An interview with Saleka, a rising R&B icon
The singer-songwriter discusses writing for movies, living with a creative family and her upcoming New York City show.
Oct 8, 2021
Regarding up-and-coming R&B artist Saleka’s music video “The Sky Cries,” one YouTube user commented, “Aaliyah had a baby with Jessica Rabbit … It’s cruel that she doesn’t have a whole album of this style.” The comment summarizes Saleka well. Not unlike Aaliyah, Saleka has a set of smooth, velvety pipes that deliver R&B runs and riffs with ease. She slinks around her music videos in outfits that often recall the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit.
Saleka is somebody to watch. She’s studied her musical craft, refined it and seized what she wants. In anticipation of her debut album and upcoming New York shows — you can catch Saleka at Rockwood Music Hall on Oct. 14, Nov. 18 and Dec. 9 — I spoke with Saleka via Zoom about her artistry and music. The interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Yas Akdag: I just wanted to start by asking what your writing process is like. I read that you’ve been a classical pianist since you were a kid, and I was raised on that too. Do you think piano is important to your process?
Saleka: It’s definitely important. My writing process has kind of changed. In the beginning it was only piano-based. All the songs I would write were just piano and vocals because that was the instrument I was comfortable on. I felt like I could find the chords and everything would kind of start from there. As I’ve branched out, I sometimes write to a certain beat or write lyrics and melodies first. But usually it’s still chordal and piano-based. Melodies and lyrics come from that.
It’s an interesting process because I’ve also been writing for TV shows and movies. So sometimes if I’m given a prompt, a show or a script to write from, I want to evoke the feeling of that instead of my personal taste or whatever I’m feeling at the moment. I’ll dive into the characters, their feelings and the visuals and try to evoke something that will match that or feel like it’s in the same world.
Yas: That was actually one of my questions. What is it like writing for a movie or a TV show? You kind of answered that, but how do you feel like you, as an artist, fit into writing for characters or the tone of a film?
Saleka: It’s been so fun! The first song I ever wrote outside my personal music, “The Sky Cries,” was for the TV show “Servant,” which came out in February. I wrote it last year. I was nervous because usually my songs are so personal and they come to me in the moment. They’re attached to things that are going on in my life. So I was nervous to write for a character and for a scene in a TV show. I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it work, but in the end, it flowed naturally. The first season of the TV show had already been out and I’d loved it. I was really intertwined — my family works on the TV show, so I got to see the process behind the scenes. I had this idea of wanting something minor, bluesy and jazzy for this character. They’re genres that I’m interested in and love. I could relate to the characters in the TV show, so I was able to connect it to my personal way of writing instead of it being all fantasized. Writing for film and TV has given me the ability to have more fun with lyrics.
Yas: You mentioned that your family worked on the TV show. I also know that your family directed some of your music videos, right? Your dad and your sister?
Saleka: My sister has directed three music videos for me, and my dad did one.
Yas: Cool. Your sister goes to NYU, right?
Saleka: She just graduated, actually!
Yas: Oh, cool! So then, it seems like your family is quite creative. What was it like growing up in a creative family? How has it influenced your artistry? Has that dynamic helped you develop?
Saleka: Oh, definitely. The family and the environment you grow up in often allows you to pursue the things that you want to. I was very lucky to grow up in a household where art was encouraged and was thought of as a valuable thing. It was what my parents were interested in. My dad’s a director, and my mom dances and loves music. So I think having really creative parents who saw the merit and value in art allowed me to pursue that. They gave me the resources and space to take art seriously from a young age. My parents put me in piano lessons when I was 4 — obviously that was my parents’ choice, I was 4 — but I’m so grateful that they did. They know how much music and art means for people in life — how essential it is to our self-expression, identity and feeling free. Our family has also become collaborative, since my dad and my sister are both in film. It’s a little different for me, since I’m in music. There are things they can bond over that I’m not a part of, but I think we’ve all been collaborative in our dinner table conversations. We usually talk about projects we’ve been working on. We think through things or discuss what we’re struggling with.
Yas: Even if you don’t do film, it’s still really cool that you talk about art.
Saleka: Yeah! It’s interesting because, though film and music are so different, there’s a lot of processes that are similar. When I watch my dad in the editing room, it’s so similar to what I do in the studio when I’m editing takes together. Even though they’re completely different mediums — I would have no idea how to direct a movie — the mental and emotional process that you go through while creating is very similar.
Yas: I was going to say, your music videos are pretty cinematic. Do you use your music videos to breathe new life into your songs? Do you find that you’re able to explore things that you weren’t able to in the song or in the way you present yourself visually?
Saleka: Definitely. A lot of the visual ideas were made by my sister or my dad. It’s an interesting process. For the music videos we’ve done so far, I’d written and recorded the songs a while before, so the feeling at the time I created them was long past. When I’m making a music video for a song I wrote a year and a half ago, I wonder: ‘What still feels meaningful to me?’ I want the songs to feel authentic and current. Oftentimes, I discover new perspectives. When I wrote the song “Mr. Incredible,” I was talking about a relationship where I was trying to love somebody who was dealing with depression and mental health issues. I was struggling to relate to and connect with that person. By the time we made the music video, I had gone through all these other life experiences. I had experienced being the other person in the relationship. I had both sides of that in my head as we made the video and I tried to reflect that.
Yas: I’ve read some of the comments under your videos detailing how your dancing is creative, and I’ve noticed that too. Your videos are always well-choreographed. Do you consider yourself a dancer by any means? I know you said your mom is into dance.
Saleka: You know, I really don’t consider myself a dancer. I never took a dance class or danced in any real way until the music videos. But my mom is a dancer, and it’s always something that’s been a part of our family culture and something that I love for fun. So I wanted to explore it in the music videos. We had this great choreographer named Saleena Khamamkar who choreographed all the music videos that we’ve done so far. She really allowed me to open up. I was very insecure about dancing, but we knew that that was an element we wanted in the music videos to connect them all. We wanted the dancing to be meaningful and part of the storyline — something that was weird, different and ugly at times. The movements aren’t necessarily sexy or girly, especially in the “Mr. Incredible” and “The Sky Cries” music videos where there are moments of contortion. Sometimes the movements are sharp, sometimes they’re fluid. Through my music videos, I’ve been able to fall in love with dance and realize how important it is to storytelling.
Yas: That’s awesome that you were able to incorporate dance even if you weren’t comfortable. On the subject of storytelling, your music explores a range of topics. Is there an overarching theme your new album will explore?
Saleka: I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album. But it’s a slice of my experiences at a transitional point in my life, where I was becoming an adult and learning how to deal with the world. I was discovering what womanhood meant to me, navigating relationships, and how I relate to my culture, family and history. Music is my way to process; the album is me processing my life. I wrote a lot of it in college, so it’s about leaving home and finding myself and all those things.
Yas: I’m a music student at NYU. How did music fit into school for you? You went to Brown, did you study music?
Saleka: Yeah, I studied music and literary arts. At Brown, it’s very free, so you can take classes in anything that you want as long as you complete your major. So I was able to explore a lot of different things and take classes in things that I was interested in. Like taking a class on jazz, on electronic experimental music, on production and on music theory. Not everything was exactly the genre I ended up doing, but a lot of it helped me branch out and think differently. It helped me expand my resources. I came into college with just my classical piano training and a little bit of vocal training. Now I’m able to communicate with other musicians and write parts for other instruments. Thinking about my background vocals, a lot of the ones I write now are based on the counterpoint I learned in music theory class. College was also great for meeting other musicians. The two producers I worked with on this album are kids I met in my classes.
Yas: What advice do you have for up-and-coming musicians and creatives? Especially for people who aren’t men.
Saleka: I’m still struggling with it so it’s so hard for me to think of advice. It’s still early for me. I came into the industry at a really young age. I was 16 years old when I first started writing songs and working with producers. It was too early for me. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know who I was yet and was easily taken advantage of by people, especially men, who had a vision of what they wanted me to become. They took the superficial things and were creating me off of that. Because I didn’t know who I was and how to express who I was, I couldn’t do anything to counteract that. I stepped away from it for a while.
Returning as an adult, I’m now able to know — or I hope that I know — when I’m being taken advantage of. It’s easier to put up boundaries and do things that I feel comfortable with because I know who I am, what I want to be and what my core values are. This music industry is mostly men. I’m often in rooms where I’m the only woman, but I’ve found people and men who are okay with me being the boss and equal collaboration. They’re just there to make the music. Finding those people and creating a safe little bubble has been important.
Yas: Yeah, thank you! Who would you cite as your biggest musical influences?
Saleka: Oh my gosh, I have so many! I really love Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill. Those are two core, essential people to me, who I’ve listened to throughout my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more into jazz. Jazz vocalists have inspired me. People like Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, as well as blues artists like Etta James. These are strong female artists who have inspired me through their life stories and the powerful ways in which they use music to connect with people.
Yas: Those are some awesome names. Who would be your dream collaboration, living or not?
Saleka: Oh my gosh. I literally have a list of probably a hundred people who I’d like to collaborate with. The first one that comes to mind right now is J. Cole. I just would love to do a song with him. There’s so many though, it’s really hard to choose.
Yas: Last question. Rockwood’s a pretty intimate and iconic New York venue. How are you feeling about the show and what can we expect from it?
Saleka: I’m really excited! I’ve never actually performed at that venue before but I’ve heard about it a lot. It’ll be with the band, and it’ll be a mixture of released songs and new songs off of the debut album. My music and my band lends itself to those kinds of small, intimate spaces — they’re where I feel most comfortable and at home in my style of music. So I’m really excited to be there.
Contact Yas Akdag at [email protected]