The singer-songwriter, who appears to be practical and focused, reveals that despite her privileged background — or perhaps because of it — her musical journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing. “It was tough given my background,” Birla says. “The family name took over the music, with people judging it both ways even before they heard it.” Being the daughter of the eighth richest man in India (according to the Forbes India Rich List) clearly isn’t always a bed of roses. Eventually, Universal Music Group, India, signed her on and her debut single, “Livin’ the Life”, was released worldwide in November 2016.
“There was the additional angst of being a newcomer,” adds Birla. “As a new artiste, the first song isn’t who you are, nor does it represent your vision — it’s more to do with the label or the director. It was only after Afrojack’s remix of “Livin’ the Life” that I got a lot of creative freedom.”
Before she forayed into music, Birla had already put her entrepreneurial genes to good use. All of 17, she started Svatantra Microfin, a microfinance company. “Looking at the social inequalities all around, I wanted to give something back to society and bridge the income divide in a sustainable manner. The idea was also to empower women. I believe that when the woman earns too the household is more stable.”
The idea, she says, came to her from a microfinance club at high school, studying the Andhra Pradesh farmers’ crisis of 2010. The state was seeing a spate of suicides among over-indebted clients of MFIs (microfinance institutions), who were sold multiple loans, prompting the government to pass an ordinance severely curtailing their activities. The Andhra Pradesh Micro Finance Institution (Regulation of Money Lending) Ordinance created ripples in all states, with bad loans piling up and the industry in a shambles. “There was nothing wrong with the model but the execution was faulty. It was almost blacklisted as a sector but I believed in it.”
Svatantra, which started operations from Madhya Pradesh in April 2014, has since increased its presence to eight states, covering over 21,000 villages, with Rs 6.03 billion assets under management. The aim, Birla says, is for a pan-India reach, but the company is circumspect about navigating the southern shores. “There’s a fine line between being courageous and foolish. In the South, people still have misgivings about the industry. So the plan for now is to grow at a faster pace in regions which will respond,” she says.
That was not the only commercial venture devised by this wise head on young shoulders. In 2015, Birla also set up CuroCarte, a luxury e-commerce portal, which sells handmade products sourced from across the world.
So when did her musical aspirations take wing? While she was studying economics and management at Oxford University, says Birla. She would sing at cafés and pubs on weekends. “It was one of those open mic nights. No one was listening, yet I was happy to play my songs. That’s when I realised that I was doing this for myself and that I wanted to devote time to music.”
That phase, so significant for Birla in terms of self-realisation, was also marked by a struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. This led her to set up the mental health support group, MPower, with her mother, Neerja Birla. The urban initiative holds workshops and consultations for children and adults. “A lot more needs to be done for mental health awareness in India. Even now, when someone is mentally ill, parents or elders take them to temples instead of doctors. The stigma is still huge, but someone like Deepika Padukone speaking about it helps.”
With the businesses stable, the focus is now on music. While Birla’s goal is to win a Grammy for India, she self-deprecatingly says that it’s “far, far off”. She asserts, though, that there has never been a better time for Indian artistes. “Look at ‘Despacito’. It just exploded even though people didn’t know the language. That’s what India needs to do as well, be it with the tabla or bhangra,” she says. Birla’s dream is to write a fusion track, with the santoor in the mix, or dabble in hip hop. The quiet, almost reticent, personality gets animated when she talks about rap star Eminem. Although a huge fan of the musician, Birla says her forte is pop rather than rap.
And what does a musician do to unwind? Listen to more music, of course — rap, R&B, emo, goth. Birla is also a fan of TED Talks and documentaries of all kinds, ranging from psychopathy to minimalism. As she says, “It’s important to get that randomness in for inspiration.” The “randomness” extends to her work, too — she doesn’t believe in working with to-do lists. On balancing her musical and business selves, she says, “People respect you when they see the real you. They might say if you are in business, you can’t get tattoos. I have them — if you don’t want to work with me that’s fine.” Birla’s tattoo tally now exceeds 10.
The next few months could see Birla move to Los Angeles since all her singles are recorded there. She also plans to launch a platform called “One”, which will connect musicians to children who do not have the opportunity to learn music. Meanwhile, her own musical work continues apace. “Music puts me out of my comfort zone. My mom calls it my tapas. It’s not the easiest thing to express your emotions through your performance, but it’s what makes me happy.” It’s what is making a lot of her fans happy too.