Ananya Birla Talks the Rise of Pop Music In India, Her New Song 'Unstoppable' & Female Empowerment

Ananya Birla
Courtesy Photo

Ananya Birla

There's been a massive shift in India's music scene lately. First, Spotify officially launched in the country following lengthy negotiations with the major record companies. Secondly, there's a wave of pop, hip-hop and indie music that has taken over what, until this point, was a primarily Bollywood-dominated industry.

One of the latest stars to burst on the Indian pop scene is Ananya Birla. At just 24 years old, she's the first homegrown artist singing in English to ever gain Platinum status in India. Not only is she incredibly talented musically--a self-taught santoor and guitar player--she is also a fervent female and mental health advocate. A believer in the power of music, she uses her talents to organizes music festivals in Mumbai to benefit her mental health organization, Mpower, which aims to knock the stigma associated with mental health illnesses and providing much-needed resources in India. Her business, Svatantra, which means "freedom" in Hindi, works for exactly that. The company helps female entrepreneurs in rural India grow their businesses and become financially independent.

The empowering spirit translates directly to her music. In celebration of International Women's Day (Mar. 8), Birla dropped the catchy yet powerful single, "Unstoppable," which begs for her fellow women to break the rules set up for them by society. "With determination, there is nothing we can’t achieve. I want all women to be able to feel that being a woman is a source of pride and strength – to be empowered," Birla told Billboard. "Later this month I'm putting out a music video for “Unstoppable” with ten inspirational women from India who have overcome challenges to do amazing things. Meeting them over the past few months and listening to their stories has been a massively humbling and inspiring experience."

Ahead of the May release of her EP and an upcoming single featuring Sean Kingston, Birla chatted with Billboard about female empowerment, "Unstoppable" and Mpower. 

What was it like working with Sean Kingston and other artists from different countries? Does it bring a global perspective to your music?

Sean and I met when we were performing at the same festival in Goa and clicked immediately. We agreed to link up in the studio when I was in LA, and a few months later had the chance. I’d been a fan since he did ‘Beautiful Girls’ back in the day, so I’m really happy we got to work together. He is an amazing guy and I can’t wait to share the song. I’m definitely blessed to have worked with so many awesome creatives around the world. My last few tracks were produced by Mood Melodies, who’s from Oslo and best known for the song ‘Faded’ with Alan Walker. We have a great vibe in the studio and are definitely on the same wavelength.  

I think working with artists from different countries is a great reminder that music is the true universal language. That international perspective definitely helps take a song to the next level. My new EP has artists from all over, from India, America, Africa. I wanted to put something together which I hope connects with audiences no matter who they are and where they’re from. Hopefully it brings a smile too! That is my ultimate aim with my music. I’m influenced by all the places I go. I’ve been lucky to work in some of the best cities across the world where music is a huge part of culture.  India, though, is a part of my soul. It is impossible not to be influenced by it, the intensity, the sounds, the centuries of culture. When I’m back home, I love nothing more than disappearing out on my own on an adventure and finding a quiet place to work on a track. Ideally somewhere deep in the countryside or by the river in Rishikesh, which is where the Beatles wrote some of their best music. 

What has the reception to the rise of pop music been in India?

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a pop artist in India. But it’s not just pop that’s taking off - also hip-hip, electro and rock too. The musical landscape is evolving so fast. When I started out, I was  told that there wasn’t really an audience in India for my type of music. Until recently, film music really dominated. Different genres and English-language songs didn't get much attention. Now labels are pushing independent singers, and there's a lot more opportunity for artists who want to create their own music. The digital shift and globalization also means the appetite for English language music has increased so much. I think if you want to stand out from the crowd you have to be willing to take risks and go against the grain. Breaking out was tough and I got a bit of criticism at first which was hard to deal with. But, I learned quickly that this comes with the territory and anything creative is 100% subjective. I am so happy people are now responding so positively to my music back home.

Do you find that your role is particularly important as a woman in the Indian music industry?

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, it’s important to believe in yourself and not to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. It can be a tough. When I started out, it really hurt when I was told that my style, or look, or sound wasn’t ‘right. But my vision was strong and I refused to change for anyone. As soon as I was confident being unapologetically myself, everything started falling into place. The music industry definitely has a dark side –not one I’ve personally experienced, but you sense it is there. When I heard Lady Gaga talk openly about abuse at the hands of a producer when she was 19, it really moved me so much. I thought it was so incredibly brave to fight through that trauma and share her story with so many people. Lady Gaga is an awesome example of someone using their platform to try and make this world a more equal place.

What is your favorite thing about working with Mpower?

Mental health is a topic that’s still taboo around the world but especially in India. There’s a terrible stigma that means people are scared to reach out for help. The rates of suicide and depression are some of the highest in the world. At Mpower, we campaign to stamp out the stigma around mental illness in India, and to provide amazing care for people living with mental health issues who have been ignored or discriminated against. We want people to know that it is OK to not be OK sometimes. And for them to feel that there is help available should they need it. It should be the same as dealing with a physical illness and patients should be treated without discrimination. There is always new evidence coming out about the relationship between music and mental health, and how it can be a really positive force when someone is struggling. I’d always wanted to find a way to link my mental health work to music, and over the past year we have put on two amazing concerts in Mumbai. They’ve brought tens of thousands of people together to raise awareness for the cause. It’s been an incredible project that I’m really proud of. Eventually I want to take MPower international. I’ve already started doing talks at events like One Young World. But at this stage, my main focus is on issues at home. That’s where we are already making a big impact.

I think if you have a public platform, you have to use it to make a positive difference. I wanted to use mine to provide people with the same access to help that I was so lucky to have during my own struggles.

What would you want a global audience (i.e. from the U.K. or the United States) to take from your music?

I am totally in awe of music’s ability to connect people, regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality or background.. My songs are all drawn from my own personal experience and while the topics are universal - love, heartbreak, isolation, friendship – the feelings in the tracks are all genuine. I have realised that audiences appreciate music that comes from the heart. We all feel the same emotions, just in slightly different ways and degrees. Nothing makes me happier than when someone gets in touch and tells me one of songs made them smile or feel connected - like they weren't alone going through whatever they might be experiencing. When I moved into music, it wasn’t really what was expected of me and there was a pressure, that I think a lot of people feel, to get a ‘proper job’. But I was true to my vision, and overcoming the fear, doubt and disapproval felt amazing. I really want to use my music to encourage people to pursue their passions. I believe that if you have a dream, own it, work hard and go for it. Even if you can’t pursue your passion as a career, then try to enjoy it as a personal project. What’s important is that you don’t disregard the things that spark a fire in your soul.

What’s next for you?

Island Records in the UK are now supporting my upcoming EP alongside Universal. It means amazing opportunities to access a way bigger audience and work with brilliant artists from everywhere really. It took me a while to realize that life isn’t all about racing to a finish line - something which I’ve often struggled to do - it’s about enjoying every step of the journey. The EP’s kind of about taking a step back from the relentlessness of the world and making sure you make the most of love – the uniquely beautiful bits and the challenges too. Each song explores love from a different perspective and looks at the diversity of emotions that we experience. I'm definitely still evolving as a musician and will continue to play with different styles and collaborate with people around the world. My definition of success though is constantly changing. Ultimately, I just want to continue to do the things I love and hopefully make a positive difference at the same time.