SINGER-SONGWRITER ANANYA BIRLA ON MUSIC, HER LATEST EP, PASSIONS AND FUTURE PROJECTS by ASJAD NAZIR Rapidly-rising star Ananya Birla has quickly blazed a musical path and left a trail of fire with hot tracks that have lit up the charts. The Mumbai-born singer and songwriter has gone from playing low-key gigs around London to performing at major international festivals, releasing songs that have been streamed over 160 million times and becoming the first homegrown artist to go platinum with an English track in India last year. The 24-year-old recently released her debut EP Fingerprint, which shows off an impressive range on four terrific tracks that blend influences ranging from electro to r’n’b. Masterminded by top international producers, the EP also contains her recent single Blackout, which features two of Nigeria’s biggest music stars, Vector and WurlD. She also runs mental health initiative MPower and set up an organisation to help empower women in the Indian countryside. Eastern Eye caught up with Ananya Birla to talk about music, lyrics, her latest EP, inspirations and passions away from music. What first connected you to music? I have felt deeply connected to music. I remember being little and just watching and listening to my mother, as she played this classical Indian instrument called the santoor. Through school and university, music was my constant; it was like my best friend. Whenever I was having a tough time, I would turn to music and it helped me get through. It still does. I hope my music can do the same for other people. How did you feel when your first song released? It was totally surreal. Before that I had been performing at low-key open nights and random small gigs, so releasing a track with a major label behind me was a massive shift. More than anything I was excited that I got to connect emotionally with such a large audience. You have mixed musical genres, has that been a conscious decision? I like to think of my music as pop, spiked with other genres like rap, r’n’b and electro. Today’s world is fluid and musical boundaries are becoming more and hazier with time. My mood can shift from being really happy to going into dark places. I think my music reflects that. Certain songs like All Night Long bring the first side to prominence, while a song like Love Suicide was inspired by the latter. I prefer to go into the studio and express myself, and my mood as I am feeling that day. Which one of your songs has been closest to your heart? Love Suicide, which is on my EP. We were having a listening session to shortlist the tracks for the EP at Universal Music’s office, and when Love Suicide played, I burst into tears because the experience behind the song was so fresh in my mind and it just brought everything up. What has been the most memorable moment of your musical adventure? I’d have to say the first time a song went platinum. It was a kind of an earth-shattering moment for me. I felt like I had proved how excited people back home could be about embracing international sounds and that the dominance of film music is fading. Tell us about your latest song Blackout? For a while, I’d been hoping to incorporate hip hop more explicitly into one of my tracks, and this single is the result. I hooked up with Vector and WurlD, these amazing hip hop artists from Lagos through Universal Music Group. The song is basically about chilling out and taking a step back from the hectic modern world. I’m super proud of it. Who are you hoping connects with the song? We all feel overwhelmed sometimes, and this song is for anyone who just feels like everything is a bit much. It was a good lesson for me. I used to struggle to balance my business, MPower and music, but I’ve finally learned the importance of savouring every passing moment, instead of racing blindly to the finish line. This song, like your others, is lyrically strong; how important is that to you? My songs are a form of self-expression. My lyrics are deeply personal. I write about the stuff I’m going through in my life; the highs and the lows. It’s all authentic to me. When music has its roots in something real, it feels so much more alive and audiences really connect with it; no matter who they are or what their background is. Tell us about your new EP? It is called Fingerprint because it is deeply personal to me, bound to my identity and experiences. I was lucky enough to collaborate with some amazing artists, like DJ Buddha and my long-time producer Anders (Mood Melodies). I’m so excited to share it with the world. Tell us, what was the biggest challenge of putting it together? Sometimes when I live with a song for a long time, I tend to obsess over it, and it can get challenging to take a step back and be objective. I worked on the songs for over a year, and having to select just four from a bank of so many that I had poured my heart into was not an easy task. I learned a lot about myself during the process. What can we expect next from you?  I’m so grateful to be working with Island Records in the UK, alongside UMG, which means I have access to a way bigger audience, as well as brilliant artists from all over the world. I’m super excited about that. I’m going to be doing a lot of touring too, both in India and internationally. The expectations around you increase with each song; does that put pressure on you?  Inevitably it does, yes. But I am still growing as an artist, and with each release, I’m gaining more and more confidence. It’s been such an amazing journey. Who would you love to collaborate with? Eminem. That sometimes surprises people, but growing up, he was a total hero of mine. I know all of his lyrics. Technically, he’s just such an amazing rapper. But more than that, I love the way he’s able to communicate human experiences in a totally raw and universal way. His music is able to touch anyone, and that’s something I aspire to. What inspires you musically?  I can get inspired by anything. I’m on the lookout for that next great hook, or a phrase that gets stuck in my head, that I just have to turn into a lyric. I am also inspired by everyday experiences and people I meet. What songs dominate your own playlist?  At the moment Better by Khalid and Bad Guy by Billie Eilish. Tell us, who have been your greatest musical influences? On the lyrical side of things, one of my biggest influences has been Ed Sheeran’s songwriting – his ability to tell a story through his songs is incredible. If you could ask any alive or dead artist any question, who would it be and what would you ask them? I just have to ask Beyonce how she dances so beautifully in such high heels. I’d ask John Mayer how he does his solos, and I’d ask Kurt Cobain about the inspiration behind Smells Like Teen Spirit. Tell us something about you not many people know?  I tripped and fell at an event in front of David Cameron and Halle Berry. Hands down, one of the most embarrassing moments ever. What are your big passions away from music? Aside from my music career, I run a mental health initiative, MPower, with my mum. We campaign to stamp out the stigma around mental illness in India and provide worldclass care for people living with mental health issues, who are ignored and discriminated against. I have a passion for building businesses that are a force for good, which is why I set up Svatantra. It is an organisation which aims to empower women in the Indian countryside by helping them grow their own businesses. I wanted to create a platform which encourages women to fulfil their potential and achieve independence. Why do you love music? Music has the power to connect people. It has no borders and can bring people together, regardless of their nationality, gender or sexuality. I love that it can be this amazing positive force. Nothing makes me happier than a fan getting in touch, saying one of my tracks helped them through something. That’s why I got started in the first place. I am still in awe of its power. Music has the power to take anyone through the toughest of experiences, like it did with me. Twitter & Instagram: @ananya_birla