Since her debut mixtape, damnshestamil, landed in 2020, breakout pop star Priya Ragu’s success is reaching new heights. Here, she goes deep with artist, activist, and musician, Madame Gandhi.
Sitting down virtually with Priya Ragu (she in Zürich, me in London), I was immediately captivated by her presence. She spoke with a calm, graceful, confident wisdom that comes with life experience and cultivated spirituality. I knew immediately I would do most of the listening. Though Priya’s beauty and talent are undeniable, it’s an artist’s depth that inspires me most when I’m choosing whom I want to listen to and invite into my mind space—whether they’re using their music for social change or for elevating the consciousness of the planet. Priya Ragu is that kind of artist. She walks in her own light, and she inspires others to do the same.
Madame Gandhi: I wanted to ask you about growing up in Switzerland. What was your background? Was it multicultural? Did you feel like you were one of many or did you feel unique? Did you feel isolated or a sense of community? Could you share with us what that looked like a little bit?
Priya Ragu: I remember it was quite isolating, I would say, because my parents were very strict, so I couldn't do the stuff that other kids were allowed to do. I was the only brown kid in school, so I was living in these two different worlds. I only had, like, one or two friends. It was all about adapting and not being too loud. I did have a good childhood in Switzerland, but I was quite a confused kid.
MG: When you were living in the double worlds, did that feel rebellious or like you had to hide certain things from your parents? Or did you feel like you wanted to bring them along and show them that it doesn’t have to be scary—music is awesome, culture is awesome, or whatever?
PR: I wasn't rebellious at all because my brother, Japhna Gold, he's the one who was quite rebellious in the family, and I saw what that causes. I just did it the clever way: I didn't tell them anything until I achieved a certain level. It was important to be a good daughter and do what my parents said, but the urge to sing was quite big, so I never gave up on that.
My musical journey kind of began when I was seven years old. My dad picked the instrument for me, which was the violin. At my second lesson I went up to my teacher, and I just played a melody. She was so amazed because it was just the second lesson; she told me that I was very special and very talented. And in that moment, I kind of realized: Oh shit, maybe this is my superpower. Like, I'm average in everything but this is something that I’m good at and people appreciate me.
MG: You felt seen, and it was also effortless. You were like, I’m not even doing that much and yet, it’s lighting people up.
PR: Exactly. But even though my dad was the one who introduced me to music—he created a band and we performed at weddings and birthdays—he just was not a fan of me singing western music. Even watching MTV was just a “no” in our household. And because my brother played concerts, and they saw all the kids drinking alcohol and smoking, they didn't want me to be in that environment. They did everything to make it not happen.
So for me, it took me a very long time to start music because I thought, Maybe it's not my path. I was working as a technical purchaser at Swiss Airlines, and I had a very comfortable life. Everything was fine, and I could have just lived that life. But it was also clear that there's a bigger purpose in life than living for somebody else's dreams. So I decided to do at least a few songs and see where it takes me. I thought it would take me like four albums or whatever just to get played on the radio in Switzerland, but it took me only a few songs.
MG: So, you knew it was right.
PR: Yeah. I was really proud of myself because I listened to my intuition. Where I'm from, you have to get married at a very young age. So, my parents found me some guys [for marriage] in my early 20s. I was looking around at other Tamil girls—they were going through this same thing, but they got married, they did it. Because it felt right to them. For me, it was like, No, this just doesn't feel right. I need to achieve something, or I won’t be happy.
MG: Incredible. I have a question for you about when you describe the dynamic of parents associating music with partying and alcohol and these kinds of things. So much of that is still true. I myself have navigated the question: Why is it that if I play a show, I get like a free drink ticket? I can have all the alcohol I want, but what about a vegan meal? What about a space to meditate before the show?
When I when I did the M.I.A. tour 10 years ago, one thing that I noticed that I'll never forget is that Maya [Arulpragasam] had coconut water backstage, and cut fruit and vegetables, and nuts, and dried fruit, and flowers, so when we'd arrive to the green room, it was like a sanctuary. It was like a temple. And it was so empowering and exciting for me to see that when we are musicians, we can actually design things differently. We don't have to accept that it's a party and that there are people smoking in my green room. I get to decide the boundaries, I get to do it differently so that other women feel safe, other people feel safe, and I'm also not making choices that are not good for me. I want to stay alive. I want to make music until I'm 100 years old. I don't want to be killing myself while doing something that I love, just because I accept the norms that come with it.
So, when I listen to you, I really relate because I grew up in New York City. I wasn't allowed to go to most places either. But I was always sneaking out because I felt like, No, but I know myself. I'm not partying. I'm not getting wasted. I'm just here for the drumming, I'm just here for the DJ, and I'm just here for the love of the music. I would love to hear your perspective on that. How do you tap into the culture of music festivals and the music industry, while honoring what's real for you?
PR: For me as well, I thought when you got into this industry, you have to be a certain way. And I just realized, Man, I'm just going to be myself, and if I don't want to drink and smoke backstage, then it's not going to happen. My band is quite boring, I would say. After every gig, we go straight to the hotel and sleep or we play Uno cards. [Laughs] So, it's also beautiful to show to my parents that doesn't have to be like that.
You know the older I get, family is really really important to me, and it feels like everything I do, after I do it, I just want to come right back to my family. I also feel like there are two different Priyas. There one who’s “Damn She’s Tamil,” she’s on-stage, she’s an artist, but then there's one who loves to just put the shutters down when it's sunny outside and Netflix all day. And sometimes it feels like, when I’m in that zone and I think about giving interviews or performing or TV shows—it’s scary. But once you tap into “Damn She’s Tamil,” it just goes away. I feel like it’s a higher force.
MG: It's liberation, it’s the truth, so it always will work, it's always consistent.
MG: And I think a lot of artists, myself included, absolutely relate to the two different personas. One is: incredible outfit, style for days, aesthetics on point, beautiful artwork, you know, incredible stage performance. And then the other is: family, nourishment, Uno cards, a nice meal, just turn off Instagram for a second, just be a real human with the most wholesome, simple, real life doing dishes, doing laundry, you know hanging out with friends. I really see that in many of my dear friends who are some of the most talented, well-known musicians to this day. It's like, you want normalcy because it fuels that desire to be onstage, and then once we're onstage it fuels that desire to just be in pajamas with family, so that's really vulnerable and cool of you to share because it’s a lot of people's truth, and it gives permission for it to be the truth.
PR: I feel like—can you be “on” 24/7, this one persona, you know?
MG: No, I think that's where the negative behavior and old bad habits come out. I think when you're having to be “on” 24/7, that's when you have to take things that are not good for you, to keep yourself awake, to keep yourself stimulated. I think the beauty is balance. The beauty is self-awareness. Everyone has to do the journey of asking, “What keeps me showing up every day?”
As a New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan, I really loved going deep into your Instagram and seeing the New York moments from 2017, all the Brooklyn moments. I want to talk about the New York influence on your music.
PR: Since I was a little kid, I was always drawn to that city. In 2017, when I decided to really start my musical career, I was not sure if I would be able to write my own songs or who I wanted to be. There were just a lot of question marks, you know. I decided to save up some money, quit my day job, and just to go to New York for six months to write at least 10 songs. That was the only goal, and it was not about connecting with other people or making it happen in New York—it was none of that. When I was in New York, I barely made any friends. I was alone a lot of the time.
It was also a spiritual path that I took. Music and spirituality come hand-in-hand, and I started to read this book, The Artist's Way, and I started to do these exercises. It helped me in a lot of ways, you know, to understand who I was and what I wanted. It was also very clear to me that I have to create music with my brother, that it can't be a coincidence that he's a producer and I'm a singer. So we were like, Okay, let's do a few songs and see where it takes us.
MG: I love that you’re referencing The Artist’s Way. I did my morning pages this morning.
PR: Did you do it?!
MG: Yeah yeah, I do it every day. I make a matcha while I listen to Deepak Chopra, then I do the three pages, and then I do my meditation. That's been the morning flow. And because I'm in London with the exact kind of setup that you're describing when you were in New York—I’m not really talking to too many people, I’m getting ready to put out my album in October—so I have this expansive time to nourish from the inside out. When I hear your story about New York, I really feel a mirror.
PR: Yes, if you take that leap of faith, the doors just open for you. And it doesn’t stop.
MG: What's a life hack of yours? Like, what are some things that you have dialed in where you're like, Everybody should do this, this is the best thing ever?
PR: Meditation. It’s more than relaxing or resting. For me, it’s connecting to the universe, and we all have that ability in us, but not a lot of people are aware of it. But for me, it really works wonders,, meditating every morning and also doing the morning pages. But at the same time, it's hard sometimes when you’re touring because you have a different lifestyle. You have to get up early at four, but you still just have to find the time to do it.
I have a spiritual guru in India, and so he's been teaching me yoga and meditation and there are a lot of breathing exercises before we start. What you’re supposed to do first is yoga, but I just don’t get into it somehow. I don’t know why. Do you do yoga?
MG: Yes. Before the meditation on my best days, when there's more time, the best is to do movement first. You're purifying the mind, purifying the body. And then I love what you're saying about the breathwork. When I do that before the meditation each morning, it's unparalleled, it's powerful. I would say, movement is not always possible every morning. I like to usually move in the evening, but definitely the morning pages and definitely the breath work and sitting for meditation. It’s very validating to see all the miracles that have happened for you. And you know, and you see how meditation helps that unfold because you're connected to the universe. And anyone who's reading this needs to receive that download because it's transformative.
PR: And also, I did a vision board right in 2019. And I had everything on it, like, “I want to be featured on Vogue,” you know, or “[A] Tiny Desk [performance].” At that time, it was just impossible. I showed it to my friends, and they were laughing. They were like, “Come on, Priya, Vogue?? or Tiny Desk??” And so many things just became true. I don't really know how that works. But yeah, I think everything is possible.
MG: Everything is possible. Hell yeah, my sister. I love it. So then, what's left to do, Priya?
PR: I want to create meaningful songs. I want people to feel something when they listen to my music. I don't want to only make them dance, but I also want them to dance inside, inwards, you know?
MG: Oh, yeah. It's so good. It's been a blessed and beautiful journey thus far, and we're all excited for you.
Don’t miss Priya Ragu’s new single, “Adalam Va,”and Madame Gandhi’s new singles, “Crystals & Congas,” and “Set Me Free”—out now.