India’s Most Buzzed About Pop Star and Mental Health Campaigner Ananya Birla Talks With TMI About Her Love For Music & Her New Mental Health Campaign MPower

You’ve been busy with music recently. Can you tell us what you’ve been up to over the past few months?

I just released an acoustic version of my latest single Circles, which was very exciting as I’ve been experimenting with a new sound and different influences so I’m keen to see what my fans think of it!

Other than that, I am about to head to LA to work on my next single which is due to release in November.

Where did your love of music come from?

Music was a big part of my childhood. Neither of my parents are musicians, but there was always someone playing the radio and singing along – a lot of old school R&B, Motown, and classic pop. I think that is why music makes me feel so comfortable, it reminds me of home, family and happiness.

I was a really shy kid, but playing my instruments and singing allowed me to open up. Music, and particularly songwriting, gave me a way of expressing myself and it has remained a constant companion through all the good times and bad times in my life.

I was inspired by my mom to take up the Santoor when I was nine, it’s a traditional Indian instrument like a guitar with loads more strings and you play it on your lap. By 13 I longed to play along with my favorite musicians like Coldplay, and Linkin Park, so I started to teach myself the guitar with the help of YouTube tutorials.

Eventually, at 21, I had the confidence to pursue it as a career. Music wasn’t what I was expected to pursue, but it was what made me happiest and I knew that I needed to at least try.

You are the first Indian artist singing in English to go Platinum in India!! What was your reaction like when you heard this amazing news?!?!

I was so happy! It felt like a personal victory, a sign of how far I have come from being that shy kid, playing in my room. But it also proved that Indian audiences are becoming more open-minded about music. For a long time, the music industry there has been dominated by Bollywood and sometimes other genres don’t get much attention.

I have always believed that Indian audiences are keen to hear something new and different, and I think going platinum with an English song proved that.

I hope that the positive response to my music encourages other young musicians back home to be less afraid of taking chances when they create songs.

What has been your reaction to all the success you have been having?

There is not a second that goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am to be doing what I love, and getting such a great response to it. I would play music even if nobody was listening, so to be able to do it as a career – and for other people to actually enjoy what I do as well – is such a blessing and I don’t take it for granted.

You are making waves in the US as well. What has it been like branching your career to America?

I’ve travelled through quite a few cities in the US, from New York to LA, which is like a second home to me because of the gorgeous warm weather, and all the cool, creative people. It’s full of inspiration so I love to be there and just soak it in.

I filmed my first video on the California coast and I was dying to get out on my surfboard but didn’t get the chance because I was working non-stop. I can’t wait to get back there and spend more time enjoying the lifestyle.

I recently spent some time in Atlanta, recording and experimenting with a producer there. The music scene is very cool, there’s some really talented local producers who I’d love to get the chance to work with one day.

Branching into the US has been so much fun. I’m not putting too much pressure on it, I’m doing this for the love of it, rather than because I feel pressure to follow a certain path or deliver results to my record label. I’m just enjoying gradually getting to know people and hoping that audiences here will want to get to know me too!

You have worked with some well known artists including Afrojack, Jim Beanz and Mood Melodies. What has been your favorite song to record and why?

I really love to collaborate, working with other people helps you take a song to the next level by taking you out of your comfort zone, introducing you to new musical processes, and encouraging you to up your game. I also stay more objective when I’m working with other artists. I am so grateful that my journey has already taken me to working around the world with massively respected producers.

All my music comes from a very personal place and my songs are generally based on my own experiences. It made my latest song, Circles, particularly special. I wrote it for my best friend. I wanted to say thank you to her for always being there for me. A lot of music out there is about love and dating, but I wanted to honour the other most important relationship – the one with our best friends! It flowed really easily because it came straight from the heart, so that made it fun to create.

What do you hope to gain out of your music career?

I think music can be a force for good, and I hope to use my career to do positive things.

I am totally in awe of music’s ability to engage with people on a deeper level. 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 has said a song of mine has made them feel better about something they are going through.

Also, music (especially live music) can bring people together to support amazing causes. Ariana Grande’s amazing work with her One Love concert for the victims of the Manchester bombings in England is an amazing example of that. Global Citizen, who I had the pleasure of performing for a while ago, also do great work. They use their events and massive international reach to build powerful movements for social action.

I want to use my music to raise awareness for my mental health initiative MPower. Last year, we did a concert which brought together 20,000 people to raise awareness around mental health and smash the stigma that surrounds it. It is something we are going to continue, and hopefully take internationally one day.

What do you think is the benefit of having a following on social media in the music industry?

It allows you to talk to your fans directly and build a relationship with them, which is really important to me. I thrive on that connection. On social media you can show your real, true self, rather than an edited version or someone else choosing to portray you in a certain way.

It also allows me to speak out about issues that are important to me, and that need to be talked openly about, such as mental health.

But, social media can be unhealthy; it can paint an unrealistic picture that leads you to compare yourself to unnatural standards, so you have to maintain perspective and remember that it’s not reality, just a highlight reel!

Does your fanbase have a name?

Not yet – maybe we should get one going!

How do you want your relationship to be with your fans?

I ran a social media contest earlier this year for the release of my single Meant To Be. I asked my followers and fans to share things that they felt were ‘meant to be’ in their lives, and I was totally amazed by how beautiful and honest their responses were. People shared such personal, touching stories with me and I realised at that point how special my relationship with my fans is. I hope it continues that way.

What social media platform do you use most to stay connected to your fans?

Instagram. I’m really into Stories at the moment because it’s so fast and always fresh – we spend so much time on our phones that people expect to see new content all day, every day, and Stories makes it easy for me to always be posting updates on what I’m doing, or sharing silly things I’m laughing at, and even announcing big news about music releases.

What was the craziest fan encounter you have had?

I haven’t really had one, all of my fans have been really sweet and respectful.

Will there be an ep/album out soon?

I released an acoustic version of Circles just this week! And I am working on more music as we speak. There will be another single in November, and then I’m planning to release my EP by the beginning of next year. I’ve just been in the studio, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear what we’ve been working on.

What’s an average day for you look like?

I wake up at around 7am (unless I have been travelling and jet-lag has woken me at 5am!) and start my day with a smoothie filled and some hot water with honey – which soothes my throat and voice.

I try to work out a few times a week. For me, staying physically healthy helps me stay mentally and emotionally healthy too. I definitely feel better about myself when I am exercising regularly – happier, more confident and energized.

Then I’ll head to either my office or the studio to work on music. I’m lucky to work with people that are also my best friends, so we always make time at work for fooling around and fun in what can often be long, exhausting days.

Afterwards, if I’m in Mumbai I’ll have a home-cooked dinner with my family and spend the evening playing with my dog Skai and jamming on my acoustic guitar

You also have been involved in some amazing charities including Global Citizen & Mpower. How did you become involved with these cool organizations?

I had my own battles with my mental health when I was at university in the UK. I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks and witnessed first-hand the damaging impact of putting yourself under so much pressure to perform. I was very lucky to have had the support that I needed. But when I returned to India the issues around mental health seemed even worse. The stigma and the lack of education and assistance available was damaging so many lives.

I created MPower with my mom because we wanted to change that by campaigning and providing care for people living with mental health issues who are too often ignored or discriminated against.

We know it’s going to take time because the stigma has been there for so long but we are seeing progress and improvements day by day which motivates us to continue.

Do you have any last things you want to tell your supporters?

A lot of people, particularly young people think I am incredibly lucky to have found a career I love which is very true. But I was really confused about what I wanted to do for a long time. I want to tell people that it is ok not to be sure about what you want to do with your life. Life is a journey, and there are moments where you believe in yourself and others when you don’t. The best thing you can do is to find something that you love, then work hard on it and go for it, whether it is a career or even just a hobby.

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