SXSW Artist Spotlight: Kayan
360°Sound spoke with rising R&B and electronic artist Ambika Nayak, who performs under the name Kayan (her last name backwards). Born and raised in Mumbai, India, the 23-year-old singer/DJ/model/actor made her SXSW debut last week, performing an online set on the Third Culture showcase. Kayan’s latest single, “Cool Kids,” dropped in November 2020. In addition to her music as Kayan, Nayak is one-half of the electronic duo Nothing Anonymous and fronts the funk and R&B band Kimochi Youkai.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: You have a lot going on with singing, DJing, modeling, and acting. Tell us a little about Kayan.
Ambika Nayak: There are so many things that make Kayan what it is. There’s the singing, which is a lot of fun. That’s what I like to call my main thing. I also DJ. This year we have not performed as Kayan live, we’ve only done digital editions, SXSW being one of the first. We’re only going to launch Kayan live at the end of this year. We’re still working on what this live act is going to be like and what it’s going to incorporate.
The DJing is what I’ve been performing as most of this year. The DJ gigs have been a lot of fun. Even though we’ve seen a pandemic, a lot of the places have opened up over here. The capacity is probably one-third of what it’s supposed to be, but nonetheless, the response has been great. The DJ set is so different from my live music. What I’m like live is influenced from pop and R&B and a mix of that. The DJ sets are super-hard bass music, ghettotech, electro, jungle, drum-n-bass. It’s a completely different vibe.
I also act. I acted in a web series called Hello Mini for the first time. That was really interesting because I played a psychotic murderer. It’s wild. It’s a very interesting storyline. I have acted in a bunch of ads; that was my introduction to acting. Working in this web series was interesting because that’s actually me working on a character.
Modeling has kind of come along the way of me doing music. The more you put yourself out there, people see you, casting directors see you, agencies see you, and that’s how it all sort of come about. I’ve been interested in doing all these things since I’ve been a kid. Now it’s coming together in a very beautiful way.
Who influences you as a singer?
When I listen to a particular singer I love, it’s not like I want to sound exactly like that. What I find more interesting is how this singer is channeling their uniqueness. There’s so much going on. You have so many artists and so much music that affects you on the daily. When a singer stands out to me, it’s just exciting to see how they’re doing that, how they’re making that for themselves.
I listen to a lot of Jorja Smith. She has a wonderful voice and just a wonderful wholesome vibe in general. I love Kali Uchis and Syd tha Kyd. When I heard Jill Scott and Erykah Badu for the first time, they had a huge influence on why I want to write this kind of music.
What do you think makes your music unique?
When you have written something and put a song out, I realize that even if it’s not technically perfect, if it’s honest it somehow speaks to people. You could market the shit out of something, but what’s going to stay longer with people is if it’s real and it actually meant something to someone. That comes from every person’s experiences.
The lyrics that I write are completely based on my firsthand experiences in life. It could be super relatable because I’m literally singing about something that you have probably dealt with in life. Easiest example would be heartbreak. Everyone writes heartbreak songs. Heartbreak for me is going to be different from somebody else who’s dealt with it. It’s coming from my unique experience. However the other person perceives it I think they’re going to find it easy to relate to, or they’ll probably find it honest because it happened. I felt like this; I’m expressing this to you. It could be anything, not just heartbreak. I feel like I have my own vibe.
I watched your Ted Talk where you talked about your music and the decision to get sober. Is being in recovery something that you channel with your music?
Absolutely, I think a massive reason that contributes to my sobriety is the fact that I do music. I’m a very expressive person. I’m extroverted, and I love meeting new people. But I think that there’s a huge part that I’m only able to express through my music in a way that makes me feel very content. It has a huge role to play in my life just generally with me literally staying sane.
It’s an industry where I’m surrounded by absolute crazy shit going on. It’s had me really stay grounded. As an addict, you’re an addictive personality, so whatever I’m doing I have to always keep an eye out for not being absolutely extreme with it whether it be relationships or people or anything. I try to channel more of that energy towards my work.
Do you feel like this past year has been big for your career?
Yeah, every time someone told me the pandemic sucked, and it did, it’s horrible. But it’s been great for me [laughs]. Of course, I had my moments where I was like what is going on, and when can we get back to normal life? I got to finally focus on Kayan as an act. I made it happen because I had time and was forced to stay at home. This is something that I always wanted to do but I finally got the time to do that. My most fun work has come out through the lockdown. The response to everything has been wonderful.
What can you expect from you in the coming months, and what are your goals as an artist?
There are so many things we’re working on right now. We’re in pre-production for the next music video. Look forward to the next song I’ll be releasing in a month or two. Apart from that, there are a bunch of collaborations I’ve been working on. There’s going to be a lot of music coming through in 2021.
As far as goals as an artist, I know how I feel when I hear a song that really means something to me. Music is kind of like your soundtrack to life. There are some songs that will always be special to you. I hope that my music is like that for someone else or helps them get through something or makes them happy.
You can follow Kayan on Instagram.