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Ananya Birla Does It All: from International Pop-Star to Mental Health Advocate

Ananya Birla does it all. Since signing with Universal India in 2016, her popularity has skyrocketed to the top. Her tracks “Meant To Be” and “Hold On” went platinum in India, making her the first artist to do so while singing in English. Ananya’s most recent single, “Circles”, was released at the end of June, and the music video has already earned thousands of views on Vevo and YouTube.

Not only is Ananya passionate about her music, but she is also dedicated to the issue of mental health in young people. After battling her own share of mental health issues whilst a student at Oxford University, Ananya founded Mpower, an initiative that fights the stigma associated with mental illness in India. Read more about her partnership with Global Citizen here.

Affinity Magazine: Congrats on the release of your fourth single, “Circles”! In an interview, you said you wrote “Circles” for your best friend, what was the writing process like? How is ‘Circles’ different from your previous songs? 

Ananya Birla: Thank you! A lot of my previous tracks had been more about love and dating, but it occurred to me that I might be overlooking the longest and strongest relationship I’ve ever had – the one with my best friend!

Romance can for sure make for moving and passionate songs. But I don’t think friends get the credit they deserve, considering how much our friendships affect our lives and how much they mean to us.

For the first time, I walked into the studio on the day we started working on this single knowing exactly what I wanted to create, and it flowed so easily and naturally. It has a more instrumental and acoustic feel than my previous songs, which were more electro and dance-y. I wanted to create a more stripped-back, intimate feeling to capture the essence of that relationship and help everyone that heard it to feel the warmth and ease that those friendships give us.

I wanted to show how powerful friendship is, how it can overcome age or distance or time.

Affinity: Speaking of previous songs, what’s it like being the first artist to go platinum in India with English songs, “Meant to Be” and “Hold On“? What does it mean to you? 

AnanyaIt felt like a personal triumph, but it also felt indicative of a breakthrough on a bigger scale.

For a long time, the music industry in India has been heavily influenced by Bollywood and sometimes other genres feel squeezed-out. But I think it shows that India is becoming more open-minded.

I have been saying for a while that Indian audiences are increasingly willing to embrace something new and different, international styles and unfamiliar musical influences, and I think going platinum with an English song proved that right!

 I hope that the positive response to my music encourages other young musicians across Asia to be less afraid of taking chances and thinking globally when they create songs. There is so much undiscovered talent that deserves to be heard.

Affinity: Did you always know you wanted to pursue music? If not, when did the realization hit?

AnanyaI have loved music for as long as I can remember and it was a massive part of my childhood.  I was inspired by my mom to take up the Santoor (a traditional Indian instrument) when I was nine, but when I reached 13 I longed to play along with artists like Kurt Cobain so I taught myself the guitar using YouTube tutorials in my bedroom.

I was really shy and, at times, quite insecure kid. Music, and particularly songwriting, gave me a way of expressing myself in a way that felt right and easy. It has been this constant companion through all the good times and bad times in my life.

Eventually, at 21, I had the confidence and the conviction to pursue it more intentionally as a career. Particularly at home in India, music wasn’t what I was expected to pursue, but it was what made me happier than anything else and I knew that I needed to at least try.

Life is a journey, and there are moments where you believe in yourself and others when you don’t, but I think you reach a point where you realise that life is too short to be following someone else’s path. I had made myself exhausted and anxious trying to live up to what I thought people expected of me. It’s something a lot of young people who want to pursue an unconventional or creative career path go through.

To be honest, 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! I don’t take it for granted for a second.

Affinity: Would you say your childhood and culture affect the music you create? How so? 

AnanyaIt’s impossible not to be influenced by India and the city I grew up in: Mumbai. The sights and sounds and smells… it’s an intense place. It’s lively, authentic and exciting. I wanted to make music that feels like that! Mumbai is a total cross-section of people from all backgrounds and ages and I think that made me want to create music that a wide range of people could relate to.

I think it also affected the types of stories I tell with my songs. For example, “Hold On” was written about the experiences of people that I know, who have felt that their relationship was being pulled apart by social pressures. It was about those people who were managing to hold on to love in spite of challenges and disapproval.

Affinity: What’s your favorite place to work on music? Where do you find your inspiration? 

AnanyaAll my music comes from a very personal place and my songs are generally based on my own experiences. But I’m interested in people’s stories, the situations that shape us and move us, so a lot of my inspiration comes from people that I meet on my travels.

I just feel so lucky to be making music that I’m happy to do it anywhere! I’m working on my new EP right now in London, having just come back from a studio in Atlanta.

Affinity: You’re also huge on Vevo! Which music video has been the most fun to film? 

AnanyaI love to make music videos because it allows me to tell a story and play a part that can often be very different from my actual self. You have so much creative freedom to play with.

I think my favourite was “Meant To Be”, there was a load of really fun effects that we used and I also got to smash a massive hammer through a brick wall which was hugely satisfying!

Affinity: What’s the best part about working in the music industry? Is there anything you wish you could change?

AnanyaWorking with amazing people like Mood Melodies, Jim Beanz and Afrojack has been awesome, and being able to travel the world and connect with audiences everywhere. But I think the best thing is being able to make a positive difference with my music.

A couple of years ago, I performed at a Global Citizen event with Coldplay in Mumbai. It was an unforgettable night. Global Citizen is a wonderful organization who use concerts around the world to spur social action. It is a great example of how music can bring people together to support important causes.  More recently, I put on a concert in Mumbai to raise awareness for my mental health initiative MPower. It brought together 20,000 people for a really important cause – to stamp out the stigma around mental illness.

There are lots of things that need to be addressed in the music industry, many women experience harassment and exploitation. I’ve been very lucky not to have been exposed to it directly. Also, I think that just as the listening habits of music consumers are changing, the royalties structure needs to evolve too, to benefit young upcoming artists and enable them to have a sustainable, long-term career.

Affinity: Are you working on any other exciting, forthcoming projects that you want your fans to know about?

AnanyaI am working on more music and will be putting out another single in a month or so, and then I’m planning to release my EP by the end of the year. I’ve just been in the studio with a producer in Atlanta, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear what we’ve been working on.

Affinity: Switching gears, why did you first decide to become a mental health ambassador? 

AnanyaI battled against anxiety and panic attacks whilst I was at university in the UK and found it difficult to reach out for help. I felt isolated and was nervous that people would undermine my abilities if I admitted that I was struggling.

When I returned to Mumbai, I eventually got the support I needed with my mental health. However, it became very clear to me that it was not so easy for other people because of the stigma and the lack of education and assistance available.

Mental health is a topic that is rarely discussed and when it is, it is often trivialised. As a result, depression and suicide rates are on the rise and people are scared to reach out for help.

My mom and I felt a huge responsibility to do something about the problem, so we co-founded Mpower. What started as a personal battle became much bigger than me.

Affinity: Whilst it has improved in recent years, there’s still a heavy stigma around mental health issues. Why do you think it’s such a hard-to-grasp topic? 

AnanyaPerhaps because it’s not as visible as many physical illnesses. You can’t see a mental issue like you could see a bruise or a broken bone, so people find it harder to grasp, understand, and even believe.

I think because people are not educated about the reality of mental health, they can be more likely to project their worst fears on to it (and the people who struggle with it) – stereotypes about violence, loss of control, inability to live a normal and fulfilled life. When we don’t know the truth about something, we often presume the worst.

I think there is an association between low morals and character weakness associated with mental health issues; you’re either a bad person or just need to toughen up. Of course, neither of those things is remotely true. But many of us walk around with those unconscious biases in our head and we react accordingly when the subject of mental health comes up, from a place of fear or confusion.

Affinity: What do you see as the most essential step in combatting this stigma?

AnanyaI think if everyone looks inside themselves, challenges their own internal biases and pledges to speak out for themselves or for others, that’s a massive part of the battle. Sometimes we focus on how other people are behaving and forget to do that difficult introspective bit. I also think it’s really important that people like me who have a public platform, use it. We should use our position in the most positive way – on social media, in interviews like this, in our work lives, everywhere. We need to be better at setting an example and leading the way.

Affinity: Talk a little about launching Mpower and the original goals you had in mind. 

AnanyaOur ultimate goal was to create a society free of stigma, where people with mental health issues, and those who support and care for them, can live fulfilled lives. Ideally (and why not aim high?) we want a future in which everyone receives the help they need, without facing any shame or discrimination along the way. We had four key goals in mind starting-out: creating awareness, preventing discrimination, fostering education, and providing services.

Affinity: Do you believe Mpower reached those goals?   

AnanyaI think we have made strides in terms of creating awareness and providing services. We put together a cycleathon and a live music concert which got people involved and educated, and our treatment centre in Mumbai offers interventions, assessment, treatment and training which is making a dent in the massive lack of options for support in India (there are only 3500 psychiatrists for the 1.5 billion people who live there, and someone attempts suicide every 3 seconds).

But of course, there’s still so much work to do, policies need to change and attitudes still need to change too. It’s important not to get disheartened with something like this. You have to stay optimistic and motivated.

Affinity: Where do you see Mpower going in the future? Do you have plans to expand in any way? 

AnanyaEventually we would love to open more treatment and education centres across India. There is also a lot that needs to be done on an international scale and we need to work together, so an overseas expansion would be amazing one day.

Affinity: Being an icon and often in the public’s eye, how do you cope with stress and anxiety?

AnanyaI have worked at being better about aiming for balance (I say ‘aiming’ because I’m certainly not perfect). In the beginning, I would work until I was exhausted. It took me a few burn-outs to realize that if you never take time to rest and recuperate, you’re no use to yourself or anyone else. I’ve experienced first-hand the self-defeating results of putting yourself under so much consistent pressure. I also have such a supportive family and team that have supported me through everything. They make me feel comfortable and remind me of who I am and what I really want to do.

Affinity: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

AnanyaI would tell myself to listen to the voices of doubters and detractors less. When I started Svatantra, my first business, I was a 17-year-old female in an industry that was predominantly older men. People doubted that I could hold my own in that situation, doubted that others would listen or take me seriously. But they did and I am so glad I forged ahead. When I started MPower, people said that the stigma around mental health in India was too big, that it was too difficult to change the way it was spoken about – but I’m seeing progress every day. When I wanted to make music a full-time career, people doubted that I was cut out for it – that I could withstand the pressure and maintain my passion in this sort of industry – but here I am: in one piece, with my motivation growing every day!

Of course, we should listen to constructive criticism, but you can’t let other people’s doubts and insecurities rule your behaviour. There will always be doubters, you shouldn’t let their voices drown out your inner voice.

Affinity: Who inspires you the most? If you could tell them one thing right now, what would you say? 

AnanyaAt the moment, I have to say my best friend who is the inspiration behind my latest single!

We have known each other for nearly 20 years now, she’s been there through the ups and downs and she knows me inside-out (and that hasn’t scared her away!). Despite all the changes in my life -and there have been a lot- she has been there and treated me just the same. She’s been a constant source of comfort, humour and motivation when things got tough, and I would say ‘thank you’ for that.

Affinity: What’s the best platform for fans to follow you on? 

AnanyaInstagram @ananya_birla

Affinity: Any last thoughts? 

AnanyaHappiness is the most important thing. Do the things you love and try to make a positive difference whilst doing it, however small that might be.

Photo via Tom Buchanan

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Ariel Zedric is a student at Tufts University. When she's not studying, you can find her wandering around on her blog at arielzedric.wordpress.com. Contact via email at ariel.zedric@gmail.com or on Twitter or Instagram @arielzedric

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