When we meet failure, we’re often comforted with the popular refrain that it’s “never too late” to try again, to learn from our mistakes, to pick ourselves up and be better.
This societal compulsion to reframe our failures in a positive light is something Vivek Shraya is tired of. Instead, the multidisciplinary artist and writer is interested in what art and humanity might look like if we gave ourselves proper space to honour and mourn our failures as one might grieve the loss of a loved one.
“So many of us are taught to be resilient. You’re not supposed to wallow, you’re not supposed to feel bad about the things that didn’t work out. You’re supposed to try to do something else,” says Shraya, whose new play How to Fail as a Popstar opens at Vancouver’s PuSh festival next week.
“I really wanted to create a space where artists could reflect on their own failures and mourn those losses instead of having to immediately jump to resilience.”
How to Fail as a Popstar — a mix of storytelling, song and dance — explores Shraya’s experience of trying to make it as a pop sensation in the music industry, and of eventually realizing that she’d never be wildly successful like her idols Madonna and Whitney Houston.
Despite several records and success touring both with her brother, in a band called Too Attached, and solo, Shraya eventually expanded her creative focus to include a wider range of mediums.
Now 20 years into a vibrant and prolific career, the author of I’m Afraid of Men and The Subtweet is reflecting on two decades of artistic output both in her play, which originally debuted in Toronto and Calgary in February 2020 before retiring due to lockdown, and in a new book, People Change, released by Penguin Canada earlier this month.
Both works look at how failure, change and reinvention are critical components of the creative process, and how they can represent acts of agency and survival for marginalized artists and people.
In People Change, Shraya writes: “It’s the before, the after, and the subsequent that has drawn me to transformation, the opportunity to express multiplicity — that someone can be more than one person, can oscillate between shy secretary and ferocious cat woman, and that no one person is more true, but rather the truth (and thrill) lies in the sum of my parts and in the seeming contradictions among them.”
Shraya took time out of her busy book promotion schedule to talk to The Tyee about creativity, failure, the advantages of working between mediums and artmaking in a pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: What’s it been like to put the show on pause for two years? Has anything about the content changed for you or taken on new meaning?
Vivek Shraya: Emotionally it’s been tough, and just from a career perspective it’s been tough. This is my first play, and without sounding too grandiose, I really feel like it was a career highlight for me to bring a variety of my different skills like singing, dancing and storytelling all to one platform. And getting to perform it every night in a theatre space… it was such a great experience. I was so excited to move on that. We had invitations to multiple theatres in Europe, and like so many artists — well, like every artist — all of that was cancelled. And the tough thing about that is that artists really traffic in momentum. It’s the kind of thing that you just don’t get back.
So there is a bit of a loss there that feels hard to articulate out loud, because, you know: “Well boohoo, who cares about your potential shows in Germany in the midst of a global pandemic.” But for me as an artist, it was something that I was really, really looking forward to. I’m feeling excited about the possibility of getting to finally bring it somewhere else now and hoping that it creates more opportunities.
It’s interesting to think of the concept of failure in 2022, after the last two years. I think that so many of us have had to experience different kinds of failure and loss, and this play is all about confronting failure, as opposed to putting it aside and, to use a pandemic word, “pivoting.” I feel like that’s what we’ve been told we had to do, right from the beginning of the pandemic, is pivot, pivot, pivot. But what does it mean to actually sit in the loss, to sit in the failure? I think from that perspective the play has a different kind of resonance.
Looking at the title of the play, How to Fail as a Popstar, it suggests a guide of sorts. Besides what you’ve said about the pandemic and the last two years being a moment of failure for many of us, failure is something that a lot of creative people and artists are familiar with. Would you say that the play could serve as a guide for other creatives?
When I think about the intention of the play, obviously it’s about acknowledging my own failure, but I really do see it as an invitation for other artists and creatives — and humans — to think about and honour our own failure. So many of us are taught to be resilient. You’re not supposed to wallow, you’re not supposed to feel bad about the things that didn’t work out. You’re supposed to try to do something else.
Again, to use a pandemic word, I feel like artists are pivot specialists: We start one place and end up in another. That’s the journey. For me, I really wanted to create a space where artists could reflect on their own failure and to mourn those losses instead of having to immediately jump to resilience.
It was wonderful and also a little heartbreaking doing the play in 2020 and having artists in different fields — whether it was in theatre, or TV or dance — reach out and say that even though the themes in the play were specific to me and the music industry, that they really resonated with them and their own paths.
Why did you decide to produce a theatre work for something so autobiographical, something you’ve covered in the past in book form?
I tend to be idea-driven first and then medium second, so like: Here’s an idea, what’s the right medium to convey it? With theatre it was a little bit different. I had this kind of fascination with theatre. As someone who has a bit of a performance streak, whether it’s through being a musician or tending to go off-book at a reading, I think I’ve always been excited about the possibilities of theatre. But the right idea never really landed.
Me and Brendan Healey (the director of How to Fail as a Popstar) had been in each other’s orbit for several years and had talked about multiple projects. One of the first projects we’d talked about was the possibility of adapting my first novel She of the Mountains as a play, and it didn’t seem like the right fit and didn’t work out. Then, in 2018, I was working on my second novel, The Subtweet, and it takes place in the music industry, so I started reading a lot of music biographies during that time.
I find music writing a very interesting skill. To describe a song but through words — it always amazes me. I love reading Pitchfork or Rolling Stone reviews because I love the way that music writers are able to convey music in text. I wanted to do some research and was reading some music biographies like Timbaland’s and the Buffy Sainte-Marie biography. I thought, “I want to do a music biography one day, it would be such a wonderful thing to do.” But I realized really quickly that to write a successful music biography, they are fully based on success stories. You don’t read a music biography on someone who hasn’t succeeded.
Music biographies exist by nature because of the success of the artist. Timbaland is talking about writing “Pony” – even if you don’t know Ginuwine or you don’t know who Timbaland is, we all know “Pony,” right? You can connect to the text. Whereas most people aren’t familiar with my music portfolio.
I started to try to think about: How else might I tell an anti-success story? And theatre suddenly became what I imagined to be the perfect conduit for that. Theatre is less about people being familiar with my back catalogue per se, and I could fill in the blanks with storytelling or live singing or playing clips of music. That’s how I ended up with theatre — reading music biographies and realizing that I wasn’t successful enough to write one [laughs].
It sounds like music was your first artistic love. Would you say that’s still the case, even though, as you say, you never “made it” as a popstar?
Definitely. I think music will always be my first love. Even now, after turning 40, I’ve been thinking a lot about the next chapter of my art career and I’m like, ‘What do I want to do next?’ And honestly [laughs], I want to make another album! It’s kind of ridiculous: I’ve made this play about failing as a popstar and I’m a multidisciplinary artist now and I write books and all this stuff… but I still just really love making music.
It’s actually kind of exciting to be thinking about music from a place of failure and from a place of being 40. It’s kind of freeing, in some ways, to realize that whatever music I make now, I obviously still want it to connect with an audience and I hope that it still has an impact, but it’s never going to be on the level that I want. It kind of takes off the pressure in a way, like, “What are the songs that you want to write, and how do you want to sing?” as opposed to trying to fit whatever mould I was being guided into.
I love the freedom that failure can provide. There’s the narrative we have of, “Oh, there’s still a chance!” People are always saying, “You can still make it happen.” But really, I think that the acceptance of failure, or of failing at one specific goal you set for yourself, can open up a sense of freedom in so many other respects.
Totally. Again — I hope without sounding too grandiose — I feel like some of the songs I’m writing now are some of the best I’ve ever written, and I don’t think that I could have gotten to this place without being a songwriter for 20 years. And sometimes I think about what I was writing at the beginning of my music career, and I didn’t even know what I was doing or writing or singing about. When I was talking about heartache? I’m like, what do you even know about heartache when you’re 21? [Laughs]
Again, not to dismiss the feelings of failure that I had, but after really sinking into the story and working on it since 2019 and putting on the show and now revisiting it, I find that I have a new and exciting lens on music and that feels really exciting.
So is there a new album in the works, can you share that?
Oh there definitely is. I really hope to put out a new project this year. I’ve been co-writing for the first time with the person who produced all the music for Popstar — his name is James Bunton. We’ve been working together for several years now.
One of the things I’ve missed the most in the pandemic is collaboration, and specifically collaborating in a room with someone, not over Zoom or whatever. You hear these stories of people in Nashville in a room somewhere writing a song together and I’ve never had that experience. So much of my experience as a songwriter has been solo. Even being in the band Too Attached with my brother, he would send me a track and I would write on the track at my own place, so it was very distant and removed.
I’ve been really craving the challenge and the intimacy of being in the room with someone else. In November we spent a good half a month co-writing a bunch of songs together, which is really exciting. I’m hoping to do another week actually right after Popstar in B.C. The plan is to then record the album in March. Fingers crossed, but yes, I’m super, super excited about this project. I’ve been saying that it’s the one thing I want to do this year. Everything else can get cancelled — I mean, not the play, obviously! — but I just really want to make this happen.
You’ve got another book coming out in just a few weeks — Next Time There’s a Pandemic. Can you tell me a bit more about it? Hearing you talk about all these projects, I know there have been limitations and constraints, but it sounds like you’ve been quite productive, artistically. What has the pandemic looked like for you as an artist?
It’s funny, I think that the way I manage anxiety — I don’t know the right term for it, but I think it’s high-functioning anxiety — is through art. Being creative and making art gives me a sense of purpose, a sense of focus, a reason to wake up every morning.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue making art, but for me it’s definitely slowed down. I went from being someone who could juggle three to five projects at a time and was very stimulated by that, and now I feel like I can barely work through one at a time. It just feels like a very different work ethic right now and that feels hard. I’m used to a different kind of energy and it’s very hard to find that energy right now.
For years when I was on the road I would say, “Oh I just wish I had more time to be at home, more time to be creative, more time to be still.” I talk about this in the new book. I think I learned the hard way that I need both parts: the creative aspect and the quiet at home, but I also need to be out in the world, performing and engaging with other artists and meeting people and seeing how the work is connecting to people or not connecting, and seeing art in museums and galleries. I need to be a human in the world to actually make art. If I want to make art that’s stimulating, it makes sense that I’d want to be stimulated.