Singer, songwriter and entrepreneur, Ananya Birla speaks to Priya Singh about her musical idols, her on-stage collaborations with big international acts, and her life as a businesswoman.
Q. How and when were you introduced to the guitar and the santoor?
A. At the age of nine, I began learning the santoor. It is a traditional Indian instrument with 72 strings and you play it placed on your lap. Watching my mother play was my initial induction to music and to the santoor. Growing up, it was these lessons which helped me be the musician I am today.
The santoor helped me develop my ear. The more music I make, the more I realise the benefit that this classical training had on me. It has been invaluable in enabling me to understand what sounds go together and how to properly develop a melody. It also gave me the fundamentals I needed to teach myself the guitar and the piano, which I particularly enjoy because they allow me to play and sing at the same time.
As a teenager, I wanted to play something a little more contemporary. I loved Nirvana and wanted to learn to play their songs. I found an old guitar in the back of my dad’s cupboard, found some tutorials on YouTube and have been hooked ever since. Soon afterwards, I joined a school band which really helped me improve.
Q. Who were your early musical influences?
A. Kurt Cobain is one of my musical heroes. I strive to create an individual connection whenever I write a song. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics have a certain rawness and vulnerability which is why they resonate with all types of people from across the world. He had a particular gift for connecting with the emotional experiences of young people. Undoubtedly, he was the voice of a generation. So yeah, I’d have to say Kurt Cobain. And Eminem—I absolutely love Eminem too!
Q. What inspired you to take up Western music?
A. I don’t think it was about Western or Indian music. I just wanted to write and express myself—and I love music. I write what I feel, I think in English, so I write in English. Also, my Hindi is not too good, so I guess that also plays a role. Besides, I enjoy singing in English.
English, for the youth today, is a universal language that touches many people across the globe. However, I love listening to Hindi music because what certain Bollywood songs offer in terms of the sound, the melody and instruments, placements, chord progressions etc.—it’s truly fantastic and fairly hard to replicate in English /Western music. Personally though, English music is my calling.
Q. To what extent do you think has the audience evolved when it comes to the music scene in India?
A. Music must evolve as we do, and as it happens, the entire music scenario is changing. There are a couple of things: one strategy is where artistes tend to follow this route—release singles, then an EP and then an album. In this case it’s a single-by-single approach. Few people know that even though you may release one song, there are at least 50 or 60 songs in the kitty which have been written, worked on, composed and then from all that hard work, one single is chosen. From the audience’s perspective, as an artiste, you need to work on your song keeping in mind that your listeners would want to listen to them.
Secondly, you want your music to affect as large an audience as possible with numbers being all about streams and reach—through national platforms which are amazing, like Saavn, Gaana, Hungama, Jio Music, Idea or internationally, like Spotify (which I hope comes to India soon). So music evolution is all digitised. The medium and touch points have changed to keep up with an ever-expanding audience thanks to technology. CDs are pretty redundant now even though I love owning and playing vinyls. For the masses, it’s become all about streams.
Q. What sort of challenges have you faced in your career as a musician?
A. Belonging to a surname synonymous with an illustrious business and industrial family, as well as a conservation cultural background—choosing to make my way in the entertainment space was surely not anticipated. With my parents supporting my choice to pursue music, I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to be able to have a career in business and in music. Both of these spark a fire in my soul, so neither feels traditionally like “work”. I love what I do and that is what drives me. It was interesting yet not too surprising to see how most people found it tough to fathom a transition from entrepreneur/business to artiste. It was nice, though, to see a warm response from my peers and from those who struggle with the choice to pursue something that’s different. I believe that if you have a dream you should try to own it, work hard and go for it. In all of my ventures, even my music, I want to show people that they can break down barriers and stereotypes to follow their passions, achieve their dreams and make a positive impact.
Q. You have shared the stage with big international acts, like Jay Z and Coldplay. How does that feel?
A. Amazing! I felt incredibly fortunate to have these experiences so early in my career. Nick [Afrojack] is great, he is incredibly cool, super talented and loves making music more than anything. Sharing the stage with Coldplay was a dream come true. I was awestruck. The fact that the concert was held in support of Global Citizen, whose mission is so relevant and important to me, made it a transformative and huge learning experience, particularly as it was pretty early in my musical career. Talents like Afrojack and Coldplay are in a league of their own, I learned so much from both of them. I gained an understanding of how they work and perform, and also how they think. Other creative people will know that there is no bigger source of motivation than being around people who have achieved so much and who love what they do more than anything.
It is important to be around people who do what they love, and give it all they have. I find this is common with most creative and known artistes that I have come across. Their passion fuels their music and nothing great is achieved without working towards it. I have been told that there is no formula for success; both failure and success is for the audience to judge. But for an artiste, putting anything out there that is less than a 100% is just not good enough. I am grateful and humbled to be among those few talented Indian artistes who shared the platform to perform with such music legends on stage.
Q. Do you prefer playing for huge crowds at big music festivals, or for smaller audiences in club settings?
A. I love performing to a crowd that reciprocates the artiste’s energy, I think that’s the most important thing, because the energy and passion on stage passes on to the audience. It’s this very energy that the artiste thrives on. What really matters is that you’re performing in front of people who know your music, who love your music and like your sound. The stage comes alive with magic when the artistes are enjoying themselves, and the crowd senses that and vice versa. It’s not the number in the audience that matters – it’s about who you perform in front of because when you work so hard to put up a performance in front of people who don’t really appreciate your music it is a bit of a bummer. As an artiste I realise the value of performing in front of people that understand your art and like your music. It’s about connecting with people—be it one, two, three, or a thousand.
Q. Tell us about your style of composing songs.
A. Well, there is no one way really. Sometimes I have the lyrics stuck in my head and sometimes a melody… and I have to match the melody to lyrics and the lyrics to melody. And at times, the song just comes together if it’s meant to be, and sometimes it just doesn’t—then I move on to the next idea or feeling. I find inspiration in everything. When collaborating, the experience is amazing. As an artiste, to adapt to another equally impassioned artiste teaches me how to find the best way to work together by feeding off each other’s energies, positivity and skills. In that room, the vibe, it’s completely unpredictable, and depends on whom you are working with, which will see an impact on the sound, genre, style and so much more… Currently, in terms of the sound, it is very much pop and electronic pop. My next song has a very different vibe and I can’t wait for you all to hear it!
Q. You are an entrepreneur and a musician. How do you manage to play these two entirely different roles?
A. Actually, they are not too different because you need creativity in business, and in music as well. I think it’s been really beneficial in helping me learn in both places. Interestingly, marketing is a part of music as well as of business. You get ideas and can sort of cross-pollinate between the two. I think more than the roles being different, the key lies in time management, which is something I am still learning to master. Presently, my focus is on my music because my businesses are pretty established, and I have chosen to take a more strategic role on that front.
I continue to write my own music, and I also use this time to focus on and create long-term business plans. Sometimes, during rehearsals, I call a couple of people from my business team to come and discuss work as I can get a lot done in that 20-minute break. I sit with them if I have to brainstorm on a couple of ideas, to give approvals, and then head back on stage. I really have to make the most of every minute that I have.
Q. What is the best part of being a famous singer that you are today?
A. I think the best part of being in the music industry is making music and the fact that music touches so many people’s lives and hearts. When you meet your admirers and fans—(at my last fan meet and greet, everyone was so emotional, we all cried)—you don’t realise till you meet them that your music, even though it’s only three-and-half minutes and it’s only your voice, can have such a huge impact on their lives. That in itself is something that is so special. If you can just make one person’s life better, why would you stop making music? I want people to continue to dance, I want to continue to entertain people and I want my music to touch as many people’s lives as possible.