One From The Vault: M.I.A.

Performing in front of a few club-going hipsters, hip-hoppers and electro fans doesn’t seem like something that would give a Sri Lanka civil war survivor-turned-refugee stage fright.

But even after living in poverty and seeing many of her friends killed in the first 10 years of her life, Maya Arulpragasam was still a nervous wreck before her first-ever North American gigs earlier this year.

“When I first started, I was worried and it was really crazy,” Arulpragasam, who performs under the name M.I.A., told Pollstar during a busy day of press. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to remember any of my words.’

“Coming from England, people scare you saying that you have to tour six years before you get a deal, and you have to play to a man and a dog in a pub for 10 years. … But now, it’s really cool. I feel like I can connect with everybody better.”

Photo: Greg Allen
The September 5, 2005, issue of Pollstar.

Toronto promoter Jacob Smid missed M.I.A.’s North American debut February 2nd at the city’s 150-capacity Drake Hotel, but said the “response was phenomenal” despite the fact that her debut album, Arular, hadn’t even dropped.

He caught M.I.A.’s sold-out performance the next day at Los Angeles’ Knitting Factory while attending Pollstar‘s annual Concert Industry Consortium.

“She brings out such a diverse crowd,” Smid told Pollstar. “At the time, it seemed like she was still under the radar; the record wasn’t out but people were singing along to every song. It was really cool to see.”

Adapting to new crowds and situations doesn’t seem difficult for the 29-year-old singer, who uniquely melds a Brit-influenced urban patois and bass-heavy electro dancehall reggae with politically driven lyrics.

“In the 10 years I lived in Sri Lanka, I didn’t even have a pair of shoes and I was all right,” she said. “When I do my shows … I want to be as real as I can to what I am and give a sense of Sri Lanka and Britain, or wherever I’m at.”

Arulpragasam eventually left Sri Lanka with her mother to settle in a crime-infested London housing project. There, she grew fond of hip-hop after hearing it blasting from the car of a next-door neighbor.

Later, she graduated from a prestigious fine art and film college in London. Soon after, her visual art caught the attention of Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, who asked her to film a documentary of the group’s 2001 U.S. tour with electroclash queen Peaches.

During her experience on the road, Arulpragasam didn’t find the touring game to be all that glamorous.

“I knew for sure that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Boy, I could never do this.’ It’s amazing how people can physically [tour].

“I didn’t see how I could go onstage and have access to so many people and not say something useful. … I was like, ‘Shit, if I did do this, I’d have to make it so important and worthwhile that it wasn’t even about me.'”

Photo: Mike Schreiber

During that time, however, Arulpragasam experimented with making beats using Peaches’ Roland MC-505 drum machine/synthesizer. Two years later, she wrote the early underground singles “Galang” and “Sunshowers.” Those tracks landed her on U.K. label XL Recordings and later, Interscope Records Stateside.

“We haven’t gone to radio yet and she’s sold 60,000 records in America, and is selling insane amounts of tickets,” manager Sara Newkirk told Pollstar. “It’s an exciting place to be because the quality of the fan she’s attracting is the kind of fan you can build a career with.”

Currently, the performer is sitting pretty with a brief September club jaunt that will take her to Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, Chicago’s Metro / Smart Bar, Los Angeles’ Henry Fonda Music Box Theatre and more.

Once that finishes, it’s off to support “Hollaback Girl” Gwen Stefani for North American support dates in November. And with less than a year of live performance experience, Arulpragasam isn’t too worried about making the jump from clubs to arenas.

“I haven’t even thought about it, actually,” she said. “There might be some changes I have to make, but it’s just about bringing newer music to a different audience.”

Agent Sam Kirby, who began working with Arulpragasam at the beginning of this year, isn’t losing much sleep over it, either.

“Right now, she’s just making sure all these [club dates] are going to be off the hook,” Kirby told Pollstar. “The key thing is that she builds her own base first with her credibility.”

While the show will change when she gets to the arena level, the agent said M.I.A. has already been exposed to larger outdoor audiences including the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival and recent performances at New York City’s Central Park SummerStage and Japan’s Summer Sonic fest.

“Across the board, people are really excited about it,” Kirby said, adding that she hopes to book a round of midsize venue dates next year. “It’s just so fresh and new.”