Damn she’s Tamil: Priya Ragu is the artist making her own space in music

Priya Ragu | Soho House

In partnership with Bowers & Wilkins, Soho House catches up with the Soho Rising star who is making 'Raguwaves' around the world

Wednesday 27 April 2022    By Samuel Fishwick    Photography by Elliot James Kennedy    Styling by Neesha Champaneria    Makeup by Daniela Alves    Hair by Shamara Roper

If I sounded half as good as Priya Ragu and someone told me that I couldn’t make it as a singer, I would simply not believe them. The Swiss-Tamil musician, 36, who’s so youthful that she says she still gets IDed for alcohol, is blessed with a voice as smooth as whisky and more sizzle than a Scotch bonnet. In 12 months, she has fronted sold-out Brixton Academy shows with Jungle, Milanese FROWs with Anna Wintour, and magazine covers across Britain. She began this year being shortlisted for the BBC Sound of 2022 poll and was named as an Amazon Music Breakthrough Artist, fresh off her critically adored mixtape ‘Damnshestamil’. It’s a blast of unfettered, planet-arcing optimism so singular that it’s coined its own genre: ‘Raguwavy’, a bouncy, woozy blend of soul, R&B, and Sri Lankan heritage. 

‘But I was born and raised in Switzerland,’ she laughs – a paradise, sure, but not so known for its pop stars. ‘It’s better known for watches and chocolate. Making a living out of music is just something that’s not realistic.’ She pauses, wearing a red Hugo Boss sweater and black Levi’s while nursing a cappuccino after 12 hours in a west London recording studio, where she’s been fine-tuning her first album. ‘It’s what I’ve been told all the time. From my parents, from co-workers to friends and all that. There were all these barriers. A brown person, singing in English, R&B music, and I’m over 30? Where do I start? Why would I leave my safe job with a good income to do music?’

Priya Ragu | Soho House
Priya Ragu | Soho House

Until 2017, Ragu was a desk body, up at 5.30am to hawk plane parts as a technical purchaser for Swiss Air Lines. It was a paycheque ‘but it wasn’t a passion. It was like, “OK, what do you need, a wing? OK, let me search for a wing”.’ So, she took a six-month sabbatical and moved to New York, where she knew no one, and crashed in the apartment of her friend, the American rapper Oddisee, while he was on tour. She wrote 10 tracks. There’s the hypnotic ‘Good Love 2.0’, which nabbed remixes from the likes of Honey Dijon and Little Dragon, and the smash hit ‘Chicken Lemon Rice’, the kind of earworm you don’t want to ever wriggle free from your brain. There’s also ‘Lockdown’, featuring exuberant marimbas over a banging beat while Ragu calls for her COVID-era bae to stay the night. She made a mixtape and set it free. ‘I just felt that I had this talent, and I needed to give the talent space and time.’ 

Priya Ragu | Soho House

It helps when you have musical wunderkind producer Japhna Gold for a brother. Over Skype – Ragu in New York, Gold in Switzerland – the pair began working on music together, like a Swiss-Tamil Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell. She was snapped up by Warner Records. But ‘I didn’t grow up receiving a lot of praise,’ she says. Her parents were loving, but conservative and strict: job first, talent as an occasional indulgence. A postmaster and a pharmacy assistant, they’d fled Jaffna in Sri Lanka just before the civil war to Germany, and raised her in Switzerland. ‘There’s a lot of trauma. Even if we asked about the war, it would always be a very short story.’ 

Priya Ragu | Soho House
Priya Ragu | Soho House

Out of the house, done chatting at school with friends in Swiss-German, she’d plug into Lauryn Hill, Musiq Soulchild, Brandy, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder. Home life was steeped in Tamil culture: ‘Tamil speaking, Tamil cooking, Tamil everything’, with PB Srinivas, the 1960s Tamil icon, blasting out on vinyl, family jam sessions with mum’s home-cooked fried chicken or spicy beef, and all the uncles swigging Hennessy. Her dad, a singer and amateur tabla player, even had his own band with older brother Japhna. But aged 16, on ‘the worst day of my life’, Ragu was due to sing an Alicia Keys song at a show that her brother was playing with his rap group, until her father read about it in her diary (yes, really) and forbade her from performing. ‘If I ask him today why he did it, he says he can’t remember,’ she sighs. ‘It’s funny. He’s very protective. Very proud, but very cautious.’ 

Priya Ragu | Soho House
Priya Ragu | Soho House

She sang secretly on weekends and didn’t tell her parents when she quit her job to go pro. ‘I asked Japhna today, did I ever tell you that I wanted to become a musician or a singer. And he was like, never. He didn’t know that side of me.’ Her brother was the first child in the entire Swiss family, and a musical prodigy. ‘I was always the shadow. It was like, yes, Priya, she sings. But Japhna, he’s like a star.’ But her brother’s dedication inspired her to try her arm – and he began to push her, too. ‘Music gave him purpose and hope. And he held on to that. And because he never gave up I felt, well, maybe it’s not too late for me to also try.’ And her dad came round. ‘He has an amazing ear. If I don’t sing something right, he points it out and I’m like, “oh sh*t, you’re right”. It’s so great to be able to connect with Dad on that level. Before, we didn’t have things to talk about. Like, what do you talk about with your father?’ 

Priya Ragu | Soho House

‘I think I am a child of God. That I’m here to serve a bigger purpose. And that this music is bigger than me’

Success still doesn’t feel real. ‘I think… I think I am a child of God’, she says. ‘That I’m here to serve a bigger purpose. And that this music is bigger than me. Sometimes I watch videos of my performances and I’m like, damn, who is this person? Who am I? Where does creativity come from? Sometimes I write a song and I’m like, WTF, how did I do that? I believe it’s the source of creativity that flows through you and you’re being used as an instrument.’ Life is a lot smoother. ‘Everything around me changed. I have a bigger team, everything’s organised, there’s a car that comes and picks me up, I sleep more. Before it was, yeah, wherever, I’ll be there, I’ll take the Metro.’ 

Priya Ragu | Soho House
Priya Ragu | Soho House

But starting again in her thirties means she’s older and wiser, and less prone to rash decisions. Savings go into a nice Swiss bank account, say, not splurged on a flash wardrobe and private jets. ‘And also, I’m able to say no. In my twenties, I’d have been trying to please everyone. But now I’m like no. That’s not right. So, we’re not doing that.’ Still, she gets starstruck. The Milan Fashion Week front rows that she was invited to last October were surreal, but she says she had no idea what to say to fellow singer Dev Hynes when she bumped into him. ‘The bit where you get to meet people with extraordinary talent? That’s great. But it’s also awkward when you walk towards them. Wow, what do you talk about? Hey, I love your music. And then? Thanks, I love your sweater.’ 

It’s fine. We move. Life today is a lot of London hotels, and largely lived out of a suitcase. ‘I don’t really have a home,’ she says. But she brightens. ‘Home is a feeling anyway, isn’t it? It’s being comfortable in your body and with who you are. And once you’re comfortable, you can be anywhere in the world and feel like home.

Soho Rising 2022 is supported by renowned British audio brand, Bowers & Wilkins, which has been at the forefront of music creation for over 40 years. Revered by the professionals who know music best, they are uniquely placed to support Soho House in championing the next generation of music talent.

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Priya Ragu | Soho House

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