Proof positive that chance encounters and competition television can propel talented individuals into the spotlight, New York City-based singer Oshri has a burgeoning music career producing work that seamlessly blends influences from across the globe. With his reputation solidifying and profile rising, we spoke with him to learn about his greatest inspirations, unique creative process and passion for giving back.
Your career took off when you won the South African TRACE Music Stars competition. What was the experience of competing on such a large platform? Do you feel that it prepared you for your career today?
Yes. My dream was always to move to NYC and pursue my music career, but life and reality took me away from it. Winning the competition gave me the push I needed and the confidence that I could actually make it happen. The experience had pressure, but it was because I knew it was an opportunity I could not miss and that I had to give it my all.
Wyclef Jean was your mentor during the competition and you’ve mentioned that part of the reason for your move to New York City was to continue working with him. What is your relationship with him like and did his mentorship continue post competition?
Wyclef has an important role in my career. He is the reason I came to the States in the first place. After winning, he gave me a call and told me how much he believes in me and how unique my talent is. He said I should come as soon as possible to work with him. There was no doubt. I just packed my stuff and moved. We worked together closely in his home studio the year after the competition developing my sound. He is a phenomenal artist, mentor and he believed in me from day one.
How have your life and career changed since making the move New York?
I had a fulfilling life in South Africa–friends, business, home…and suddenly I had to leave it behind and make a complete new start in New York, which was very difficult in the beginning. That struggle made me confront a lot of demons, but it made me grow a lot as a person and artist. My life today is amazing with lots of friends for life, and I created a new home for myself. Career-wise, from writing alone at home in South Africa, I now have the privilege of working with top singer/songwriters such as Mike Campbell who wrote “Say Something” by Christina Aguilera and Great Big World and artists such as Wyclef and Akon. I could never get access to people like that anywhere else in the world.
Were you always drawn to a career in music? Did music play an important role in your childhood?
Yes definitely. I’ve sung since I was 9 years old, and my first writing experience was when I took cartoon opening songs and wrote new lyrics to their soundtrack.
You’ve noted that your French and Middle Eastern heritage has had an influence on your musical style. How do you think those influences have expressed themselves?
I grew up listening to a lot of Middle Eastern and French music, which are two different worlds. I feel like the biggest way I incorporate where I’m from is by the way I sing and my riffs and the quarter notes that are part of the Middle Eastern scale. I bring that into the contemporary pop music that I love doing.
How does the songwriting process begin for you? Is it always the same?
No, it’s not always the same. It might happen by setting up a writing session and in the session we might just talk about what’s going on with me and my life and take it from there. Or sometimes I come prepared with something specific I want to write about. But it can also be as spontaneous as a hang at a friend’s place where something is said or a note is played that leads to the birth of a new song.
Do you feel as though your work ever comes to a state of completion? Or is it a perpetual work in progress?
It never feels complete. Even when I release the song and it’s on radio, I still feel like this or that could have been done differently or that a word could have been in a different spot. You always think things can be better. The work reflects where you are, and you always grow, so you feel the work should always grow.
How would you describe your specific sound? Do you think it’s evolved since you began working professionally?
Oh, yes. I would describe my sound as edgy pop with some Eastern spice. It’s definitely evolved as the years go by. I’ve become more focused with my music. Now, more than ever, I know what I want to say, how I want it said, and to whom I want to say it.
What drives you to create music? What makes it something you want to share with others?
The thing that drives me to make music is the understanding of how powerful music is and how big of a change I can make with my music. Most of the time, I try to share my point of view of life, lessons I’ve learned, experiences I’ve had or opinions I have so other people can hear it and get inspired or feel better about themselves. I try to change people’s set belief systems and I like to break social boxes.
What artists would you count among your biggest influences and what made them have such an impact on you?
I grew up listening to Celine Dion. The way she treats her voice and her big songs and dedication made a great impact on the way I do things today.
Keeping in shape seems to be very important for you. What’s involved in your regular routine and how do you motivate yourself to stay fit?
I gym at least four times a week and do yoga every weekend. I drink plant-based protein supplements and stick to a healthy diet with mostly vegetables and fish. Working out and eating healthy is a lifestyle, it’s not something that has a timeframe. It’s forever. By not being healthy, I’m letting myself down and that’s the biggest motivation for me! It’s like going to school: you can miss a day here and there and it’s ok, but dropping out? That’s a different story.
What role does social media play for a modern music artist? Is it something you enjoy engaging with?
The role social media plays is that it’s an amazing platform to personally engage with your fans and to have full control of the content you share with them. I feel like with social media today, an artist has to be authentic. People have to see who you are, what you do and what you like. In the past it was different in a way that record labels would pop out artists that were like products. And yes, I like being on social media, but I also hate being on social media at the same time.
When you put out a new project, do you still feel a certain ownership over it or does it become something shaped by the listening public?
For me, releasing a song means basically to give it away. When it’s out, it belongs to everyone and I’m the legal owner of it, that’s it.
The music industry is known to be in a great deal of flux at the moment. Has that affected the choices you’ve made when it come to outreach or deciding how to release new music?
You can get really confused with everything that’s going on at the moment, but I decided to stick to what I feel is right for me, using my culture and the sounds I grew up with. If anything, I feel like you can be braver these days.
Looking through your website makes it evident that charitable endeavors are very important to you, particularly the NGO Imagine Scholar. What draws you to that work and what made you choose to collaborate with this specific organization?
I grew up poor in a very small town far away from everything. I had no one to guide me through life and teach me how to become successful at anything. Where I’m from, dreams were a luxury. I found my way thanks to the love and values that my mom gave me, but so many kids out there don’t get to have that and they end up lost, not knowing what they want to do with their lives or how to if they do. The fact that I ended up doing what I love is a gift and I feel responsible to help others to try to achieve the same. Imagine Scholar does exactly that–they run mentorship programs for kids in schools in underprivileged rural areas in South Africa, so it was the perfect fit for me.
What projects can fans look forward to in the future?
New songs and new collaborations are just around the corner.
written by martin lerma // photography by carolyne teston