Indie Pop Safe Haven: Quiet Light on the Past, Present, and Future

Graphic designed by
Jane Palacios

Have you ever met someone who shines so brightly that talking to them is like staring into the sun? I got to sit down with Riya Mahesh of Quiet Light, an Austin band that you should definitely look up and try to see live. I can stumble over my words, typing, deleting, rephrasing, trying to explain what is so special about Riya and her art, but I think it will be easier if you take my word for it and listen to her music while you read this interview.

Okay, hello. I'm Jane Palacios with the Society for the Preservation of Texas Music. And you are-

Riya: Riya Mahesh of Quiet Light.

So we're going to do this cute little interview. We're just going to talk about the origins of Quiet Light, where you are now, and what the future is going to be- 'cause you're graduating.

Riya: Totally, yeah.

So I heard- I read when you released Blue Angel, Sparkling Light-

Riya: Sparkling silver

Sparkling silver. Blue angel, Sparkling Silver. You talked about how you had been releasing music online since middle school.

Riya: Yeah.

And I think lately, especially with your new EP there was this like spark...like jump in the fan base. What's that been like- getting recognition for your work?

Riya: Yeah, it's so weird and is almost completely attributed to, um, two people: there is this guy named Toby who works for a PR firm in England who found my music through some mutual, like Austin friends. And this was like, as soon as I'd released 'Til I Get Tired. And he was like, I heard you're planning on making an EP, And I would really like to do press for you for free for this. And that's just something that like- people don't realize how expensive it is to be like an indie musician, and like tour, and have like press releases and stuff. Like, it's really not something that's accessible for college students who like- I don't have a full-time job. My banana stand money is paying for my gear and stuff. Like it's not that much.

So it's like, it was just really nice that he took that leap of faith in me and was able to spread the word about Quiet Light. 'Cause before my entire fan base was Austin, but now it's like: 200 monthly listeners are from Austin. Everybody else is from like, God knows where, you know? So that's been cool. And the other person is Andres from sleep well. As soon as I released 'Til I Get Tired, he reached out to me and was like, "Hey, like I really liked the song. I think you should get a band together and start playing shows." And he booked us for our first show, which was the Hall Johnson Halloween Show. And ever since then, like, it's just kind of been like a roll. 'Cause I feel like the barrier to entry is kind of high for getting shows, but I think that once people see you play, like, every band in Austin that gets like, one or two shows ends up playing pretty regularly.

Photo by Emma Roche

How- how do you think like the early KVRX videos helped.

Riya: Yeah. I mean, KVRX was just so nice. 'Cause it was like, we, I barely had any music out and it was just like, you know...people were friends with me and Wes and they were like, "we want to support you." And so that was really nice because like the EP had come out, and I'd never played a show. And they were like, "Let's do an Unplugged with you", "Let's do a Local Live" and it was good because during COVID we couldn't play shows. And so it was a nice way to, for people to see live renditions for the songs on the internet, which was cool.

I think it was really great. 'Cause like, um, early EPs or just like recordings- recordings are hard in general- I think it was like, not the clearest, the very first one. But then in the KVRX recordings, you could hear how truly amazing your voice is, by the way.

Riya: Thank you

It was really nice. It also was something I noticed at the Hole In The Wall show, which is the first show I saw you at. Which was prom-themed. I mentioned that earlier.

Riya: Totally.

That was such a cute idea. Um, if anybody wasn't there that night, uh, Quiet Light had a prom-themed show. And there were like 40 people in the audience wearing, like, their fanciest dresses. And I didn't get that memo, and I felt out of place. But it was okay because it was really nice to see! Like, it was like a beautiful display of friendship, truly.

Riya: Definitely! Yeah, My friend Maggie made like a promposal sign for me.

I remember that!

Riya: "Will you be the quiet light of my life and go to prom with me?"

My- I brought my coworker and she is just amazed by your voice.

Riya: That's so sweet.

And so how, how long have you been singing? And I remember you said that Phoebe Bridgers is an inspiration for you, and I can hear that, but I also definitely hear a lot of like, 2010s Taylor swift.

Riya: Totally.

So, which do you think you pull from, or like which- what aspects?

Riya: Yeah. I mean, you hit the nail on the head right there. Well, I think something that a lot of people not know about me is that like I was- I've been like classically trained in voice since like, I was a little kid.

Oh, that's clear. *nervous, starstruck laughter*

Riya: Like, my parents put me in voice lessons when I was young. And, um, I was- I was like training for like opera singing. So I would sing, like, I grew up singing like arias and like Puccini. Stuff that's so far from the things that I do now. But, um, I was really like a classical music buff from elementary school to high school. I took piano lessons from the age of four. I took like classical voice lessons and sang in a choir. It was very like far from what I do. Um, but I think that I- I really...I saw pop music as like my like escape-slash-free time from all of the like strictness of classical music.

I like was-it's this funny story! I remember when I was in sixth grade, my piano teacher, Ms. Morales, she let one of her students have a Taylor Swift songbook. To like, learn the songs from Speak Now on piano, 'cause she couldn't get the kid to be interested in like whatever classical music we were playing. And I saw the book and I was like, "I want to play Taylor Swift on the piano." And she was like, "You're not allowed to." And I remember being like, "Okay, well I have to teach myself how to do this." And so I would just play on the piano, just like things that I found on the internet that were like pop songs. Like A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton and stuff like that. Pop music has always been like, kind of like a Safe Haven for me for expression. Um, as much as I like love classical music and stuff, there's so much technique and so many rules that I think that are just like, so non-existent in indie pop. And so I've always gravitated towards that. And songwriting has always been like a break for me from all of that.

Will we ever hear some sort of classical inspiration, at least one song

Riya: Actually of the new album has. A lot of like opera ad-libbing in the background, which I'm really excited to put out.

When is that going to come out?

Riya: That will probably come out like later this summer, or in the fall. I mean, we're like, I think we're like halfway done with it. Um, but Anthony from Stunts and Will Clark are producing it. And they're just like mad men, like they're so cool. And they make me take a lot more risks than I think I would have if I was just working alone.

Yeah. It's really good to know. I'm really excited.

Riya: Totally.

So back to, I guess, talking about...I mean, so one of the things that I've noticed about you lately is you're booked and busy.

Riya: Totally

Like two, one to two shows every single week, right?

Riya: Yeah

How is that going to change after graduation?

Riya: Totally. I think. Well, one of the reasons that we're booked and busy is, 'cause we never say no to anything. Um, I probably have said no to like three shows in total. And the only reason why is because we were playing a show the night before or the day of, um, it's pretty much like we'll play anything like we'll play, we'll play your cousin's birthday party and we'll play Hole in the Wall. We'll literally do whatever. Like cause everything, I think any experience of playing music is like a fun experience. Whether it be like a solo show, or like a full band. There's always something to learn and like, just like so many cool people to meet in Austin. So we never say no.

But I mean, that's going to change because the band is splitting up- the live band. And I don't really have too much of an interest when I move in like finding a live band right away. So I think the plan is that Quiet Light is going to transition into being a recording project, which is what it was originally. And then. I just kind of want to build up a nice repertoire of music. And then when I have the means to like tour on my breaks from school, I can get like a band together and do that, too.

Photo by Emma Roche

Where are you moving to?

Riya: I do not know yet. It's either going to be Hartford, Connecticut or like right outside of Boston 'cause those are my two options for grad school. I don't know yet.

Where are you going? What are you going for?

Riya: I'm going to get an MD-PhD, which is eight years of school.


Riya: I am literally not. No, I just- I just like science a lot.

Well, that's dedication. I mean, that's really cool.

Riya: Yeah! I'm super excited about it. I think I'm going to learn so much and I think I need to get out of Texas just because I've lived here my whole life.


Riya: And I'm excited for like the amount of personal growth I'm going to have.

Do you think growing up in Texas has influenced Quiet Light in any way?

Riya: Totally. Um, in high school, I was like total like high school prom queen, like worked really hard in school was like very, like all. Like, I, I was really sold on the whole high school thing. I honestly feared when I came to college that I had peaked in high school. Um, which thank God I didn't..

I know!

Riya: So like, I have like a lot of, um, like a lot of things are influenced from like, just like growing up in my hometown of Coppell because like, I just like knew everyone there. Um, I really. I would go anywhere and it's like, the whole town is like three miles in diameter- so anytime I went grocery shopping with my mom, or like pick my brother up from school, I would have like a 30 minute conversation with someone that I knew. And I really felt safe there. And then I came here and it was just like, I was really like small fish in a huge pond. And it took me like two years, like freshman and sophomore year, to really figure out like how I was going to be in college. Because like so much of my life in high school, I just been like choir and like going to Coppell Conservatory, and like playing piano there, and like teaching masterclasses, and doing all these things that just weren't a part of my life anymore.

You taught master classes?

Riya: Yeah.


Riya: I would, I would help out with, um, like little kid piano classes and would like give them advice on their pieces. And like, that was just so fun.

That's so cool.

Riya: 'Cause I was one of the older people at the piano school. Things like that, that I just missed. Um, but music has really like turned everything around for me. And I now, like all of my friends make music or are involved in the scene in some way. So, I'm glad I didn't peak in high school. But a lot of my music is about like, experiencing change, and grappling with being comfortable. People that I was in love with in high school or things that I took for granted in high school, and coming to college and feeling just like the change all the time. And then like trying to figure out who I was as a person and trying to like navigate music is what a lot, a lot of my stuff's about.

Yeah. I think that was something I noticed in one of your songs. When you were playing live, you performed it at one of your soundchecks. And I thought it was like the best thing I've ever heard live. And then it wasn't even like the full version. That was just you testing out. It- you had the lyrics, um, "laughing on the porch, talking shit about our friends."

Riya: Oh, that's 4th of July! Yeah, that song is so about high school.

Yeah, that was so good. I thought it captured that energy and the way you performed it- it was like Nothing New, the song by Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift. That's what it felt like, but more hopeful in looking back.

Riya: That's so sweet.

That's this very common thread in your music, where it's like very kind to your younger self while still growing up, you know?

Riya: Definitely.

Going forward, but not like going forward in a way that diminishes the past. Or like "I'm different now." I don't know.

Riya: I'm glad that it comes across because like, I think, I think of that Joan Didion quote, which was like, it's something along the lines of like, "we're advised to keep on nodding terms with past versions of ourselves." Because it's like, I mean, I think about like my high school self, my middle school self, and whatever and I feel very different than that person. And for a long time, well, I'm like, "I'm so different! Like, I didn't know anything back then." Like I was so down, I made all these mistakes, but I mean, it's gotten me here and I'm extremely grateful for that because I can't think of like right now at this time in my life, like, I can't imagine any way I would have wanted it to be different. I'm really happy with how everything is going- music wise, yeah.

Photo by Emma Roche

I like your- your dress a lot. Is that like, it's like ren-faire inspired? But I don't, I can't figure out the exact, uh, century, which my costume teachers like heard me talk about this, they'd be really mad at me. But I like that. Is that your new look? You've abandoned the black leotard, white skirt. And now it's all going to be princess dresses?

Riya: I think this is actually part of the last, the last era of it. I think that was like super like, um, renaissance-y, swan-y. Super like Swan-Renaissance-Sword-Dove-core. Um, I'm really, I'm really into like, aestheticizing Quiet Light. I think that's so fun.

No, you should!

Riya: I think that the next era is like nostalgia oriented and like, sports? I don't- I don't really like sports, but like, kinda just like team camaraderie and like friendship based. Um, I don't really know how I'm going to like aestheticize that yet. But I've been listening to like a lot of like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive and like, I'm just super obsessed with Kim Gordon right now. So I think I'm gonna take it back a notch and try to be a little bit more, um, a little more hardcore. I don't know.

I mean, then you can bring back the sword.

Riya: The swords could literally stay. I was in a- I was in a Renaissance choir in high school. I was kind of like my life. I was like, it's called Madrigals. And we would put on a big feast every year. And like, it was like, it was like acting, and involved singing, and we would like Christmas Carol at nursing homes. And that's where I kind of became obsessed with the whole Renaissance thing. And it kind of hasn't died for me. I just think it's fun.

It's cool! Everything I've learned. I'm just like amazed. I probably sound so...not as smart in this interview because I was like caught off guard by, like, how inviting this conversation has been.

Riya: So sweet. Thank you.

Um, I'm really looking forward to taking these pictures of you in the beautiful dress and typing up this conversation and sharing the fact that there's new Quiet Light on the horizon-

Riya: Totally.

-that is partially Renaissance inspired.

Riya: Thank you so much for having me. This was super fun.

Thank you.

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