Months ago, at the beginning of quarantine, musician Sanjana Nayak “SANJ” was reaching her boiling point. She’d released only two songs since she moved in May 2019 to LA, a move she thought would catalyze her music career, but the challenges of her daily life were chipping away time from making music.
When the pandemic hit, along with widespread business closures, SANJ went to stay in her parents’ Illinois home. Being cooped up amplified frustrations. She already struggled to create music, though her passion simmered. But, in isolation, she also couldn’t express her “free bird” personality: traveling and meeting people to her heart’s content.
“In that point in time, I was so low,” SANJ said. “I was depressed, honestly. I’m not going to be successful with what I want to do. I don’t even know what I want to do. I don’t even know what I want to do in my life. Am I meant for music? Should I just pursue my corporate career? Should I give up?”
These doubts circled around and weighed her down.
“That was the pivotal moment,” SANJ said. “‘Am I stopping this or leaving this behind?’ That [question] could really translate to anyone. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, whether it’s music, or your career, or your friendships. Just whatever it is, you feel so low during this time. There’s so much uncertainty. The uncertainty is what keeps you shaking in your boots. That is what got to me.”
With the song “Press Me,” written in April and released the following August, SANJ found an outlet to dispel her doubts. She says it emboldened her choice to take a stand and not give up. It was the ultimate return to her foundation—the kind of R&B music she loved and had already been making.
“Press Me” launched the writing and production of her new EP “At Dusk,” which released in early August. Although her first song was released in 2018, she says this new album is her debut album to introduce herself to the world.
Quarantine served as a mirror. SANJ was forced to reflect on her flaws and ambition.
“I wouldn’t have been able to write and express this without having that kind of fuel, where I can confront who I am and what I’m feeling with something so extreme,” SANJ said. “It is a disaster that really made the art. It’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do without something so extreme.”
“At Dusk” is designed to be chill and calming, with effervescent synths and ethereal echoes that stretch as if to the sky. It’s a vibe she held true to throughout the album– though things got harder for SANJ before they got better.
“Honestly, what I was writing reflected directly on my anxiety, for sure,” SANJ said. “Every day I was experiencing anxiety, whether it was like, when are we going to live normal lives again? When am I going to be able to travel again? When am I going to be able to know that I can be free to do what I want to do?”
The day before she was supposed to return to LA—the city she loves and shipped herself off to as soon as she graduated from Indiana University—SANJ was laid off from her marketing job. Her dreams of residing in LA were on hold. However, she eventually found a job as a digital strategist and returned to LA.
She’d work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., take an hour break, then work on music through the night until 1 a.m. This furthered her return to music.
Each of the EP’s five songs represents a different side of her. There’s the relief she felt when she got a new job as a digital advertising strategist in May (“She’s Awake”); her insatiable hunger for more in life (“Cloudmind”), her calming interlude (“Ghosts”); her peaceful love letter to LA (“Don’t Wanna Change”), and the EP’s egocentric, mic-drop ending (“Done With You”).
Though she remains loyal to the EP’s assuring vibe, the album is a genre trip through Carnatic influences, R&B, and pop music. She was especially cautious bringing her Carnatic training to the album. She did not want to do an injustice to the exceptionally challenging tradition of music.
“I’ve been trained in this for 10 years,” SANJ said. “It’s the reason I can sing. It’s the reason that I can sing well. It’s who has made me, honestly. I have a lot to owe to my old [teachers]– I have two teachers. I have two teachers who shaped me as a musician, and they are my Carnatic vocal singing teachers.”
Her Carnatic vocal teachers strengthened SANJ’s voice, stamina, and range. The training shines in “Cloudmind,” which is currently the listeners’ favorite as the most streamed song on her Spotify. The artists’ vocals open the song and bridge the verses as if we ascend as her voice scales up in pitch.
By combining Carnatic training and her love for R&B, she wants to make South Asian R&B music a thing. She hopes it will resonate not just with South Asians but listeners of all cultures and ethnicities.
“Being able to incorporate that into Western music—it’s been a dream of mine,” SANJ said. “It’s what I’m going to continue to break boundaries in. This is just the beginning.”