“Everything is going to be derivative,” manali says, “so once you accept that, you can allow yourself to be original.”
manali debuted last week with her lush and evocative first-ever single temple. Telling the tale of star-crossed lovers on the lamb, the track patched together a mosaic of sounds, befitting of a narrative epic. It’s the kind of confident songwriting that you might expect from an artist ten years’ her senior, but manali is just getting started.
Below, Happy Mag caught up with manali for a deep-dive into temple, skincare routines, and the one go-to track that will “never stop slapping.” Scroll down for our complete interview with manali, and head here to listen to her new single temple.
HAPPY: What are you up to today?
MANALI: I went to the gym lol. Spent some much needed quality time with my partner and did some errands. Gotta head to rehearsals for Death of a Salesman soon!
HAPPY: Tell us about where you are from? What’s the scene like in your neck of the woods?
MANALI: I always find this question hard to answer cause I’m “from” a lot of places, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m not from anywhere at all haha.
I was born in India and moved to Australia when I was 6, continuing to move around every few years after we got here. Despite this, I have always felt most at home in Naarm which is where I live at the moment.
I love to be close to my friends and within walking distance of somewhere green (like where we shot my music video on the Merri Creek Trail).
HAPPY: Describe an average day?
MANALI: This year’s word has been consistency and I’m desperately trying to understand what that’s about hahaha.
Any given day can be a combo of gym, rehearsal or performance, making music, working on the play I’m directing, writing or auditioning, but you can always be sure that there will be skincare and BattleBots.
HAPPY: What did you listen to growing up that fuelled your passion for music?
My influences range from Marathi folk songs and hymns, Bollywood soundtracks, The Veronicas, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder to Imogen Heap, Ben Khan, Cosha, Mereba, Kaytranada and Devin Morrison.
It really seems a bit insane but we’re all like this tbh. Regardless of genre I’m always pulled in by a clever and catchy melodic arc, unique voices and heavy focus on how the beat makes me move.
I love having many places to pull from and each artist really reframes the way I hear new music as well as music I’ve loved for years. I’ve always been a musical person, you know the classic “I was singing before I could talk” vibe.
Highlights from when I first started writing music include every second of Jessica Mauboy’s debut album Been Waiting, my SoFresh which included Since You Been Gone, Clumsy and What A Girl Wants and finally Black Box by Stan Walker (which will never stop slapping).
But I would say like any other creative person, I’ve accidentally drawn inspiration from everywhere hahaha. I don’t doubt that some random song that came on at Kmart 6 years ago that I never learned the name of has somehow influenced my writing.
Above is my August playlist in case you wanna bump some of my fav tunes.
HAPPY: Your debut single “temple” seamlessly blends diverse musical genres, creating a unique sonic experience. How did you approach combining these different influences while maintaining a cohesive sound?
MANALI: temple came together quite easily to be honest, it took a lot of time to dial in the balance but the heart of the song was very clear from the beginning.
I have an R’n’B sensibility when it comes to toplining, but I enjoyed challenging that and exploring technique and ideas beyond the confines of definable genre characteristics.
For me, it was less about approaching it through the lens of fusion or genre, but more about which sound/melody/chord/structure/arrangement communicates and evokes this sensual atmosphere the best.
Playing with Indian forest imagery and my own visual story combined with the tension and release of passion and sexual energy really held the song together.
HAPPY: The opening of “temple” feels like the beginning of a fairytale, enriched with Bollywood-inspired percussion. Could you share the creative process behind crafting this captivating introduction?
MANALI: I was really taken by the idea of having an intro and outro section, bookending this story and also creating a listening experience that could be looped.
I wanted to really drop us into the story and capture that urgency with the tabla and percussion, get us hooked and take us on the ride from one second in.
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We’ve got some reversed guitar plucking in there too – the effect is immediately subconsciously identifiable as a device used to communicate the manipulation of time.
In the outro the tabla is reversed and the guitar is the “right way round” if there even is a right way round… you know what I mean.
And this contributes to my idea of beginnings and ends and the cyclical nature of the journey these characters are on.
They’re running from a dangerous situation ready to go down together and in the midst of this fear and panic, are so captivated by each other and the thrill that they agree to simply worry about the danger later in order to make each other the focus in this moment.
HAPPY: The single portrays a star-crossed tale of lovers escaping life’s challenges. What motivated you to explore this theme, and how do you think your music adds a fresh perspective to such a classic narrative?
MANALI: I wanted to centre the perspective of queer love and joy in a world where it can be dangerous to love as loudly as others are allowed to.
But this potential danger can’t always stop us from finding pride in who we are and creating our own narratives.
Claiming space and pleasure in an environment that can feel threatening is how people survive, because at the end of the day, LOVE WINS ayyy.
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And queer love can sometimes exist in this space, so I wanted to centre that joy and power in owning that space, making sure my message is clear: sensuality, sexuality and peace are not just possible but essential.
I write about the escapism at the beginning but the rest of the song is about the lovers’ exploration of a new life so close to freedom.
It’s like these characters catch a glimpse of their future over the horizon and are letting time catch up to them rather than waiting any longer. And why should they?
HAPPY: You’ve mentioned artists like Pharrell, SZA, and Caroline Polachek as influences. How have these artists shaped your approach to both music and storytelling, and how do you infuse your own unique voice into your work?
MANALI: Pharrell’s production is everything to me, honestly I borrow a lot from what I’ve learned about his percussion production (there’s an unashamed Pharrell 4 count homage in my song lol) and writing style.
Caroline Polachek is such a future girl and I feel like her music is a prediction of what music will be in 3000 years – it’s timeless and yet consistently unique and innovative.
She’s also got a reversed tabla sound in Billions and I thought it was genius so we put our own spin on that concept.
SZA is responsible for a lot of my understanding of subtext in melody and using your full range to pack an emotional punch. I love how raw she is, deftly switching between honesty and mystery – it’s where I like to sit too.
HAPPY: “temple” draws inspiration from Frank Ocean’s “Monks.” Could you elaborate on how this specific lyric sparked the creation of your single and influenced your artistic direction?
MANALI: So he says “Indian girl sleeps above the temple, planning to run away” and he goes on to sing more about running away with his own lover.
I was kinda like “hey Indian girl… that’s me af” and went from there, at which point the story became more about the pleasure that can be found in danger, two people so enamoured that they become completely unaware of any need to hide – when pride and pleasure take over.
I love being able to grab lil bits and pieces from songs I love and glue it together with my own experiences. Everything is going to be derivative at a time when artistic output is so saturated – so once you accept that, you can allow yourself to be original.
Another fun easter egg is my homage to Any Time, Any Place by Janet Jackson, which is the best sex music ever made – Hudson Mohawke is nowhere to be found on my sizzle playlist.
HAPPY: Your artistic talents extend beyond music; you’ve also acted on stage and formed a music duo. How do these various creative outlets intersect and influence each other in your overall artistic expression?
MANALI: I have found that I write music how I see films, I write and direct plays and screenplays how I hear music. In my current understanding, there is a rhythm to all things and it’s a really sensory experience of alignment for me.
I love tapping into this flow state. For me, acting is my favourite challenge but one of the places where I feel most at home (in someone else’s (conceptual) body lol girl do you need to talk about that??).
Every project I do teaches me something that I can take into a different facet of my creativity and I’m lucky to be able to express myself in so many different ways.
HAPPY: The music video for “temple” showcases your talent both as a performer and behind the scenes. How did the visual storytelling in the video align with the narrative you’ve woven through the song’s lyrics and melodies?
MANALI: I have never written a song that doesn’t come with a strong visual and colour story. I can see it in my mind’s eye shot by shot, sometimes it’s almost like I’m scoring this film in my head rather than writing a standalone song.
It was so refreshing to work with Strangeworld Studios on this video, they really understood my vision completely and brought it to life better than I imagined in the IMAX of my brain.
I wanted this forest/nature element to be ever-present, and for the imagery to represent South Asian queer love.
The lyrics and subtext in the chords and arrangement tell the story with such clarity and atmosphere, so I wanted the visuals to be conceptual rather than literal.
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HAPPY: What makes you happy?
MANALI: Brunch, metaphors, scalding hot shower, oil, fruit, did I already mention BattleBots, clever writing, my family, my chosen family, green, a sick outfit, conversation, adornment, making my friends laugh, when an idea comes rushing in !!!