Rising Indian pop singer and entrepreneur Ananya shares how she connects the cathartic power of music to mental health issues
Fresh off her fourth single 'Circles' the certified Platinum singer discusses her efforts with mental health awareness, her admiration for Alessia Cara, A R Rahman and more.
With over 30 million views on her Vevo/YouTube channel alone, Ananya Birla has the distinction of being the first Indian artiste to go Platinum in the country while singing in the English language. Ananya got her first taste of success when she signed with Universal Music India to launch her debut single 'Livin the Life'. After her debut topped the charts in the country, she released two more singles 'Meant to Be' and 'Hold On', both of which rocketed to the top of the charts yet again, gaining the 24-year-old pop star her Platinum certification. After collaboration with Afrojack and sharing the stage with Coldplay at Global Citizen, Ananya has established herself as a fierce competitor in the pop world.
Riding her wave of success, the trained santoor player and self-taught guitarist unveiled her fourth single 'Circles', which dropped earlier this June via UMG with the support of the iconic label Island Records. Co-written by herself and Tom Mann, the catchy single is a celebration of the power of friendship and its ability to overcome age, distance and time. Produced by Grammy-nominated Norwegian music producer Mood Melodies (Alan Walker, Alessia Cara, Sia), the track is accompanied by a music video directed by Aya Tanimura and has already racked up 10 million views on YouTube.
Ananya is the daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, one of the richest men in India and the privilege is not lost on her. At the age of 17, she founded Svatantra, an organization that supports women entrepreneurs in rural India. In 2016, Forbes named her one of Asia's Women to Watch. Later, while studying at Oxford University, Ananya battled panic attacks and anxiety disorder. After coming back to India, she sought solace in the company of her family and friends and the experience transformed her into a staunch campaigner for mental health awareness. She soon partnered with her mother to found MPower, an organization that works towards stamping out the stigma towards people with mental illness across India.
In this exclusive interview with Meaww, Ananya discusses her new single 'Circles', the role music played in her life through her own battles with mental illness, the interplay between her social work and her music, her influences, plans for the near future and more. Read the full interview below.
Congratulations on going Platinum in India with ‘Circles'. How does it feel to be the first to artiste to achieve the feat in the country singing in English?
I think it shows that Indian audiences are getting much more enthusiastic about embracing a different sound and unfamiliar musical influences. For a long time, the music industry in India has been dominated by Bollywood, I think me going platinum with an English pop song shows that India is becoming a bit more open-minded about what we embrace musically and culturally.
This is one of the great impacts that the internet has had on the music industry – audiences are finding and loving artists that they wouldn’t have come across before. I hope that the positive response and commercial success of my music encourage other musicians in India to be less afraid of taking chances. There is so much undiscovered talent back home that is thinking globally when they create songs, and it deserves to be heard both inside and outside India.
What was going on in your head when you wrote ‘Circles'?
I wrote the song as a thank you to my best friend, who has been with me through everything. I wanted to show how powerful friendship is, how it can overcome age or distance or time. It is something so many people can relate to. A lot of musicians focus on romantic relationships as their inspiration, which can make for great songs. But I don’t think friendships get the credit or airtime they deserve, especially considering how much they mean to us and influence us. I wrote the song with Tom Mann, he is a brilliant musician and singer in his own right who has written with Liam Payne and Pretty Much. He helped me turn the personal feelings that inspired the song into something which hopefully lots of people are engaging with.
The music video has almost racked up 10 million views which is quite impressive. Tell us what it was like working on it?
'Circles', like all my music, is inspired by my personal experiences and the stories that people tell me along my travels so working on it was a bit of an emotional journey. I loved the videos which the director Aya Tanimura had done before, particularly for Katy Perry, so it was fantastic to get the chance to collaborate on this. I think it’s really important for female creatives to support and uplift each other.
Three singles down, you seemed to have found your sound. Can we expect an EP soon that further develops the sound? Any details on that?
I have a stripped back version of Circles which I am putting out soon, and then I’m planning to release my EP by the end of the year. I’ve just been in the studio with a producer in Atlanta, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear what we’ve been working on. There will be a good mix on there. Some acoustic tracks, a couple which have little bits of a hip-hop vibe, and some which incorporate more Indian sounds.
You started MPower at the young age of 21 after your own battle with mental health issues at University. Could you tell us about your experience and what motivated you to?
I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks whilst I was at university in the UK and found it difficult to reach out for help. England was so different from Mumbai and I felt isolated, under a huge amount of pressure to ‘succeed’ and was nervous that people would undermine my abilities if I admitted that I was struggling. When I eventually went back home, thanks to a few close family members and friends, I got the support I needed to get back on track. However, my eyes were opened to how difficult it is for most people with mental health issues to get help because of the stigma surrounding it and the lack of education and assistance available. This is a problem across the world, but it’s truly awful in India where there are only 3,500 psychiatrists for the 1.5 billion people who live there, and someone attempts suicide every 3 seconds.
Mental health is a topic that is rarely discussed and as a result, depression and suicide rates are on the rise and people are scared to reach out for help. My mom and I felt a huge responsibility to do something about the problem, so we co-founded MPower.
You also work towards empowering women in India. In this current landscape where women’s movements are gathering more steam than ever before, what do you think are the greatest challenges for women in India?
There is an outdated view that persists in India, particularly in the countryside and small towns, that a woman's place is in the home, taking care of the family. There’s also the issue of accessibility, many women live in isolation and are forced to be dependent on family. Access to things like bank accounts, work, financial loans - which many of us take for granted - is massively important. I started Svatantra because I think women should be able to live up to their potential as individuals, not feel stunted because of the restrictions imposed on their gender.
How does your work with mental health awareness affect your songwriting process? To many, songwriting is a therapeutic process. Do you relate to that?
Throughout everything I went through, the organizations I founded, the traveling, the anxiety and the elation, music was there for me. It has been this constant companion that has been there for me through everything. I regularly turn to its cathartic power to express myself. I think this habit began when I was a very shy kid and music allowed me to communicate and feel ‘heard’ when I was struggling to articulate myself. I went through a long period of not being able to communicate how I felt, I feared it and I repressed it and I felt so lonely as a result. I don’t want to be in that place again myself, and I don’t want anyone else to find themselves there either. Music enables me to connect with a wide audience and share an experience with people, regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality, social background. My greatest hope is that people listen to my music, relate to the lyrics or emotion and feel a bit better about something they are going through.
Off the top of your head, who are some of your favorite artists in the international scene?
I love Sia’s voice. Her songs are fearless, powerful, and hit you right in your heart. She’s one of the best out there at the moment. Sia worked with Anders Froen aka Mood Melodies, who I worked with on three of my tracks, producers like him are inspiring and it’s such a blessing to have talents like that wanting to collaborate with me. Some of my other favorites are Camila Cabello, Eminem and Drake.
And your favorites from the Indian music scene?
A.R Rahman is an unparalleled talent as a composer and producer. I love the way he combines Western and Indian styles but he can do everything: electro, classical, film scores. I also love newer indie artists like Parekh & Singh who have this offbeat, unique sound and Aditi Ramesh who fuses more traditionally Indian musical elements with jazz.
Who would you say is your dream collaboration?
I’m really loving Alessia Cara at the moment. She started off doing acoustic covers, like I did when I used to gig around London, and has grown really quickly into an amazing pop star. Her songs are super relatable and she comes across as very down-to-earth, I think performing with her would be a blast.
You’ve spoken about how being born into a privileged family has been a blessing to you. Tell us a little about the support you received from your family in your endeavors.
At the end of the day, we are a family like any other and all things considered, I had a pretty normal childhood. Growing up came with the usual challenges and anxieties, particularly as a teenager. I think for every young person, working out who you are and what makes you happy is hard. The thing I am most grateful for is the acceptance and emotional support I’ve had from my family. I think most young people have experienced pressure to live up to their parent’s expectations, and when I was younger I was more intimidated by the weight of my family’s achievements – I was scared that I wouldn’t live up to them, that I would disappoint them, or that I was veering away from what was expected of me. But my parents have always accepted me as an individual and known that I would be independent and follow my own path.
You transitioned to the guitar after playing the Santoor from a very young age. What was the transition like? Do you still play the Santoor regularly? Are we going to hear it on future songs soon?
Music was a massive part of my childhood. I was inspired by my mom to take up the Santoor when I was nine. I saw her playing and begged my parents to let me take classes. From there, I taught myself the guitar using YouTube tutorials. The Santoor is a bit like a guitar but you play it in your lap so the transition wasn’t too difficult.
I still play the Santoor regularly, it looks complex but it’s actually so relaxing, almost meditative. There are some wonderful instruments in India that would add an interesting layer to my music, like the santoor or the tabla and the sitar. I want my music to connect with people around the world but I would never want to shake off my Indian roots. It is a huge part of who I am I try to keep elements of that in my music and my videos.