Indie pop has always been a genre of music that produces lots of popular songs that penetrate the mainstream every year, and the artists behind them enjoy large followings of all kinds of fans. A quick skim through any list of the top indie pop artists reveals another, deeper phenomenon: nearly all of the most popular indie pop artists are white.
Petra is a New York-based singer/songwriter who has always dreamt of being a musician, but never saw artists who looked like her creating the kind of music that she wanted to make. Now, she’s the newest face—and a refreshingly brown one at that—on the indie pop scene, and is busy celebrating the release of her newest single and video, “Dancing Without You.” To talk more about the release, Petra sat down with SPICY to discuss how she found her sound, the heartbreak behind “Dancing Without You,” and her experiences as an up-and-coming woman of color in the music industry.
Take me back to when you first decided to pursue music. Did you always have a musical background growing up? And what led you to want to make a career out of it?
My music journey has been a long one—or at least it kind of feels like it. It all started when I was 2. My big brother would prop me on to the piano bench and press my keys down on the piano in hopes to learn what he was doing. Soon, I began learning classical music; I played both piano and violin. When I was 6, I told my mom that I didn’t want to be my brother—a classical musician—when I grew up. So, she bought me my first guitar, which was a black and white Fender Strat. I played music consistently as a child, and I always loved writing poetry. I entered a bunch of elementary school poetry competitions, and would write in my free time. I combined both of my passions around the age of 12 when I wrote my first song about ending my first friendship. From there, I learned how to produce my own music, converting my tiny walk-in closet into a vocal booth, and made my own mixes. I became homeschooled when I was 12 by my family to help me pursue music full time and also because of bullying within the school system. Growing up in a predominantly white community, fitting in was very difficult for my brother and I. We had very few people that we could relate to, and were always considered outsiders.
And what led you to want to build a career out of it?
So I graduated early from high school, earning my diploma when I was 16. I moved to New York when I graduated, attending The New School where I earned my degree in Politics and Contemporary Music. While I was at school in the village, I was surrounded constantly by music. I met a few musicians in the Jazz program, and decided to form my own band. When I began touring the live music scene, that’s when I felt the urge to turn my hobby into a full-time career. There is an incomparable energy playing on a stage and getting to perform alongside musicians you simply adore.
When you decided you wanted to be an artist, was there a specific style or sound you wanted to go for? Any artists you credit as inspiration?
Absolutely! I was raised on my parent’s tastes and passions. My dad ran a discotheque when he was a teenager in Germany, and both my parents loved disco music such as Abba and Cher. They also raised me on bands like The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, David Bowie, and The Who, just to name a few. I was always drawn to powerful female performers like Stevie Nicks, Cher, Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry. I loved the idea of a female-fronted rock band; something about it seemed so empowering, considering rock is such a male-dominated genre filled with misogyny and discrimination. I also noticed early on there weren’t a lot of female rockers that looked like me. I wanted to find a way to establish a new trend of brown girls playing rock or rock-like music. The idea of being able to be woman of color who can shred motivated me to form my own band later on when I went to college.
What was the process of writing your new single “Dancing Without You”?
In 2016, my family and I experienced the unanticipated passing of my father. He passed away two months after being diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer, and my family and I were completely rattled. My dad was the embodiment of life; he was the most beautiful and kind spirit I’ve ever known. After he died, I felt as though I couldn’t find the energy to carry on anything creative; my music went on the backburner, and it felt wrong to try and pursue my dreams without him by my side. It felt almost unfair to not have my biggest supporter by my side. By an off chance that summer, my band I were offered to tour Japan. We embarked on a 10-day tour that September. This was also the first trip my brother and I went on since my dad’s passing. It was tricky because we both were going through a range of emotions at the time, but still felt the need to be close. Not even a full hour from when we set our bags down in the living room after coming home from the tour, my brother Felix told me he had this melodic idea he’d been dwelling on the trip back. After he played it for me, I had some lyric ideas I thought could go well, inspired by moving on from my dad’s death. That night, we had the song fully fleshed out. Writing “Dancing Without You” reawakened my musical senses and felt as though it was almost a sign from my dad to carry on with the things I loved the most, even though he’s not there.
Tell me about the process of creating the “Dancing Without You” video.
I had the idea of exploring the five stages of grief upon determining “Dancing Without You” to be one of the singles. I had this vision of being surrounded by a vast group of people who were having the time of their lives while going through my own existential crisis. When developing ideas for the video, I was introduced to Carlos Vasquez, a filmmaker in New York City through one of my close friends. I knew he was the person meant to direct my video. At our first meeting, he told me earlier that day he was walking around The Heights trying to scout locations. This is before we even began talking about working together. That struck a chord with me and truly spoke to the seriousness and depth of his work as a filmmaker and director. As we talked, we finished each other’s sentences; I know how corny that sounds, but our ideas bounced off each other constantly, and by the end of our chat, I was set on bringing this to life with him. We decided to follow the storyline of the night after one of my shows; the video follows me as I go on through the night to find solace in being alone and learning that though I may feel alone, I never truly am and my loved ones are always near and dear. The choreographer, Bea Goodwin, is a personal friend of mine. Previously, we worked together on a work my brother wrote about my father as well. Also, we both went through tremendous losses in a short span of one another; she lost her grandmother around the same time my father passed away. Coming from an extensive stage directing background, and also a true personal understanding of the emotional gravity of the work, I wanted to bring her on board to choreograph the video.
Why did you want to center different kinds of bodies—primarily queer and/or POC—in the video?
When casting the video, I wanted to featured people who represented the people that are a part of my everyday life; so, instead of hiring actors, I asked my friends to be in the video with me. Growing up as a Middle Eastern/Sri Lankan girl in an all-white community, I’ve always been considered an outcast. Living in a post-9/11 world was exceedingly difficult for children like my brother and I. We were always seen as a threat and dangerous based on our skin color alone. We were excluded from parties and social gatherings because we never fit in. So I naturally gravitated toward people who were also rejected by social norms. In college, I worked alongside many student activists, and also ran my own social justice newspaper called The Antithesis, which was established to help elevate the voices of minority students at the university. As an artist, I always wanted to use my platform to advocate for justice issues in a political, social, economic and environmental realms.
Why is it important to you to outwardly show pride in your identity – not just in your music, but in everyday life?
I’m all about being outspoken for things I believe in; if I agree with a cause, or believe that I can contribute in some way, shape, or form, I always do. As artists, we have the rare but incredible opportunity to use our platforms for the greater good. Whether that means going to rallies, parades, or including my beliefs in my own art, I believe no voice or action is too small. In terms of my own pride, with this release I’m truly attempting be more open about my experiences about being a woman of color in the industry. As a woman of color, we’re always considered to be aggressive and hostile when it comes to expressing emotions. We always have to prove ourselves to be “gentle” in order for people to hear us. My album explores the concepts of the five stages of grief in a raw and honest fashion. I’ve learned over time from my own experiences that I would filter myself or appear to fit into a social norm to “fit in.” With this release, I wanted to be honest with myself, who I represent, and the culture I come from without being afraid of what people think.
What are some things you’d like to see women of color artists achieve both in the near and far future?
As a woman in the indie pop world, one of the most difficult things is finding other artists who are similar to me. When pitching my music, I’ve gotten feedback ranging from “not being in the right genre” to my goals being impossible because “there’s no space in the industry for a POC female pop star. Artists like Lizzo (one of my biggest inspirations right now) have truly set a new standard for WOC; not only has she become one of the biggest acts this year, but has become an icon for artists similar to her who are trying to pave their way into the limelight. She has broken the norm of women needing to look and sound a certain way to be a chart-topper. What I hope to see more is the industry welcome women of color with open arms and give them the attention they deserve.
Right now, I am preparing to release two more singles before my album drops November 1st! We are planning a huge Halloween-themed release party in New York on Halloween weekend. After the release, I’ll be touring starting in the spring. I can’t wait to hit the road again; live shows are my happy place and I’m so excited to play these songs for audiences everywhere.