To watch any of the music videos Priya Ragu has released over the past year is to witness a preternatural pop talent arrive fully formed. There’s her first, “Good Love 2.0,” which landed on blogs and music sites with its wonky, effervescent synths and bouncy bassline seemingly out of nowhere last October. Her follow-up, “Chicken Lemon Rice”—a reference to a classic South Indian dish served up as a winking nod to her heritage—leans into experimental R&B, its video starring Ragu and her backing dancers in kaleidoscopic riffs on streetwear draped with traditional pooja garlands and colorful pom-poms. Then, there’s her most recent single, “Lockdown,” featuring joyous marimbas over a thumping beat while Ragu croons for her COVID-era lover to stay the night, throwing shapes in a playfully oversized white suit.
It’s strange to see such a confident and cohesive presence, both sonically and visually, establish itself on the music scene so quickly. Stranger still to know that, as recently as last summer, the 35-year-old Ragu could be found working an office job in Switzerland. “It took a lot of time, because becoming a musician or a singer didn’t seem realistic,” Ragu says over Zoom from St. Gallen, the city she grew up in after her Tamil parents were forced to flee Sri Lanka during the civil war of the 1970s. “I just thought, that isn’t possible here in Switzerland—you never hear about anyone breaking out internationally. I’m making nu-soul, R&B music, and I’m a brown-skinned woman. Where is my place here?”
Despite the obstacles that Ragu had to overcome to find her footing in the industry, music is something that has defined her journey from the very beginning. “It started when I was seven years old,” she continues. “My father picked out the violin for me, and I remember going back for my second lesson and being able to play a song, and my teacher being super surprised, even though it sounded like this”—Ragu erupts into high-pitched, screechy wails before laughing. “But I still hit the notes, you know? I was a super average kid, and for once, I found something I was good at.”
Part of Ragu’s reluctance to fully embrace her calling as a musician came from the cultural strictures of her Tamil upbringing. She may have been surrounded by music from youth—her first live performances were when she was 10 years old and part of a family band with her father and brother (who played the tabla and keyboard respectively), before the group swelled to include aunties and uncles and became a mainstay of family weddings—but the idea of stepping into the spotlight herself wasn’t always encouraged.