Singer-songwriter Leo Kalyan makes the kind of emotionally resonant pop music that can incite positive change. That's a big statement to make about an artist who has only been in public consciousness since 2014, but it feels true when you consider the music Kalyan began making to where he is now.
Earlier tunes such as "Fucked Up" were riddled with forms of identity crisis, but still, he laid his heart bare: "Don't care enough to bother/ maybe I'm just my father/ couldn't see, all of me now I can't trust another," while also pleading forgiveness from those around him, and from himself. And now, though his music still pulses with melancholy and yearning, he is working within a more stylistically diverse palette on sophomore EP, The Edge., which part of an upcoming three-part series of EPs entitled Trilogy. These days, Kalyan has reckoned with the truth that, while he is only human, he is also worth more than his fuck-ups.
Part of that comes in finding footing in his queer community: Kalyan lives with fellow London powerhouse, singer and producer MNEK, and hangs out with Olly Alexander and Sam Smith. Part of it comes from falling in love: at the release party for Kalyan's debut EP, Outside In, from which "Fucked Up" is derived, he met his boyfriend, who he is still with today. But of course, these connections wouldn't carry as much gravity without the relationship Kalyan has developed with himself and the world around him, topics he is exploring on The Edge and Trilogy, perhaps more fully now than ever before.
Related | 50 LGBTQ Musicians You Should Prioritize
Kalyan, who split his time growing up between Lahore, on the India-Pakistan border, and London, where he is based now, took some time coming to terms with himself. As he tells PAPER, "When I first started putting music out, I was very afraid to put my full identity out there, as either as a gay man or as my ethnicity," he confides. "My family is Muslim, and being brown-skinned with an Islamic background, especially in this day and age, felt hard to grapple with. I felt like my sexuality and my ethnicity were in the political spotlight all the time, and so I was quite afraid to actually be myself."
When we chat with Kalyan, we discover how he's worked to transcend his fears, first in writing and singing about them. On The Edge's lead single, "Focus," he sings about the perils of living with crippling anxiety. "There are times in life when I got too much on my mind/ Distraction seems to grip me in her bind," which later transitions to hope: "I keep on going... I keep on flowing." Then, Kalyan transcends his fears by focusing outside himself. The title track, for example, is a chilling tale chronicling the threat of violence LGBTQI people around the world face, specifically focusing on how gay men in predominantly Muslim countries are often executed by being pushed from rooftops. And "Qandeel Baloch" encourages empathy for the outspoken Pakistani social media influencer of the same name who was murdered by her brother at age 26 in her sleep for "bringing disrepute to the family's honor." "Horizon" envisions a brighter future for the world, and the other tracks on The Edge explore Kalyan's spirituality and his world-music influences, weaving in touches of Bollywood and classical Indian music he grew up studying and absorbing.
PAPER talks with Kalyan about everything from his newfound freedom and navigating discomfort to becoming more globally aware.
How would you describe the queer scene in London?
Well, there are quite a few queer artists over here. MNEK and I in particular, we are friends with people like Olly Alexander, we also know Sam Smith, we all really do know each other, we hang out. And there are a lot of upcoming artist that many people haven't heard of yet, like Ryan Ashley. But I think there is quite a good scene of queer musicians and performers over here. The gay scene is probably quite similar to New York, but I think there are more and more musicians exploring their sexuality within their music, and being more queer within their artistic personas.
Related | Olly Alexander Is Done Being Repressed
Yes, queer singers are more visible and are singing about things like mental health and sex, but the particulars of sex and not just glossing it over, that's important.
I think it's super important. In my opinion, I feel like queer stories, in this time and place of music, are more interesting, more complex, and more compelling, because they are fresh. It's something that hasn't been explored in music before. We have all have heard the same old heartbreak love song for the past 50 years in music. I feel that queer stories are more complex and timely, and I think people are receptive to hearing them because they are new.
Your music is compelling because you are not afraid to sing about emotional strife and suffering, which is common to queer experience and relationships. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
When I first started putting music out, I was very afraid to put my full identity out there, as either as a gay man or as my ethnicity — my family is Muslim, and being brown-skinned with an Islamic background, especially in this day and age, felt hard to grapple with. I felt like my sexuality and my ethnicity were in the political spotlight all the time, and so I was quite afraid to actually be myself. And it was only really after I put out a song called "Fucked Up" a year and half ago, that I began to do that.
That was from the Outside In EP, right?
That's right. And the Outside In EP was about feeling like I was on the outside of the outside of the outside. Both in being a queer person who has felt ostracized in that community as well, and in being brown and from a Muslim background. I felt like I was this satellite floating in space, and I really couldn't figure out what orbit to fit into. So it felt like that for a really long time, which is quite an isolating feeling, but it was really only with the Outside In EP that I got the courage to become brave enough to talk about my full identity in my work. Not doing so was holding me back artistically, and also it was affecting my romantic relationships. Oddly, the night I celebrated its release was the night I met my boyfriend, who I have now been with for two years. I felt like I needed that release, I had to step into being my full self as an artist and human being to actually find joy and happiness in my life.
I know you're Indian and Pakistani but you grew up in London. What was growing up like for you? Did you feel caught between several worlds?
I was born in London, but I spent many of my teen years living in between London and a city called Lahore, which is just on the border between India and Pakistan. So my family, many of them are in Pakistan now, but some of it's in India because when India was partitioned [and became independent] in 1947 Muslims had no choice if they were going to stay or go to Pakistan. So some of my family stayed in India and some of my family went to Pakistan, so it's really funny because if you ask my parents where they are from, they would say they are Pakistani, and if you ask my grandparents they would say they are Indian. It's actually the story of a lot of people whose families were divided up during the partition of India. So when colonialism in India came to an end, and the British left, that was one of the byproducts of that situation.
It's not legal to be out in Pakistan, and India only just this year decriminalized homosexuality.
My mom and dad say to me, why don't you do something with MNEK in Pakistan?, I trained in Indian classical singing when I was younger, so I [sometimes] sing in Hindi, and they're always asking me why don't I go there and make music, but then I have to consider whether I can live my life as openly and as freely as an out gay person there as I am in London. Could I do that over there? I don't know. You can be jailed or killed for being gay. I don't know if I am going to be met with open arms if I take my music to where I'm from.
"It doesn't matter what part of the world you're from, or whether you're black or white or brown, or whether you're from Pakistan or America or Britain, I think all gay people have a wariness."
On your point about being safer in London, it makes me think of how, as people of color, safety is still not guaranteed. We have to be chameleons to be visible, even in our own communities.
Oh my god, absolutely. Yeah, I'm just upset. I think that even here in London, you change the way that you behave based on the rooms that you enter and who is in those rooms. And I think that one of the things that queer people always have to consider is, am I safe? At the back of your mind, you're always kind of thinking that: Am I safe in this space? Can I be myself? How much of myself can I be? How much percentage of myself can I be? Can I go the full hundred percent and just be my full self? Can I be femme? Can I talk about my boyfriend? And it's always something in the back of your mind that you carry — I think that's for all gay people. It doesn't matter what part of the world you're from, or whether you're black or white or brown, or whether you're from Pakistan or America or Britain, I think all gay people have a wariness. And it is very draining, it's heavy, it's a burden in a sense.
One way of testing that for me is to just show up in a place that might be a little scary wearing lipstick, for example. It's hard, but I do it.
To be honest, it's funny that you mentioned that because it's taken me to break out of a particular shell in how I presented. If you look at my old music artwork, I always kept the way that I dressed and presented myself very simple. I always wanted to keep it neutral because I guess in the back of my mind I was afraid of how people would interpret me or react to me as a brown, queer person with Muslim background. How are people from my own community going to react to me, how are white people going to react to me, how are my parents going to react to me, all of that. So I kept it quite simple. In the past year, I'd say, that I really started to physically explore my intersecting identities with more fluidity.
Does that feel like a second coming out?
You know what, it really is. It's really strange. I had to come out in my life but coming out in my work, and putting yourself and your vulnerabilities out there, that's really what being an artist is about. But it's a really difficult thing to do, especially when you actually are in fear of your actual life, or in fear of your family rejecting you. It's not very easy to do, if you actually are scared of these things. It's certainly been a journey. I think that I'm helping other people do that as well, based on the messages I get from people who listen to my music. And to be honest, that makes me feel a lot more like what I'm doing is of value, and that it's creating a space for people that don't have a space. And yes, for instance, there's a lot of racism within the queer scene. I'm part of creating a space for people who feel invisible or marginalized became one of the side effects of my music, and I didn't intend for that, but it invigorates me to know I might be helping somebody, beyond just singing about a broken heart. Because, hey, if you want to hear a song about just being broken-hearted, I have those too, but Adele does it way better. [laughs]
How does your family in India and Pakistan feel about what you're doing? Are they seeing your evolution? Do you feel a need to hide anything from them, or are they being exposed to all of it?
Well, my family over here is now totally supportive, they know about it, they love it. When I was younger, I felt like my relationship with my parents was one where they just didn't know me. My parents had no idea who I was. When I hung out with my family or my parents I just felt like I was giving them the tiniest sliver. It got to a point I couldn't be in the same room as them because hiding was so painful. When I did come out, my dad turned out to be really open-minded man, much more open minded than anyone expected him to be. He has accepted it, and if that is possible, then maybe it's possible that many other Muslim fathers can accept their gay sons. I know people are afraid to come out, I was there. I was going to put out the Outside In EP, which was honestly highlighting my experiences, so I decided to to talk to my dad first before he read about it, which would have been worse. But my family in Pakistan, I don't think they actually know the truth. I know that they follow me, and they must see it, but I really don't know what they think of it. In many senses, it's not my business what they think about it, and I actually don't care. My work and my existence is something that I'm pushing forward, and everyone else will just have to catch up.
"We have to make our decisions for ourselves, and live our lives for ourselves. It's the second we start living for other people we might as well be dead."
I've adopted that attitude too. I am not willing to justify my existence to family or anyone else. I'm just here. And I feel that if what you are doing is for your happiness, then that's the most important thing.
We have to make our decisions for ourselves, and live our lives for ourselves. It's the second we start living for other people we minus well be dead. I've lived like that for a long time and it wasn't making me happy, but it was also not good for me as a creative person. I felt like I had to limit myself. Like I was in a straightjacket. I had to learn to be who I was. I had this picture that I put up on Instagram and I was wearing eyeliner in it, and my mom was so distressed, she was like, are you going to become a drag queen now? Are you going to become a woman? And I was just like, Mom, can you just relax? It's just a bit of eyeliner, hon.
Expression is fluid. If I'm wearing eyeliner, it doesn't mean I'm transitioning, and even if I am transitioning, is that really so bad? Sheesh.
Society is transitioning! And we are in a strange moment where queer people are taking control of their stories, and are coming out of the shadows to be their true selves. When for so long we have been closed behind these binary doors of male and female. Society is having to readjust, especially the older people who are having to readjust the way they have seen the world for the past 60 years, and that's going to be difficult. But I think that it's always important to push the envelope, and really stand for what you believe in.
With Trilogy, I know it's a project coming out on three stages. So is that going to be EPs? Full-length albums?
They are like large EPs. I think the first part has nine tracks, which is coming out, and that is called The Edge. The title is taken from one of the tracks of the EP. So it's going to be three very large EPs with 9 tracks including interludes. The interludes kind of segue between the songs and they incorporate elements of spoken word and Indian classical music. It tells a story in three parts: We were talking about pre-coming out stages, feeling like you are lost and don't belong, and feeling invisible, and feeling like a shadow, and feeling like you are never going to be able to express your whole self. The second part is going on a journey to coming out, on a journey to finding yourself, and then the last part is what's like coming out on the other side and finding joy and happiness, and finding an answer when you thought there wasn't one.
Is it all going to come out this year?
Well the first part comes out next month, so I wouldn't be able to put out the next EPs in December. I just want to give it a little bit of space. I'm thinking about doing it over [the next] six months or so. They are a mix of songs about love, heartbreak, desire, and the things that pop songs are about, but there are also songs that touch on identity politics and social issues. "The Edge" is actually a song about the execution of gay men that is happening in a lot of Muslim countries. Gay men are often executed by being pushed from the top of buildings. It was something that affected me so deeply. It just shook me that for someone's sexuality one could be dragged to the top of a building and pushed off, because they are accused of being gay. Not even proven, but accused. It was something that made my heart just drop. I thought about how lucky I was. If I lived in a different part of the world, that could be me. "The Edge" is a song that kind of explores, in a poetic way, how that might feel, but I've written it in a way you may not know that is what it's about.
You seem committed to using your platform to highlight global issues. For those of us that don't have to deal with that kind of persecution, we have some privilege.
I think it is something that is really, really important. But yeah you'll hear the song, and I hope you'll like it. It was such a difficult song to write, it was so jarring. A lot of the things I touched upon are things that make people uncomfortable. However, just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about it. In order to change things in the world we have to talk about uncomfortable issues, and the things that scare people.
That ethos of artistic discomfort makes me think of artists like Anohni, whose album Hopelessness is essentially about the climate disaster we are all headed toward. It was a poetic but unflinching look at something affecting all of us that we've mostly turned a blind eye to.
Unfortunately, it has become commercially invaluable for artists to write songs about things other than love. Love is the common denominator that makes music successful. Of course love is important, nothing will break your heart like love. But there are also things in my world that makes my heart break, and it's not always romantic love. I want to say something about it. I wish that more artists would talk about these things. Like I don't think Taylor Swift would necessarily turn around and write songs like these. It's not her brand, but I do think that we need to confront difficult issues head on, and not be afraid — and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, because everyone feels uncomfortable right now. We must allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable in order to grow and change.
Photography: Poppy Tame