Ananya Birla on being a chart-topping pop star, a successful entrepreneur, and dealing with depression

Ananya Birla tells THE MAN about her latest collab with reggae great Sean Kingston, making a difference in her young fans lives, and getting that pesky pilot’s licence

Powder blue leather jacket: Deme by Gabriella; Pants: Rosella Couture; Shoes: Truffle Collection Powder blue leather jacket: Deme by Gabriella; Pants: Rosella Couture; Shoes: Truffle Collection

It's a typical Mumbai day, right after the rains. It’s humid, with sporadic bursts of rain. But there’s nothing typical about our cover personality, the double-platinum selling pop singer and entrepreneur Ananya Birla, who just happens to be the daughter of one of the world’s biggest billionaires, from the illustrious Birla family in Mumbai. Tall and lithe, she alights from her car at the Radisson Mumbai Andheri MIDC, dressed in bright yellow joggers by Daniel Patrick, Gucci trainers, a tank top, and an inverted Burberry jacket. We take her to her suite, where she sits patiently while celebrity hair stylist and brand ambassador for Schwarzkopf Professional, Florian Hurel, does her hair, and her friend and make-up artist Loveleen Ramchandani works on glamorous looks for the photoshoot. “I love dressing up for the red carpet,” says Ananya to me later that day, sitting on the bed, for our interview. “But I don’t think I could do it on a daily basis. I’m more of a no make-up person. I like to be my pure self.” 

Her personal style, if you were to summarise it, is hip hop, street, and highly sophisticated. She agrees with me: “Hearing the third point, thank you, it means a lot to me.” 

Ananya Birla on our November cover Ananya Birla on our November cover

That’s Ananya, polite, gentle, 25 years old, and possessing such formidable talent, who literally dons very different hats during the day — as a spokesperson for mental health, a microfinance entrepreneur, and of course, the best-selling recording artist whose latest single, Day Goes By, with reggae star Sean Kingston, is soaring through the charts.

I’m a survivor of depression and anxiety; I can give you tips, tell you you’re not alone, and share with you how I survived it

She’s just hit the touring circuit, and after concerts in Bengaluru and Delhi, she’s now all set for Chennai. Tomorrow, she tells me, she’s taking a chopper from Jaipur to a meeting in Pilani, where her mom, Neerja Birla, has opened up a branch of her mental health foundation Mpower — where children, adolescents, and adults can get the help they need from therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. “I’m not a professional, unlike my mother who has a degree in psychology. But I can talk to you from experience,” says Ananya. “I’m a survivor of depression and anxiety; I can give you tips, tell you you’re not alone, and share with you how I survived it.” 

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Powerful words from a young person who, when she’s not scribbling the lyrics for her own songs (“Till date, every release of mine (12 so far), I have either written completely or co-written”), likes to read, box (it’s great for mental health), or just swim. 

Till date, every release of mine (12 so far), I have either written completely or co-written

Back to her current anthem, Day Goes By, set in her “home away from home”, Los Angeles. Growing up, Ananya’s only had two songs as her caller tunes, Beautiful Girls by Sean Kingston, and Meant to Be, her own song. “Sean asked me to open for his show in Goa,” says Ananya. “It was a Friday and I had to get a band and backup singers in a day, as I only sing live. It was a big opportunity for me, and I sang my heart out.” 

Backstage, Sean gave Ananya his number and said, “Hey sis, text me when you’re in LA, I would love to get in the studio.” She’d made him listen to a couple of her unreleased tracks, and he told her it was “chill stuff”. On her next visit to LA, she got in touch, they were in the studio for two days, and that same month, they recorded the video of Day Goes By. 

Striped pantsuit and scarf: Rocky Star; Gold shirt: Siddartha Tytler; Jewellery: Azotiique by Varun Raheja; Shoes: Zara Striped pantsuit and scarf: Rocky Star; Gold shirt: Siddartha Tytler; Jewellery: Azotiique by Varun Raheja; Shoes: Zara

“It’s like this brother-sister relationship we have,” says Ananya. “We do face time, and talk about music… I think Sean and I connect on levels beyond music. He’s a strong believer in mental health, is very close to his mom, we both come from backgrounds that are not mainstream America. He’s an Afro-American man, I’m a brown girl.” 

On the subject of diversity, I ask her about the hunky guy in her video. “He was a mixed race gentleman, who wasn’t supposed to be in the video at all!” says Ananya. “Someone on set said it would be really cool to have me with a guy and see how we vibe. He happened to be free, and was very respectful. We shook hands and did the scene. And it looks great on camera.”

Her videos are usually set in LA — where she spends her time recording music, but Mumbai will always be home according to her — with a classic convertible, going through the streets of the city. “I love cars, that old school, grunge vibe and I love Kurt Cobain,” says Ananya. “More than anything, LA is where the people who make the type of music that I make are, even though it’s 22 hours away from Bombay, and that’s the painful part.” 

I love cars, that old school, grunge vibe and I love Kurt Cobain

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One thing is clear. She’s gone where no other Indian singer in English has gone before. “I signed with Universal Music India — and no Indian singer, singing in the English language had done this before at this scale. The fact that they believed in me, kudos to them. The Managing Director and CEO Devraj (Sanyal), he’s like a big brother to me, he’s supported me through everything. The then head of marketing, Sunil D’Sa, was also a huge support. “Livin' the Life was released, after that, Meant to Be happened, which went platinum, and we were all taken aback,” says Ananya. “After that, Hold On, was released, it went platinum. Then Circles released and went platinum. After Better released, it went platinum, then Meant to Be went double platinum. And now Better has gone double platinum.”

Her EP also got critical acclaim on billboard.com, when Island Records from the UK came on board. Her songs have featured on British Dance singles charts, as well as Dance Charts in France.  One of her songs was number three in an Israeli publication called Out Now, and overall, her songs have amassed 250 million views on live streaming platforms. 

After Livin' the Life released, I was in a state, as there was a lot of hate at the time,” says Ananya. “I appreciated it that they said they didn’t like my song, but a handful of people got really personal with me. They said, your music gave me cancer, which really hurt me a lot as my granddad passed away from cancer.

But the beginning wasn’t always easy. “After Livin' the Life released, I was in a state, as there was a lot of hate at the time,” says Ananya. “I appreciated it that they said they didn’t like my song, but a handful of people got really personal with me.  They said, your music gave me cancer, which really hurt me a lot as my granddad passed away from cancer. Now people tell me, ‘I used to hate you but I absolutely love you now. 

I was a hater and now I am your biggest fan.’ That one person even apologised in the comments section. It’s been an absolutely amazing journey to say the least.”

Colour-block sweatshirt: H&M EXCLUSIVE; Skirt: Mary Katrantzou; Shoes: Steve Madden; Jewellery: Azotiique by Varun Raheja Colour-block sweatshirt: H&M EXCLUSIVE; Skirt: Mary Katrantzou; Shoes: Steve Madden; Jewellery: Azotiique by Varun Raheja

Ananya says she will always be in the pop space no matter what. “My single Circles is pop, but more acoustic, and Day Goes By is more reggae,” she says. “It’s about the initial stages of meeting someone new and being worried that this person will break your heart, and that intoxication you feel initially. The line — I’m gonna keep it real/Don’t want my heart broken/Don’t care what they all gonna say, I got you so it will be okay. So in a matter of a second, the heart takes over.” 

For someone who writes her own lyrics, she says that she will always write or co-write her songs. “That’s how I feel the song on stage,” she says. “I was performing on stage in Kolkata, and it was surreal. One of my biggest dreams was that the audience sings back to me, so not only were we singing together, the audience sang every single line. They knew all the songs from Circles to Hold On, to Day Goes By.  The lyrics are such an integral part of what I do, I don’t want to lose that.”

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Ananya says she hopes to continue to be able to make music that the audience loves. “I hope I can continue to write, and improve my sound,” she says. “Everyone feels the same emotions, we just feel it through different experiences. Music did that for me when I was growing up. I felt I was not alone. In Kolkata, young girls were coming up to me crying, and saying to me, thank you, your music has actually saved me. That was a bigger moment for me than for them.”

For the girl who picked up the santoor at the age of nine, taught by her guruji whom she calls Masterji, Hindi music was always in the air growing up. Her first memory of singing on stage was during a competition at her school, the American School in Mumbai, a rendition of Wind Beneath my Wings by Bette Midler. She continues to play the santoor, and admits she goes into a trance-like meditation each time. “It’s tough to travel with the santoor, as it’s huge and easily breakable, but I still do!” she says. 

Along with her daily vocal exercises — “Like any muscle you can strengthen your vocal chords.” — she plays the guitar, working on different scales and harmonies. “It helps when you want to do ad libs and get on stage and sing within that scale, your ear needs to be used to that scale.”

As one of India’s most influential young Indians, she says she’s very grateful. “My mission was my music,” she says. “Writing music is a very selfish process, because it’s cathartic. I feel grateful to be part of this generation, in which I can create a platform for myself to make a change. As my music continues to do well, I am reaching out to more people. My voice is becoming more credible, people are listening to what I am saying so whether I am talking to you, or whether it’s talking about mental health.” 

We have over 3,000 employees that I call my team

And her microfinance scheme Svatantra Microfin, that she started when she was 17, isn’t even a startup anymore. “We have over 3,000 employees that I call my team,” says Ananya. “We will be a billion dollar company by 2020. I remember struggling to find my first client!” 

Gold lamé blazer: Annakiki; T-shirt: Rocky Star;  Skirt: Dolly J; Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Jewellery: Zoya Gold lamé blazer: Annakiki; T-shirt: Rocky Star; Skirt: Dolly J; Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Jewellery: Zoya

What it does is get banking with the lowest interest rates in the country, to those who are not normally in the banking zone, like women who don’t have access to finances. Her scheme provides insurance, healthcare, and now micro-housing.

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Back to our shoot today. Ananya jokingly says, "am I getting a massage?", as she enters the spa of the hotel, for our last shot. “I loved what Florian did with my hair; he’s so talented. I trust him! We did a different look with my hair in a bun and down on my face.” She says she likes to take care of her hair and skin. “I deep cleanse. I never colour my roots,” she says. To de-stress, she loves to take a walk on Marine Drive, or just stretch after a long day, as she’s always on the move. 

An adventurer at heart, she’s bungee jumped off the highest bridge jump in the world, in South Africa, and is clear she’s going to get her pilot’s licence. “My best friend and manager Lola bought me lessons for pilot training in the UK, so I will get there!” says Ananya who once harboured dreams of joining the Army, before her tattoos.

To her, luxury is peace of mind, and she’s found that through music. And who’s the special man in her life? “Right now, it’s Snoopy, my dog,” she says. “I’ve found self love.” She has a penchant for collecting pens and men’s perfumes. “I like the musk in men’s perfume, like the one by Abercrombie and Fitch and Ralph Lauren. I also like CK One, which is unisex. But I don’t like floral scents.” The girl who loves Maroon 5, Nirvana, Imagine Dragons, and Coldplay, also listens to Ariana Grande, Beyonce, and Eminem. “But hey, check out this girl, her music is really great. Her name is Ananya Birla,” she says. And we all laugh. 

Her family, her posse

Ananya shares a special relationship with her dad, industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla

Sequinned T-shirt: Rocky Star; Animal-print jacket: Rosella Couture; Shorts: Forever 21; Boots: Truffle Collection; Jewellery: Azotiique by Varun Raheja Sequinned T-shirt: Rocky Star; Animal-print jacket: Rosella Couture; Shorts: Forever 21; Boots: Truffle Collection; Jewellery: Azotiique by Varun Raheja

He's just a great dad. What can I say? He’s absolutely fantastic. My friends can vouch for it, he’s amazing,” she says. “He calls me and is super supportive no matter what. He’s always said, I fully trust you. He likes me to be around him in Mumbai, which I understand, because which father wants their child to be away for too long?”

Ananya says that her mom, Neerja Birla, who appears in her video for Unstoppable, “didn’t bat an eyelid” when it came to being part of the video that featured friends like tennis great Sania Mirza. “I wrote this song for her when I was 15,” says Ananya. “It’s about being who you are, be yourself, and that is going to make you unstoppable.  It was the first song that ever recorded in a studio in London. The ‘woo wooah’ was done by a couple of my friends, which is an insight that no one has. The scenes with her (mother) are intense. In the beginning, she’s the one who whispers it in my ear. Take down those fears/Keep faith, don’t believe what you hear. Even though I had written the song for her, she was saying it to me… why? Because she had taught this to me. Every single line in my songs has a meaning behind it, which is something I find precious, that I don’t share with too many people. I don’t know if you read the poem, it was more like free verse: I can be masculine/I can be feminine/I am nature/I am me/That’s what makes me unstoppable. No matter you are male, female, no matter what your gender, whatever your preferences, whatever your background, however much money you have, you are unstoppable.”

Touring is part of the pop star’s life. “The high you get on stage is something I can’t explain,” she says. “It’s important to keep the right people near you, and I am so lucky to have absolutely the best team that is like my family, whether it’s Lola, Kausar, Ayesha, even my make-up artist Loveleen — we are very close, like my team. My parents and siblings have been so supportive. You have to surround yourself with people who tell you right from wrong. Just to give you a small example, I am an over-thinker, but on Twitter, I just replied to someone and used a bad word, so Kausba (her name for Kausar Merchant, her PR manager) would say it’s okay, but just think about it, as there are kids out there who look up to you. So just knowing at the end of the day — I am the artist and I do have that freedom of expression — but to have someone out there, just say, just think about it. So, if it got to a situation where something went wrong, they would pull me back, I know it. A swear word is not that bad. But if I did something really, really bad, which I wouldn’t, because my parents have given me a really good upbringing, I know my team will bring me back. It’s important to know and feel safe in the right hands.”

PICTURES: Taras Taraporvala

HAIR: Florian Hurel for SCHWARZKOPF Professional

MAKE-UP: Loveleen Ramchandani;

STYLING: Eshaa Amiin

LOCATION: Radisson Mumbai Andheri MIDC

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