Samsaya stands in no one’s shadow—even if the second half of her name means “shadow” in Hindi. The fiery Indian (by way of Norway) performer is always—at least in public situations—seen with a heart drawn around her eye. This sketched heart is far from perfect. Lopsided and shaky, but bold and defined, it is an outward representation of Samsaya’s insides. Born as Sampda Sharma, it is the complex situations and conflicting messages she went through growing up that created the fully realized, grateful and joyful Samsaya fans know today.
It was ten years ago when she released her debut album, Shedding Skin. And although it will be over a decade until its follow-up, Bombay Calling, is released in 2015, Samsaya has been anything but dormant. She has released single after single, including “Dodge It,” which was featured in the Academy Award-nominated film, The Wrestler. Additionally, Samsaya has had an unintentional acting career, appearing in Norwegian films and on television.
Hit-making Norwegian producer Fred Ball was able to help Samsaya tap into her inner pop princess on Bombay Calling, a collection of chart-ready songs that don’t sacrifice substance for soullessness. Drawing on her Indian background, hip hop roots and contemporary dance/pop sounds, as catchy as Bombay Calling is, it gives the listener something meaningful to latch onto. Out now, the Samsaya EP is a snapshot of Bombay Calling.
Lily Moayeri: What was it like growing up Indian in Norway?
Samsaya: I had friends who didn’t understand my parents and thought they were very strict. Those friends wanted me to hate my parents, but they were just being that way because they care. I had to leave those friends because they didn’t know me. Music allowed me to send away friends that weren’t right for me. If my parents would have let me do everything, I wouldn’t be who I am today when it comes to being productive, running my own business and fighting for everything. Even for my first Levi’s, I took a janitor’s assistant job and worked the whole summer to get those jeans. That taught me such a big lesson because I wanted it so bad and I worked for it. I wore those jeans to pieces. If I could wear them today, I would. Those are the things that are worth something. That’s how I feel about my music and performing live. Nobody gave it to me. I worked for it, and that’s why it tastes so good.
LM: Were you raised in a traditionally Indian household?
S: That’s a tricky question. My parents had an arranged marriage. But my father had two strokes and was very sick. He wasn’t able to talk for many years. My mother had to be everything for our family. She never considered putting my father into a home. Everything got very complicated for her and she was under a lot of pressure. She reeducated herself and became a kindergarten teacher. She wanted us to be doing what was right so she didn’t get the blame of not doing right by us. I put her through hell. I was always questioning everything and saying I didn’t want to be like her. Now I think how horrible that was.
There was definitely a direction they wanted us kids to follow, so everything was a struggle. That makes me realize how important the seeds we are planting right now are. What are we doing, what are we saying, what are we showing that a new generation of kids can look up to? I really like the idea of a society where people with experience can tell you, ‘It’s going to be okay, you’re not bad, you’re on your way to becoming something really good, you’ve got it in you.’
That’s why it has been such a big desire to pay my own way and know myself. Music was such a struggle that everything else paled in comparison. I never felt that anything was hard after that.
LM: What spurred the move to Norway?
S: It was my hippie uncles who came first. My father came to meet them. Fortunately for us, two of my uncles lived with us; one still does. If it hadn’t been for my uncle, I don’t think I would be who I am. Because he followed his heart, he understood this wasn’t an affair with music. It was a true, dedicated passion. In Hinduism, if you really believe in something and you’re pursuing it with an open heart, nobody can tell you that it’s wrong. I would always remind my parents of that.
My given name is Sampda, which means inner joy. I cut that into Sam because I wanted to be a rapper, to not be this Indian girl my mother designed, but to be me. I added “saya,” which means “shadow,” later because I felt I had raged against everything and I had calmed down with a more sensible, different persona, so I was “Sam’s shadow.” Then I met this guru in India and he told me “samsaya” means “doubt.” When my mother felt strongly that I was choosing something that wasn’t what she had wished for me, I said, “Don’t worry about Samsaya. You didn’t make Samsaya. I will take responsibility for Samsaya. If anyone says anything to you about Samsaya, you can always say that is not your creation.”
LM: You’ve done some acting as well, haven’t you?
S: Acting is an affair. Music is love. Music is when you realize you can share pain with someone. You don’t want to lose that relationship. I learned that, fortunately for me, at a very young age. I felt like a total outsider. Music accepted me just the way I was. It sounds stupid because now we are so multi-cultural, but when I was growing up, it was not that scenario. But when you feel like you’re not Indian enough and you’re not Norwegian enough, music was there for me from very early on. That relationship has been so important to me. That’s what I call love.
For me, music is the constant thing. It has to be there in my life. Film comes and goes. If a project is interesting, and I can’t deny it, I’ll pursue it. Growing up, a lot of times I felt life was about avoiding desires because of a culture that said, ‘No, don’t go for that.’ In my secret dreams, I would not avoid the desires. I would pursue them and take them. That has become Samsaya energy: pursuing, not being afraid, and going headstrong into it.
LM: Your EP—which is selection of tracks from your upcoming album—was produced by Fred Ball, who has worked with many female artists.
S: Fred is amazing. I’ve always been a little allergic to studios. That’s the main reason why it took so long between the first album and the second. I wanted to be out and performing. But Fred is fun. I spent time in the little shed studio in his backyard in London and recorded the whole album there. We would have supper and lunch with his kid and his wife. It was the type of atmosphere where I felt like you could be creative without it being tense. Fred’s extremely talented and he’s not afraid to be new about things. I feel like some people work too much on the clock, and I don’t think he did.
LM: The album’s release has been pushed back a few times and, for now, we have only your EP.
S: My manager, Per Eirik Johansen, passed away very unexpectedly. It still hurts a lot. He was such an alive person. You find living people that aren’t that alive, and he’s still living. He was a punk artist, then he ran Virgin Norway, then worked at EMI and eventually became a manager. He was genuinely interested in music. What I’ve learned from my experiences is a lot of people working in music are not interested in music. But when they are, it’s so exciting to meet them. He was that type of person. It was such a shock when he died, and time stood a little still—and it was okay. When it’s someone that special to you, you have to think, you have to heal. This album is all about emotions. It would be wrong for me to do something if I wasn’t making sure my heart was in it.
I talk a lot. I like to socialize. I’m very interested in people, in my fans. It comes back to me and it inspires me, so I call them “keepers.” This is what the heart on my face is saying. I feel like they are the motivation to many things. I think the world works like that. It’s a great, creative place—if we allow it to be. With the heart, this is what I’m always focusing on. I love social media because we have a way of engaging with fans and people. I like the way the world has become much more round.
With the EP, we start with small fragments, then it grows and I have time to tell a story. We are doing something called ‘complete the album.’ You have the EP now, but when the album comes out, you can get the rest of the songs. The EP is digital only, but the album is a physical release.
I don’t want to rush because being here is such a reward. When Per Eirik passed away, it felt really strange to be happy for what we had accomplished and what we were about to do. And then to set out and do those things without that person—what is an achievement if you don’t achieve it with others?
LM: Is it true you named your record label after the 3mm space between your two front teeth after your major record label asked you to get your teeth fixed?
S: I believe in people that can see bigger things. I want to fight egoism in myself. I always like to accommodate as much as possible. It’s the Indian in me, with my mother and the culture, predominantly trying to be good. But there’s a line, and it may be just 3mm, but it’s that line you cannot cross. When I started to date, I met someone and they fell in love with me, but then they tried to change me. Why? You fell in love with a tree and you’re making me feel like a toothpick. I have a song about this called “Beginning At The End.” For me, that symbolism in 3mm became really big. I can’t take all the credit because from when I was very young my parents were very proud of that gap. My uncle would always say, ‘You’re so lucky.’ He planted it in my head. He made me feel beautiful. No guy could make me feel not pretty with it. When I was growing up, I thought I was the best feature I had.
When the record label said that, I thought they were being funny. There’s nothing wrong with fixing your teeth if it makes you feel good. But I feel good like this. Some people thought it was a sign of weakness from my part that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice what’s important to achieve something. I disagree. When you have something you know is strong, you don’t need to sacrifice. That’s what you see in a relationship. If it’s only physical and skin-deep, it will have big problems with surviving. But when you have the relationship with music that I have, it’s not skin-dependent. It’s beneath. It’s inside.
LM: How long are you going to do the heart on your face thing?
S: We were performing at a festival in Norway and a man with a full beard and a big beer belly had a drawn-on heart. He was singing one of the songs I wrote for my mother called “Apple” because I always feel like I was never the apple that fell close to the tree and it tells how disappointing it can be to parents to see someone who looks so similar but is so different. It’s a very hard song to sing because it’s very emotional for me. He was singing the lines with me. I wanted to run to him after the show, but I didn’t find him. It was very personal for me. He showed me the eye by looking at me and singing the lines.
I find that the more personal I am and the more I can tap into my feelings, the more I feel I connect to something that is far beyond me. That’s why the heart came. When I started doing it four years ago, it’s to bring focus on what I’m doing. Music is not new. We don’t own it. We tap into it.
This kid drew me like this. It touched me so much. This is what I wanted. Until people see me as this, I will keep drawing it.