By Kate Ferguson
Popstar Ananya Birla Talks Music and Mental Health
Ananya Birla started playing music in childhood and ultimately became the first homegrown musician to go platinum singing in English in India. The popstar, mental health campaigner, entrepreneur recently finished a tour with Wiz Khalifa, following the release of her latest track “Day Goes By” featuring Sean Kingston.
Ananya Birla runs a mental health initiative in India called MPower, and has been named both one of GQ’s “Most Influential Young Indians” and one of Forbes’ “Women to Watch.”
I caught up with Ananya Birla about making music, launching MPower, and what we can expect from her next.
Tell me a bit about the latest single “Day Goes By” and your tour with Wiz Khalifa
I met Wiz and Sean when they were touring in India and looking for local artists to support them. I was so buzzed that they liked my music and wanted me on board, it was an incredible experience opening for them. They’re really different performers, but I learned so much from being on the road with each of them.
Sean and I had a great musical connection and wanted to test it out in the studio. So on my next trip to LA, we linked up and started making ‘Day Goes By’. The song’s all about that feeling when you just can’t get someone out your head – that intense infatuation in the early stages of a relationship. We had so much fun working on the song and video together – I think you can really feel that on the track.
When did you first get started in music?
Music has always been such an important part of my life. It is like a friend I’ve always been able to rely on, whether I’m celebrating or going through something tough.
I picked up my first instrument when I was 9; an Indian classical string instrument called the santoor and was hooked – not long after I was writing my own songs and composing on the guitar.
When I got to college in the UK, I had a tough time and music totally got me through. I went to London every weekend for gigs and just felt totally carefree whenever I was on stage. It was the best feeling.
I’d known for the longest time that music was my calling, but I was so nervous about putting myself out there. That time in London gave me the confidence I needed and also made me realize that nothing in the world made me happier or feel more complete.
I dropped out of college, started working on some songs, got in the studio, and was performing regularly, soon I was invited to meet the Universal Music team in India. They, and Island Records, who I now work with in the UK, have been amazing over the last few years.
Back when I started out, a lot of people said there wasn’t an audience for English music in India, or for someone from India in the rest of the world – but me and some other artists from back home are changing that. One of my proudest moments was becoming the first Indian artist singing in English to go platinum.
Do you write as well?
Yeah, I’ve always loved the catharsis of writing whether it is poetry or songs. It is a great way to process feelings. With my music, the most important thing is authenticity. Each of my tracks is based on things that I’ve been through because I know that people can connect with it so much more when it is real and from the heart.
I think the best artists in the world have perfected that – whether it is Eminem, Kurt Cobain, or Ed Sheeran, they can really move you with their music because it feels so true. A song that is honest and authentic can connect with people no matter who they are or where they are from in the world.
Anything you’d like to share about your creative process?
I think each artist’s creative process is so different, it’s what makes their music special. Personally, I do my best writing when my emotions are peaked – whether it is fresh out of a breakup or something amazing happens or I’m just totally moved by a place or thing, pretty instantly I have my pen out. I love to write when the feelings are fresh. I think it can annoy some of my friends though, when I disappear off with my notebook.
I love all types of music, from rap to Motown to reggae to classic pop you can sing in the shower. Right now, I am loving Khalid, Post Malone, and The Weeknd.
Tell me about starting MPower!
Mental health is a cause that is very close to my heart. When I was at university in England, I suffered pretty badly with anxiety and panic attacks. I guess I had internalized that stigma around mental health because I found it almost impossible to reach out for help.
Eventually, I got the help I needed but when I got back to India I was shocked at the lack of awareness and initiatives to help people. Mental health was rarely discussed, and when it was, it was often trivialized. There is a lack of education and awareness of the causes and solutions, and as a result, we have some of the highest rates of suicide and depression in the world.
So, I set up MPower to do something about this and address the epidemic of silence.
What are you recording now?
I’ve been in the studio for the last month working on new material with some extremely talented writers and producers in LA. Last month, I got a chance to work with one of my songwriting heroes Diane Warren which was just amazing. She’s written some of my all-time favorite songs like ‘I don’t want to miss a thing” by Aerosmith (which always makes me cry) and ‘I was here’ by Beyoncé.
I’ve got some brand new music coming out next year, and I am super excited to share it. I’ve now moved out here [to L.A.] full time, so hopefully, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me : )