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Raveena conor cunningham
Photography Conor Cunningham

Welcome to Raveena’s desi-futurist utopia

The genre-bending musician opens up about her new album, the power of heartbreak, and the ‘lazy and reductive’ way her art has been categorised

“It’s so reductive, the way I’m placed in the music industry. Even in certain playlists, like ‘Listen to these South Asian artists’, [as if] all of us from the diaspora who make wildly different music are underneath one umbrella,” says Indian-American artist Raveena Aurora. 

With her day just dawning in California, she’s speaking from her home in Los Angeles, discussing how her upcoming album, Asha’s Awakening can hopefully separate her from the genres previously associated with her music. Skipping through disco, rock, pop while borrowing elements from R&B, jazz and soul, she shows off a looser and more pensive sound, skating confidently between genres without sounding disjointed. When Raveena sees how her music is described in publications – especially when being compared to other South Asian emerging pop stars, like Joy Crookes and Priya Ragu – she admits to finding it “really lazy and reductive. All three of us have such distinct sounds,” she quips. “It’s funny how we’re described in the same way and it’s all lumped into one thing.” 

Known for creating cinematic worlds through vibrant colour schemes, inventive cinematography and dreamlike romanticism, Raveena is helping pioneer a new wave of desi-futurism through her work. This is exemplified on Asha’s Awakening: from her use of CGI visuals and psychedelic references to the vibrant, multicoloured hues that accompany her traditional South Asian jewellery and attire. Ultimately, it’s all underpinned by a lyricism that imagines a future free of social and cultural taboo – one where people are brought together, no matter one caste, class or creed – reinforcing a desi-futuristic utopia with Raveena as our very own spirit guide.

Her journey over the past few years, from coming out as bisexual to openly celebrating her Punjabi culture while claiming pop stardom, is rarely seen among South Asian mainstream artists. She boastfully prides herself on every facet of her identity, while breaking down barriers for those who will inevitably follow. Her unapologetic visibility has mirrored that of a new generation of South Asians who want ownership of their narrative again.

“People just don’t know how to place [my sound] yet, especially with this new album,” she says. “Desi-futurism is a genre that South Asian underground artists are developing. It’s about creating this beautiful framework and fabric and having all of us feel like we’re part of something together. We have a more defined sound and look and culture than we even think, but we’re all so scattered.” 

Across 15 tracks on Asha's Awakening, Raveena has created an album rooted in intention and self-belief as she amalgamates traditional South Asian influences with pop inflexions, noticeably straying away from the R&B-adjacent sounds of her early catalogue. Singing in Hindi, Punjabi and English, her voice is delicate throughout, hovering above the music, adding powerful brushstrokes to a dynamic canvas. The result makes for an album fit for intimacy: arms wrapped around a lover, music blaring from a sound system or by yourself, headphones on, allowing Raveena to guide you on a journey of grounding and empowerment.

Desi-futurism is a genre that South Asian underground artists are developing. It’s about creating this beautiful framework and fabric and having all of us feel like we’re part of something together” – Raveena

The album was inspired by an experience Raveena had in 2017, when she visited New York’s Rubin Museum on a psychedelic acid trip. While there, she invented a space princess, Asha, who “lives for thousands of years”. The record recounts the rise and fall of this alter-ego, who finds herself low on confidence before assuredly stepping forward into a new, more accepting self. “She goes through so many trials and tribulations,” Raveena explains, “and has to learn to meditate and harness her alien superpowers to live through it.” Featuring the likes of Vince Staples and legendary disco singer Asha Puthli, the project becomes softer and more contemplative during its runtime, ending on a 15-minute guided meditation.

“I wanted to make an album that was equally colourful and treacherous and varied in its journey,” she says. “In a day, I can go through so many different emotions. Spending a lot of time in nature and learning to tap into my breath and my centre, I was guided by God, connecting to all this energy that my ancestry has harnessed for me. I was just tapping into that.” 

On Asha’s Awakening, Raveena creates a utopia where people can be their whole selves: one where religion can sit alongside other parts of identity that their traditional culture may not deem permissible.  In Raveena’s case, this is Sikhism and queerness. “[The album] is almost like a thesis,” she says. “It’s everything I wanted to study in terms of the intersections of the east and west, and all the different points that they meet musically.”

Despite signing to Warner Records, a major label, she was allowed “complete and utter creative control”, which gave her bigger budgets and more time to realise her vision. “My art is very loud and imaginative,” she says. “I have very big visions and that has taken me to a bunch of places I didn’t expect.”

The accompanying visuals for the release thus far have been arresting in both their complexity and their beauty. Album opener “Rush” delves into her Bollywood inspirations like actresses Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai, paying tribute to cinematic movies like Devdas and Pakeezah. It’s “Secret”, though, featuring Californian rapper Vince Staples, that reveals the ways in which Raveena follows her intuition and goes to immense lengths for her art.

“I went on a vacation with some friends and they had an aerial silk rig in the middle of the living room,” she says. “I really enjoyed it and ran with it. I sprained my ankle the first time that I took the class, so that kept me off it for a month but that made me want to do it even more because I was determined to get back.” The eventual performance which sees her deftly twist and turn, contorting her body into different shapes, was the result of four months of training. She also trained for two years in Bollywood dancing to perform her routine for both visuals.

My art is very loud and imaginative. I have very big visions and that has taken me to a bunch of places I didn’t expect”

There’s no doubt that Raveena’s heritage is crucial to her self-determination. In the visuals she has uploaded to social media, and in her lyrics, she references her family, who are survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms which took place in India after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. After the genocide in which her maternal uncle was killed and her family business burned down, Raveena’s family immigrated to America. Born in Massachusetts, she grew up in Queens listening to unique and influential women such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sade. Inspired by the voices and lyricism of these artists, she started writing music from a young age. 

In her early 20s, Raveena worked a full-time job, spending her evenings and weekends creating music, self-funding and directing her own music videos and releases. With her professional and personal partner at the time, Everett Orr, she released her first EP, Shanti in 2017 exploring themes of self-love and healing. 2019’s Lucid followed, garnering critical acclaim.

Raveena has always found songwriting to be a form of catharsis, especially in exorcising her hardships, whether it’s mental health struggles, abortions or heartbreak. “The Indian community emphasises not sharing [hard things],” she admits. “They want to keep everything ‘in the home’. Every time I was told to not speak about something within my community, I was like ‘wait no, I have to speak about it.’ Writing has always been an act of resistance for me, whether it was writing about being depressed or feeling small. That act has just become public over time.” Through sharing her whole self so fully, Raveena has sparked important conversations on social media, fostering a community of like-minded fans who actively engage and celebrate her ability to speak to tough topics. 

When it came to her sound, though, she found that she was walking down a path by herself. Her early music borrowed heavily from R&B and pop in the early years of her trying to establish her voice. “We don’t have many contemporary examples of the meaning of East and West,” she admits. “It’s almost like I had to learn that process of how to make something familiar first and then break it on its head.” Working with Orr was crucial in helping shape her initial sound, but the relationship ended while creating Asha’s Awakening

“It was so hard because we explored the genesis of this album together and all those first ideas,” she recalls. “It was such a true collaboration between the both of us and it was so devastating, but it was also part of my journey of becoming this more confident and internally aligned creator, because when you do work so closely with someone you can start to rely on each other’s intuition a lot. This album was about me learning to rely on my intuition. I still have so much respect and love for him.” Raveena even left her hometown New York City because she found that “every block I walked down in New York, I realised, I can’t be in this place that just feels like a gallery of all my memories.” 

Through the heartbreak, Raveena sought peace and tranquillity through an inward journey, much like the project’s protagonist, Asha. The album sounds like the closing of a chapter for the 27-year-old artist. From painting the struggles of adolescence and trauma in her previous work Lucid, to this latest album, which offers a sense of empowerment. The first half from “Rush” through to “Circuit Board” leans towards infectious upbeat pop anthems; her soft voice adding light touches to the scenery. “Kathy Left 4 Kathmandu” possesses wry lyrics like, “I can open up your third eye”, while “Magic” is reminiscent of early 00s pop. “Kismet“ is a club-ready memorable tune, and “Mystery” an ode to 70s psychedelic rock. 

“I wanted to make an album that was joyful,” she says. “On ‘Lucid’, it was all about healing through empathy, through trying to find that calm and create this very soft blanket around me because I was grappling with a lot of pain. I moved through that pain and this confident, sensual and excited person arose. I wanted to make music that sounded like that personal awakening and all the unadulterated joy that comes with that.”

Writing has always been an act of resistance for me, whether it was writing about being depressed or feeling small. That act has just become public over time”

The album’s two main features – Vince Staples and Asha Puthli – reflect that joy. “I had honestly been manifesting that when I first made that song,” she says of her collaboration with Staples. With Puthli, it was an organic meeting through NPR journalist Sidney Madden who had interviewed the two for an article on Raveena and put them in touch. “That was crazy,” she admits. “The album was named Asha’s Awakening, even before she came into the picture. I called Asha and I was like, ‘I really want to work with you, you’re my idol.’ We had an hour-long talk on the phone and it just felt like she was my fairy godmother.”

After the whimsical intermission of “The Internet Is Like Eating Plastic”, the second half of the album enters a more subdued state, one which allows Raveena to discuss heartbreak on the ballad “Love Overgrown” before settling into a sense of acceptance singing, “I don’t need your apology / I don’t need any waterfall / I don’t need midnight beg and call”. “I made those introspective and softer moments as a passing on of spiritual tools,” she says. “I want it to be a utility: if people need to calm down and recenter their breath. The most beautiful thing I can offer [is] an opportunity to do that through music, because so many people don’t even know how to meditate but people know how to listen to music.” 

Raveena luxuriates in her capacity for sensitivity. Her candour and resilience are essential to her oeuvre, which sees her lace her vulnerability into her art, the two twirling in tandem. Her determination to invite audiences into her fullest self has been a central factor in her rise over the past few years but it’s on Asha’s Awakening that it really takes shape as her artistic ethos, an imprint she intends to leave behind.

“I’m not gonna say it wasn’t challenging,” she says. “I had to introduce people to concepts they were very unfamiliar with and that [doesn’t] necessarily have a clear trajectory within the music space. But I think it’s worth it because all I want to do as an artist is leave a legacy that both makes space for other artists, but also is very singular.”

Styling Reva Bhatt, hair Preston Wada, make-up Amrita Mehta, styling assistant Sarikka Raman, hair assistant Laura Dudley, lighting Kenneth Castro