She might be the eldest daughter of Kumar Mangalam Birla (Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group) but she is a musician in her own capacity and also a mental health activist. Ananya Birla is the first homegrown artist to go platinum with an English track, “Meant To Be” (2017) and she just recently added another feather to her cap by becoming the first Indian singer to feature on the largest pop radio show in the US. She has also been signed up by Maverick (the American entertainment and artist management company that counts Madonna as one of its founders). I got the opportunity to interview the 26-year-old who has just come out with her new single 'Let There Be Love' which was made during the lockdown days amid COVID with a very small crew. While speaking about her inspiring journey and the dream she dared to pursue, the young Birla also talks about the growing relevance of mental health and the need to be more vocal about it. Take a look at what all she shared in this exclusive chit-chat.
1. What was the experience of creating your new song “Let There Be Love”?
It was very different from anything I’ve done before. With ‘Let There Be Love’, we actually built a make-shift studio in my house in LA and all the mixing and mastering was done remotely.
I used the time during lockdown to experiment with my sound and write songs without the fear of a deadline or outcome. I wrote over 200 songs but none of them felt right for the time that we are in until Let There Be Love came along. The song talks about all the things important to me and that has become even more important during these challenging times - trying to find beauty in dark times, and the importance of connection, people and love. Love is everything.
2. Featuring on American radio and becoming the first Indian to do so, you have come a long way and made it on your own talent. How would you sum up your journey so far? Were there any obstacles?
It is so surreal to hear myself on the radio out here. It feels so strange to think only a few years ago I was doing tiny gigs around London, and now I am playing on one of the biggest stations in the US. It has been such an amazing journey.
There have definitely been obstacles. When I was starting out, some people wanted me to go in a direction I wasn’t that comfortable with. They said there wasn’t an audience for my kind of music in India. I am so happy to have proved them wrong. For me, the most important thing has always been to be authentic and to stay true to myself and the music that I wanted to make.
3. How has social media enabled the music industry to make the music more accessible with a global outreach? Does it have its cons as well?
I’ve always believed that music is the ultimate global language. Just look at the way that K-pop and Latin music have blown up over the last few years. ‘Foreign’ music isn’t really a thing anymore. Digital platforms and social media have made it so much easier for people around the world to hear music they wouldn’t have come across before. It’s especially good for young, independent musicians because there are so many more ways to deliver your music and to connect with fans anywhere in the world. With social media, your reach is basically infinite.
The perception of music in India, which most people still think of as mainly Bollywood stuff in the rest of the world, is being shifted. Young rap, electro, and pop artists are getting recognised and showcasing the amazing talent that our country has to offer to the rest of the world.
4. You are also a mental health activist and have co-founded MPower. Have you noticed any difference when it comes to discussions around mental health over the years? Also, do you think that the stigma attached to such a topic needs to be dealt with in a more human way?
India has come a long way, but we are still really far behind other countries in the world. Depression and suicide rates continue to go up every single year, and COVID is making things much worse.
The stigma that is engrained in our society and perpetuated by parts of the media and certain communities means it is so difficult for people to reach out for help. Even if they are brave enough to overcome that, there just are not enough qualified professionals who they can access, or it is too expensive.
It is why at Mpower we set up a free, 24x7 helpline to support those struggling during the pandemic. The most important thing that you can do if you are going through a difficult time, is to reach out for help. I remember how hard it was for me when I battled with depression and anxiety in the past, but it was my first step on the route to getting better. We wanted to ensure that no one felt like they were alone and knew there was someone to talk to if they needed it.
5. For someone who was at Oxford University and having dropped out mid-way... It takes guts to do so. Have you ever regretted it even for a minute?
It was a big decision, but I truly believe that life is too short not to pursue the thing that sparks a fire in your soul. I am so lucky to have found that and to be able to do it every single day.
I was really scared to put myself out there and turn my back on a more secure path but, in the end, the fear of failure was outweighed by the joy of doing what I love the most. I am proud that I made that decision, it’s so important to follow your passions, even if that means taking a more uncertain journey.
6. There might be many such individuals who later realise that a fish is trying to or expected to climb the tree. What all should one consider before listening to our calling?
Whether you’re a fish trying to climb a tree or a bird trying to swim – the most important thing you can do is to stay true to yourself. Everyone has their own unique skills and ambitions and should be able to do whatever makes them happy and allows them to express themselves as individuals.
Message For HerZindagi Readers
It’s not easy working out what you want to do with your life, but once you find that thing that truly inspires and drives you, 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 so important. With anything we do, we should all strive to make a positive impact on the world around us too – because that is what makes it worth it.