‘For me, music is a communication tool and it is how I communicate’: Shaun Perera
Being a musician isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a lot of late nights and a lot of hard work. Like all creative callings, it’s not for the faint of heart. But for some of us, being a musician is the only thing you can envision. Shaun Perera is one of those people. Best known as the lead vocalist for the band Magic Box Mixup, music has always called to Shaun, though it took him a few twists and turns to get there.
Shaun is set to release two singles on his own as a soloist, with the first being released in July and the second in August. Brunch sat down with Shaun to learn a little more about his upcoming singles as well as more about Shaun himself.
How did you get into music?
It’s very weird, I actually come from a musical family. My father and uncles were singers, but they never drove me to become a singer. My first dream was cricket, but that fell apart, and I went to university to. The dream was to become a doctor (well, this was not really a dream, it was just what you were supposed to do – become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer), but I wasn’t great at getting my A’s in exams, but I loved my science subject, and I was good at them. With the grades I had, I could get into forensic science and so I went to England to study that (I used to watch a lot of CSI [Crime Scene Investigation]). That didn’t entirely work out though and I ended up studying biotechnology in Malaysia.
I’d always been interested in music and forming a band though. Since I was small and in school, I used to love taking part in concerts and being in choirs. Some of my teachers when I was young were Soundarie David, Aida Mansoor, Dinusha Gunawansa, and also Norma from my time at Elizabeth Moir School. Soundarie David gave me my first solo, and Aida Mansoor always pushed me to take on the lead roles in all school plays and musicals. My time at Elizabeth Moir really helped me move away from sports and get into drama and music. It really helps people explore their talents and see what you can do with yourself.
You are the lead vocalist of Magic Box Mixup. How did the band start?
My cousin Virentha wanted to start a band, and asked me to be part of it when I was in Malaysia, and that was how we formed Magic Box Mixup. We’d talked about it before I left for uni, and when I was there he sent me a message asking if I still wanted to do it and I said yes. We started bouncing names off each other and he went around auditioning people and sending me their info, and we made our first lineup. The name Magic Box Mixup comes from the TV show Friends. Phoebe Buffay wrote a song called Magician’s Box Mixup and that initial name inspired us.
Our initial lineup was Virentha Mendis (my cousin), Kushal Abeywickrama, Naveen Karunaratne, Shivane, Ranen, and me. Over the years, the lineup changed several times – other members of Magic Box Mixup have included Robert Jayatunga, Jimith Sirinandana, Justice Gnanamuttu, Shivane Wickranasekera, and Dulaj Perera, who were all part of our Magic Box dream and who have kept pushing me to follow my dreams ever since. Even now. Shanthi Shaleen Kumar and Shehan de Silva (GV) were part of the band for a while, filling in while playing in the band Battery at the time also.
I came back to Sri Lanka on a holiday, and we started recording an album, and then we took part in TNL Onstage as well. I went back to Malaysia to continue studying, but I couldn’t. I wanted to keep doing music, and then I came back and we started practicing and performing. It was my dream and my parents supported me. We formed the band around 2005. Today, Magic Box Mixup’s lineup is me on vocals, Shamin de Silva who is the Leader & Lead Guitar, Guyrika Weerasinghe on percussions, Gayan Fkey on keyboard & synth, Vickith Perera on bass, Divanka on drums, and Pradhee Sandeepana, our other Vocalist.
Over the years, I’ve done solo stuff but it’s always been with the Magic Box Mixup name. This is the first time I’m going solo with my own name.
Tell us more about your upcoming solo singles.
While we understand each other as musicians, we also want to do our own thing and sometimes certain styles that we want to try don’t always work for the band. Some of the music and songs I write doesn’t always resonate with the band as a whole, which I completely understand, but I also have this need to communicate what I write. For me, music is a communication tool and it is how I communicate. Especially with this last lockdown, I’ve felt a need to forge my own path as well, I am also exploring going solo with two singles. Although I’m going solo that doesn’t mean I’m leaving the band, I’ve been more committed to the “Magic Box Mixup” than I’ve been to anything else over the last 16 years of my life. And I am thankful to the current lineup and anyone who was ever a part of the team. They are family.
I hope to release the first single in July, and then the second, hopefully a month after I release the first. I haven’t confirmed the exact date for the releases. I’ve been working on these singles for a while, and to be honest, I’ve been keeping them a bit of a secret.
The first single, Obamai, is a Sinhalese song, and it’s the first Sinhalese song I’ve ever written. It came to me after the first lockdown. I had been learning to play guitar and I was practicing chord structures at 3 a.m. one night when this song came to me. I was trying to write it in English, but it just wasn’t coming out properly, so I went to bed, and suddenly the lyrics started coming to me in Sinhala, and I realised, I am Sri Lankan, why do I need to write only in English?
Obamai is a song based on falling in love. We all perceive falling in love as being with someone and describe being in love with a person, be it guy or girl or whatever, but I wasn’t thinking about a particular person. Writing about true love with Obamai is more about expanding the love we feel, to everyone, whether it’s our parents, our friends, the people around us who help us, or even just nature. The video also follows this idea and I’m excited to see if people will understand the story I’m trying to tell and communicate with this song.
Obamai was produced by Omeshka, who also played piano for the track, with Shamin De Silva on guitars and Shivy Fernando on bass. Omeshka and Shamin worked with me on the music, and Omeshka did the mixing for the track while Shamin did the mastering. I also need to thank Denham from Sooriya Village for all his support. We recorded everything except the vocals at Sooriya Village.
My second single, Teenage Boy, is one I first wrote 12 years ago; it’s in English, and the title Teenage Boy is a working title, it might change. It’s about this girl I met when I was studying in England. I had a crush on her, and I was 24 or 25 at the time, but that crush still made me feel giddy and speechless like a teenager, and Teenage Boy talks about that feeling. We’re still planning out the video. It’s likely to be shot in a single location against a white background focusing on the feelings the song inspires.
Teenage Boy is being produced by Gayan Fkey with Dulaj Perera on acoustic guitar and Shamin on electric guitar. Shivane worked on the initial chord structure and I worked on the melody.
One of the big things about going solo, and making music in general, is getting out of your comfort zone when you come up with a melody. It’s really difficult swallowing your pride and being insecure and vulnerable and showing your stuff to people and asking them to work with you on it. I have to thank everyone who has worked with me on this and encouraged me.
What is your musical process like? How do you stay inspired, especially in trying times?
Before, I used to put my thoughts down to a tune in my head. The tune in my head wouldn’t always be what came out in the final music. I didn’t record melodies or anything. It was a tune just for the flow of lyrics that I would give to the boys or whoever, and then I would sing lyrics to the chord structure. That’s actually how I made the base melody of Teenage Boy seven or so years ago. I took the lyrics out and started singing.
Now what I do is play guitar, so when the chords are being strummed, and a melody comes out, I try to write down that melody and my thoughts, even if they’re not in flow, and then form a flow for the song. Neither I nor anyone in Magic Box Mixup has any academic music training. Shamin and I have a diploma in sound engineering that we studied for in Singapore, and many of us have played in church, in school, and in choirs, but none of us have any formal training.
With regard to staying inspired, you just have to keep it going and accept the ups and the downs and listen to your body. You can be a passionate musician or writer or carpenter or anything you want, but if your body and soul need a break, you need to listen and take a break. Then, when you come back to it your creativity will flow better. If you force it, it will always be stressful and a burden. That said, if it takes too long to come back, then you have to slowly ease into it. It’s just how you keep going and understanding your process better. My friends, my family, and God around me are what keep me going.
I’m very lucky to have always had the support of my family – Thaththi (Neville), Ammi (Sherma), my uncle Sudhu, my brother Nigel, and my friends, especially Rangi Fernando and Danith Ratnasiri.
I’ve also had the support of my fans over the years; those who come out to watch the band play almost every weekend (if not every weekend), everyone who books us for weddings and other corporate gigs. It’s because of them that we keep going on and have been a band for as long as we have…and that I’ve remained in music. The feeling of singing to a crowd and watching them have fun, feeling what you feel, and singing back to you is a feeling that I’ve been very lucky to experience. It’s like becoming one with people whom you have sometimes never even met before.
What would you say to other aspiring musicians and young people looking to get into music?
I would say do it! There’ll be lots of reasons why you will think you shouldn’t and there’ll be lots of people saying don’t do it. But if that’s what you love doing – and I don’t mean just music, but anything – if it fills your soul and makes you love your life and can keep you happy while in turn making others happy, then do it. Just go for it.