By Justin Sidhu
SURYA URS is a 23-year old South Asian artist hailing from Hong Kong and currently based in Sydney, Australia. Surya is a creative polymath — a prolific musician, extraordinary photographer and visceral filmographer. His work evokes feelings of nostalgia and hyperreality while achieving a style informed by myriad inspirations yet vividly distinctive in its own right.
My enlightening two-hour FaceTime call with Surya explored everything from his unique intercontinental background to the motivations behind his artistry to how COVID-19 challenged his creative process. Below are excerpts from our conversation – edited and condensed for clarity. Enjoy his curated playlist while reading his journey as a person and artist:
Upbringing in Hong Kong, family life and how both shaped artistic pursuits:
My dad is a businessman and my mom is a teacher. They brought me up in an open school system, but my dad [always] wanted me to go into business and get an MBA. He wanted me to take that path because he didn’t get to do it — I was down this path until I was 16-17 years old and realized that business wasn’t for me, so I applied into my university’s applied media degree. After I got in, my mom was supportive but my dad wasn’t — He didn’t see money and job prospects. He was looking more for dedication [into a career path]. I eventually got to that, it’s been rocky at times, but support has been smooth.
I had an open upbringing. My dad played blues, jazz and ‘60s-’70s music in the house on weekend mornings. We would watch movies and tv from around the world. I was really into British and American television, and obviously Indian. I also learned piano and guitar from a very young age — these were the roots of my creative personality.
It was also an interesting time period to grow up in because YouTube was coming around when I was about nine years old. I went from what my dad listened to, to finding my own musical journey from rock to emo and punk to hip hop. It was a very weird path for creative influences.
Artistic identity and employing a distinct artistic voice:
As a kid, I was exposed to media from various countries. Hong Kong cinema stands out strongly, especially Wong Kar-Wai – known for films such as “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love”. The way he and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle would frame and light scenes definitely appealed to me at a young age and revisiting them as an adult has given me a new perspective.
I find my voice by putting my own perspective into things. Some of the things I might do — whether I take photos or make music and the way I sample — are different enough for people to recognize them and different in that they first and foremost appeal to me. In our times, anybody can be a creative. Someone was telling me the other day that photography is the easiest art form to do because anybody can pick up a camera and go click. But there’s so many factors that weigh into photography.
When I started up, it was difficult to be true to myself in my work, and [mass appeal] can be a factor, but at the same time for me personally, I want that balance [between external appeal and personal satisfaction].
I still don’t know my identity. The thing about this kind of industry and constantly finding your voice is that it’s a constantly developing process. It’s bittersweet because you’re always chasing something, but when you meet a personal goal, something else comes along and you’re left unsatisfied. It’s a constant journey of not necessarily striving to be the best, but improving on what I can do. Being “the best” is arbitrary — it’s never gonna happen. What matters more is what [you feel] is the best for you and what will constantly push you forward.
Happiness is such an important factor in being an artist. It’s good to have that motivation to be at the top, but I’m not looking for that. When I started out I was, but now, I’m content with staying in my own lane.
The importance of community in artistry:
Within the circle that I keep up with has a similar mindset from what I can tell. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward and push their creative boundaries forward. They’re all trying to be proud of the music they make for themselves.
I don’t think I was ever necessarily like “I’m trying to do this for the money, I’m trying to do this to be #1.” It’s tough to do that in the arts anyways. There are so many genre breakdowns and circles that it’s hard to rank. It’s more of an internal monologue.
Before I started making stuff, I couldn’t understand the intricacies of what goes into a composition. Another creator’s perspective is more valuable because they can tell me if they liked it, why they liked It and what they liked about it. It allows me to improve my art in a more specific way.
We have a Discord-type chat for lo-fi hip hop makers. Back in early 2017, I posted a track that was trash but I thought was amazing. It was a Dilla ripoff, but it was a vibe. They told me the drums were trash and that I had to find something else. That was a universal response to that track — five people told me that. I understood it but I took it personally.
The mentality I had was if the art is bad, the artist is bad. I can’t separate the art from the artist because the art is an extension of the artist, but over time I definitely learned to ask my peers the right questions. People are quick to give you quick feedback, but figuring out how to extract good criticism helped me figure out what I need help with. You’re not going to get much out of the person otherwise, and they’re also not obliged to give you the time of day.
Social vanity and its effect on art:
Starting out, you always wanna be able to share your art with people. You become obsessed with the idea of growing your following and putting yourself out there. If I’m not getting this many likes on this track, I tell myself I need to go back to the drawing board. This many likes dictate whether this is a good piece of art or not.
I realized that this wasn’t the case because a lot of my peers make great art but go underappreciated. Seeing this made me realize that this is not the validation I want — I’d rather gain validation from my peers.
Fixation on people and their facial expressions:
I just think people are very interesting subjects, and there’s always something different. Anybody can take their own meaning into what’s happening — art is very subjective. I’m capturing it because it has one meaning to me, whether it’s an interesting person, action or place. There are a lot of coexisting variables occurring at once.
I want to set my subjects apart from those of other people’s work. In photography, there are a lot of people attempting to capture subjects within the Americana sub-genre, but a lot of the shots that are on my social feed are mimicking one another. Whenever I’m trying to capture something, I want it to be different from the last thing.
Regardless of how an artist sets out their work to be interpreted, it can always be interpreted in a different way. It’s always something in the back of my head. People can like your art and have different perspectives on it, but others can have perspectives and hate it because of how it applies to their own lives.
Formative exposures to music:
Eminem first because he’s big in Asia. I got into him around the time Relapse came out. Then Lil Wayne, Drake, mainstream hip hop. Then ‘90s rap: Wu-Tang, Tribe, Outkast. But most importantly, the Soulquarians — The Roots, Common, D’angelo, Erykah Badu. I remember listening to Dilla [for the first time] and being like “what the fuck am I listening to?!”
The reason I started making music was for my bachelor’s degree application portfolio. I realized that Logic Pro X was actually not inaccessible. The biggest hurdle about getting into these things is that they’re inaccessible, but there’s so many tutorials out there to get you to figure it out. I started out making Dilla and Madlib ripoffs. If I found one of these beats today I would turn it off. Dilla played a big part in many artist’s lives.
Introduction to photography:
Gordon Parks. I was never a good photographer — it started out with a lot of practice. I found Gordon’s photography during a lecture for Uni and I was blown away. For Kendrick’s ELEMENT. video, when they recreated his photographs, I was mind-blown. I recognized some of the photographs they were mimicking and I realized I could do this in a way that applied to my life, in a similar vein to how I started making music – starting off in a way that is reminiscent of my inspiration and developing my own voice.
I’m mainly into street photography and I shoot on analog. I like the thrill of not being able to see the photo immediately. I like snapping something and waiting for a couple hours to a week to see it. You can’t reproduce the colors of a film photo. The textural feel is so unique.
Entry into filmography:
Film is tough because it was a gradual interest that started from photography and branched out to videography. I wanted something that could work in conjunction with music, but I didn’t necessarily know a lot about it. Indie films on Vimeo inspired me to film as well. Filming people is interesting to me because you get a different result from each person. You’re not just shooting a person — you’re enhancing your knowledge.
I did my BA thesis on a Pakistani asylum seeker who ran to Hong Kong and was stuck on that status for 23 years. I interviewed him for 20-40 minutes and it was life-changing. It was a world that existed in the same city as me that I didn’t know about. This was a strong motivation in what I want to do for cinematography.
I wanted to film a short film about the ethnic experiences of minorities in HK because it’s a topic that’s been growing. Our stories have been coming more to light with the younger generation writing about and filming them. For this project, my friend was working with refugees, which inspired me. She connected me with an agency and I found my subject there. He agreed to the interview but didn’t want his face shown. He didn’t want his story going around because he didn’t want to face any potential repercussions.
Engagement with a unique South Asian diaspora identity:
It was tough growing up in Hong Kong. I’ve faced a lot of microaggressions, even as a kid. People are not necessarily very confrontational, but people will cover your nose around them because they think you smell due to stereotypes. They will curse you out in Cantonese — I’m conversational, so I would definitely understand what they’re saying and respond calmly.
Their views come from a passing down of generations and also out of a lack of exposure to our culture. In these situations, you want to not be aggressive and let them know you’re a part of their community whether they like it or not. I was born in Mumbai but raised in Hong Kong and definitely consider myself a part of that city. We still celebrated Diwali and Holi and went to the temple. I went to India every year for at least a couple months to visit family.
I felt a separation from my own culture and a shame arising from the stigma of being a minority in Hong Kong. As a teenager, I felt resentment towards my own community, but I grew out of that quickly because it was stupid. I just caught myself one day questioning my views. I’ve had friends that have gone through the same thing and reconciled with their own identity.
Growing up somewhere else, it can be difficult to engage with your native community. I used to see Indian community groups and find it embarrassing, but in reality they’re celebrating their culture. There’s no reason to be ashamed of who you are culturally.
I refused to listen to Indian music for a long time, whether it was Bollywood or older classical music. My dad would sometimes listen to it and I would feel ashamed. It was immaturity that stemmed from my closed-mindedness. Once you start being open-minded about one thing, you start growing open-minded about a lot of other things.
I was definitely very close-minded growing up, but that changed once I got to university. I got to be outside the house a lot more — despite having open parents, I did feel cooped up in my house and stuck in that space, which caused a lot of my negative perspectives. Once I got to be in Uni and meet new groups of people, I could see and experience more in that regard.
I’ve studied RD Burman, an Indian classical composer who drew inspiration from Western and South American music, infusing them into Indian music. He integrated them in such a unique way that it was worth studying. Another important work was Madlib’s Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: Beat Konducta in India. I hated it as a kid but came back to it once my outlook changed and I would appreciate it more. I can understand it more with the eyes and ears that I have now. I can appreciate the chops and the drums et cetera.
Our culture is so rich and there’s so much unity and at the same time so many differences. There’s so much appreciation to be had.
Personally impactful philosophies, artistic movements and film genres:
For my degree, I had to study a lot of interdisciplinary art. A lot of art is intertwined with different philosophical influences. I wrote a paper discussing creating an art piece inspired by Jacques Lacan’s discussion on how language consciously and unconsciously affects your communication with the world.
Dadaism is a weird anti-art movement that was interesting and influential to this day. You can’t deny the influence it had. Part of Dadaism involved the idea of photomontages, which is a lot of what I do in my graphic design work.
I sometimes create album covers for commissions or for friends who are also artists. A lot of inspiration I subconsciously take from Dadaism is the photomontage and the influence in sound. Looking back for example at John Cage, who was associated with the Neo Dada movement — he used a lot of sampling techniques early on with using tapes and stretching out sounds. A lot of the art I create sort of draws inspiration from and stems to Dadaism.
“The Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord talked about mass media and how it’s consumed by the public. It was very interesting to read just because it came out in the late ‘60s but you can see how much stronger that point is in the way we experience capitalism today. It didn’t necessarily inform the art that I make, but it clearly inspired my way of thinking. Growing up, generally you notice things but can’t really make connections. This book allowed me to see things differently.
For films, it was definitely documentaries. I loved Chronicle of a Summer by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch. In the film, they asked people whether they were happy and their thoughts on society. They wanted to know — if you put people in front of a camera, will they be able to act sincere?
Today, you see a lot of posing and curated profiles like on Instagram. Morin and Rouch would ask questions related to the society their interviewees lived in in France and their relation to happiness as part of the working class. They would sit the people they interviewed down in a cinema, make them watch their responses and have them discuss how real they were acting. They filmed that as well. That was very hands on and it wasn’t a traditional documentary. This definitely took it to the next level — it was the first widely known example of cinema verité.
The constant search for inspiration:
Bandcamp is a very important place to be, especially if you’re an artist looking for different types of music. A lot of artists will upload their stuff on Bandcamp because it will directly connect them to the audience. You can sell vinyls, CDs, clothing and anything you want directly. I’m releasing a beat tape with a zine full of pictures that correspond to specific tracks.
Bandcamp usually takes a 15% cut from each sale, but during COVID they won’t take a cut of the money on the first Friday of each month. More than any other music service, they support the artists on the platform. A lot of people I look up to use Bandcamp – I use it as a music fan first and foremost, and as an artist second.
For videography, Vimeo is huge. I’m also trying to force myself to watch things that are new to me, I tend to get into a cycle of repetition and that means binge watching media I’ve already seen a multitude of times. It’s easy when you already know the world you’re entering so going into a new world takes a bit of commitment and whether that pays off or not is a risk but it’s one I’m trying to take more often.
For photography, I’m always looking at individual artists. Gordon Parks is very influential to me. I read books about how the camera is an extension of the person. Photography is looking for inspiration everywhere. It’s the same for videography.
Philosophy does run through all three of those aspects. That aspect falls a lot more into photography than it does into music for me. Music is a lot about feeling. Photography has feeling too, but to me there is a lot more context into what I’m creating.
Influential people and battling self-doubt:
Personally it’s my friends — I have a very solid group of friends, and they have helped me find myself in my journey to be better. When I first moved to Sydney, it was difficult navigating who to trust, but the people I still talk to now have helped me a lot. Being better in my personal life has helped me in my relationship with art because it makes me more confident in creating. A lot of what’s stopped me in the past is the self-doubt and insecurities in what I create.
There’s a lot of inspiration in the online communities as well – Omari Jazz comes to mind first, 10.4 rog, slr, Finem, Broken Transient, Reid. These are the first names to pop up in my mind but the music that they make and the short videos that they put out constantly inspire. Omari has a Discord community that is amazing as well, with a lot of supportive people that I’ve become mutuals with, and the amount of knowledge being shared is overwhelming.
We’ve had a lot of deaths and many in the community as well — the recent passing of MF DOOM has affected a lot of people. Whenever you feel like something is ready to be shown to the world, you have to put it out because you never know when you won’t be able to. There is a right time for everything, but it’s a matter of being perceptive as to when it is. I’m very hesitant about putting things out with fears regarding engagement and visibility. If you like your work and you think it’s ready, it’s ready. There’s no pre-set time to put it out there.
People are dropping stuff on random days rather than on Fridays (music industry standard), and the community I’m in releases things on dates significant to them or when they feel like dropping in the moment.
COVID-19 and the creative process:
We’re going through a weird period in time right now where it’s very difficult to create and to operate normally. I’m privileged to be in Australia which isn’t as bad comparatively — we’ve only had 30,000 cases.
When lockdown began, I was in the second semester of my MA and we had to do all our projects at home between March and April 2020. It broke me a lot and I couldn’t function at all. I gained a lot of weight, I got up late and I couldn’t do anything at all.
Once things started opening up, I moved to a new place and started seeing friends more. I got a lot better, but I’m still definitely facing a lot of creative blocks. I recently moved again to a much bigger space, and the claustrophobia is going away more. I’m feeling more inspired and a lot less cynical about things.
I’m trying to be a cinematographer, musician and photographer full-time. At a certain point, you have to push forward past your anxiety and doubts and just do it, whether it’s good or bad. My output isn’t all good — I have more bad days than good. Working toward that one day and moment where I reach what I want is a rewarding feeling.
I’m privileged to have shelter, pay for masks, and get tested for free. You have to make the best of the situation you’re in, and when you have the advantages you do, you’ve got to take in every moment you can.
Daily routine — beginning of quarantine vs. today:
In total lockdown, I’d wake up at noon or 1:00 pm. I would miss my 9:00 am lectures or just pass out on Zoom. I was trying to cook more — it started off good, but as things got worse in the world, I started ordering out and having 3-4 heavy meals per day. I was endlessly rewatching TV shows. I felt very unproductive and stagnant, and sort of like a failure. I moved out of my student accommodations right before lockdown started and into a small ensuite living room.
Afterward, I moved back into the student accommodation and started going to the same café every day just to get out of my rut and out of the house. I started seeing friends a lot more and listening to music every morning. I listened to vinyls and to my pump up playlist. That would be my daily routine in terms of getting ready for the day.
It’s similar to a routine I had when I visited a producer friend in the Netherlands. We would wake up, he’d make us espressos and put on some jazz. Now I try to stay consistent with that routine — listening to music, getting coffee and sorting out my work.
Ambitions, future aspirations and dealing with creative fatigue:
Realistically, I don’t see myself doing anything other than what I’m doing now. With photography, in the short-term, I want to develop my own negatives and have a studio that I can do stuff in. With music, I want to expand into making neo-soul and jazz. I want to keep creating and collaborating with people I look up to. To be able to be in that position is insane to me and that’s why I have to take advantage of it. I want videography to be my main thing because there’s so much pleasure in being able to capture what you want.
I don’t have specific goals but I want a stable enough career in one of those fields that can fund the other ones. I want to do this until I die — this is my life. The days where I can’t do anything creative are those that hurt the most.
One of my friends very early on told me: “if you’re not making music, listen to it. Engage it in some way.” Fatigue is very common especially among artists. If I’m not actively creating, I’m watching interviews with Questlove and MF DOOM on Red Bull Music Academy, listening to samples, reading NPR content on hip hop, watching NPR Tiny Desks, really engaging with anything. For photography, it’s looking at photographers on Instagram and gaining inspiration. Videography-wise, I’m looking into lenses and lighting. I recently learned a lot from an analysis of the film The Farewell.
You can pick up nuances from everything, but there is something to be learned from everything. There are ways to engage with art without constantly creating.
I’ve never asked myself who I want to collaborate with because I’m more of an observer. I think I draw inspiration from too many places to want to collaborate with one specific person.
There are rappers and producers that I want to meet — when Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs came out, that opened me up to a lot of different artists that he got inspired by to make that project. I don’t have an answer for that.
I’d rather sit in a room by the people I’m inspired by, and that’s a lot of people. I’d rather listen to what they have to say and apply it to my own work. I’ve never really collaborated in that sense. It’s definitely something I do wanna do more and something I’m working towards.
Nothing in art is original in the sense drawing inspiration for other things. Anything and everything I’ve applied to life I’ve taken from my peers, my mentors and my experiences traveling.
Keep up with Surya at the following places:
Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/au/artist/surya/1315523818