When Indian-American singer-songwriter Subhi went to LA to record a new song in March, she’d just begun hearing news about COVID-19. Tasked with improvising a song in the studio, she began offloading her feelings about the rising pandemic. The result is “Wake Me Up,” a meditative, vocoder-enhanced single about coming to terms with a rapidly changing world.
“We were in these dark times where everyone was quarantined and we were going to have to wear masks,” she remembers. “I knew that would close things up for a bit, so that was a song about what was happening around us.”
Even though the chorus — “wake me up, wake me up, wake me now/pull me out from the dark” — may sound like a plea to escape the situation, she also considers it to be a hopeful message, anticipating the process of emerging from the COVID era. “‘Wake Me Up’ is really about how these are dark times, but I also am realizing that I will wake up,” she explains.
This mixture of darkness and hope characterizes the in-progress EP on which “Wake Me Up” will eventually appear. “They aren’t feel-good, happy songs, but they are songs with a silver lining,” she says. “I’d like to believe my goal is to create meaningful songs, but songs that also have hope and shed some light on good stuff happening in the future.”
Subhi’s 2017 debut, Shaitaan Dii, is very different from her recent work, incorporating elements of Indian folk music, American pop, and jazz. It was recorded in collaboration with a jazz band, and on it, you can hear an unlikely combination of scatting and Hindi.
During this phase of her career, Subhi was leading an all-male band, and she remembers dealing with a band member who was bullying her and bossing her around. “He would try to shut me down and discredit me and discredit my songs,” she remembers. “It took me two years to figure out what was going on. [Then] I got the courage to stand up and be like, ‘This is my band, and this is the way I want to do it, and everyone needs to respect everyone.'”
After that, she went through a period where she was reluctant to collaborate with anyone out of fear that the same thing would happen again. Though her combative band member was no longer in her way, she was getting in her own way — which inspired “In My Way,” a slow, synthy single about the effects of hanging on to past hurts. Once she came to that realization, she picked herself back up and collaborated with a variety of producers and other artists, which ultimately became corrective experiences that opened her up again.
She also considers “Wake Me Up,” which was recorded with producer Taylor Sparks, a testament to this transformation. In addition to waking up from the dark times of COVID, the song is about “waking me up as an artist,” she explains. “And really, these collaborations did pull me out of the dark, so it’s really symbolic of what was happening in the outer world and what was happening with me internally.”
Subhi’s path to becoming a musician has been long and winding. After growing up in India and attending high school in the U.S., she went to college for finance and minored in music, then began working on Wall Street by day and covering Indian entertainment as a TV news reporter by night. Through the latter job, she met Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, who was looking for a music intern, and ended up getting the position.
“After that whole project, I realized, ‘Oh, my god, this is what I could see myself doing my whole life — music is it,” she remembers. “So, I usually say it took me three careers to realize music is my true passion.” Her husband lived in Chicago, so for a while, she split her time between there and Mumbai, working on music for Bollywood films. Soon, she realized she wanted to be a full-time artist, so she planted herself in Chicago and forged ties with its jazz scene.
In the past, she’s experienced internal conflict between her Indian and American identities, especially with regard to her music. One of the upcoming songs on her EP, “Better,” is about reconciling these differences and choosing both sides of herself. “I was dealing with this whole conflict of ‘which one do I choose?'” she says. “And now, I’m more settled, it’s kind of resolved — I’m two sides of this coin.” She’s continued to sing in both English and Hindi, and even though her new EP is primarily inspired by American pop, she considers it Indian-influenced simply because it’s inspired by her life.
“Every song on my EP is very personal to me,” she says. “There’s a story behind every song, and everything written in the EP is an observation for my own personal life. Everything is something I have personally experienced. There are a lot of different themes in the EP, and I hope people resonate with it and can take something from it. The EP in general is not happy-go-lucky, but I’d like to believe it’s meaningful, and it’s an EP with hope, where there is a silver living to everything that I’ve written about.”