Vivek Shraya

Just Say I’m Not Just

On the 10-year anniversary of A Composite of Straight Lines • 20 September 2015

album cover

2003 was one of the worst years of my life. I don’t say this lightly or melodramatically.

I was 21 and had just moved to Toronto to live on my manager’s couch (which was actually in—surprise!—Mississauga). I knew no one in Toronto (or Mississauga—aside from said manager, who was a stranger). I had moved for my music career, and soon the wave of momentum and hype that had prompted the move would swiftly dissipate. I felt foolish for moving, foolish for believing.

But if I’m not a believer / then what is pushing me forward door to door to door? (Logic Vs.)

Illustration by Jennifer Osborne

Oh, and I was also unemployed, even though I applied for five to ten jobs a day. It turned out that the arts degree I had just completed, was just as useless as my parents’ friends had implied. I wondered obsessively about what else might I have done with those four years. Being unemployed is also a dehumanizing experience. People either greeted me with pity or assume that I was unemployed because I wasn’t actually trying to find a job, that I was lazy. As someone said to me at a rare house party I went to (an invite from a friend of friend of a friend of a friend) because I didn’t want to spend another Friday going to Square One Mall by myself: if you really wanted a job, you would be washing dishes right now.

Eventually, I began forcing myself to stay up until 4 AM, watching reruns of The Simpsons (goddess bless cable), so that I would sleep until after 4 PM when the business day had ended, instead of waiting all day for a call or email from a potential employer or an interested label. I stopped showering and brushing my teeth. Why bother? Stopped interacting with friends in Edmonton because I was embarrassed thinking about how many of them had said before I left something along the lines of “make sure you include me in your music video” and how that wasn’t going to happen.

But, as always, the one thing I couldn’t give up, despite it being partly “to blame” for my misery was music. I wrote sad song after sad song, with no audience in mind. I was so sad, that I even surrendered metaphor—I wrote a song called Sad about my only friend Sad.

This process was cathartic, of course, but it was also a reminder that although I felt useless, a societal failure, I wasn’t. I could write songs. That was something.

They say it’s just love / They say it’s just money / Just say I’m not just (War)

Writing The Alphabet, particularly that first lyric “I am a ruin of loose ends,” was a turning point.

Illustration by Jennifer Osborne

After writing this song, I began to dream again. I dreamt of making a new album, and of singing the song live, despite feeling defeated that my previous dreams of “making it big in the big city” had not been realized. Shortly thereafter, in 2004, I approached Greg Johnston to work together again. He had produced my earlier records, Throat and Samsara: The Sketches, and had fortuitously moved from Edmonton to Toronto that year. Recording together felt like home.

Inspired largely by Neko Case, and Cat Power’s You Are Free, A Composite of Straight Lines is my best attempt (thus far) at making an alt-country/soul record, wanting organs and tambourines on every song. Admittedly, in my discography, it’s one of the records I like the least, one of the records I regret making. Maybe this is more about the circumstances in which it was made.

Or maybe this is partly due to the response it had. The record remains one of my most poorly reviewed work:

Exhibit A: “Holy cow, is this guy’s voice ever irritating.”

Exhibit B: “…Vivek Shraya offers up some straight-ahead pop music on this grating EP…. Shraya’s voice is an acquired taste… [a] generally banal release.”

Exhibit C: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this EP, but there isn’t much that strikes me as terribly special about it either… Shraya lacks the ability to communicate with music fans who need a connection to the music they’re listening to.”

Artists build many (necessary) strategies to deal with negative reviews, but at that point in my career, and after everything that had preceded this record, I was absolutely unprepared. The review that appeared in the local newspaper the week in advance of my launch event was the hardest to reconcile, as I imagined new friends and acquaintances reading it, resulting in an empty venue. I cringed every time I walked by the green newspaper box, unfortunately stationed on every downtown street corner.

And yet, the CD release party for this record is one of my most memorable ones. It took place at Holy Joe’s, my favourite music venue in Toronto (RIP). As I stood in front of the mic, surrounded by Christmas lights, I faced an intimate but full, loving crowd. 2003 was behind me. So were Mississauga and my abusive manager and unemployment and friendlessness. I was learning that pursuing a music career would continue to be a complicated and crushing path to traverse, but I had also started to build a new life in Toronto. I was in love. I had a new apartment. And just two months after the release, I was invited to open for Tegan and Sara in the US. One month after that tour in November 2005, I began writing songs for what would become one of the records I am proudest of, If We’re Not Talking (but more on that in two years!).

A Composite of Straight Lines is the product of a bad time. More importantly, it is evidence of me finding a way through a bad time. So maybe, it’s not so bad after all.

Could this mean / that I could lean without / worrying about the weight? (I Could Lean)

–VS
September 2015

Vivek stands in front of a white cinderblock wall wearing a white v-neck t-shirt and blue jeans. Several microphones stand between her and the camera.
Photo by Joanne Klimaszewski

P.S. My original concept for the album artwork was to have an illustration accompany each of the six songs. I had fallen in love with the work of Jennifer Osborne via LiveJournal (username: “digifox”—god, I miss those days, don’t you?), and approached her for this. Though it didn’t work out, I held on to her precious initial sketches all these years because of how fond I am of them. I am happy to showcase them here, for the very first time.