Aaradhna Patel comes into the room near visibly shaking. She hates interviews, does them because she must, and afterwards feels like she’s said all the wrong things. Given her occupation, it’s an unfortunate situation.
This one promises to be particularly trying. She’s talking about racism. About her personal experience of it, in fine detail. Haltingly at first, then flooding out of her.
Her mother is Samoan, her father Indian, but Aaradhna herself has never known any home apart from New Zealand. That didn’t stop her getting a uniquely toxic combination of prejudice from Samoans, Indians and – of course – Pākeha. She described what she had been through: both as a teenager and an adult; in her personal life and her professional.
Listening, I wondered how she carried on. It seemed like near every moment which might have felt close to the kind of unalloyed career triumph all creative people desire was spoiled by some ugliness.
Aaradhna is a soul singer, with a gripping, deeply affecting voice. A couple of times as we spoke, she sang softly – a relevant bar or two. Her voice was as clear and effortless as when she first emerged, a decade ago on I Love You. She seems slightly disdainful of her debut now, and parts of its production haven’t aged all that well. But songs like ‘Faith’, ‘Downtime’ and ‘I Love You Too’ revealed her as a natural R&B singer and writer, and two singles went top five.
Then she had six years in a kind of wilderness, releasing an odd Motown covers record and suffering a crisis of confidence which led to her all but disappearing as an artist and public figure. It was that era which she documented so winningly on Treble & Reverb, her triumphant comeback in 2012. Mostly produced by P-Money, it drew on a contained pallette of ‘60s soul and rocksteady which allowed her quietly devastating lyrics and husky delivery to shine. She rightly won a clutch of VMAs the following year – but, as she reveals here, even that moment was marred for her.
It’s that experience which drove both ‘Brown Girl’, the advance single, and a short, very direct note she put out a couple of weeks back.
As she spoke about the writing of the song, tears rolled down her cheeks, as they did frequently during the hour we spoke. But once she was going, she seemed unable to stop.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to Aaradhna’s Brown Girl – released today – on Spotify here.
So I just wondered if you could maybe start by telling me a bit about what motivated you to write that note?
At school I got called insulting names to do with my race, ethnicity and that. And of course it hurt, you know, because those are my parents and if they’re mocking me they’re mocking my parents. I just grew up feeling, at moments, like I was being treated [that way] because of my skin colour, that’s what it felt like, or what I was.
And it’s funny because sometimes it would come from my own race too, I would be judged by Samoans, they’d be backstabbing me in Samoan and I can understand what they’re saying, they’re saying “this egg here, this Indian…” you know, or I’ll go to a dairy and it felt like I was getting the double-stare, like I was going to steal something.
I could give you heaps of stories, I don’t know if you want to hear them…
I feel like if those stories are in you and have affected you then I’d love to hear them if you’re alright to tell them.
Yeah well I’ll tell one story and then I’ll tell the story that made me feel like writing the song. Boarding a plane a while ago – 2008 or something – this was boarding from L.A coming back to New Zealand.
I was on a first class ticket. I was sitting down in my seat and this air hostess told me to get out, she said ‘you’re in the wrong place,’
She hadn’t even looked at my ticket yet! But I knew where I was supposed to be sitting. Then she looked at the ticket and she was like “oh…” and she sort of looked surprised that I was supposed to be sitting there.
How did that make you feel when you realised what that was?
I don’t know, I never feel good after those moments. The worst moment was the Vodafone Music Awards where I won a lot of awards.
Yeah, and my family and my girls were all there in the crowd. I won my first award, and one of the girls heard – when I went up to get my award – heard a guy a few rows down from her say yell “fuck off back to India”. None of my brothers and sisters heard it, I’m glad they didn’t. He was talking a lot of shit.
Then I won the second award and he goes “F off! Boo, Boo!” and stuff like that. That second time, my girl goes “oh you’d better be quiet, this is her brothers and sisters here and he goes, “I don’t give a damn, I don’t give a fuck”. And then I won the third award, and he got up and walked out. The whole time I didn’t know anything, and at the end of it she tells me about it.
So this was immediately after the show when you’re buzzing off the awards?
It was a good moment to win all the awards but that moment really ruined it for me you know? That one little thing is actually not little, it’s big and that’s the moment that made me feel like writing about it.
That was the moment that pushed me to write a song about it. So ‘Brown Girl’ is about wanting people to not label me, like something he said just took away everything, like what I said in the letter, just one little label can take everything away. It feels… just to have someone say “fuck off back to India”, I wasn’t even born in India! My Dad’s Indian, it’s half of me – but I was born in New Zealand, I’m a New Zealander.
Having that bi-racial background, it sounds like at times you’ve felt a sense of not really belonging to either side in a way.
Yeah it felt like I didn’t belong, it was hard to find where I could fit in. I think it wasn’t until I was older, not until I found my best mates that I could just be like “yeah, I feel like I belong”.
When I went to Porirua College – by then I had my good friends – but I remember seeing on a desk ‘Radz curry muncher’ you know.
I cried after that, I remember. I think I was 6th form. 16, and I read that. It’s dumb because that wasn’t the first time I’d been called that and it just hurts.
It hurts because I love my Mum and Dad so much, and if someone says “you’re a dumb coconut…” then I feel like they’re talking about them.
I’m glad my brothers didn’t hear that guy [at the awards] – and I’m glad my mate didn’t tell them. But I’m glad she told me, because otherwise I wouldn’t have written the song, that was a time where I thought “I need to write something” just to express how it feels and in the song I just wanted people to know not to judge me.
Have you experienced racism within the industry as well? Because I do feel like artists of colour are presented in a different way and given different presentation to white artists.
I remember being in a meeting in the States and they were trying to figure out what audience I should be targeting and they didn’t know where to put me. Because I wasn’t black and I wasn’t white, I was this Samoan-Indian person from New Zealand.
They were fighting about it, trying to figure out where I go but I was thinking the whole time “shouldn’t it just be about the music?”
Is this in meetings with [former label] Republic?
Yeah. It felt like they didn’t know where to put me and I was like “shouldn’t this be about music, not my race or skin colour?”
So this was in meetings, where these kinds of conversations were happening around you but not necessarily to you. Did you ask those kinds of questions? Do you feel like you’re empowered to?
At the time I think I didn’t really say anything.
How did it make you feel?
It felt like I was slowly getting back to that place where I was just losing the passion for doing it, like I didn’t want to do it. I was kind of getting put off inside but I just thought I’d see if it was all going to work. But it just wasn’t right for us and that’s when we left, that’s why we left Republic – because it didn’t feel like they wanted us to be what we were before we signed with them.
Like they thought they’d sign you and then they could “fix” you.
Yeah! It felt like it was just too much. Like, what do you want from me? I just want to sing some songs that I love singing, and now there’s all this other shit. I didn’t like it – we wanted to just be ourselves and get the music out, and not have to try and be something I’m not. They were trying to fix me to be something. It was funny, they didn’t know what to do with me because of what I was and they didn’t know if they [wanted me] to reach the urban market or the pop, white market. I was like “this is weird”.
The songs are the songs, right?
Yeah can’t I just sing a song and you just put it on the radio? I don’t know, I think that happens everywhere, that’s just the way it is. It feels like that’s how everything is.
So the record didn’t come out with Republic – or it did and they dumped it?
It did but I don’t think it was looked after, it wasn’t a priority thing.
It must be horrible to make something and just have so much excitement but then realise that they don’t really care about it – when it’s been years of your life. Because Treble & Reverb felt like it was coming from a very particular place – a profound, maybe even a clinical depression. Is that fair?
Yeah, I would say.
And then the effort of bringing yourself out, bringing the songs out of that – to just end with “oh well, that came out this week” must be heartbreaking.
They were trying to figure out what market and how I should come across, because I was in my phase of going op-shopping and loving wearing all these second hand dresses. They were like ‘you need to stop dressing like a grandma’ [laughs].
That’s what they said! I mean, I loved dressing that way at the time. I go through my phases and it kind of just put me off when they said stuff like that.
To me it feels like in the music industry, often when people are successful they tend to not be doing what everyone else is doing. They tend to not look particularly managed or styled. The industry kind of presents itself as wanting people who are different. But then someone comes along dressing in op-shop dresses, but singing these soul songsand they go ‘oh no, no, no, we’ve got to fix this’.
It was weird, they weren’t happy with me being me.
Does Treble & Reverb feel bittersweet in a way when you look back?
Yeah, it is bittersweet. But for me, I’m happy that it came out. The music that I put out [lets me] express myself and I got to express myself through that album and it helped me therapeutically, so it did enough for me.
Tell me about the backstory to Brown Girl, what’s happened in your life since?
I went through a breakup and I’m back together with him now. But the music is about love, the breakup, life. Iit’s just a timeline from 2013 until 2015.
Being with Leon [Henry, ex-Breakers small forward], a professional athlete, obviously you have to go where the money is and with music it’s very similar. Was that a source of vulnerability for the relationship?
Yeah, I mean spending time away didn’t help. Long distance took a toll on the relationship and there’s so many things that happened which affected it and I guess I wrote about it.
Like what kind of things?
On the album there’s a song about breaking up and taking all his stuff away and that was when I was in L.A at what was our apartment. He’d already gone back to New Zealand and was playing somewhere else. Some things happened, things that really made me angry. I don’t really want to go back there but I was in a really angry, sad place and ‘Empty Hall’ – I wrote that song after I packed all his stuff away.
Then there’s other songs about being broken up and trying to forget about everything, just forget the dramas and move on and have fun. There’s so many different topics in there. I mean, it’s different but it’s still relating to the same man. They all came from our situation.
So who did you work with?
I did it the same where I did it with P-Money. I wrote [all the songs] and did the production and stuff then gave them to Jeff from [her new US label] Truth and Soul and he turned it around, flipped it and it was a completely different thing. With Treble & Reverb Pete kind of did it the same, like the same way I sent them to him.
So he just sort of fleshed out your ideas?
Yeah but he made it better. It was still the same idea but with Jeff I gave him the music and he kept my melody and lyrics but switched the whole instrumental, the whole production side. I had this whole different outlook on the music.
This is sonically quite different, with synthetic textures and elements of ‘80s production. It doesn’t sound so much like a retro record at all.
Yeah that’s what I loved about it, there’s so many different kinds of genres in it.
Was there a fear involved, working in more of a live setting with the Truth and Soul people? Because sometimes I guess if you have a private process you can take your time.
Yeah it’s comforting!
Whereas if there’s loads of people you’ve kind of got to bring it right there and then.
Yeah I was really nervous about coming together with everyone, because they’ve all got this huge resumé. But it was fun, it was cool that everyone was just jamming.
When that anxiety or depression hits – I mean that’s fed into some of your songs but does that make things difficult for you in the music industry?
Of course! Especially when you’re about to put some new music out, I’m super sensitive and there’s people that can be so ruthless. Erykah Badu said it herself, ‘I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit’.
I know what she’s talking about! You’re putting your heart in something and you’re giving it to people. You’re putting your heart in someone’s hands, that’s what it feels like, and you don’t know if they’re going to squash it or not.
How do you deal with that?
I have to just talk to myself sometimes, you know? I kind of just have to remind myself that I’ve achieved some things and that I should be proud of them. I also keep my people around me, they’re always supportive and that helps. I try to keep a positive circle around me and get rid of anybody who’s negative, I try not to read negative comments. I used to be so bad when I first started out, I’d read every single YouTube comment when I was younger…
Nowadays I don’t look at that stuff man. I try to do things that will keep me positive, I try not to search for trouble.
Has that always been the case? Like have there been times where you’ve felt like you’ve listened too much to other voices about a record or anything?
Probably with the first album I was more naive, or scared. I was writing my songs the way I wanted to but then I felt like I probably didn’t say enough and should’ve really stuck to my guns with certain things. Like with ‘Shake’. I wanted real horns, i didn’t want that kind of video, I didn’t want dance because I’m not a dancer, there were so many things I should have said no to. I should have said no when I wanted to say no, that’s how I was when I first started out. I’ve got to a stage now where I can tell you “no”, I’ll tell you nicely, but I’ll still say “no” to things that I want to say no at.
Tell me about another song which was important to the record.
‘Devils Living In The Shadow’, that song initially came from my nightmares. I’ve always had nightmares since I was young, but they got worse after my depression. Usually it’s about the same things, like the demons that were following me and that’s how the song started.
But actually it’s a song that kind of represents a whole bunch of things, like trying to do right and I wrote it for my mum sort of. Like “stop whispering” – because my mum, she has schizophrenia, she hears voices and in the verse I say [sings “speak up, please stop following me, I don’t want your whispering in my ear no more” – that’s me in just certain lines just being inspired by Mum. She hears voices all the time but she loves Jesus, she’s a Jesus lover! And she always tried to instill that in us.
Is that hard having a parent with schizophrenia?
It used to be but we’re good now. When I was younger [I had seen] my mum when she was normal, then it wasn’t until I was ten where I first saw things happening.
It must be so hard when you’re ten years old because your mother’s such an important figure to you and you’re still so vulnerable.
It was a sad day, when I found out that Mum wasn’t the same. I’m just glad that my Dad’s stuck around and he looks after my Mum, he’s a good man. And you know, that’s why when people say stuff about my parents and their ethnicities, that’s who they are and it hurts when someone else talks bad about them. Our ethnicity and stuff, that’s what my Mum and Dad are and that’s what I am, and if you’re trying to mock me you’re mocking my parents, and that hurts.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.