Saleka On Debut Album ‘Seance’ & The Spirituality Of Her Dark R&B
Plus, NYLON debuts the music video for her song “Samsara.”
In the music video for Saleka’s “Samsara,” premiering exclusively on NYLON below, the singer can’t escape the Tartarean cycle of serial dating. Set in a picturesque neighborhood that suddenly turns hellish, she twirls from one lover to her grave to the next man in line, giving a macabre twist to her very modern woes.
“That's sort of the idea of it,” she says of the concept over a recent video call. “Very dark metaphors, dark imagery, and horror movie tropes.”
It is fitting in a way; the eldest daughter of supernatural king M. Night Shyamalan, the 26-year-old Philly singer-songwriter has the practice of conveying complex stories and ideas through horror running in her blood. On her debut album, Seance, out today, that inherited streak of darkness mainly seeps through in her lush music videos which are shot in decaying mansions, possessed corporate offices, and more. On her songs, the horror is actually a smoked out mysticism as she dwells on topics like dying and rebirth and reconnecting with her ancestors by sending out dispatches through the spirit world.
In truth, Saleka’s music is far from scary; Her sinuous R&B sound is actually rich, resonant, and deeply soulful, most of that due to her gracefully agile voice that’s alluring enough to put you under a spell, and serves as the backbone of her first full body of work as an artist. It positions her as a figure to watch in the R&B space.
Below, ahead of the release, we caught up with Saleka to chat about the making of Seance, reconnecting with her heritage, and the lessons she’s learned from working with her dad.
Tell me about the concept behind the “Samsara” music video.
So, the word “samsara” is a Sanskrit word, talking about the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. But in this song, I'm sort of using it in a cheeky, metaphor way to relate to the cycle of relationships that I have been through. I feel like a lot of people our age have been through what it feels like to fall in love, and then break up, and then fall in love, and then break up, and lose someone, and find someone new, and going through that, you feel like you're dying and getting reborn every time. So I wanted to [make a video about] that. I had just broken up with someone and it was the fourth person I had broken up with in a handful of years. And I was like, “I can't believe I'm here again. What is going on?” It was just sort of funny, in a way, to be in that place and be like, how did I get here?
Your video for “Mr. Incredible” is directed by your sister Ishana, and also choreographed. What’s the role that dance plays in your creativity and your creative process?
I think it was always the intention of making music videos for this album that we wanted to use choreography as an element of storytelling. Not in the way of, oh, there's a song, and everyone looks hot, and we're dancing, and there's background dancers. We wanted it to be sort of weird [with] dance as a communication style. The culture that I come from, music and dance, and even filmmaking come together; you don't really have one without the other. So that feels like a very natural way to express things. Even though I'm not a trained dancer and my form of storytelling is music and my sister's form is filmmaking, I think that working together and bringing those visions create a more powerful interpretation than I could do on my own. And I just enjoy it. It's something that I want to learn and I want to get better at.
I wanted to ask you about “Seance,” the song, because I feel like it's an important track on this project. Not only because it's the title track for the album, but it seems like a very personal song for you. You wrote that it's about feeling disconnected from your culture and your ancestral roots. What was the journey that you went on to write the song and realize that this is something that you wanted to talk about?
I think this period of my life where I'm trying to figure out who I am also brought me back to my culture and my family in a way. When I was in high school and a little bit in college, there was a sort of fear-based disassociation from things that were different and that included my culture and traditional elements of my family and things. And then, I was experiencing a regret of, why did I do that? I think it was sort of a realization moment of, I need to get that back. And also my relationship with my grandparents became closer at that point in time. I started spending more time with them and hearing their stories. I was just sort of like, this is also my history and my family. You sort of start to realize the things that make you different are the things that allow you to make art.
Why did you decide to make Seance your album title?
That song in particular went through a lot of title changes. The line in the song at the end, “Light the incense for the seance,” was always there, but the song title wasn't seance. I was sort of coming up with alternate ideas and was like, “Oh, seance might be a good title.” And then the more I sat with it, I was like, that is a good title. It connects to all the dark, haunting imagery [on] the album and in the music videos, and that playfulness with the supernatural elements of life is something that I grew up experiencing through my family and have incorporated into my art.
And then, the idea of calling back to your past and the people before you, but also your old self and the versions of you that you lost or the relationships that you lost, and bringing those back — this album, writing the music was that for me. So I was like, this feels like the album title.
In that vein, May is Asian American Pacific Island month. I feel like there aren't many South Asian women in the R&B space; how important is it for you to sing about your identity in your music in general?
I think I aim to do it in a natural way. I think something that I've learned from my dad is, just by existing and doing arts in America as an Asian [person] you're already making a statement. Which is sad in a way. It shouldn't be like that. But it is right now. And so I think it is important to talk about, but also, I can't speak for all Asians or all South Asians or all South Asian women. I can only speak for my own experience. So I'm going to talk about it in ways that feel relevant to me.
Speaking of your dad, you work so closely with your family. What is the biggest lesson you've learned from them?
I mean, I love it. I learn so much from my dad all the time. Now, there's a new form of learning from him, which is watching him conduct his art, and business in the industry, and how he manages everything and balances his family life with work life and artistic life. I really appreciate having that resource and to have someone that's like, I can ask his advice on everything. Should I hire this person? Can you get on the phone with him? I want your instinct. Do you think that I'm right about this? Or I'll ask him, is this too much? I just really go to him for creative validation. He's like my mentor in a way, and also my dad.
And my sister is my best friend. I respect her art tremendously. I think she's so talented. And also just being my sister, we have very similar tastes. We conduct ourselves in the same way. So it's really fun and easy to work on a set together and create something together because we just know each other super well. There's not that weird process of like, does this person get what I'm saying? Does this person know who I am as a person? Does this person live by my value system? Are they going to protect me? Are they going to respect me? That's all just already there when you work with your family. Despite the fact that she's my sister, it's also pretty dope to be making music videos with a young South Asian woman who's directing them.
All three of us worked together on the TV show Servant. My sister wrote a bunch of episodes. I wrote a bunch of songs. Sometimes I wrote songs for her episodes. Sometimes I wrote songs for my dad's episodes. [At] dinnertime we're like, “Oh, how's that episode going? How's the song for that episode going? Oh, it sounds like this. I scrapped everything that I did and restarted.” It's just really fun, and I want to be able to do that as long as we can.