"Unique" gets thrown around a lot, but Vivek Shraya’s bold, brilliant, new six-song pop-opera, Part-Time Woman, is unlike anything you've probably ever heard before.
Throughout Part-Time Woman, Shraya, an award-winning South Asian-Canadian musician, writer and filmmaker, who came out as a trans woman last year, masterfully interrogates the concept and social construct of "woman," as well as her personal relationship to the word. She writes with humour and vulnerability, presenting complicated and complex issues and experiences in heartfelt, insightful and compassionate ways. Shraya and her producer, James Bunton, pair sing-along choruses against lush arrangements performed by Toronto's Queer Songbook Orchestra — with backing vocals on four songs by Choir Choir Choir — and this presentation is purposefully, powerfully intimate and epic; a concept record ready for the stage.
CBC Music spoke with Shraya over the phone for a track-by-track tour of Part-Time Woman, and an incredible conversation about her experiences as a racialized trans woman, the male gaze and embracing solo songwriting again after a six-year break.
You describe the title, Part-Time Woman, as a question and a critique, which I really love. How did you arrive at that decision?
One of the themes that came up a lot in working on this album, and just in the past year, is this idea of not quite feeling feminine enough or what constitutes "woman." Like, who is allowed to call themselves woman? It’s in my struggle with the word, coming from my own internalized transphobia, and other people’s struggle with not calling me the wrong pronoun, coming from their own transphobia, and where do these two things intersect … I'm trying to figure out what arbitrary measures would allow me to not only be valued and seen as a woman but also to feel internally that I see that word.
This is your return to solo songwriting, the first time in six years. Obviously you've been writing so many other things [The Boy With the Bindi, Even This Page is White, Too Attached’s Bronze]. What does it mean to place your voice within song again?
After my last solo record in 2011, I felt really heartbroken about music. I'd been in the industry at this, for, like, nine years and this sort of feeling like it wasn't going anywhere and I think I really needed to take a break from music and find joy … I remember putting up my last album and thinking, I'm never going to do this again and crying in bed all day.... But for me, music has always been home.
Part-Time Woman track-by-track
"This is the idea of trying to encapsulate what it means to go, in one lifetime, and maybe even sometimes in one day, from faggot to sweetie in the mouth of a man. You know, so much of the gender phobia and homophobia that I faced as a teenager, 99.9 per cent of it was from men. And now after coming out as trans, I've had this exact opposite experience from men who have started calling me sweetie and darling. And I think this is a common experience, unfortunately, for a lot of women. Sometimes it is nice, sometimes it's very tender, but sometimes it is so condescending and demeaning. I'm just, like, 'Hold up, buddy. I don’t need you.' [Laughs] I don’t need you to placate me.
"The hook of the song is, ‘Where was your tender all these years?’ And I'm not saying that the same people who call me sweetie now are the same people who might have called me fag as a teenager, although I think some of them might have, yes. The first half of the album, not to get too theoretical, is very much thinking about the male gaze and what it means to move from someone who clearly makes men uncomfortable enough to be violent to the extreme opposite where now men feel the need to treat me as precious. I could have actually used a little bit more of that as a teenager."
‘I’m Afraid of Men’
"This one kind of speaks for itself [laughs]. ‘Caring what other people think’ — this is an attitude that gets really frowned upon when you're human, you're not supposed to care what people think. But how people think translates to how they treat you and often how people treat you if you are in a trans body, a queer body, a racialized body, a feminine body, translates to violence.
"For me, this song is me exploring how my confidence and my sense of self is actually quite intact when I'm at home. ‘In my house, in my house/ don't even turn the lights on because I shine so bright.’ I feel so great in my bedroom [laughs], but when I get out and I leave my house, I have to engage with and have to be around other people, and then suddenly there's constantly a threat of violence. For me, something that I experienced when I identified as male and queer and now is this uncertain relationship where men will stare. And even in queer spaces this can be translated into cruising. But there's something about it that’s always felt almost violent in that I don't know, coming from men, if it’s affection, if it’s admiration, or if it's violence essentially. The hook of the song is, ‘Are you hitting on me are you going to hit me?’ The song is also trying to speak to sexual desire and sometimes those lines for, certainly a trans girl, can intersect with violence and how terrifying that is."
"The original concept of the album when I first started talking to James [Bunton, the producer] about it was, what if I revisited my old catalogue? Tori Amos has done this and I’m a big Tori Amos fan, and she re-recorded a lot of her songs, hits and unknown, but with an orchestra. And so when this idea of working with [the Queer Songbook] Orchestra came about, it was like, what if I did something similar? James was, like, ‘A: are you still attached to the things and are you connected to the things that you said 10 years ago or six years ago, or, are you being a little bit lazy?’ [Laughs]
"Those are good questions to ask and that's why I love working with him because he really pushes me, but I think eventually what I realized was, yeah, he was right and it was really exciting to challenge myself to write about things that I connect to now and things I want to say now in this particular moment. ‘Part-Time Woman,’ when I wrote that song, I was like, OK this is the story of the album. And it was writing that song that gave me the confidence that that was going to be the main thread of the album."
"Now the second half of the album moves more into speaking to other girls. I'm done with addressing men and talking to men and navigating that. Now we’re moving into conversations with women, which I think, in some ways, end up being equally fraught if not more fraught.
"Hari Nef is this beautiful trans model and actress who I had sort of become obsessed with, following on Instagram, and just thinking a lot about her life and what that would mean to be in her shoes. Again this is kind of a universal experience that social media sometimes imposes on us where we start projecting onto other people what their lives might be and certainly how perfect they are, and then we feel an envy. We aspire for that. And so I think that having two conversations — one with another trans girl and we were talking about a different trans woman — and she said to me, ‘That’s what it means to be a girl though. Being a girl means always wanting to be a different girl and always feeling like you don't measure up.’
"That's where this line is, ‘Is the legacy of being a girl wanting to be heard, wanting to be her?’ That's where the songs start. And then I had a different conversation with another woman where I was talking to her about Hari and how I have this feeling of wanting to be her. She said to me, ‘I wonder who she wants to be?’ And there was something about that that really hit me, this idea that it's a cycle. That we, again, are constantly told, especially as women, we’re told, ‘Be yourself!’ but simultaneously the entire commercial structure is built upon marketing to women and founded on ensuring that women feel as bad about themselves as possible to keep the capitalist economy running."
"Keeping with this conversation with other women, for me, personally, some of the greatest tension I’ve had has been with other brown girls. So it's this weird thing where you know on one hand we're part of this community together and I love brown women so much, and I certainly have so much admiration for brown women, but I think that there are also ways that brown girls can be really mean to each other.
"Lateral violence is very common in marginalized communities. I wanted to create space for that where it was like, ‘Don't hide your beauty and don't hide your hairy and don't be hard on me.’ Or, ‘Don't hide your ambition/ I'm not your competition/ don't be hard on me.’ It’s a love song to other brown girls but also trying to acknowledge that we don't have to be mean to each other.... But we have to name it. And I have those tendencies, too. When I see other brown girls achieving certain things that I want to achieve, it’s really hard not to feel that pinch inside. I’m also part of that system and thinking about that as well."
‘Girl, It's Your Time’
"I released it originally on my 35th birthday and it was sort of like my coming-out song. Even though we had decided not to revisit old songs on this album, this song really connected to everything that I was saying. It is celebratory. The album starts with addressing men and then the second half is addressing women, so this last song is the self-gaze or me speaking to myself. It encapsulates a lot of the themes on the album. It has that celebratory aspect, like, ‘Girl, it’s your time,’ but at the same time, the bridge is, ‘Girl, it’s your life but it's not your world/ whenever you're afraid/ don't forget you're my girl.’ Acknowledging that things aren't perfect. I remember when Beyonce’s ‘Run the World’ came out and people were so angry, like, ‘Girls don't want the world, that's inaccurate!’ I remember rolling my eyes because, yes, what we need for pop music is more music that tells women that they don't run the world.
"So, there's something ‘Girl, It’s Your Time,’ that is certainly very idealistic right. I certainly don't think, genuinely, that it's the time for trans women. But I think it's trying to create that sense of hope. It's also a really personal song, when I don’t feel really great, or when I’ve had a really crappy day, it's the kind of song that I can sing to myself and it grounds me."
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner
Part-Time Woman will be released June 9. Pre-order it here.