Ananya is an up-coming international pop star. Since signing with Universal India in 2016, Ananya has worked with Afrojack and Mood Melodies, shared the stage with Coldplay at Global Citizen, and gained over 30 million views on her Vevo. Her previous two singles, Meant To Be and Hold On went Platinum in India, which made her the first Indian artist with an English single to achieve that feat there. She is recording between London, and LA at the moment working on an EP that is due a little later in the year. Her latest track Circles, which launched at the beginning of last week, is an electro-pop song about friendship. The release was also supported by Island Records.
Ananya is also a businesswoman and runs a mental health charity in India called MPower. She has been named as one of Forbes Asia’s Women to Watch, amongst the ‘Top 50 Power women of 2016’ by Verve Magazine and Miss Vogue’s 28 Geniuses under 28, as well as being a recipient of the CNBC Young Business Women Award.
TZ were fortunate enough to get the opportunity to ask Ananya a few questions about her music, her experiences on the music circuit to date, her experiences at Oxford University, her creation of MPower and her plans for the future. There is something for everyone in this interview – read on and also check out Ananya’s website (http://ananyabirla.com/) for more.
TZ: How did you come to be interested in music?
Music has been my passion for as long as I can remember. It is a part of my soul and a driving force in my life.
When I was young, my house was filled with music and there was always a friend or family member singing or dancing. I took up my first instrument, the Santoor, when I was nine. The Santoor is a traditional Indian instrument, like a guitar but with a load more strings and you play it on your lap. When I got a bit older, I longed to play along with my favourite musicians like Kurt Cobain and Lady Gaga, so I taught myself the guitar and piano using YouTube tutorials.
By the time I got to university in the UK, I knew music was what I wanted to devote myself to. I was writing my own songs and performing gigs around London and realized that nothing made me happier. I was scared to turn my passion into a career and there was pressure to do something more conventional. But I am so happy that I continued to work at it. I think it is incredibly important that people nurture the things that enable them to express themselves.
TZ: How was being on stage with Coldplay? And working with Afrojack?
It was an amazing experience. Sharing the stage with Coldplay was a dream come true. I was mesmerised. It was made even more special because the concert was held in support of Global Citizen, whose mission is so relevant and important to me.
Nick (Afrojack) is great. He is a really calm presence, funny and incredibly talented. He has worked with some of my heroes like Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Sia and David Guetta so it was amazing that he wanted to work with me!
Working with people like Afrojack and Coldplay was a massive learning experience. I gained an understanding of how they work and perform, and also how they think. 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.
TZ: How does it feel to be the first person to have your English-language singles go Platinum in India?
Amazing. Last year could not have ended on more of a high! It means so much to me to know that people are connecting with my music and enjoying it. I think it really shows how much more open Indian audiences are to international music than they might have been in the past.
I hope that it encourages young musicians in India to work on more international music. There is so much undiscovered talent back home that needs to be heard.
TZ: Which song are you most proud of and why?
That’s a tough question, but I think it would have to be Circles because it is such a personal track. I wrote it for my best friend who has been with me through all the ups and downs in my life. I also wanted to celebrate true friendship which I believe is one of the most positive forces in this world. The song came so naturally to me, it was amazing how quickly it came together.
TZ: Who inspires you musically?
I listen to anything and everything, it totally depends on how I am feeling. As a teenager I was obsessed with Kurt Cobain and got really into grunge for a while. At the same time, I love Eminem and Ed Sheeran. I think what they all have in common is this ability to connect with all types of people from across the world because of their honesty and vulnerability. That is the key to good music, a truly authentic song can really impact your mood and engage you on a whole other level.
My music comes from a very personal space of my own experiences, or experiences of the people I love, or stories that have inspired me. Mostly my music is about things we all go through: love, heartbreak, isolation, friendship, trying to fit in. I hope people listen to my music, connect with the lyrics or emotion and maybe feel a bit better.
TZ: What are your plans for the future with your music?
My next track is out in August and then I have an EP due at the end of the year. My goals right now are to continue to release music, do more live performances around the world, and eventually to prove that India can produce a globally-successful musician.
TZ: Please tell our readers a bit more about your experience at Oxford University and how this led to the creation of Mpower?
I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks during my time at university and witnessed first-hand the self-defeating results of putting yourself under too much pressure to perform.
When I returned to India, the issues around addressing mental health became even more evident. Because of the stigma and the lack of awareness and investment, it is incredibly difficult to get help. I realized that whilst I got help and support, the vast majority of people don’t.
I established MPower with my mother because we wanted to change that by campaigning and providing care for people living with mental health issues who are frequently ignored or discriminated against.
TZ: What is your goal with Mpower?
Although mental illness is just as common as physical illness, it is surrounded by shame, stigma and fear which isolates people when they need support the most. With MPower, we want people to feel that it is OK to not be OK sometimes. And for them to know that there is help available should they need it.
Eventually I want to take MPower internationally, but at this early stage I want to focus on issues in India, where we are already making a big impact.
TZ: What would your message be today to young people who are suffering from mental illness?
Open up to someone you know and trust, perhaps a family member or teacher, and ask them to help you find support to work through it. There is a lot of good advice on the internet from organisations like MPower so do some research and remember that you’re not alone, there are people all over the world going through the same thing right now. And talk to your doctor – if you had a broken arm that’s where you would go, right? There should be no disparity between how we treat mental and physical issues, both need attention and assistance from time to time and there shouldn’t be any shame in that.
TZ: Why do you think there is such stigma around mental health, not just in India, but all over the world?
I think that lack of awareness and education is a big cause of the stigma. So many people don’t understand mental illness and people tend to fear or misjudge what they don’t understand. This results in harmful stereotypes and prejudices. People don’t want to reach out for help because they fear being stereotyped and labelled as dangerous, unpredictable, underachieving or unable to live a normal, fulfilled life.
Globally, depression and suicide rates are on the rise and people are scared to reach out for help because they don’t want to be judged. Stigma is causing people to be isolated, discriminated against, and ultimately delays them getting help. People should not be defined or devalued by their mental health issues
TZ: What can young people today do to combat this stigma?
Firstly, we can look within ourselves to check that we don’t hold stereotypes or prejudices about mental illness. Sometimes we judge and discriminate without even realising we are doing it.
Then, be a good friend. If you see someone struggling, reach out and ask if they’re OK. Give them a few kind words, or a few minutes of your time listening to them. You would be surprised how much little gestures like that can help someone feel less isolated.
TZ: How do you look after your own mental health?
My relationships are important to me. When I was going through a tough time at university I felt so alone, I thought people would judge me or undermine my abilities if I revealed that I was really struggling.
But I opened up, first to my mum who turned out to be so open and understanding and then to my friends who reminded me that almost everyone goes through something similar and that there was nothing to be ashamed of.
However you feel, there are other people out there who feel (or have felt) the same way. Try to connect with them and support each other.
My small support network of friends has continued to be so important to my mental health. I think everyone should have a few people who are non-judgmental and can just be there ready to listen when you need to get something off your chest.
Counsellors and therapists are great for this too, sometimes having an impartial and objective outsider can help you maintain perspective on a stressful situation and give you expert guidance when you feel out of your depth.
I also like to exercise at least 3 times a week. Moving my body helps to slow my mind down when I’m worrying, and just makes me feel better about myself; strong and invigorated. I dance, walk, do a YouTube yoga class, surf, hit the gym, whatever I can fit in to my day.
Finally, spending time with my dog is one of the best things for my mental health! It may sound silly but my fluffy dog Skaii always brightens up my day with her energy, she reminds me to be playful and enjoy the simple things.
TZ: What is your advice for young people today?
Age should never be a barrier and neither should gender. If other people make assumptions based on either of those things, that’s their problem, not yours.
It was difficult for me to build up the courage to move in to music, people told me I should follow a more safe and predictable path. Ironically, people were also quick to caution when I started my first business Svatantra, saying I was too young and inexperienced.
In both of these cases, I am so glad I went ahead in spite of other people doubting me. It’s not easy working out what you want to do with your life, but once you find something that sets your soul on fire, go for it! Know that it’s OK to do the unexpected, to change your mind, and to take a different path to other people. Overcoming fear isn’t easy, but it is important. Life is too short not to do what you love.
TZ: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
You are on a journey and things will change along the way. Big things and small things. And sometimes they will surprise you or the people around you. But that’s OK, let the change happen, breathe in to it, and be patient. I promise it will get better and I promise it will be worth the growing pains.
Quick fire qs:
TZ: Coffee or tea?
TZ: Quiet night in or wild night out?
Quiet night in with family and friends
TZ: Batman or Spiderman?
TZ: Drum&bass or rock music?
TZ: Beach or safari?
TZ: Cat or dog?
Dog! I have a little pup called Skaii who is such a positive influence in my life.
TZ: London or LA?
LA in Winter, London in Summer
TZ: Sweet or savoury?
Savoury – although I have a weakness for dark chocolate.
TZ: Theatre or cinema?
TZ: Book or movie?
Want to hear more from Ananya and track her journey to stardom? Check out these links to follow her online: