Vivek Shraya is a musician, writer and visual artist hailing from Edmonton. Her multiplatform career started with the dream of becoming a pop star. She began writing music as a teenager and released five records between 2002 to 2009. When she wasn’t seeing the success she hoped for, she pivoted to writing — and has since published the novels She of the Mountains and The Subtweet, poetry collection even this page is white, book I’m Afraid of Men, comic book Death Threat and theatrical play and accompanying book How to Fail as a Popstar, which follows her challenges navigating the music industry and trying to make a name for herself.
She also won a Canadian Screen Award for her work composing the music of the show Sort Of and founded the Arsenal Pulp Press imprint VS. Books, which offers a mentorship and publishing opportunity to a young Indigenous, Black writer or writer of colour. Shraya currently lives in Calgary and teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary.
Shraya’s latest project is the CBC Gem original series adaptation of How to Fail as a Popstar which comes out on Oct. 13. In honour of the new show, which she wrote and stars in, she spoke to CBC Books about the books that shaped her — with a focus on stories that centre music — and the songs that complement the reading.
“The book was riveting because she’s just had such an amazing career. For a lot of music biographies, I find you have to be familiar with the artist to enjoy it. And this was a book where it’s really beautifully written in a way that if you’re not familiar with Buffy, you can still follow along. The twists and turns in the book are just so exciting and unexpected. I bought that book for multiple people for Christmas.”
When you read it, listen to: Until It’s Time for You to Go by Buffy Sainte-Marie
“They’re huge inspirations to me as fellow queer Albertan artists from the 90s. What I liked about High School is that each chapter they go back and forth between their stories. And what I found so wonderful is that you have two people who are growing up at the same time in the same house — and I think about this with my sibling as well, just how different our experiences are — that despite being siblings and growing up in the same environment and being the same age even and also both being queer, their experiences are just so different.
“What’s great about the book too is it sort of hints at their career. I wouldn’t say it’s a music biography. It sort of hints at their interest in music and where that all started. So it’s a really nice precursor if you’re a fan and you know what happens next.
“They’re born like six months before me, so a lot of the references are so similar. And so even though I didn’t grow up listening to the same kinds of music, I just really understood the landscape of Alberta in the 90s and pop culture, music and stuff. So it was very relatable. And it was also interesting to think about our differences, like my differences, coming from a brown immigrant family and how that played into my own journey as a musician.”
When you read it, listen to: Hello, I’m Right Here by Tegan and Sara
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“It’s actually about a cult. I grew up in a tight religious environment that some might argue is a cult. I’m just very drawn to cult stories, so immediately I was taken. I loved the way that [Dey] used music from the 80s to really ground the narrative. It felt like music was almost like another character. It really felt like there was a soundtrack to the book. I love the idea of soundtracks a lot, like music as a companion to a project, whether it’s a film or a TV show or whatever. I loved how integral music was to the storytelling.”
When you read it, listen to: When Doves Cry by Prince
“If I was going to summarize what the book is about, I would say #JusticeForCéline. It looks at that album, but it also looks at reclaiming Céline. People haven’t necessarily always taken her seriously even though she’s really successful. She doesn’t have a lot of cred, so to speak. And the whole book sort of tilts that on its head a little bit and sort of pushes this idea of the ways in which that album was important and significant for its time.
“I went in as a reader who I wouldn’t call myself a strong Céline fan. After I read the book, I felt a new respect and appreciation. So I think any author that can change your mind about something is doing something really cool.”
When you read it, listen to: The Reason by Céline Dion
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“He’s a very successful rapper in Canada and he’s also from Alberta. And so again, it was really interesting to read somebody else who was trying to make music and figure out an artistic career coming from Alberta and learn what his journey has been like as a black person. I was really inspired by the similarities, but also it was really beautiful to learn about our differences.”
When you read it, listen to: Connor McDavid by Cadence Weapon
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“From 1993 to 1997, the world’s biggest musical acts were four women from Canada: Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette and Céline Dion. Even just talking about it, I get chills. It’s such an interesting time and they’re all so different.
“[The book] deconstructs that time: what was happening in the broader music culture, but also in Canadian culture and also in terms of women in music for such a strange and amazing thing to happen, for all these women to be again some of the biggest, if not the biggest, in terms of record sales and stuff.
“I grew up during that time. I remember loving some of these artists, but I never really placed it in my mind. I don’t remember, in the 90s thinking like, ‘Oh how interesting; these women are all successful.’ And it’s also really interesting because since then, so many of those formative albums have celebrated their 25th year anniversary or 30th year anniversary, so it’s really interesting to read that book in that context and just think about how much they shaped the culture.”
When you read it, listen to: You Oughta Know live by Alanis Morissette (from MTV Unplugged album)
Vivek Shraya’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.