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How did your upbringing spark your love of music?
I was a bit of a late bloomer. My sister and I first discovered Pop music on a road trip where family friends exposed us to music like “Low” by T Pain and “Gimme More” by Britney Spears. We came home and immediately went through Britney's discography and that was the spark that started it all for me. Once I started exploring music, I discovered that music created by women made me feel ways that were indescribable; I would feel powerful and in touch with my femininity. I fell in love with the way women artists told their stories in beautiful mediums and through lyrics and melody. This inspired me to start expressing my emotions through singing and songwriting.
What is the inspiration behind your single "From Me To Yours"?
Christmas is my favourite time of year, and the magic of holiday music would always get me in a cheerful spirit. The lights, the snow, and the fireplace glow makes the holidays the most romantic time of the year. It makes sense now that my debut single is a Christmas tune. When writing this song, I was thinking about the last day before the winter break, and making a gift for your sweetheart-- something for them to remember you by until the next year.
I wrote the song last year during the lockdown. I was working on another track when the beginning of this song came through to me. Immediately, I knew it had a Christmas feel. I get so excited when melodies come to me, I can’t even make it to my voice memos app to record it. I just record a video of it as quickly as I can because I'm scared the inspiration will pass. Later, I sat at my piano and started chopping away at it until I figured out the rest of the song. I wanted to make a track to capture the romance of Christmas and so I wrote ‘From Me To Yours (This Christmas)’: a dreamy, nostalgic, sultry Christmas song.
You mentioned that your music “represents the perspective of Toronto women and how they navigate through their love lives.” - what does this mean?
Toronto is known for having the most beautiful, intelligent, classy women, and sometimes balancing one’s aspirations with love can be challenging. Through talking with my friends, it’s clear that there is a gap between what many Toronto women strive for in relationships and what is offered to them. Despite the aspirations they may have for empowering and transformative kinds of love, there is a culture evident in the city in which young women are conditioned to confuse control for love. I tried to represent the realities of complicated relationships in Toronto in my earlier releases. To offer an escapism from this bleakness, I wanted to create music that represented an aspirational interpretation of love that will provide a break from the cold, brutal winters and dating scenes of Toronto this Christmas season.
Now that you've graduated from Industrial Engineering at U of T - do you plan to pursue a career down that path or are you trying to focus more on music moving forward?
To be honest, I don’t know. I had wonderful experiences in the field of engineering and it is my secondary skill set. However, I've always felt like there was something more for me than what engineering can offer. I just hope to give my all and be happy in whatever path I go down.
Which musicians have influenced you and why?
Growing up, most of my western vocal training was done using Carrie Underwood’s music and vocal technique. In addition, Lana Del Rey helped me realize that you can write and sing about everything and anything: women don't have to be perfect or strong all of the time. Women can be broken, depressed, submissive, flawed, wild and still deserve not to feel less than.
Finally, M.S. Subbulaskhmi, a carnatic legend, was a huge influence on me during my carnatic training. Her ability to use vocal embellishments with ease has always mesmerized me.
What’s a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3 years and what did you learn from it?
I was unhappy with the position I was in within the constant “grind” culture which enforces us to always be producing. I’ve learned the importance of reflection in the past few years. If someone is frustrated or unsatisfied, instead of continuously overworking and expecting change, they should stop and re-assess and practice self-reflection. This is what has changed the trajectory of my life for the better.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Making music, hopefully. Getting better at my craft. Dreaming up more melodies. And exploring myself as I grow with new experiences.
How have your family and friends supported you through your journey to pursue music?
I initially didn't want to go to university, but my parents really wanted me to get a degree. I understood their hesitation in my desire to pursue music. For them, it's something extremely different, unknown, and scary, so I appreciate the support they provide. We kind of met each other halfway in that sense-- I got my degree and they gave me their blessing.
My friends help me with everything: it really takes a village to empower me on this journey. Luckily, I have really talented friends who help me with videos, write ups, release plans, ideas, photos-- everything. As an independent artist, they are my secret team without whom I wouldn't be able to do half of what I'm doing. But above all, they are a constant source of support that never lets me down and believes in me more than I believe in myself. I feel less alone doing this with them by my side.
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What do you do outside of work for fun?
Not much. Writing and singing music is my elixir. Typically, I consider myself to be a homebody. I enjoy simple things, like sharing open-hearted conversations and good food with my friends. But you can show me a good milkshake spot, and I’ll meet you there.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
To my family and friends I’d like to be remembered as a kind and honest person who lived life true to herself. As a person who embraced challenges and persevered regardless of the situation. In the coming years I hope to be remembered as a strong woman with a rebellious streak -- well, I’m working on the rebellious part.
What do you think you would tell 14-year Yalene looking back?
Life is hard and you have to be stronger than you think you can be. Freedom and happiness aren’t handed to you-- you have to fight for both. Keep your heart safe and spirit dangerous.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
True to my form, one of my favourite books is ‘All About Love: New Visions’ by Bell Hooks. An imperative lesson from this book is the importance of embracing singlehood over settling in relationships. Taking the time to understand what real love looks like and how to protect your energy is essential to navigating healthy relationships.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
Personally, an important pillar to life is knowing that whatever you are scared of, go for it-- head in that direction. Your fear is the worst enemy of your happiness and potential. In my experience, the most rewarding and beautiful things lie where you are required to expand your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of the unknown.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I believe changing the world starts from home. My family currently contributes to charities in Eelam, which I would continue to support. Ideally I would like to support families of those who have been disappeared by the Sri Lankan state, and the families of Eelam Tamil veterans and Maaveerars. In my personal life, I would pay off my parents' mortgage and all my friends’ and family’s student loans. On that note, supporting young people and making education accessible is important to me. Removing the student loan debt from as many students as possible would help empower young people to push the change that is necessary for the world.
How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and professionally?
The Tamil community in Toronto has helped me foster and grow my relationship with my culture in a very organic way. We have a very large Tamil network here-- in temples, restaurants, book stores-- the visibility of Tamil people in Toronto is abundantly clear. Outside of India, Toronto is one of the best cities to help young carnatic musicians cultivate their talents. Throughout my years in carnatic training, I had many opportunities to perform in Toronto and be a part of a great artistic community.
The challenge of balancing two cultures as a Tamil woman from Toronto has definitely made me stronger and has forced me to practice self-awareness. Being cognizant of yourself as an artist is an essential trait as you try to define your sound and establish what your music stands for. Some in the Tamil community have an objective definition of the right way to live life. The friction between my aspirations for my life and the unsolicited expectations projected onto me have made me stand up for myself in more vigorous ways-- which in turn have made me a more fearless artist.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Kool, a seafood soup originated in Eelam, is definitely my favourite Tamil meal. Kool paired with roast paan on a cold, winter day or on the beach in the summer is the perfect combo. Oh, and it has to be spicy.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
This is an impossible question, but since you’re making me choose, I would have to say Thenali. My sister and I would watch this film all the time as kids and now I associate this movie with laughter and nostalgia.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
What I value most about Tamil culture is the history, the art, and the beauty of the language. The culture has made me who I am in terms of how I present myself to the world and my behaviour. I carry Tamil etiquette into every room I step in. My interpretation of Tamil culture has changed as I’ve grown as a woman from what has been fed to me into what I’ve learned and gathered for myself. I believe that a person’s relationship with their culture is unique-- there is no one way to be Tamil. I love to see everyone’s personal interpretations of their cultures on social media and the power they exude when they share this sacred connection. I cannot wait to share Tamil culture with future generations.
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