Spotlight: The Reluctant Renegade
(Left) Crooner Shilpa Narayan.
Tracing the trajectory of SHILPA NARAYAN’s growth—from a shy bathroom singer to an MTV artist—is a fascinating study about how even small acts of pursuing your passion can make a big difference.
Her low, sultry singing voice, mysteriously inflected with emotion, strikes an instant chord even with the casual listener. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she possesses a bronzed, lissome beauty—picture-perfect for the age of video music.
Ironically, Shilpa Narayan, Atlanta’s increasingly visible pop and R&B singer-songwriter, never saw herself as someone meant to succeed in the entertainment industry. But fate, and raw talent, intervened. Here, in Narayan’s own words, is her fascinating musical journey.
“I sang in the shower for some 10 years, and that was about it,” says Narayan. Even though she had no formal training, music was quite in her blood, and at some point, it began begging for expression. “I was getting goose bumps anytime I was listening to music. I was obsessed. But I didn’t know at that time what part music would play in my life,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was in college that she even realized that she had a sense of perfect pitch. “I would get a tune in my head; I would sing it all the time. I would just come up with songs out of nowhere.” Not having a musical background, it didn’t make sense to Narayan.
Moment of truth
Timbaland’s album Shock Value was a huge favorite with her, one that she listened to frequently. And then came his rendition of the OneRepublic original, “Apologize.” For Narayan, that song was akin to a tipping point. She confesses she was obsessed with “Apologize.” “I was like, if this song becomes No. 1, I’m going to buy a guitar and just try to do something. That was a defining moment!” Eight months later, when the song topped the charts, she went out and bought a guitar and began teaching herself.
“I was terrible!” she confesses candidly. Not having imagined she would ever sing professionally, she just limited herself to strumming a few chords on the guitar and penning lyrics. Shy and reserved, the razzmatazz of showbiz was far too intimidating to her.
But recognizing her voice quality and her innate talent at singing, her parents and friends encouraged her to do more. Finally, in 2008, her junior year in college, she posted her first video on YouTube. Shilpa recalls how one day in that pre-iPhone era, she simply placed a camera before herself and strummed her guitar. She did a cover of the 1990s song “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry. “I posted it [on YouTube] and I didn’t tell anyone about it. I wanted to hear what people thought about it without knowing it’s me,” says this self-effacing singer. She had no way of knowing that the four basic chords she’d taught herself would be the start of an unusual musical journey.
Social media—a comfort zone
Shilpa admits that social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and music video sites contributed hugely in overcoming her hesitancy to go public. “It’s certainly helped me. I don’t think I’d have had the courage to do anything like this had I not been on social media first. It’s nice to be able to just be in your own room and in your own comfort zone and be able to record songs without people seeing your face, [then] hearing what they have to think, getting honest opinions,” she remarks. “[Without first having had this exposure] I would never have been able to do live performances, because I needed that support and encouragement to push me to do live shows.”
Coming out—the first time on stage
Shilpa’s first live show was in Atlanta, an open mike night at Eddie’s Attic where she performed two original songs. Memories of that night linger—the excitement, stress, and some unexpectedly happy moments. “My friends all came out; people flew in for me. It was the nicest thing. Crazy… I couldn’t sleep the week before. The night I performed I was completely shaky, so nervous. It was the first time anyone was going to hear me live, especially doing an original song.”
Was she nervous because she was performing songs that had never been heard before? “Yeah, exactly. I’m like, are they going to relate to it, are they going to like it? It’s so personal when you write songs. Those songs were about my life at that time; they were about relationships and things like that. It was just so nerve-wracking to put that out in public. I’m not typically the person who talks about my feelings.”
Wondrously though, everything came together that night, especially the certainty that this was what she was meant to be doing with her life—performing, writing, and most importantly, believing in her ability as a singer. “I feel like I finally found myself in that moment when I was on stage.” That profound self-discovery also led to another big and very quick decision—to relocate to New York City, the heart of the music industry.
Moving to the Big Apple
Shilpa left for New York City in the summer of 2010. She had a new job there, in finance, but the move was primarily to explore the Big Apple’s vibrant music scene. “The first week I looked at Craigslist and there was a posting about some showcase, so I figured I might as well give it a shot. When I got there it wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was going to be a formal showcase, but it was mainly rappers, and I was the only singer! So they probably were like, ‘What the heck is this girl even doing here?’” Despite being the oddball there, Shilpa stuck it out, and, again, her vocal prowess didn’t fail her—she ended up winning the contest!
Luck was truly on her side that day, for she met two agents who offered to help manage her career. They introduced her to music engineers and producers.
“I was just realizing that music is a really lonely business,” says Narayan, talking about the sentiments behind her first album, Stand Alone.
In May 2012, she wrote and recorded her first album, Stand Alone. This one, she says, was more about finding herself. “I was just a 22-year-old that lives in New York; I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.” The title refers to her state of mind in those days: “I was just realizing that music is a really lonely business. You know, at the end of the day, you need to do things for yourself and figure out what you want to do.”
She has a second album coming out in Spring 2015, titled Through Haze. The thought behind the second album was like, alright, I’ve found myself I think, and now I want to go for it. Interestingly, she wrote many of the songs in this album on her iPhone while riding the subway to and from work, since that was the only free time she had.
With roommate Jordan Garner, who it turned out, shared Narayan’s passion for music, and has co-written “Renegade.”
Composing music is a curiously individualistic exercise; some people prefer to compose the melody first while others prefer to write lyrics and then arrange a tune. Narayan says she does a little of both. “With Stand Alone, I didn’t really have the ability to go into a studio and sing something. It was kind of early on in my career. So I just got all these beats sent to me and I’d come up with tunes, come up with words and concepts. With “Renegade,” we—my roommate Jordan Garner and I—had this notebook of concepts that we wanted to write about.” Again, there was a strong personal element to the lyrics. For Narayan, it was about breaking away from being the stereotypical Indian-American girl and going into music; for her roommate, it was more about being a rebel in general. “Renegade” premiered as a single in partnership with MySpace. The slightly risqué music video plays out against the starkly beautiful backdrop of the Mojave Desert, portraying the rebel within us.
Narayan now has many accomplishments under her belt. She’s opened for rappers like Waka Flocka, Wale, and Culture Shock. She’s performed at the Apollo and for an audience of 150,000 at Times Square during Diwali. Other firsts include singing at NY Fashion Week, DesiFest Canada, and shows at clubs across the US. Carson Daly (The Voice) retweeted her name; her work has been covered by MTV, VH1, Vibe magazine and websites like RyanSeacrest.com, Thisis50.com, Channel One News and UrbanAsian. Her YouTube channel has attracted 1 million hits and still counting.
Serendipity—some would call it good karma—has frequently smiled upon Narayan in her rise as a singer. In a concrete jungle, she ended up with a roommate who also shared her love for music and wrote lyrics! What’s more, to their pleasant surprise, they were both alumni of Georgia Tech. Now they write songs together and Narayan is profuse in her acknowledgement of her roommate Garner’s contribution to her career. Reminiscing over the creative process that became “Renegade,” she says, “We got this beat sent to us and we’re listening to it. I came up with a tune, but I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. And then she heard it and she said, ‘It’s ‘renegade.''"
There are other times when inspiration strikes Naryan out of the blue: “Baby Go Home” was the first song that I did where I was home on a Saturday night and I just had this tune come to my head. I recorded it on my phone. ‘Woh, woh, my baby go home’— that just came into my head and I kept repeating it,” recalls Narayan.
Not all her early experiences have been happy. Some of Shilpa’s online videos attracted criticism with racist overtones, something that surprised this second generation Indian-American. Did it affect her? “It’s crazy, because those are the kind of ones that stick in your head more—the one bad comment for every 100 good comments,” she says ruefully. With time though, she’s grown philosophically. “I also understood that… obviously not everyone’s going to love me. It kind of allows you to get a thick skin, which is good, because you need it in this business. Even now when I perform live, there’ll be people who’ll butt in, there’ll be some people saying, ‘Oh, you know this one song, you really go a little off key!’ Constructive criticism I love, but sometimes on YouTube it isn’t really constructive criticism, it’s more like, ‘Oh, your makeup looked weird that day!’”
Narayan acknowledges that her style is influenced by certain artists. “I think vocally, there’s Melanie Fiona. I like those big powerhouse voices. So I like Adele and Sam Smith, Mary Jane Blige. I listen to John Mayer, I think he’s a really talented songwriter.” She believes the key to being a good singer-songwriter is being able to tell a compelling story. “It’s a way of verbalizing something, like a feeling. I think that’s what really inspired me about her [Adele] and other songwriters,” says Narayan.
Narayan says she has been compared to Rihanna and says it’s flattering because she’s already a fan. “I think one of my problems is that when I listen to an artiste a lot, I kind of try to sound like them and I don’t mean to, but you just hear their voice. So I listen to Rihanna all the time. Sometimes I almost think I’m imitating her and I’m like, ‘No, I’m not!’ Maybe I need to stop listening to her!”
Bollywood, MTV and more
Most of Narayan’s work has been in the mainstream and American pop/rock genre. Her Indian roots, however, do tug at her. A.R. Rahman is one of her favorite composers and she loves the album Taal. “Those melodies are so haunting. It’s just very emotional, very moving. So I look to him as someone who inspires me and who I want to pull from. I wish I could sing in Hindi or Tamil,” says Narayan.
A still from the music video for “Renegade.”
As someone who grew up listening to MTV during her teens and as a young adult, Narayan is pretty thrilled to be now working with the iconic music channel. Shilpa is thrilled that MTV India premiered “Renegade” followed quickly by “Baby Go Home.”
Just do it, says Shilpa
For a singer with no formal background in music or classical training, Narayan’s career graph has been pretty inspiring. While she does want to go back and take lessons, she also feels there are advantages to having an untrained voice. “I definitely want to take lessons now. But I think, something that’s kind of good about not having training is that you keep that character in your voice. Like the cracks that come out or your breathing [that] might not be perfect, sometimes sounds good. And that makes you unique. So there’s a part of me which likes that I haven’t been trained. But then, I wish I had training at the same time. Trying to always hit the right note is really hard when you don’t have training. And also, you can really hurt your vocal chords. So I go back and forth. I would say, if you’re doing training, you should just start young. Do the training, get your technique,” she says.
Signing off, Narayan shares her advice to aspiring musicians: “I would say—not to sound like a cliché—but just go for it. Go for it until you are not happy doing it anymore. That was one of the pieces of advice my mom gave me. I kept going for it, going for it, and I’d have all these highs, but I would have tons of lows, too, and during those lows, my mom would say, ‘Keep going for it until it doesn’t make you happy anymore. If it’s your passion, you just have to do it.’”
[Archith Seshadri is an anchor/reporter for the Fox affiliate in Charlotte, NC, and president of Asian American Journalists Association – Atlanta. He shuttles between Charlotte, NC, and Atlanta, his hometown.]
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