The music industry can be fast-paced and unforgiving. It’s a full-time occupation with complications that have the power to make or break people. How, then, is someone meant to break into it? As our own best allies, any hopeful needs to know how to invest their energy and work to a schedule that fits them like a glove in this hectic entertainment industry – lest our other projects and passions fall to the wayside. While the genre of Pop is an entirely formidable beast, Ananya Birla is already taking it on.
Ananya is a polymath. Not only does she dream of musical immortality, she graduated from Oxford University, founded a Microfinance organisation at age seventeen, and co-founded a mental health initiative. Jet-setting, trend-setting, and too busy to even think about settling, Ananya’s drive is something else. Her music? A cool combination of catchy and sultry, evoking nostalgia for dreamy summers and personal connection, mixed to perfection into radio-anthems-to-be. Perhaps that’s why she is the first Indian artist to go platinum with an English single.
We speak to Ananya on role models, music and the difference between being a workaholic and knowing how to devote your time…
Debut: Where are you in the world right now?
Ananya: I’m in London right now, on the way to the airport to fly to LA for my new music video!
Wow. Have you always known you wanted to make music?
It was always a passion of some sort, but it was kind of a secret dream. I never thought I would make the cut really, but when I went to Oxford I started thinking about how life is too short, and if you love something that much you should go for it and just see where it takes you!
Before singing, you studied economics and management at Oxford University. Was it an easy decision to branch into music?
In my mind it was pretty easy, actually, it was a calling. I knew I wanted to do it, but at that time I didn’t have any clue about how to take it forward myself. Eventually, I just took the leap, and I’m so glad I did because I really found my purpose and couldn’t ask for more. Looking back, though, it was actually a massive decision.
Congratulations on being the first Indian artist with an English single to go platinum! How did your journey to this point start?
Thank you! Oh, it’s been amazing. Full of really high highs and low lows. I got signed with Universal Music Group a year and a half ago, and Meant To Be was my second track. Most of India is not English initiated, and the fact that it went platinum was astonishing, and it showed me that music really is a universal language. I went to Universal’s office and I just remember being lost for words. I think I’ve grown a lot as an artist from the very beginning, and while there’s so much more to learn, I love the journey.
Between playing two instruments and writing your own music, what’s your tactic to defeat creative block?
I think the most important thing – with writing at least – is that you should accept the block and not fight it. Fighting always makes the block worse! I start listening to new music and reading poetry instead. When I’m not writing I’m reading. You need to continuously have it in your blood. If I’m not able to write right now, that’s fine, I’ll take inspiration from other stories and people. Keep it natural, and it’s a cathartic but very overwhelming process. Just stay inspired.
What is your experience of the music industry so far? Has anything been surprisingly positive or negative?
I think one surprise was when Meant To Be went platinum, it just showed me that there is a lot of potential in India but it just hasn’t been tapped into yet. There are a lot of talented people in India, they just need a platform. Another thing that surprised me was that the music industry is literally all about streams, getting fans, making yourself relatable – with some part of yourself at least – and the biggest concern with that is managing to be yourself. There’s so much emphasis on that. On a daily basis you learn so much from different producers and songwriters and you also realise you need the right people around you, who believe in you as much as you do, and who can support you emotionally because at the end of the day we’re all human. Another aspect that surprised me is that because you’re in it for the long run, you realise there are certain songs that hit high and certain that won’t, and that’s ok. You keep going.
What’s it really like to shoot a music video?
It’s amazing! I like being involved right from scratch. I give complete creative freedom to the director because that’s how it’s supposed to be, they’re the ones who know what to do. You do have to trust that, but I like to feel involved and inspired by the treatment of the video, so there’s a part of me the has to relate. The next part is that I love being on set and performing! Meant To Be is more performance oriented, but Hold On is more about the character of this girl who I didn’t relate to as a person but more as a situation. Funnily, off set I’m really different when I’m just chilling out with my friends. Both sides are me, and you realise it’s simply different.
What draws you to the genre of Pop music?
I just really like it! I just really like mainstream music. It connects with many people – obviously it does with me. I wanna create a platform that reaches out to as many as possible, also I think my voice suits a certain genre of pop.
Ultimately, this whole thing is about being able to connect to people; that’s what inspires me
In such a visible profession, which pressures do you find yourself confronting in the public eye?
I think having to be on your best behaviour (laughs) – that’s pressurising! Even though I’m a good girl that way. Also realising you start becoming a role model, especially to young girls. You have to start realising you have to make the right choices and try to do good with what you put out there, be it on social media or otherwise. People look up to musicians, as with lots of other jobs, and I take it really seriously. All of us, including my label, try to raise awareness of important issues.
Do you consider feminism to be part of your ethos?
Feminism meaning equality, yes, I’d say equality is a huge thing for me. Whether that’s about gender, poverty, anything. Every sort of inequality gets to me. Mental health issues, too. I see people suffering around the world and I want more visible people to stand up and start talking about it, and say ‘there’s nothing to be ashamed of’.
Is that what inspired you to start the mental health initiative called MPower?
My mum and I started MPower together really. I’ve had my own experiences, I’ve had panic attacks in the past and I’m so lucky to have had the right help available to treat me with support and understanding, but it really breaks my heart to see people struggling with the same things who aren’t able to access professional help, or are even too ashamed to admit to themselves that they need professional help. I want to say with MPower that you belong.
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
I just love music itself. It’s all about creating classics in a sense, if there’s one classic that lasts forever, and it’s something new that was never there before, that fascinates me. If I can have one song that lasts a couple of generations that would be amazing. Ultimately, this whole thing is about being able to connect with people, that’s what inspires me.
You’re not just a singer and an activist, you’re also the founder of Svatantra Microfin! Can you tell us about this organisation?
It’s basically like a mini bank, without deposits. We lend to women in the countryside – ‘Svatantra’ means ‘freedom’ in Hindi. We give female business owners small loans to expand their businesses, and they repay us with the loan and interest, so they can feel empowered not just by their business but by their personal achievement. One of our very first clients had a salon with just one chair, now she has triple the size, six mirrors, and employs three more women who work for her. She’s providing for her family and is educating her children in the process.
How on earth do you manage your time?
(Laughs) it is tiring, but when you’re passionate about something I think everyone can agree it’s not tough. We all have time for things we prioritise. It’s just prioritising. Have a team you can delegate out to, it’s impossible for one human to do everything alone. I also want to enjoy this journey with people I love; my best friend works with me. Oh, also multitasking. If I am doing a performance, in the breaks I will hold meetings for MPower just so I can do as much as possible with my time. Besides that, it’s also important to remember to take care of yourself.
Who are the role models that inspire you?
In the music world, I think Eminem. He’s so centred and speaks up for things he believes in without worrying about what the world will think. Generally though, everyday stories really inspire me. It could be someone I bump into, a friend’s story, someone I used to know. A small instance can inspire me. People in general, when they face struggles and come out of it, that really inspires me, no matter who the person is.
If you could tell our readers some vital advice about realising their dreams, what would it be?
I would say you can never ever give up. Throughout the whole journey never compromise on who you are. It will only be worth it if you remain who you actually are. Try to take up what you’re passionate about, because you won’t do anything justice otherwise. The journey is what matters. As humans we always want something more, but the journey is half the fun!
And finally, what do you look forward to in the coming year?
I’m looking forward to stepping out of India, looking at the UK, and spending more time on music. Hopefully people in the UK will like me! I want to do more in terms of mental health and promoting that, and 2018 started well for me with Hold On. There are tons more I want to do. I hope it will be a good year.
Words by Esmeralda Voegele-Downing