The first time Air Devi performed her own songs for an audience was at a friend’s uncle’s birthday party in high school. She entered the backyard prepped to open with a Buzzcocks cover, but when all eyes were on her, Air Devi froze. “I was mortified!” she burst. It’s hard to sell a punk rock headbanger with stage fright. Since childhood, the native South Philadelphian musician and singer-songwriter has wanted to pursue music; today, she’s grateful the bout of fear didn’t deter her.

Air Devi might just be the best kept secret in Philadelphia. She began quietly uploading DIY lo-fi indie-pop to SoundCloud in 2015 and four years later, has produced a refreshingly idiosyncratic repertoire. From an angsty bop that playfully airs personal grievances about her conniving landlord to an entrancingly mellow French track, Air Devi honors her songwriting process, wherever it leads her. The Key sat down with Air Devi at the Italian Market to talk about trusting creativity, playing the sitar, and not working at Goldman Sachs. Her first EP, swanning about will be released on March 14th, 2020.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Air Devi | photo by Jamie Stow for WXPN

The Key: Devi, what have you been up to since graduating from college this past May?

Air Devi: I worked for a Quebecois tourism company this past summer out West, driving around a van with a bunch of French teenagers in it. And I I brought my guitar, just sort of lived a nomadic life for a couple months. I decided that the money I got from this past summer would be put towards recording an EP or an album, which I’ve wanted to do for awhile. So since I got back, I’ve been at a studio in West Philly recording songs with my band and some other music projects.

TK: Are the songs you’re recording new or re-recordings of previously released music?

AD: It’s a mix. One or two of them have been released as demos, but the recordings have evolved. Most of them are songs I’ve been sitting on for awhile.

TK: Can you tell me about what music you listened to growing up?

AD: Punk rock and Bollywood music. Both of my parents were in the punk rock scene. My mom went to high school in London when punk rock was on the rise there. But she’s also an immigrant from India. I’ve been told that my parents played punk music at their wedding and my mom’s Indian relatives were like, “What is this?!” but at the end of the night they were all dancing anyway. So, I listened to a lot of punk growing up like the X-Ray Spex, The Ramones, The Clash. 

TK: Did your mother put headphones on her stomach when pregnant with you and play The Clash?

AD: Basically, yes.

I really like punk rock, but I grew up on Indian music as well. I watched a lot of Bollywood movies when I was younger and listened to classical Indian music as well. I think you can hear the elements of both influences come out in my music. I’m actually leaving Philly until March to go to India, where I’ll be living with my grandparents and studying Indian classical music. I want to dive deeper into my roots and further incorporate it into my songwriting.

TK: Will you be studying vocals or an instrument while in India?

AD: I’m going to continue studying sitar and also take singing lessons.

TK: Can you tell me more about the singing lessons you’ll be taking in India and how they differ from singing lessons in the U.S.?

AD: I’ve never taken a singing lesson in the U.S. or in India, but my impression is that they’re pretty different. In India, there are two main streams of classical music. There’s Hindustani, which is the music of the northern part of the country and Carnatic, which is the music of the South. I will be studying Hindustani music when I go. I know the tradition is a lot of call and response and improvisation, so nothing is written down. Your teacher plays or sings and you keep playing it back until you get it right. Even though music it taught orally, there are rules established through these things called “ragas,” which are sort of like scales but are melodies in of themselves and have rules. My Sitar teacher described them as different flavors—some of them are meant to be played in the morning, some in the evening. Some are associated with feelings of longing, feelings of joy, feelings of devotion. I think the closest thing we have to that in western music are the “modes,” but ragas are much more involved.

Air Devi | photo by Jamie Stow for WXPN

TK: Let’s go back to your songwriting process. Do you have an intentional practice or do you just write when inspired?

AD: The first inspiration for a song usually comes naturally. Sometimes I try to trigger that inspiration just by having an instrument in my hands and playing until I find something that sounds good. There’s this thing called Yogurt, which is when you play some chords and say whatever comes to mind. Sometimes, when I’m doing that, a line will come out that’s kind of like “Where did that come from, that’s kind of cool though!” Other times, you’ll just be walking and a melody will come to you. It’s really nice when that happens. So that initial inspiration is elusive. With some songs though, I’ll spend a year or more working on it, on and off. Sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll listen to fragmented recordings in my phone and try to piece them together like a puzzle. 

TK: I personally feel that songwriting requires a lot of self-trust. How do you navigate seeking external feedback on your music and also trusting when a song feels somatically good to you?

AD: Usually when I finish a song, I’m on this high. And I’m like “YES!,” I feel so good about it. Nothing can bring me down that day. Then sometimes like, two weeks later, I show it to one of my friends and I’m like “uhhhh this isn’t as good as I thought.” So usually after I finish a song I’ll think I’m the shit, and then later I’m like “I gotta fix this.” 

I think you’re right though — there’s a fine balance between trusting yourself and being critical. If you’re critical too early on in the songwriting process that leads to writer’s block. When I first graduated school I was like “Finally I’m free, I can write music!” But then I got this horrible writer’s block that I’ve never had before. I think it was because that freedom was paralyzing, and also came from fear. I thought, “What if I’m not good enough? Look at this piece of crap I made!” I did some exercises where I just tried to write a song a day just to get something out, even if it’s silly. It is just about developing self-trust that if you keep writing, something will be good eventually.

TK: Beyond songwriting, choosing a career in the arts also demands self-trust. You went to school at Penn, a university notorious for sending grads to Wall Street. There’s even a jab at Penn’s corporate-focused culture in “chicken nuggies & rosé” where you sing “Don’t tell me to get real / Cause you already know everything / That’s why you’re doing consulting.” What has experience been pursuing music, especially after graduating from a school with a corporate ethos?

AD: This is something I was struggling with throughout undergrad. But as I grow, I’m learning to trust myself much more. Pursuing music is something that I always knew I wanted to do, but I cast it aside as a hobby because of external forces, and also myself. I told myself “this isn’t lucrative, you have to do something else.” When you’re in a bubble like Penn, there are so many voices telling you “this is the way you have to be and these are the things you have to do.” 

I went to career services and said “I want to do music, help!” and they were like “You should do consulting!!” But there were definitely some people at Penn who were also interested in pursuing a creative path, and I found some solace with them. We banded together.

Getting out of that Penn bubble of altered reality in the summer or even journaling allowed me to hear myself think. I realized how silly all these forces were. I think people, like parents, discourage a career in the arts because they worry that we will financially suffer. And that’s understandable since this world is also so different to many of them — they’re not in it. I think it’s possible to do what you love for a living. You do have to be flexible and plan and sometimes have a lot of projects going on at once, but you can do it if you are willing.

TK: I think a lot of people have this misperception that you can choose what career want to pursue. But ultimately, we can’t control what feels good to us, and we have to surrender to that.

AD: Yes, I agree. Pursuing what feels good to us is important, even though we don’t always know where our passion comes from.

Air Devi | photo by Jamie Stow for WXPN

TK: We’ve been conditioned to distrust what feels good to us, and that’s so sad. But okay, back to songwriting before we hit an existential crisis. I’ve heard a lot of instruments in your music. How many instruments do you play and what encouraged you to learn so many?

AD: I play violin, guitar, bass guitar, sitar, and have been teaching myself keyboard, but I’m learning a little slowly on that one. When I was little I always loved singing and I would sing Bollywood songs at full blast around the house. I think my mom saw my affinity towards music and nurtured it. She said “you can either play piano or violin — actually you’re just gonna play violin cause we don’t have space for a piano.” I played classical violin from kindergarten until eighth grade, at which point I was like “I want to be able to sing and write songs!” At that point I switched to bass guitar, soon after that was guitar, and this was around the time I started writing songs. Once I started playing these instruments, I thought “Hey, now that I know three chords I can write songs just like the Ramones!” 

And why so many instruments — my parents have these punk rock friends who used to host big parties at their house. They had this room with different instruments from all over the world. For me it was like a dream emporium. During their parties all the adults would be downstairs and I would just hang out in this room and play with all the funky instruments. I thought “When I get older, I want a room like this.” I also find that playing different instruments can bring out different ideas, similar to a change in environment, which is just another reason why I wanted to learn more.

TK: A lot of DIY artists like yourself start out by releasing lo-fi music, but even your earliest songs like “Runnin” and “Kremlin Bop” are clear, present, and lack significant distortion. What drew you to wanting to produce your own music and how did you learn to do so?

AD: I think I was drawn to it out of necessity. When I first started, I would just sort of make these demos and lay down a drum track with my vocals and guitar over it and show my band. I definitely don’t know what I’m doing producing-wise, but that’s part of the fun. I think producing is it’s own art and it takes a lot of attention to detail. I get more wrapped up in writing songs, and sometimes lack the patience and meticulousness of producers and audio engineers. 

TK: Many people who learn a second language in adulthood struggle to speak that language confidently, let alone sing it in it. What encouraged you to start writing music in French like “l’etranger” and “flaneuse” and how did you develop the confidence to do so?

AD: I was actually talking about this with one of the girls in the program I was doing over the summer. She’s French and wrote a lot of songs in English. I asked her why, and she said she finds it’s a lot easier to express herself in another language when talking about things that are more vulnerable. I had never thought about it that way but I think she’s right — when you write in another language you’re less critical of yourself. 

TK: What is your dream collaboration?

AD: Honestly I’d love to do something with Mitski. I went to a concert of hers at PhilaMOCA and brought a little notebook that I used to write song ideas in and she signed it “Just keep writing Devi.” I have that propped open on my desk so when I sit there and write and feel like I can’t anymore, I look at that and am like “okay just keep writing!”

TK: I have to ask, why do you call yourself “Air Devi” instead of just “Devi”?

AD: It’s kind of silly. I was thinking about just being Devi, but if you google “Devi” then you’ll get a bunch of images of Hindu goddesses and you will not find me anywhere. So I was like, alright I guess I have to add something to it. I was doing some sketches of t-shirt designs and I thought it would be funny if I were dunking on a basket because I’m so small but then I’m actually just wearing really really high heels. So then I was like “oh those would be called Air Devis.”

You can find Air Devi on Spotify here.