Meet Ananya Birla, the entrepreneur turned singer

You may know Ananya Birla as the daughter of Kumar Mangalam Birla, the chairman of the Aditya Birla Group but are you acquainted with Ananya the artist, who has three platinum-selling records to her credit? No?

Well, we had an opportunity to have an exclusive conversation with her where she revealed the importance of emotions in a song, her take on gender equality in the music industry and how she got her first single signed to Universal Music Group.

Ananya Birla

From an entrepreneur to a singer, how did that transition happen?

I’ve loved music forever. I played the santoor as a kid and spent most of my time as a teenager locked away in my room teaching myself the guitar and playing/singing along with my favorite artists like Kurt Cobain, Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. I was pretty shy, but music, and especially song-writing, gave me a whole new way of opening up and expressing myself.

Business has also always fascinated me (I guess I picked it up from my family) and I launched Svatantra when I was 17. It empowers women in rural areas by helping them launch and grow their ventures. It’s something I’m incredibly passionate about and, though it is a totally different field, the process of launching it and ‘putting myself out there’ was what gave me the confidence to pursue music.

When I was at college in the UK, I would head to London every weekend to see gigs, and eventually to perform in whatever grungy venue would have me. I loved every minute of it. I felt like I found a place where I belonged. When Svatantra got to a point where I didn’t have to be so involved every minute of the day, I was able to explore music more as a career than just a hobby.

I know how lucky I am to wake up every morning and feel like I can conquer the day because I am following my passions and working with people that I love. Whether it be in my music, my business or my mental health initiative Mpower.

How was your debut single, “Livin’ The Life” built and what was the thought behind it?

All my music is based on personal experience and “Livin’ the Life” was no different. It was written after going through a tough phase of unrequited love – something we all go through – and coming out the other side of it as a stronger person. I wanted to challenge people’s notion of what “Livin’ the Life” means – it’s about the freedom to be yourself and pursue what makes you happy.  

I like to write about things that everyone goes through – like heartbreak, love, friendship, loss –  so that people can connect with my songs whoever they are or wherever they’re from in the world.

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Keeping in mind your legacy, did you face any troubles in getting the track through labels or face issues while releasing it?

Being signed to labels like Universal in India and Island Records UK has helped me to connect and work with some awesome producers all over the world, and to reach a bigger audience than I would ever have been able to solo.

I was so happy when Universal approached me in Mumbai. It took a bit of getting used to after spending years grafting away anonymously and performing in low-key places, but it was a dream come true to work with such a prestigious label.

They really helped to maximize the reach of the first song, particularly after the remix with Afrojack. I didn’t expect to jump into the public eye quite so quickly and that came with pressure and responsibility, but throughout it, all my friends have helped me feel grounded. They have been with me since day one, through all the highs and lows.

How was your experience working with Afrojack on the remix of “Livin’ The Life”?

When I heard that Nick wanted to work on the remix of “Livin’ The Life,” I was thrilled. He is very talented, has achieved so much, worked with superstars like Beyonce, Sia and Ne-Yo and he’s also the tallest person I have ever met! But we got on from the very first moment – he is super down to earth and gave me amazing advice on writing, recording music and an insight into the industry processes.  

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What do you think of the current dance music in India?

It’s great to see the dance scene getting bigger and bigger in India. Not only are there more international legends coming over to play, but there are incredibly talented home-grown electronic artists too. Nucleya, Anish Sood and Zaeden are blowing up and really helping break the Bollywood mold that the industry has been stuck in for a while. We have some awesome festivals like Supersonic and Sunburn too, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Indian headliner in the next few years.

Talking about your last single, “Circles,” you dedicated it to your best friends. In your opinion, can music help one express himself/herself in a better manner? Also, what do you think of raising awareness about socially sensitive topics through your music?

Definitely. For so many people like me, music is the best way of expressing your emotions. I find songwriting and performing so cathartic because I can voice feelings which would otherwise be really difficult to communicate.

Music can definitely be a force for good too. It’s an amazing universal language that people can connect with regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality or social background. There is no better feeling in the world than when I get a message from a fan who says a song of mine has made them feel better about something they are going through.

It can also bring people together to support amazing causes, especially live music. Global Citizen does that so well, and Ariana Grande did that beautiful concert last year for the bombing victims in the UK.

I think musicians who have a public platform have a responsibility to speak up for those who are less fortunate.

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How would you classify your music genre-wise?

My sound has developed quite a bit since my first single and I think it will continue to change. It is pop, but I take inspiration from a wide variety of places. Whether it is the hip-hop studios I’ve recorded in Atlanta or working with artists like Mood Melodies, Afrojack or Sean Kingston – all these people and places influence my sound.

I’m currently incorporating more Indian vibe into a few of my upcoming tracks which have been really fun. When I’m in the studio in London or LA and missing home, experimenting with Indian sounds and percussion really helps.

While artists are blurring the lines between genres and moving towards pop-centric/radio-friendly material, how do you think an artist can differentiate himself/herself from the crowd?

I think if you want to differentiate yourself from the crowd you have to be willing to take risks and go against the tide.

Bollywood rules in India, but I always wanted to form a more international sound that veered between electro and acoustic. I was actually the first artist to go platinum with an English single (and I’ve since done this three times with my last three tracks (“Meant To Be“, “Hold On” and “Circles”) which proves that taking risks can sometimes pay off.

Because of the internet and apps like JioSaavn, audiences are finding and loving artists that they wouldn’t have come across before, and musicians are using different ways to find their followers rather than relying on radio play.  

For an upcoming artist, be it a singer, a DJ or producer, what’s important to stay relevant in the scene without losing originality?

When I write songs, they are always authentic and emotionally driven. Audiences can sense when music comes from the heart and they can connect with it so much better. I think that as long as your music is a true reflection of yourself, and it evolves and changes as you grow as an artist, then you and your music will find an audience and stay relevant.  

Ananya Birla

When we talk about women empowerment, is gender equality is still a far cry in the music industry?

Women should be able to live up to their potential as individuals, not feel stunted and have restrictions and controls pushed on to them. We are still a long way from gender equality in India, where people still see a woman’s place as in the home, but things are changing and developing at a rapid pace.

A lot needs to be addressed in the music industry. Although I haven’t experienced it, it is awful to see that so many women still experience harassment and exploitation. Seeing fellow female musicians, who have achieved so much, bravely speaking out against the abuse and exploitation they have faced is inspiring. It’s a huge risk for them personally and professionally because sadly we live in a world where women are often shamed and shunned for standing up for what is right.

There is also a pressure to look and behave a certain way, to show this perfect, polished version of yourself. But that’s a pressure that so many young women are feeling too – whether they are in the industry or not.  

What is your definition of success as a singer/artist?

I have a load of music, including my first EP, coming out in 2019 and I am so excited to share that with everyone. Continuing to do the things I love, and hopefully make a positive difference at the same time – that is my definition of success.

Want to listen to what Ananya Birla is listening to right now? Head over to JioSaavn and stream her personal playlist.