Like a snake, sometimes we need to shed the old skin to make room for the new. For Rhea Raj, short-term success has never been the goal, but longevity is. The Indian and Sri-Lankan-American singer has been perfecting her craft since childhood, but now, at age 21, she’s stepping into new territory. She first gained attention through videos she made online as a teenager, which got her mainstream attention from artists like Bebe Rexha and major media sites like MTV. Since then, she’s trained in songwriting, producing, dancing, and more to become the kind of pop phenom she once admired.
While juggling university work, Rhea recently moved from New York to LA to further cement her place as a full-time creative, working hard to earn her degree while advocating for her career.
With a lack of South Asian pop stars in Western music for her to look up to, she rightfully wants to create her own lane, adding her own culture into the mix of a constantly expanding global music space. Her new single “Venom,” a dark, sexy, and sultry anthem perfectly timed with the spooky season, is dropping on Oct. 22. Ahead of the release, I sat down with Rhea via Zoom from her place in LA to talk about South Asian representation, producing and writing her own music, “Venom,” and the grind that got her to where she is today.
First off, do you consider yourself a pop artist?
Yeah, I’d say pop. I do a lot of things, but I would say pop overall because I think that opens up the door to do different things. All genres. I grew up listening to mostly rock and radio Top 40 pop music, but I also grew up listening to a lot of Indian and Arabic music in the 2000s, there was so much of those sounds and influences in Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé’s music, like Destiny’s Child. You heard so many of those Arabic kinds of melodies and rhythms, and yeah I think pop is such a global thing.
Do you think your Indian and Sri Lankan heritage sets you apart or contributes to your artistry?
For sure, I just think there’s very little to no representation in entertainment. Every day I find a new Indian/South Asian artist on, like, TikTok or wherever, and I’m like, oh my gosh, yes! It’s just so much about community and the more South Asian artists there are, it’s just exciting to see.
I know what you mean. It’s like you see one person that looks like you and you’re automatically more inspired.
Absolutely, it’s just that it makes you feel so much pressure, like this is such a thing in the South Asian community, like who’s gonna be the first this or that, it’s like sick. That’s not how it works, there can be a lot of us.
Tell me more about your publishing deal.
So basically, I’m an artist, I write and produce all of my stuff, but I also write and produce for other artists. So, I signed with this team last year, it’s a couple, a husband and wife, the husband’s a songwriter named J Kash, and his wife, Jaime Hindlin, runs this publishing company that I’m signed to and they’re the production and publishing house for Justin Bieber’s top hits and Charlie Puth and Maroon 5, and just being around people that are making iconic pop songs is such an inspiring group of people to surround yourself with. Yeah, it’s been amazing.
So how did you connect with them?
I actually met J Kash the songwriter at NYU. When I was a freshman, he came to speak in my music business class, and I ended up playing a demo in class, and he was just like, yeah this is sick, and I didn’t think anything. And then I walked out, and he came up to me after class and we were talking for a while, and he was like when is the soonest you can come out to LA? I was like, literally whenever, and I ended up flying out that weekend, and I met his whole team, and it was two years of working together, flying back and forth from New York to LA, like once a month pretty much for two years. And then during the pandemic it was just doing a lot of virtual stuff, but they’re a great team, I had a bunch of really cool sessions that they put me in in the beginning. They’re also just great people, so I feel like I’m in a very homey environment.
The deal I signed is really for songwriting and production, but they’re super supportive of my artist projects too and help with anything they can on that side, but I’m completely independent, I run my own label, which I release everything through, don’t have management so yeah it’s me, and then the publishing, they put me in sessions, I’m working a lot with other writers, producers, artists, but my own projects is just me.
So do you feel like you gain something by working on other people’s music?
I really enjoy it. At the end of the day, nothing gives me fulfillment and excitement like working on my own music does, and I just feel really confident that I have a unique sound and lane and story and just something to represent that’s not already there in pop music, and that’s always my focus, but I do like writing and producing with other people too because I think it just gives me different perspectives, especially in the couple months that I’ve been in LA. I’ve been able to try and go into genres of music, I made rock songs or done some super R&B stuff that before I was always like, I’ve got to stick to my thing. And, I’ve ended up writing some stuff I never thought I would write, and now I’m like, this is me, this is stuff I want to put out now, so definitely just opens your head and creativity up to trying new things.
Have you released a full project yet or just singles?
Just singles. I am planning to put out my first project in 2022, so next summer, but yeah, it’s just been singles for now. I’ve done a lot of collaborations too, but I finally feel like literally in the last couple of months, I have a body of work that actually goes together. There’s a theme there, there’s a story versus just kind of having songs that I put together. For me, if I’m going to put out a project, it has to be a central theme, so finally I feel like that’s there.
How did you learn how to write and produce?
I just kind of taught myself. Songwriting I started when I was 11. I wrote my first song about Harry Potter. I was taking songwriting classes when I was like 10 or 11 for two years. There was a vocal school that I was going to where they taught songwriting. Then, around my 14th or 15th birthday, I asked for Logic, which is the recording software, so I started doing YouTube covers and learning how to record myself, then I made these really weird Bollywood remixes of pop songs, before I knew how to produce, using the Apple loops and stuff. I would take my little camera and have my friends come around Dallas, where I was living at the time, with me and take videos of me on the streets singing and making little music videos. Some of those ended up going viral, getting picked up by MTV super random. There was this one cover I made when I was like 16 of “I Got You” by Bebe Rexha, and I added some Indian tablas to it and that went viral one day randomly. I woke up one day and Bebe Rexha shared it on her Instagram. She posted my cover and tagged me, and then I got an email from MTV a few days later, and they were like, can we feature this on our site, and I was like yes! A couple months later, Glamour magazine featured it, it was like back to back. I was doing YouTube covers for a while, and once I was 16/17 I wanted to do my own thing. I stopped making covers, started writing my own music, trying to produce it.
I feel production wise, being a female producer, there’s not a lot of us, it was kind of a scary thing, and I was intimidated a lot. I finally feel like in the last two years, I’ve been able to feel confident walking into studios and being like, yeah, I’m the producer.
What is a typical day like for you, since you’re in school and doing music?
I have classes at like 6 a.m. because of the time difference, and that’s not fun because I like to sleep at like 1 or 2 a.m. Then, I’ll either work out or go to a dance class. That has to happen every day for me or I get cranky. If I have a session, that can take most of the day or a few hours. On days that I don’t have sessions, I’ll work on my songs at home. And then there’s some days when I’m doing business, creating content for my music, or on my computer all day. For “Venom,” I’ve been spending time sending it out to YouTube channels, and TikTokers and being like, hey, I have a release coming out. That’s super time consuming, because you can’t just copy and paste messages, and I’m doing everything myself, so I want to reach out to people I genuinely want to share my music with or help in some way. It’s a combination of all those things on different days.
What’s the inspiration behind “Venom”?
I wrote this song last summer with my friend Raquel Castro and she’s an amazing writer. We had a Zoom session, and I had this beat from my friend R8, who’s signed to the same publishing company as me, and I remember listening to it and I fell in love with it. It sounded super dark, a lot of the melodies in the beat, there’s so much I can draw upon. My roots as a South Asian artist, there’s so much room to explore the melodies there. So we wrote this song about a man who is not very faithful, but I was like what’s a fun way we can talk about this that’s really dark and really spicy? I wanted the song to also feel sexy and bad bitch, you know? And we thought about the word venom because of the snake, and a snake to me is super beautiful and elegant. Snakes in India are super symbolic in Hinduism but also just in Indian culture, so as I grew up you revere snakes because they are majestic and beautiful to look at, but when they bite, they bite. There’s no in between. I love the idea of having the snake be the central concept of the song. I’ve always loved snakes, I’m shit scared of bugs, but snakes, I’ve always been super fascinated by them, they’re so enchanting.
I really liked the choreography in the video. Tell me more about that.
I knew I wanted to do a dance video and the lady who did the choreography, her name is Shirlene Quigley, and she’s an incredible choreographer. I’ve taken a lot of classes from her. She was in the music video for “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, she’s danced with Rihanna and Lizzo, and I just loved her energy and was like, “Would you be down to do this with me?” And she loved the song, so we worked on the piece together. Pretty much now the only dance I’m really training in is heels, because that’s how I want to be performing all the time, so we did this stilettos choreography. In the beginning, the very first pose I did in classical Indian dance is the snake pose. And so there’s little elements. I wanted the video to feel fierce, but also have snake imagery in subtle ways. And I wanted it overall to feel scary, like the snake isn’t biting yet, but you’re pushing it to its edge.
Why did you want to do choreography?
Oh my gosh, first off, the Normani music video, I really was like thank God. I miss really great choreography in pop music, and I feel like yeah, there hasn’t been a lot of that in Western pop music for a while. But I grew up and my biggest idols were Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Shakira, pop artists that dance, I mean so many more people but, you know. People who really love dancing and putting on a show. I grew up dancing before I even started music, so I started dancing when I was 2. My mom’s a dance teacher so I was learning from her as soon as I could walk. And I just think like it’s such a beautiful way of expressing and feeling like sounds you know, through your body and that’s just how I connect to music personally like if it can make me dance, even if it’s a ballad, but it makes me move, I’m feeling it and there’s something more there. I’m loving Normani, Lil Nas X, the videos are so insane. Those are pop divas that I really look up to.
Those are literally the same people I’m loving right now. And Doja too.
I love Doja! I saw a video of her on my TikTok right before this and she was performing, I don’t know where, but it was choreography that she was doing and it was just her on stage dancing and singing, and I was like, oh my god. How captivating that she can stand up there alone with no background dancers, dancing by herself, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of that.