Ananya – who is she?
Full name: Ananya Birla
From: Mumbai, India
Label: Universal Music India
Debut: ‘Livin’ My Life’ (November 2016)
Latest single: ‘Better’
SheBOPS: Could you tell us about one particular experience from your life so far which influences your music?
Ananya: There are so many… taking up my first instrument at 5 and playing along with my mother, the slightly awkward school concerts where I got my first taste of performing, meeting other musicians who have inspired and helped shape my journey… it’s tough to choose just one.
I think the most significant was probably when I was at university. I would escape to London every weekend for little gigs or open-mic nights and one evening I was at this really grungy bar in Camden, near where Amy Winehouse started out. I was singing to like four people, on a dark, sticky stage in the corner of the room and even though it wasn’t in any way glamourous or inspiring, I loved it. I realised that no matter where I was, or who I was performing to, nothing made me happier or feel more comfortable and complete.
Thankfully, later on, the place filled up and people started vibe-ing with the music. I remember the crowd was super diverse, you had these weathered old London rockers, a tourist group and a load of students. That night really highlighted the awesome power of music to connect with people, no matter who they are or where they are from.
How have you developed as an artist since releasing your first single ‘Livin’ the Life’ in 2016?
I’m more confident now for sure. I know what I want to do with my music, and how I want it to sound so I’m less easily influenced by people who might want to disrupt that and have me conform to something I’m less comfortable with. I’ve experimented with different sounds in the past, but with my upcoming EP I’ve found something which feels like an extension of me.
Coming from the Birla family, do you find yourself being judged or having to ‘prove yourself’ as an artist because of your background?
I think everyone, no matter who their parents are, has certain expectations placed on them (particularly back in India). My family is quite well-known for business in Mumbai, and there were definitely some people who assumed that I would follow in their footsteps and go into that world. But I’ve always believed that everyone should try to do the thing that sparks a fire in their soul, and so I wanted to follow my heart. I’m lucky that my family have always been supportive of me as an individual and appreciate that I have my own personality, passions, beliefs, and I need to go on my own journey.
You are also the founder of Svatantra Microfin, a company that provides microfinance to women in rural India, and set up mental health charity MPower with your mother to Stamp Out Stigma associated with mental health concerns – how do you balance these with your music career? Do they ever cross paths, or find one role influencing the other?
It used to be tough – sleep was a luxury I didn’t enjoy too much of back in the day.
Now, Svatantra – which empowers women deep in the Indian countryside by helping them become financially independent – has grown and developed an amazing team, so I can take more of a strategic role. This allows me to spend a bit less time in the office and more in the studio.
Mpower is incredibly close to my heart. When I was at university, I suffered with anxiety and panic attacks and wanted to set something up in India that could provide people going through similar issues with support. It’s so hard to get help there, and there’s an awful stigma around mental illness that makes it even harder.
I’d always wanted to find a way to link my mental health advocacy to my music, and over the past year we have put on two amazing concerts in Mumbai which have brought together tens of thousands of people to raise awareness for the cause. It’s been an incredibly special project that I’m really proud of.
What is the message or theme with your upcoming EP, due out in April?
The EP’s out in April. It has been an amazing experience to develop it because I feel it is like sharing a unique part of my identity with the world. It’s mostly about love – the beautiful bits and the challenges too. Each song explores love from a different perspective and looks at the diversity of emotions that we experience in relationships, in good times and bad. The last song, which we are finishing up now, is a little different. It encourages people to take a step back from the relentless pace of today’s world, take a breath and admire the view. Something which I’ve often struggled to do. Life isn’t all about racing to a finish line, it’s about enjoying every step of the journey
You are working with Island Records UK for the EP’s release – are there plans for a UK tour in support of the EP?
Definitely. I love to perform, whether it is in front of ten people or a thousand; I am quite shy usually, but when I am on stage, I feel like I can really connect and communicate with lots of people in a way that feels strangely comfortable.
Previous single ‘Circles’ is about the importance of your close female friends – why was it important to explore that topic?
I don’t think friendship gets enough credit. So many people are singing about sex, romance and break-ups (which can all make for great music), but they often neglect the relationships we have with our friends, which are just as important and shape our lives just as much.
What are your favorite sounds to incorporate into your music?
I’m not a huge fan of labels, anywhere in life really, but I guess my music sits in the electro-pop space with an emphasis on the pop.
India is a big influence in my music, my first proper training was in Indian classical music as well. The music back home has some amazing elements that I think the rest of the world needs to hear more of. It’s tricky to incorporate that sound into the work I’m doing at the moment, but we are having a lot of fun being experimental. On a few of my upcoming tracks we have struck a great balance and I can’t wait to share them.
What emotions do you hope your music conveys to the listener?
Audiences can sense when music comes from the heart which is why all my songs are authentic to my own experience. I also try to write about things we all go through like love, heartbreak, loneliness, friendship, trying to fit in.
My aim with my music is to connect with people through the good times and bad. I know the impact that music can have on your emotions, and sometimes just listening to an artist express themselves is cathartic and comforting. Nothing makes me happier than when someone hears my track and gets in touch to tell me that it made them feel better, or provided some comfort during something they were going through.
How do you feel about the representation and portrayal of female musicians? Is there anything that you’d like to change?
There’s massive pressure to look and behave a certain way if you’re a female artist. It’s that outdated thinking that you have to hide your true self and can only show this perfect, polished version if you want to make it. But I think our generation craves the opposite – we want realness.
I think that’s a pressure that so many young women are feeling too – whether they are in the industry or not. Women should be able to live up to their potential as individuals, not feel stunted and have restrictions and controls pushed on to them.
As a woman, is there anything about the music industry that frustrates you?
There are lots of things that need to be addressed in the industry, I’ve been very lucky not to have been exposed to it directly, but many women experience harassment. Seeing fellow female musicians bravely speaking out against the abuse and exploitation they have faced is inspiring. But I wish they didn’t have to go through that.
What issues do you think female musicians are facing today?
The music industry is male-dominated, and gender equality is still a far cry. I would like to see more women in creative and executive positions in the industry. A lot of the senior positions are still taken by men.
Are there any female artists you’re particularly into at the moment?
I’m loving the kick-ass pop coming from Dua Lipa at the moment, whenever I’m having a ‘down’ day, I put her music on and I’m ready to go again! There are some great new artists coming out of the UK right now too, such as Grace Carter, who is such a soulful songwriting talent. And Raye who I think is incredibly special and you have to check out her videos! She’s incredibly cool and sings about female solidarity, friendships, and community.
Have you noticed any double standards when it comes to gender in the music industry?
I think that people are much quicker to criticize women and are much harsher when they do so. Many critics also belittle the subjects that women write about, shrugging them off as silly or frivolous.
Do you have any top tips for other female musicians?
If you want to differentiate yourself from the crowd, take risks and go against the tide. Audiences appreciate music that comes from the heart. Try to write songs that are authentic and emotionally driven. Look after yourself. I’ve worked at being better about aiming for balance (I say ‘aiming’ because I’m certainly not perfect). In the beginning, I would work until I was exhausted and broke under the pressure. It took me a few burn-outs to realize that if you never take time to rest and recuperate, you’re no use to yourself or anyone else.
What advice would you give to young girls and women looking to work in music?
Your time and your talent is precious: know your worth.
Which aspect of the music industry excites you the most?
I love how much more global music is becoming. ‘Foreign’ music is just not really a thing anymore. Look at the rise in Latin music and K-Pop; thanks to the internet they have found whole new audiences. We artists need to start embracing that more.
Is there anything in your career that you feel like you are still learning?
Everything. I think the biggest mistake people can make is thinking that they know it all, or that there isn’t more to learn. I’m constantly evolving and changing in every way.
What do you stand for as an artist?
Music has given me a platform to connect with people and I want to use that in the best possible way. I am a big believer that everyone can, and should try to, leave the world a better place than they find it.