While Saleka always knew she wanted to be a musician, singing R&B into a mic in a crowded dark music venue on the Lower East Side wasn’t how it looked as a kid. The eldest daughter of director M. Night Shyamalan had trained since age four to be a classical pianist, and was on the path to attending a conservatory when she discovered the creativity that came with songwriting.
“Music has always been a part of my life. I don’t really remember a time before that — I feel like it was always kind of part of my identity,” she says, over crudite and dosa at AbcV in New York. “But I studied classical piano for a long time. That was kind of like, this is what I’m going to do, you know? I’m going to go to a conservatory. I’m going to study classical piano. I’m going to be in an orchestra. It was like that whole life plan. Then I started to like singing and I started writing my own music when I was about 15 or 16. I was like, you know what? I don’t know if I want to play classical piano anymore.”
The 25-year-old is getting ready to release her debut album, Seance, and has been touring around New York, Washington, D.C. and her native Philadelphia on a residency this fall. The moody, vibe-y music she writes and performs is far from the piano of her former life, but she’s more confident than ever that this is her path. While working on her album she’s also written songs for her dad’s Apple+ show “Servant” and is at work on music for his films as well.
Saleka grew up in Philadelphia, where she and the rest of the Shyamalan family are still based today (minus one sister, a recent NYU grad). She sees her grandparents almost daily, and has no plans to decamp for New York or Los Angeles for her career, when she’s seen how her dad has been able to make it big from Philly.
“We’re lucky because we don’t have to deal with the more negative aspects of that life, like the paparazzi or whatever. So our lives are relatively normal besides the occasional people that just know my dad,” she says. “I think he has a really healthy attitude toward it, where he’s just very grateful. He’s just like ‘any time a person comes up to me in a space or something like that, or says something, even if it’s maybe annoying or whatever, this person paid for a brick of our house. If they went to see one of my movies, they paid for a ticket, they paid for one brick of our house that we live in that gives us shelter and comfort every day. So, we should be grateful for every person that connects with the material.’ I want to embrace that attitude. But I’m still at the phase where I’m like, ‘someone knows my song? That’s really cool.’”
Leaving the classical piano path was scary, as she didn’t want to let down her parents and teachers who had put so much into her training. But ultimately she knew they all wanted her happiness, and now her family are her biggest fans: her recent Rockwood Music Hall performance in New York was a mini Shyamalan family reunion, of sorts.
She attended Brown University to study music and literary arts and has been at work on the album ever since. The album gets its name from the title track, but she also feels it wraps up the mood and messaging of the songs as a whole.
“It’s also, you know, a lot about me finding myself again after going through transformations and heartbreak and reconnecting with who I am at the core. So I feel like it is a seance bringing back the soul,” she says. “My relationships with my culture, my womanhood, just realizing that as an adult, what does that mean to me? I want to embody that. How do I navigate that in this world? In this industry? That kind of stuff.”
Despite her dad’s legacy, she was never tempted by movie-making growing up, but after working with her dad on the “Servant” soundtrack she’s eager to collaborate again.
“I would love to do something related to music that is also collaborative with film,” she says. “That’s one of my dreams, for my dad to produce a movie with music in it and [for me to] write an album for a movie or something.”