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On 'Asha's Awakening,' Raveena finds clarity in the cosmos

Raveena's new album, <em>Asha's Awakening</em>, is a thrilling foray into a lusher, more effervescent sound.
Furmaan Ahmed
/
Courtesy of the artist
Raveena's new album, Asha's Awakening, is a thrilling foray into a lusher, more effervescent sound.

Raveena's sumptuous R&B has always soothed like a long hug from your mother. The songs on her first few projects — 2019's LUCID, as well as a handful of EPs before and after — were generous offerings: She candidly divulged her hardships as well as the ways she overcame them, turning pain into softly unspooling lullabies of resilience. For listeners battling broken hearts and unhealed trauma, Raveena's music was a hallowed space where femininity was divine, affection and validation flowed like honey and softness was a virtue.

Sometimes, though, Raveena's music was so successful at establishing a cocoon of calmness that it bordered on monotonous. The same imagery — milk and honey, nectar, sunrises, blooming flowers — can only be used to convey growth and tranquility so many times before it begins to feel treacly, the way a weighted blanket can switch from comforting to smothering if you use it for too long.

It's thrilling, then, to hear her embrace a lusher, more effervescent sound on her new album, Asha's Awakening. Here, Raveena shifts from telling her own story to writing from the perspective of Asha, a "Punjabi space princess" who travels through time and space to learn "highly advanced spiritual magic" from aliens. According to a post Raveena made on Instagram, when Asha returns to Earth after 2,000 years, she "attracts an obsessive cult following...which leads to her eventual demise."

The lyrics on Asha's Awakening don't explicitly detail Asha's intergalactic travels, but the album generally follows a narrative arc from ecstasy to dreamy contemplation. What's more, the process of writing as a new character completely transforms Raveena's outlook. In the first half of the record, she moves away from sharing the details of her life, singing with a newfound confidence and imaginative wonder matched by the album's technicolor tapestry of Bollywood instrumentation, 2000s R&B, rock and disco. If her earlier songs were soulful diary entries, these new ones are more like postcards sent with a wink, electrifying dispatches from psychedelic drug experiences, vacations on the moon and encounters with mystical women. When she returns to Earth in the more contemplative and personal latter half of the record, she does so with newfound clarity and depth, as if her time away allowed her the distance she needed to see herself clearly.

By making Asha a Punjabi princess specifically, Raveena is able to embody her alter ego while also exploring her own South Asian American identity more ambitiously and deeply than ever before. Throughout the album, she uses South Asian instrumentation to signal Asha's self-assuredness and wisdom.The shimmer of the kanjira — an Indian drum similar to the tambourine — embodies Asha's radiance on lead single on "Rush." "Kathy Left 4 Kathmandu '' is a sunny funk track that satirizes white hippies' fetishization of India. Raveena builds the song around a slippery bassline that sounds plucked from a 1980s Bollywood soundtrack like Bappi Lahiri's Disco Dancer. It's a subtle flex of her knowledge of the culture Kathy wishes she could claim as her own.

Raveena also sings in Hindi for the first time on Asha's Awakening. There's a specific familiarity to the brevity and simplicity of the language she uses. She croons the words "listen to me" on "Secret," and implores a lover to "look me in the eyes" on "Asha's Kiss." On "Kismet" she literally counts to 10 with childish glee. Like many children of immigrants, I have lost my ability to understand complex Hindi vocabulary but still find comfort in hearing the sounds and more easily discernible phrases like the ones Raveena uses on the album. These moments feel like tiny gifts to South Asian American listeners who, like me, have a fragmented relationship to the language.

The most overarching influence on the album is Indian jazz and disco singer Asha Puthli, who is featured on "Asha's Kiss," a shimmering harp and bansuri flute track that equates the pleasure found in a lover's eyes with all the wonders of the heavens. After moving to the US from India in 1969, Puthli worked with saxophonist Ornette Coleman on his album Science Fiction, and went on to release 10 albums that expertly fused disco and jazz with a breathy style of singing that could be attributed to her Indian classical music training.

You can hear her impact in Raveena's yelped and sighed vocals, and also in the broader motifs of the album. Puthli's music was transmitted into space in 2009 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, and she self identifies as a "space cadet": someone who adopts a persona of starry-eyed camp while also thinking deeply about the mysteries of the universe. Raveena and Puthli share this outlook: They treat outer space as a realm of escape and fantasy. It's no coincidence that two women of Indian descent in America's music industry, who likely found themselves fighting to belong in murky spaces between culture and continent, may be drawn to space's frontier, an endless expanse not dissimilar from the open land that Mitski and Solange recently explored as cowboys—it's a place where they can try on whatever personas they want.

In the latter half of the album, when the camp and glitz begin to slip away, momentary glimpses into Raveena's personal life stand out. On spoken interlude "The Internet Is Like Eating Plastic," Raveena shares quiet, specific observations whose tone feels more aligned with personal observation than with the persona she created. They alternate between overwrought — "The internet has me nostalgic for...e-a-r-t-h"— and sweet, but random — "Gabby has the most beautiful smile/ she is becoming one of my best friends." Positioned next to such playful, deliberately aloof music, the sentiments on this track feel heavy handed and out of place. But "Time Flies," a deeply personal song written about her abortion and the way it marked her transition into adulthood, is a true revelation. The whirring production found almost everywhere else is stripped back so Raveena sings over slight synth flourishes and a backbone of tabla that thuds like feet on wet earth in your childhood backyard. When she sings, "I was just a baby, I can't believe I was a mother / Even if it was for a moment," you travel through the years of her young adulthood with her, feeling all her yearning and the wisdom she's garnered along the way. It's a moment of quiet rumination and self soothing that will move you to tears.

This album feels a bit like a Saturn return, or spiritual rebirth, for Raveena. Asha shimmers through time and space, charming lovers, sleeping all day and swimming in warm water at will. The character provides an outlet for imagination and freedom. Most pivotally, though, she serves as a tool for Raveena to temporarily get distance from herself, and to return to Earth clear-headed. When, at the end of the album, Raveena grapples with her loneliness, her heartache and her longing, she sings with resolve. Rather than being trapped by her emotions, she sounds like someone who has the wisdom and strength to move through them. Healing is a life-long process, one Raveena has always been deeply invested in. On Asha's Awakening, she sounds nearly there.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vrinda Jagota