Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

‘I Would Never Want to Shake Off My Indian Roots’

Ananya Birla

Indian singer and entrepreneur Ananya Birla’s journey from learning the santoor to becoming a part of an album produced by Jim Beanz in the United States has been a delightful process for her. Veering from the predictable path of joining the Birla family business, she decided to pursue her passion — music. Her recently-released new single Circles is yet another expression of her love towards music.

The 24-year-old New York-based singer, who happens to be the daughter of Indian industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, the chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, gives straight and simple answers to Little India about her passion for music, her Indian upbringing and more:

What was the concept behind your new single Circles?

Circles is a song which celebrates friendship, which I believe is one of life’s greatest gifts. It was inspired by my best friend, I wanted to say thank you to the person who has been with me through all of life’s ups and downs. I knew exactly what I wanted to say when I went in the studio to write the track. It was surreal how quickly it all came together.  

Has Bollywood or Indian music influenced your style of singing?

India is the most inspiring place in the world — the sights, sounds and smells are all unique. I think consciously and subconsciously it reflects on my music. Some of my best tracks are written when I am home in India. I want my music to connect with people around the globe, but I would never want to shake off my Indian roots. It is a huge part of who I am and I try to keep elements of that in my music and my videos, when I can.

My first formal training was in Indian classical music when I learnt the santoor.  I saw my mother play it when I was about eight years old and was entranced. I was desperate to learn how to play it. Understanding the complexities and nuances of Indian music has made writing songs so much easier for  me, particularly when it comes to developing a sound which will appeal both in India and internationally.  

Your debut album Livin’ The Life was co-written and produced by the hip-hop star Jim Beanz. How was the experience working with the popular name?

I love to collaborate. I am incredibly lucky to have already worked with such talented people like Jim, Mood Melodies and Afrojack, and I learned so much from their experience.

I was connected to Jim through the U.S. music label Universal Music Group. He produced the first version Livin the Life, then Afrojack came on board to do a remix that took the song to another level. It was so amazing to work with two people who have achieved so much in the industry.  

How has music been a part of your life?

Music was a huge part of my life growing up. The radio was always on and someone would be singing or dancing along. For as long as I can remember, I was obsessed. I was in a few bands at school and used to love performing at shows but it wasn’t until I was at university in the United Kingdom that I decided that this was what I wanted to devote my life to.

I had a tricky time adjusting to life in England, and music helped me cope. Every weekend I would go to London and perform at or attend gigs all around town. It would always make me feel better. At the time, I felt a lot of pressure to follow a more traditional career path, but deep down I knew that music was what I wanted to do.

Ananya Birla

Which artistes have been your inspiration? Who do you want to work with in the future?

My musical heroes are people like Kurt Cobain, Eminem, Demi Lovato and Ed Sheeran. They have all been so successful because of their honesty and vulnerability. It allows their music to resonate with people no matter where they are in the world. Audiences can sense when music comes from the heart and it becomes so much more relatable.

There are so many people I would love to work with in the future. At the moment I think that Zayn Malik is making some amazing music, it would be awesome to do something with him at some point.

Do you enjoy featuring in your music videos?

I love making music videos because it allows me to tell a story and play a part that can often be very different from my actual self. My music is all based on personal experience, or experiences I hear about which resonate with me. One great thing is that in my music videos, there is much more creative freedom to play with. 

You are also an entrepreneur. How do you juggle it with music?

I run a mental health initiative called MPower Minds. We support individuals and the families of people with mental health issues, who are often ignored and discriminated against, by campaigning for and providing care services. I have also set up Svatantra, a microfinance business which supports women entrepreneurs in rural India, and Curocarte — a digital retail platform for artisans around the globe fighting to keep their ancestral arts and crafts alive.

Initially it was hard to balance these projects with my music. However, through thoughtful delegation, setting reasonable goals, not over-committing and prioritizing, I am better at maintaining a good work-life balance. 

How challenging has it been to establish yourself as an artiste in the United States? 

I’m still working on establishing myself as a singer in America. I have received positive feedback about the mix of electro/pop with melodies that have an Indian edge. I have always been inspired by American musicians and wanted to create an international sound. I think audiences across the world do understand that.

I really liked recording in Atlanta and Los Angeles — where my first and second videos were filmed — and found so much talent and enthusiasm here. 

I think most women will agree that growing up and coming to understand and know yourself is complex for anyone. Establishing my independence and individual sense of purpose has been important to me.