Toronto-based artist Vivek Shraya has a lot going for her. She’s a musician, an advocate, a poet, a writer, a filmmaker; she’s a trans woman, a sibling and daughter, a queer person of color, and a voice that the world needs to hear.
Her first record in six years, ‘Part-Time Woman’ was released on June 9. I got the chance to ask her some questions about it, about the politics of identity, and all the things it can mean to be a woman.
The journey we have to take in this world, as women, is a long one. It’s a rewarding journey, but also one littered with pitfalls and obstacles that men just don’t seem to have to face. I find it harder, the older I get, not to bemoan it. Vivek Shraya’s pop-opera ‘Part-Time Woman’ is a weaving story of the trials and tribulations of the countless variants of womanhood, and those that connect us.
‘Part-Time Woman’ is a narrative that challenges and critiques expectations of femininity and ‘womanliness’. “What does it take?” It asks. Do we have to adhere to a set standard to be seen as feminine? What kind of feminine is that? Whose standard is it? Why must we?
Vivek Shraya’s ‘Part-Time Woman’ is a record of examination, not just of ourselves, but of the weight of others’ perceptions. As the lyrics to ‘Hari Nef’ — a song named after the trans ‘Transparent’ actress and model with whom Vivek became understandably obsessed — so rightfully ask, “Is the legacy of being a girl wanting to be heard, wanting to be her?“
Vivek was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the record, about the spectrum of identity, and with which 90’s TV character she relates to the most.
Six years. That’s how long it’s been since your last record. Does it feel like it’s been that long? What have you been up to since on the artistic front?
I dedicated most of my twenties to pursuing music and the experience, especially as a racialized musician, felt futile. Since my last solo album, 1:1, I have been exploring other mediums like writing and filmmaking. This has been restorative and helped to rebuild my confidence as an artist.
When did you start writing the material for ‘Part-Time Woman’? Was is influenced by what was going on in your life?
I started writing the bulk of ‘Part-Time Woman’ last fall. I wanted to apply the skills I had learned from the world of literature to music and was curious about using the album to tell a story, one beyond heartbreak or loneliness. This album centers around my experiences and observations of girlhood and femininity.
Do you have a specific kind of songwriting process? Was the process for ‘Part-Time Woman’ different to the processes you’ve had in the past? If so, how?
One of the biggest differences with the songwriting process for this album is that it involved constant feedback from the producer of the album, James Bunton. I have worked with producers in the past, but generally, their role hasn’t involved providing insight or suggestions in the writing process. Having James weigh in, in these early stages, pushed me to write (and eventually record) the best songs I possibly could.
How did you hear about the Queer Songbook Orchestra?
I had been following their career for years in Toronto, and last year finally had the opportunity to perform with them. Shortly after that show, I approached them about making an album together.
This album centers around my experiences and observations of girlhood and femininity.
Which of the tracks on the record would you say you’re particularly the proudest of?
I am particularly proud of “I’m Afraid of Men” because it’s not an easy phrase to state openly, without worrying about backlash. Many of the amazing musicians involved on the project are also men and despite their support for the project, it still felt challenging to sing.
Did the concept of the album start with anything in particular?
Writing the title track, “Part-Time Woman,” was the clarifying moment while conceptualizing the album. This is when I knew what the story of the album was going to be.
The cover art is incredible and you are stunning on the back! What was the concept for it and how would you describe the feelings it invokes?
I had been seeing Ness Lee‘s work pop up around the city and immediately fell in love with it. I love the way her work uses multiple bodies—often fat bodies—in sexualized positions. To me, her art pushes against dominant ideas of fat/trans bodies being undesirable. I also was drawn to the idea of multiple bodies on the cover to counter the singularity invoked in the title. I think feeling inadequate or incomplete are feelings that many women carry.
I think feeling inadequate or incomplete are feelings that many women carry.
Had you been writing poems before you started to put together “even this page is white?”
Though there is definitely a connection between songwriting and poetry, I hadn’t written formal poetry since grade school.
Going back to words and their power for a bit, you created a short film this year called “I want to kill myself.” It’s eight minutes of brutal honesty through photographs and spoken word that capture those illicit feelings of loneliness impeccably. Did saying those words out loud, whether it was to somebody or to the mirror, alter anything inside of you? I know it wouldn’t take the feelings away, but as the final sentence of the piece says, being able to say it kept you from going through with it.
I don’t know that saying the words alters something inside of me but it is definitely a form of release. So much of my contemplation of suicide is heightened by not only feeling guilty and ungrateful for having these thoughts but consequently also feeling like I can’t talk about it.
You’ve also written a children’s book — The Boy & the Bindi — about a little boy who becomes fascinated with his mother’s bindi. Did the concept for this story come from an autobiographical place?
As much as I am endlessly pulling inspiration from my mother in my art, this book is actually not based on an exchange between me and my mother. That said, my mother was one of the first people in my life to nurture my gender, so the book does tie back to her.
[Children’s books] still feature largely white children (including LGBTQ children’s books), so I think there is more work that needs to be done in this area.
I recently saw a queer book section in a comic shop and it made me feel really nice to see books about gay parents and gender because it reminds me of how far we have come, despite all the pitfalls. It was so cool and is so very needed. My friend recently lit the conservatives on fire just by writing a book to educate kids on breaking gender norms. It was SO good.
Do you plan on dipping into children’s books anymore? Are you optimistic about the future we’re cultivating for the next generations?
I love the medium of children’s books and would love to explore it more. And while I do think children’s books are diversifying, they still feature largely white children (including LGBTQ children’s books), so I do think there is more work that needs to be done in this area.
What’s next on the agenda for Vivek Shraya? Do you have anything in the works? Or if you’re planning on promoting the record for a while (if nudge you come to London at all nudge I’m not saying I’d love to see you perform nudge but oh wait I am.), do you have any ideas of other avenues you might want to explore in what I want to call “the education of feeling”? Which, if it was a lecture, its description would pretty much just be “being however and whoever you are.”
I am currently working on my second novel and second album with my band, Too Attached. I would love to perform in London one day soon!
Lastly and clearly the most important and super serious question that’s ever been asked, I saw that people are calling you Aunt Viv and I love it so much so obviously I have to go there: which 90s sitcom character did you most relate to?
It has been so strange to revisit 90s shows in my thirties as who I relate to now vs. then has changed drastically. The best example of this is that I used to really identify with Angela Chase from My So-Called Life, but in re-watching it, I found I really identified with her mother, Patty Chase!
You can buyVivek Shraya’s ‘Part-Time Woman’ on vinyl or MP3 through Vivek’s site, here.
MORE ABOUT VIVEK SHRAYA
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Her first book of poetry, even this page is white, won a 2017 Publisher Triangle Award and was longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads. Her debut novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books, and her first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, was featured on the National Post Bestseller List. Vivek has read and performed internationally at shows, festivals, and post-secondary institutions, including sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara. She is one-half of the music duo Too Attached.