it's comfortable in the sense that our culture seems to accept Bollywood a whole lot more than anything else. I was born and raised in the U.S., and I've found a place in the genre I chose; I don't want to follow the conventional path. I've also learned so much about composing from A.R. Rahman, and it’s important to me that there are more women who take that role. If I can’t succeed 100% in this, at least I gave some other little girl hope.
Tell us more about your debut EP, Home. What were your biggest inspirations during the creation process, and what is the central theme of the EP?
While all the songs sound like love songs, they’re not quite what they sound like. Without diving too deep (because I don’t know when I’ll actually be ready to be 100% open about it), this album was about my family. I spent a lot of time being the middle woman in my house, and as a 12 year-old, it took a toll on me. I started writing this EP long before I had established myself as a musician. I was frustrated, exhausted, and I needed to release all the negativity.
The lyrics portray the battle I constantly faced, being pulled from one side to the other, and losing myself along the way. For a while, I was angry with my parents. But after I released this EP, it felt like some form of catharsis. This EP doesn’t change that I love my family very much; you can love your family and forgive them for things, and use it to create a better life for yourself.
What advice would you give to South Asians who are looking to start a career in music? What personal challenges have you faced along your journey?
I think you have to be realistic and aware of your own talent, and how much work is required. Once you do that, you really just have to be persistent and stick to it. I won’t lie, some of it's definitely luck. But you don’t get to run with that luck if you haven’t been working your ass off. Ask yourself, how badly do you want this? How good are you at it? And run full force. Don’t doubt yourself as much as I did... I’m learning that now.
What's your favorite thing in your closet right now?
Oh man, I have this highlighter colored sweatshirt and these ripped boyfriend jeans. I had never worn ripped jeans until I bought them about 2 months ago. The whole outfit makes me feel comfortable and confident. I also love very colorful outfits or all black - nothing in between haha. Possibly mimics my personality?
What's your go-to cocktail, spirit or drink?
Definitely a Bulleit Bourbon with a splash of ginger ale, some lime and some mint. Or a Kentucky mule, which I think is basically the same thing haha.
What are you currently watching?
'WACO' on Netflix. And also 'The Office' for the 23rd time (not joking!).
Name of the best book you've read in a while?
The 'Elephant Chaser’s Daughter'. I worked on the Netflix Documentary where the author was one of the main focuses. It was phenomenal to work on the music and then read her story and imagine the music that accompanied her life story. Definitely not the norm when I’m reading a book haha.
Morning person or night owl?
I have absolutely no idea… I’ve been waking up pretty early lately. But I also stay up kind of late sometimes.
What's 1 small thing you couldn't give up (daily ritual, accessory/personal item, etc.)?
Having a pet around! I have two cats, and I definitely want a dog when I have the time. I can never live without a pet companion.