Ananya Birla may be from a wealthy family, but success is all her own work. Priti Salian reports
Ananya Birla on the record
Every time, before she enters a recording studio, Ananya Birla dials an important number. “I call my parents to seek their blessing,” says the singer-songwriter. Birla is a fairly typical 23-year-old – she cannot live without her phone and has more than one tattoo. But she has lived up to the Indian value of respecting her parents.
“I was a studious child and a mummy’s girl,” says the Mumbai-based musician, who has dropped three popular English language electro-pop singles since her debut in November 2016. “My mother ensured that I used my full potential, both physically and intellectually,” she says. As a little girl, her days were full of activities such as calligraphy, sketching, swimming and tennis.
“All this geared me up for the lifestyle I have now,” Birla says, referring to her days as an entrepreneur and an up-and-coming global singer.
Being the daughter of one of India’s richest industrialists, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Ananya could have decided to follow in her father’s footsteps, but she preferred to create an identity of her own. At 17, she launched a microfinance company, Svatantra Microfin, to support rural Indian women with loans for their businesses.
Since then, she has joined the global mental health campaign with her organisation Mpower and launched an e-commerce venture. All this while focusing on writing and recording music. “I’m equally passionate about everything that I do,” she says.
Birla’s involvement with music began when she was 9 years old, when, inspired by her mother, she started to learn the santoor (a hammered dulcimer).
“That helped me understand music in detail,” she says. As a teenager, she taught herself the guitar watching YouTube videos. But she found her calling as a singer only when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford. She gigged at pubs and clubs in London, and sang originals and covers at more than 70 clubs and pubs during her two-year stay at Oxford.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses and Poker Face by Lady Gaga were a few of my favourite covers,” she says.
Birla also performed Spectator, her first composition, and I don’t want to love, one of her best originals. But she has not considered releasing the two tracks. “These songs are too pure, and ones that I want to keep to myself,” she says.
Once she was back from London, Birla wanted to take her music to the world by singing professionally. “I was trying quite hard to move my career forward, but it is a crazy industry where you have to be at the right place at the right time,” she says.
When she started pitching to record labels in India, I don’t want to love was her first choice, and rightly so, as it won her a deal with Universal Music Group. “I had been warned not to expect anything from them since they don’t sign anyone easily,” she says. But her interaction with the company’s head of marketing was a breeze. “I played my song once on my laptop, then he asked me to play it again. After that, he just asked me to follow him to his office and I was signed up,” Birla says. “It was so quick, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I’ve still not asked him what he liked about my music,” she says. “I think it was just meant to be.”
Universal Music Group India launched Birla’s debut single Livin’ the Life almost two years ago. The song, which Birla said was all about “celebrating life and spreading love and kindness in the world” was co-written and produced by the American musician Jim Beanz, who has worked with Cheryl Cole, Britney Spears, Duran Duran, Chris Cornell and Whitney Houston, and has also produced songs for the popular TV series, Empire.
Birla and Beanz were introduced through her label and collaborated and worked on the single for a year before recording it at a studio in Philadelphia.
Her second single, Meant to Be, was developed with Norwegian producer, Mood Melodies. It was certified platinum in India, making her the first Indian artist with an English language single to accomplish the feat. The song was later remixed by Dutch electronic DJ Afrojack and has received almost 15 million views on YouTube.
Her first single drew criticism from some who thought she was just a rich girl out to make it big with her dad’s name and wealth. For Birla, the hate was painful. “Knowing my personality, I thought I would have been much more affected than I was. But I just took it in my stride,” she says. The support, from family, friends and her team, helped her to cope. “When I released my second song, the haters suddenly became lovers,” she says.
Birla wants to focus on all the love she has received. She recalls an interaction with a young man whose 56-year-old mother is a huge fan of hers. Her son wanted to arrange for his mum to meet Birla on her birthday. “When we met, she was in tears and hugged me five or six times,” Birla says.
A call from a soldier on the India-Pakistan border touched Birla deeply. “The soldier said that he rarely received data network, but when he did, he made sure to listen to my songs, which have kept him going,” Birla says.
“It is moments like these that make me feel humble. It means a lot to me as a singer and a person,” she says. “It has been a fun journey and touch wood, things have been going really well,” she adds. Her third single Hold On, released last month, is about “true love, one of the most positive emotions in the world”.
Referring to interracial relationships and other forbidden love, the kind of relationships the world doesn’t support, she says: “My message through this song is that no matter what society thinks, you should hold on to your love.”
Birla believes that music is a great platform to connect with people over social causes. She has performed at the Global Citizen Festival in Mumbai, which contributes to end extreme poverty across the world. Recently, she launched her platform “One” in Mumbai, to empower underprivileged children who are passionate about music.
“One” connects music teachers with schools and NGOs, buys musical instruments for learners and facilitates one-on-one learning. Birla feels that “One” can help children discover their passion for music. Many of them could also use the power of music to heal themselves. “Music has always been therapeutic for me; I hope it can help the less privileged too,” she says.
Birla has earned a place in listeners’ hearts with three popular singles. Her next single will be out later this month, and though she is not yet ready to share its title, she says “the song is about friendship, about
two best friends, and has an acoustic vibe”.
The release will be followed by another single, before the premiere of her EP by year’s end. “This is going be an interesting year for me,” Birla says. “I hope to get a Grammy home for my country some day.”