Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Red Light Special

Toronto's Vivek Shraya releases Breathe Again, a tribute to R&B master Babyface

The cover art for Vivek Shraya's Babyface tribute album. Credit: God Loves Hair illustrator Juliana Neufeld
Vivek & MC Jazz perform “Sitting up in my room” at Videofag in Toronto Vivek Sharya

Remember "Red Light Special" by TLC? If so, then a) you’re going to enjoy this article and b) shouldn’t you be out getting a hip replacement, grandma? Just kidding. Now go get your bifocals and keep reading.

“Sometimes the only way to find your voice again is to bask in the melody and lyrics of someone else’s songs,” says Vivek Shraya, explaining the motivation behind his recently released album Breathe Again: A Tribute to Babyface. “This project is my attempt to honour Babyface for being an inspirational force in my journey as a musician and also to pay tribute to R&B music and black artists who have enriched my life. I always dreamed that Babyface would produce my first album, and this album feels like the next best thing!”

The resulting album ranges from the eponymous track "Breathe Again," a tender take on the desperately romantic song made famous by Toni Braxton, to an unapologetically divalicious stab at following in Whitney Houston’s tracks with "Queen of the Night." His take on "Not Gon' Cry" takes a decidedly un-Mary J Blige route, declaring, “Should have left your ass a thousand times” in a soft falsetto, accompanied by an acoustic guitar.

And yes, he covers "Red Light Special." And damn, it’s sexy.

“The song I was most nervous to cover is 'Take a Bow' because it’s not only my favourite Babyface song, it’s also my favourite Madonna song,” Shraya says. “'Take a Bow' is 100 percent perfect — the lyrics, production, melody, the music video, everything — and no one should mess around with perfection. But a project that pays tribute to Babyface and doesn’t feature this song would be incomplete.”

The album is a real romp through the 1990s, but not in an obnoxious way. Shraya skillfully updates and reconsiders each song in a way that lets you reminisce about some crazy talented songwriting, without leaving you with an urge to whip out the embarrassing old dance moves (the sprinkler, the humpty or the ever-enduring “sprain dance," immortalized by Lark Voorhies and Dustin Diamond, of Saved by the Bell fame).

It takes experience to pull off something like this, but that's not a concern for Shraya. “After releasing six albums, I have not felt particularly inspired to write my own music. Covering someone else’s work, especially someone I admire so much, was an intimate process of relearning the mechanics of songwriting from a different perspective. For instance, among his many talents, Babyface writes a mean bridge, and it’s been invigorating to try to understand what makes his bridges so magical and impacting.”

There are lots of ways to check out the album. Obviously, you can download it, which you should do if you’re looking for some dang good local music by a multitalented queer artist. You can also keep an eye out for Shraya performing live: “I will be performing songs from Breathe Again: A Tribute to Babyface at the Glad Day Bookshop cabaret on Friday, Dec 6, as well as at Ryan G Hinds’s Comedy Coffee & Cabaret in January 2014. I will also be doing a special performance of 'Not Gon' Cry' from the album, with the amazing Catherine Hernandez, at the Superqueero Holiday Potluck Unapologetic Burlesque Show, on Monday, Dec 16 at the Gladstone Hotel.”