With heavenly R&B, Raveena maps out a space for healing

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Harlem’s Apollo Theater has helped numerous musical legends get their start in the 85 years since it opened. Its weekly talent competition called Amateur Night played a part in launching the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Dionne Warwick and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s also where New York-based R&B singer Raveena began her journey into music.

When Raveena was eight years old, her class went on a field trip to the lauded Manhattan venue, where she was first introduced to the music of Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Something about them connected with her instantly, spurring her to seek out their music back at home. “They expressed so much pain and hope in their voices at the same time,” she says, sat cross-legged on her bed in Astoria, Queens, just across the East River from where she had this pivotal encounter. “The emotions of R&B and soul are similar to the sounds I was hearing in Bollywood music. Those songs have this nostalgic and deeply emotional feeling.”

At the time, Raveena was living in Stamford, Connecticut with her mother (a fashion designer) and father (a businessman). Her parents had escaped genocide in India and moved to Queens at first, but later relocated to rural suburbia when she was five. “We lived in this really tiny house in the woods,” she recalls. “I was talking to trees and had this very intuitive childhood in nature, which was really beautiful.”

Growing up, Raveena tells me, she didn’t have many friends, so music became her place in which to process her thoughts and feelings. It still has the same purpose for her now as it did when she wrote her first song, aged 12. “I always feel a little off-centre and out of touch when I’m not writing,” she says. “It’s always been my therapy and the way that I understand myself better.”

The first evidence online of Raveena’s forays into songwriting show hints of the artist who exists today. Delicate neo-soul laced with saxophone, her earliest tracks are sketches of what would come on Shanti, her 2017 debut EP. That release saw her settle into her sound and eventually led her to the stage at Camp Flog Gnaw, the festival curated by Tyler, the Creator, with whom she now shares management.

In the two years since those events, Raveena was working on her debut full-length, Lucid, released on Moonstone/ Empire in May. On it we find the 25 year-old sharing more of herself than ever. The album deals with a previous abusive relationship, documented in the velvety flow of Salt Water (“I think my body’s had enough going through this”) and the smooth snap of Stronger, which finds its protagonist growing in power as the song progresses.

"The industry always says there’s no space for you. People consider you niche just because of your race, even if your music is pop."

The latter came pouring out during unexpected sickness on Raveena’s 25th birthday. “I’d randomly gotten food poisoning and I’d thrown up maybe 25 times,” she says, her eyes fixed as if she’s looking into her past. “I’d reached this kind of ayahuasca state with it and wrote Stronger at 3 am. I always had that song in me, but it was like I needed something extreme to happen to write it.”

The DIY musician had been wanting to write about the feeling of being disconnected from your body after suffering physical abuse but, having found a safe place with boyfriend and producer Everett Orr since, found it hard to access the same feelings that she had once grappled with. “In that trip, I was [out of control] so I think it brought me back into that place,” she explains. To her, it was important to tackle her trauma not only as a means of processing her experiences for herself, but also as a source of healing for others.

Lucid doesn’t just focus on bad relationships, though. It also examines the blissful sides of love. Nectar’s feather-soft psychedelic breeze highlights Raveena’s empowering way of writing about sex. “I could surely provide/ Mother Earth in my thighs” she purrs over jazzy inflections, later building a picture of the imperfections that often get airbrushed out of women in mainstream media, like stretch marks and knotted hair. “I always try and write about sex from a non-heteronormative and non-male view,” she admits. “It’s about feeling sexy for myself and whoever I want to be sexy for.”

© Davey Adesida

Raveena’s family and their experiences as immigrants also play a big role in her debut album, with two songs detailing their perspectives at different times of their lives. Nani’s Interlude features a recording of her grandmother talking about death. “She never really speaks English so it was amazing to catch her in this 30-second moment where she does,” Raveena smiles.

The fact that her parents uprooted their lives from India to America was, according to Raveena, why they were initially dubious about her making music for a living. “Immigrant parents want safety and financial security for their children first,” she explains, her voice calm with understanding. “Once I started making my money off of it, I think they realised, ‘Oh, this actually can work.’”

You can see why they’d be cautious. Raveena might have proved that she doesn’t need the machinations of the music biz to be successful, completely self-funding her music videos and independently releasing her music, but she’s aware that’s not always the case for everyone. “This has happened to South Asian artists for decades,” she sighs. “The industry always says there’s no space for you. You’re not white, you’re not black, you’re not Latinx – there’s no ‘obvious market’ for you to fall into. People consider you niche just because of your race, even if your music is pop.”

As a teenager, Raveena explains she only had M.I.A. to represent “some version of herself”, even though the two artists make wildly different music. But with the steady globalisation of music, Raveena hopes that won’t be the case for much longer. “It’s good because it gives people something to identify with, but I hope there’s a time when music is a bit more fluid,” she says. “Five albums from now, it’ll be very different.”

In the immediate future, though, Raveena has a US tour to plan. True to her soothing aesthetic, she wants to flip the energy of a live show on its head and create something where people can feel relaxed instead. “If I can even touch just a few people’s lives in a meaningful way, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.”

Lucid is out now via Moonstone/ Empire.

Photography: Davey Adesida
Styling: Aeri Yun
Hair & Makeup: Shideh Kafei

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