Quiet Light, through the cracks

The experimental folk-pop artist and producer finds new limits of her chosen forms.

May 14, 2024
Quiet Light, through the cracks Quiet Light. Photo by Leah Blom.  

The Opener is The FADER's short-form profile series of casual conversations with exciting new artists.


Two weeks ago, Riya Mahesh took her monthly trip from Boston to New York City, where she spent last summer recording a new EP called Contact. She caught her friend Maya Collette’s show at Kaleidoscope, and reconnected with the circle of artists she’s grown close with. Days later, she was back at med school, assigned to the care of stroke patients in the neurology ICU of a hospital.

In one half of her life, Mahesh is Quiet Light, an experimental folk-pop songwriter and producer creating startlingly original songs; in the other, she’s a 22-year-old, third-year student on clinical rotations where her coworkers have no idea of her alter ego. “Sometimes I wake up and I feel like I'm playing a video game, and that's my life,” she says over the phone from Boston. “It's like, ‘What identity do I want to wear today?’"

Mahesh’s skill at evading definitions found its genesis at the beginning of her life; from an early age, she was often pulled in competing directions. Born and raised in a Texas household that played classics of Indian music and rock ‘n’ roll, she was put in piano lessons by her mother, a talented sitar player, at age four. Six years later, she began uploading songs to SoundCloud in secret. Amidst all this, she still thought her ultimate destiny was in the opera.

But the pressures of the outside world took their toll. Mahesh describes herself then as “an insanely Texas girl,” the prom queen who was more into football and homecoming than indie music. “I had a big thing in high school where I was like, ‘Oh, I'm playing it cool, I'm maintaining an image,” she confesses. “I was obsessed with all of that.”

When she didn’t get into Juilliard, she figured her future in music had been decided for her. “I thought that I wasn't going to make it as a musician, and I was worried that the stress of trying to make it as a musician would make me hate music, and music's the most sacred thing in my life,” she says.

In Austin for college, Mahesh came across the Cactus Cafe, a live music venue whose humble size belies its institutional heft within the city. The Cafe introduced her to strands of bluegrass and folk, and, crucially, a new method of music distribution. “I met a bunch of musicians there,” she says, “and they just put their music out on Spotify using DistroKid. And I was like, "Oh, I could totally do that." Her self-titled debut EP was released in September 2020, produced by William Valero. But she took the reins during lockdown and decided to teach herself production in her parent’s house with a three-month demo version of Logic.

This would prove essential to the creative leaps found in her first three full-length projects: Fourth of July, Blue Angel Sparkling Silver, and I Love You Because You’re In Love With The World, all released in 2023. I Love You and Blue Angel are sound collages in the tradition of Dean Blunt’s World Music, or perhaps a Joni Mitchell record produced by Klein. Both albums have a hypnagogic, anything-goes mandate, off-mic voice memos sharing space with gauzy aurora borealis vocal melodies that shimmer whether raw or processed with Auto-Tune. By contrast, Fourth of July shows us Quiet Light the singer-songwriter, an artist who writes swooning pop anthems inspired by Mitchell, “very traditional folk” like the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas, and her summers in Texas. Its songs are the kind teenage stans pour over and create entire universes with.

“My goal whenever I make music,” Mahesh says, “is that someone could just listen to an MP3 file of it, and they don't know how I look; they don't know anything about me. [And] They can tell that I'm telling them a story in a Gillian Welch, folk-writing-esque way, but I want it to feel like a dream sequence.”

Quiet Light, through the cracks Quiet Light. Photo by Leah Blom.  

These albums do not feel disparate from one another — I Love You was supposed to be the debut record of a separate project called Blue Angel Sparkling Silver (whose eponymous LP was her second recorded full-length) before Mahesh decided to fold everything under the Quiet Light banner. Mahesh puts them in conversation through the precise intention of her sound design, as well as the plainly obvious skill of her songwriting.

This dialogue is continued on the Contact, a four-track release from April that reconciles the best aspects of Fourth of July and Blue Angel to reveal fresh new angles of Mahesh’s sound. Each new Quiet Light project is constructed around a theme, and Contact’s was heartbreak. It was written following the dissolution of a deep romantic love, resulting in some of the most revealing songs of her discography. “It was a painful experience,” Mahesh says of the project’s creation, “to relive a breakup over and over again, [to] be mixing songs about your breakup.”

Contact opens with “Kiera Knightley,” the aftermath of a cataclysmic crash to earth when a relationship’s artifice has been stripped away, imagined as a gloomy, wonky electro-pop song. The wry vocals, Mahesh’s stab at a PinkPantheress-style self-duet, flags her affection for pioneering producers like Charli XCX and A.G. Cook. Each of the songs has an evolving, elusive perspective to the lyrics: they are of Quiet Light, if not literally from her, drawing us into new arenas each time we listen.

This quality gives a more deeply tragic color to the pledge of commitment on “Fresca,” a song driven by humming synths, and “Used to Be Your Angel,” a diary page capturing a beautiful, entropic moment between two people as Arthur Russell cello stabs and pleading acoustic guitar swirl together. Closing track “Hit Parade of Tears” is named for a collection of surreal science-fiction stories by Izumi Suzuki; in the context of Contact, it feels like a bitter refutation of the idea of music as a panacea. “You’ll be happily with her, and I’ll be happily with him,” Quiet Light sings, “And you won’t knock on my door one day / Hit Parade of Tears / You can’t stand being with me, my dear.” She can see a future where the pain isn’t so bad, and it doesn’t help one bit.

The songs [may] change, but my personality is always going to shine through.

Even so, the future is one filled with promise for Quiet Light. She opened for Hovvdy, one of her favorite bands, at their Austin show a few weeks ago, and is awaiting final mixes on a new album. “The theme is winter and just feeling emotionally cold,” she says, excitedly. “I was working on the mixes with my friend, and I was telling him, ‘I want this album to feel like getting metaphorically stabbed by ice.’” Mahesh endeavors not to repeat herself between albums, and relishes exploring new sonic frontiers. She can do so with style and skill because, despite living in a constant state of flux, she’s got a handle on the most important thing of all. “When people meet me in the wild, they're just going to see a Texas girl who is nice to them,” she says, “so it's just who I am. The songs [may] change, but my personality is always going to shine through.”


Quiet Light, through the cracks