With her spellbinding album Asha's Awakening, the bisexual Indian-American pop singer reaches new heights — and steps just a little closer toward enlightenment.
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Fifty years ago, David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, his concept album about an androgynous, omnisexual rock-star alien sent to Earth to save its inhabitants from the apocalypse. Ziggy eventually crumbles under the weight of his own ego, and the title character of Asha's Awakening, Raveena's sophomore record, meets a similar fate. A benevolent space princess from ancient Punjab, Asha wends her way through galaxies and centuries, collecting life lessons likes twinkling souvenirs and imparting her wisdom to anyone open-minded enough to listen. She's learned about love, loss, and devastation and descended to our planet to school the masses. But sadly, the fanatical cult following she attracts ultimately leads to her demise.

There's a reason Asha is such a hit — girl likes to party. Asha's Awakening radiates with kaleidoscopic energy, bouncing from airy disco and grinding funk to early-2000s hip-hop and R&B, mingling its Eastern and Western influences and melting its genres until they wash over you. Rarely does pop music sound this effervescent and seductive, wide-eyed and seasoned, soothing yet just dangerous enough to keep you on your toes.

Like her alter ego, Raveena has soaked up the knowledge and is ready to share. This project is years in the making, and the queer, Queens, N.Y.–born South Asian artist tapped into everything from vintage Bollywood musicals to kitschy sci-fi classics like Barbarella to carve out her vision. She also studied dance and aerial performance, bought multiple Indian instruments to fold into the mix, enlisted family to write and translate Hindi lyrics, and immersed herself in the work of heroes like Timbaland, M.I.A., and jazz pioneer Alice Coltrane. Along for the ride: Vince Staples, who drops a guest verse on the slinky, hot-and-bothered "Secret," and soul and disco legend Asha Puthli, who helps nestle the enchanting "Asha's Kiss" — a track laced with harp and a bansuri flute — firmly into the clouds.

But all that ambition and careful curation comes with a charming self-awareness; this is spirituality packaged in slick, savvy bops. When Raveena sings "I can open up your third eye" on "Kathy Left 4 Kathmandu" — a send-up of white hippies fetishizing her culture — she does it with a wink; meanwhile, the sun-drenched album opener "Rush" is one of the most aptly titled singles of the year.

On the eve of her show at Pharrell's Something in the Water festival and to celebrate Pride Month, EW caught up with Raveena to chat about where Asha ends and she begins, the reality of being queer and brown, and the transcendent power of fantasy.

Raveena (2022) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1J3Jat6dUKe0TeRUupL0k6ljdMeimtQ2z/view?usp=sharing https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KJAr4zO75yzNJ8wxRykkwD2nMnC_bvxj/view?usp=sharing\ https://drive.google.com/file/d/1T-22OtQW-RBGKvhZRFlRlCM8yICjhxsn/view?usp=sharing
Raveena
| Credit: Furmaan Ahmed

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for the character of Asha come from?

RAVEENA: I knew I wanted to blend the East and the West, and I knew I wanted to take a lot of risks sonically and really expand on everything I had done before. I felt like the way to be comfortable showing those new sides of me was through a character. It felt like something I could… not hide behind, but I could be so many people all at once in a character. Asha is a space princess from Punjab. After she's transported to a different planet, she learns so much about herself on her spiritual journey, and she comes back to Earth to teach those lessons. That blends my love of sci-fi and Bollywood, and I think it's a great vehicle for an album that is so layered and dense that explores so many different genres and moods. The album needed an epic story to accompany all the sounds on it.

Did you turn to any concept albums from the past for inspiration?

I've been inspired by concept albums as a whole. I would even consider something like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange to be a concept album, or even Lauryn Hill's album [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill], or the Kendrick Lamar album To Pimp a Butterfly. A lot of my favorite albums have a strong story line — a visual world and a musical world. It's all connected. I love building worlds.

There's also such a Y2K sound to a lot of the songs on Asha's Awakening. Timbaland and other hip-hop and R&B artists were appropriating sounds from Indian music then. Fast-forward 20 years and you're, in a sense, taking it back.

I mean, I'm also so inspired by R&B and hip-hop — I've taken so much of that too. I think the beautiful part of Asha's Awakening that helped me in my musical journey was realizing there's been so much cross-cultural exchange for decades and decades. It was so interesting looking at Bollywood records from as early as the '50s that were inspired by Black musicians and rock and soul music and jazz, and then seeing how artists like Alice Coltrane were so inspired by Hindu spirituality and blending it with jazz in the '70s. And we just continue to grow. I feel like "genre" is so boundless now. Like, it's really hard to pin anyone into a certain genre unless they're very committed to it, because we're all so inspired by so many parts of the world and so many different things.

How much of yourself do you see in Asha?

Like 80, 90 percent [laughs]. It's all me at the end of the day. The personal experiences behind the lyrics are from me. And I really looked to this character as inspiration for my own life — how bold she is, how much she continues to just do it and then fail and then try again, how she is constantly searching for her spirit. I think [the character] mirrors a lot of my own journey, but it also taught me to be less critical of myself and take a step back and look at [my life] from a 30,000-foot-high perspective, you know? It's given me so much confidence to explore and expand my artistry.

You really did push yourself while making this record, even studying aerial silks. How long did it take you to learn that?

That was honestly such a last-minute addition. I learned silks for the "Secret" video in about three, four months. But what started my interest in movement was making all these songs inspired by Bollywood and its big dance numbers. I had been training in all types of dance within Bollywood for two, three years, specifically for the "Rush" and "Secret" videos.

But then while making the album, you also pulled an Ava from Hacks and got a flip phone to shut the world out for three or four months.

Oh my God. All of my friends hated me because they could never get in touch. The flip phone didn't even work — you couldn't even make calls on it. Honestly, all of my texts were like "g2g." I couldn't take any photos. I kept my smartphone in a lockbox in my house and would only use it like once a week. Maybe less.

What was the hardest part of not having a smartphone readily accessible?

The hardest part was not having access to music on Spotify or Apple to plug into my car. My car doesn't even have a CD player. I would just have to listen to the radio. I had to get GPS. I was literally, like, doing MapQuest. I was committed.

I've seen Asha's Awakening described as a work of desi-futurism. How would you define that term?

That's a term I've heard journalists use to describe it, but I do agree with it. My understanding of it is that it's a way for diaspora kids like myself to understand themselves in the framework of both of the cultures they reside in. There's a lot of confusion in that because there is inherent oppression in that identity. Sometimes fantasy is a beautiful way to escape from and explore those confusions and that oppression, and that's a definitely a facet of Asha. I'm just naturally so drawn to sci-fi and futurism, and it's probably because in fantasy we can imagine ourselves in a way that is so much more expansive than the world allows us to be. We can be anyone in a fantasy space. I think for someone who's queer and brown, fantasy is such a powerful tool.

Raveena (2022) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1J3Jat6dUKe0TeRUupL0k6ljdMeimtQ2z/view?usp=sharing https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KJAr4zO75yzNJ8wxRykkwD2nMnC_bvxj/view?usp=sharing\ https://drive.google.com/file/d/1T-22OtQW-RBGKvhZRFlRlCM8yICjhxsn/view?usp=sharing
Raveena
| Credit: Furmaan Ahmed

That's a lot to navigate — being brown in the queer community, where you can still feel ostracized, but then being queer in the Indian community, where for many years queerness has been seen as a big no-no. How have you tackled that?

I think in the queer space, I feel very accepted and free. That's what I love about queerness: A lot of us are thinking of our lives and relationships outside the straight, heteronormative viewpoint. We are forced to imagine a life for ourselves that is so expansive and so, so freeing — and so beyond all this bullshit, honestly. It's very beautiful being part of that world. Where I've struggled in the queer community is with biphobia — feeling like as a bisexual that I had to prove that I was queer enough.

But I think in the Indian community it's way scarier, way harder. I didn't come out as queer until I was 25, which I think for kids now is pretty late. For me, it was very scary coming out. Obviously, I was in America, and it's different — though I wouldn't say completely different — but in India, it can get violent when you're queer. Family reactions can be very scary and very intense. I know countless queer brown people who have been kicked out of their homes and abused because they're queer. I was definitely scared of the reaction, but it was definitely way better than I thought it would be, especially with extended family members. I'll not say it was easy. It wasn't a picnic. But I didn't go through anything particularly violent, which I was really grateful for. But I also had to wait until I was financially stable and had a lot of boundaries and my own power to be able to do it.

You say you've gotten flack for being bi, but there should be no doubt in anyone's mind how much you like women after they watch your video for "Headaches." What did your parents think of that?

I feel like with my parents, it's just like… they see it. And they're like, "Okay…" Like, my mom sometimes still asks, "Is this a phase?" Recently I had to be like, "This is the list of my ex-girlfriends. Here are their profiles [laughs]… It's not a phase."

How much does your queerness factor into your art? I feel like I see something like "Headaches" and I'd think a significant amount.

Asha's Awakening is queer in the more expansive sense of the world. I read this quote about "queer" being more about the way you view the world and the way you navigate love, and not about who you love. I think that's where queerness and Asha intersect. You know, I'll write a song about girls when it comes [to me], and I'll write a song about boys when it comes, or both. I'm, like, truly a bisexual. I like me to date a man and a woman at the same time [laughs].

What queer art has inspired you? Has anything been part of your queer awakening?

There's a lesbian movie I was rewatching in quarantine called Fire [1996]. I was really young when I first saw it, and it was the first time I'd seen an onscreen lesbian romance, and that was super, super powerful for me. I think because I'd just gotten out of a relationship with another queer brown Punjabi girl, going back and rewatching a romance between two Indian women has been really special for me.

You've been touring the past couple of months and have a few festivals on the horizon this year. Do you have any rituals to keep you sane while you're away from home?

I think meditation, stretching, affirmations, and just being mindful of what I put in my body are the biggest grounding force for me. But I also think that just knowing it's a phase and that home is around the corner is always really grounding — and then being really intentional about how I spend my time at home.

You're performing at Pharrell's Something in the Water festival and then have the rest of Pride Month off. What are your plans?

My plan for Pride is… well, I haven't kissed a girl in a while. [Laughs] I hope I can.

Raveena performs June 19 at Something in the Water in Washington, D.C. Asha's Awakening is out now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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