It's difficult not be swept away by the magic that is Vidya Iyer's voice. Her mashup of Closer with Kabira, and Lean On with with Jind Mahi, garnered a staggering 50 million hits, combined. Not surprisingly, then, her list of fans include Hrithik Roshan, Major Lazer and Diplo, among the roughly two million subscribers of her channel, Vidya Vox, on YouTube.
Not bad for less than two years' worth of work. But, as she's quick to points out, success rarely comes anyone's way by chance or overnight, it takes years of preparation and hard work to arrive at a successful start. Vidya will perform live in India for the first time between 17th to 19th March. Ahead of her three-city (Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore) India tour, Vidya spoke to Huffington Post about using music to find her identity in a dual world and the role it has to play in healing a world that seems to be imploding with hatred.
Was music always your career plan or things just happened to fall in place?
Music was not a lifelong dream, but it wasn't something I lucked into, either. Music was always a part of my life — I grew up learning Carnatic music with my sister — but I started thinking of it as a career only in the junior year of college, after a collaboration with Shankar Tucker. That collaboration changed my life, but it also terrified me.
Was it a difficult decision?
Absolutely. I wrestled with it for a whole year. As a student majoring in psychology, gearing up for medical school, I was scared out of my wits, every time I thought about making the switch to music, especially since I'd stopped learning in high school. When I finally decided to go for it, I went back to studying. I moved to Mumbai for two years after graduation to pick up where I'd left my musical education. I took classes in Hindustani classical and Western vocals.
I was fortunate to find success quickly, but starting Vidya Vox took years of preparation, living with my mom and sleepless nights.
I also performed with Shankar Tucker's band, which helped me learn the ropes of video, performance and Youtube. When I moved back home to Virginia in 2015, I was ready to start my own channel. I was fortunate to find success quickly, but starting Vidya Vox took years of preparation, living with my mom and sleepless nights. Nothing much has changed, except that now I live in LA!
What made you turn to mashups instead of covers or originals?
I've always loved adding my spin to the songs we hear on the radio. But my mashups were inspired by my childhood and growing up years. As an Indian immigrant in the US, I grew up struggling to find my identity amid the stark differences in the culture I was born into and the one I was growing up in. I felt like I was part of two different worlds at the same time. I think a part of me always yearned to merge my two identities. I found my outlet in music. It helped me blend my two worlds in a way that preserved their uniqueness, but still felt natural together. In so many ways, my music is a direct reflection of who I am as a person.
How do you decide whom to collaborate with?
The people I collaborate with are friends, or friends of friends. Most of them are people I've known for years. Having a great synergy and friendship with the musicians I work with is really important to me, because it affects the energy in the studio and shines through in the video as well. I love how collaborations can add layers of beautiful texture and colour to the song, with each musician leaving a unique stamp on it.
How often do your mashup ideas fail?
Regularly! But with experience, you get better at recognising failure before it's too late. A year ago, we'd realise something wasn't working out after we'd already worked on it tirelessly for days. Today, we know that if something doesn't feel natural in hour one, it won't work on day four either, no matter how badly we want to do the song. We move on to other things faster now.
Have you ever faced any criticism from the original artists of the songs you mash up?
Never. Again, this is not luck. We work really hard to preserve the feel and mood of the original, even as we add our own style to it. That takes thought, attention to detail and commitment from the entire team. Some of the original artists have even shared our music, telling us they liked the new twist we brought to their song.
So there have been no road bumps or legal troubles, ever?
We've not had legal trouble, but we've had to deal with some tricky situations with the publishing companies that own the originals. As the owners, they're entitled to a percentage of the ad revenue from my covers and mashups. But sometimes, despite receiving their fair share of the revenues, they prefer that their song isn't out there at all. Recently, I ran into issues with YRF—they asked us to remove two songs from my channel, Cool Girl - Jiya Re and Dive Deep. It happens.
Do you think Youtube singers get the same kind of respect as other "traditional" singers do?
I think it's getting better each day. Youtube is still a relatively a new medium, even though it has exploded in the last few years. The possibilities are limitless. Your music can reach anyone in the world, even if you're working with a shoestring budget. You can get started at any time. That's very heartening for newcomers with dreams. Increasingly, artists from traditional mediums are shifting to Youtube. There's no point in being a snob about it, that is the way forward.
But is it a financially viable career option?
There is some ad revenue, yes, but mostly the money comes from doing live shows.
Are you or your music affected by the current atmosphere of racial discrimination in the US?
The political climate in the US is really sad and anger-inducing. But there is so much hope to be found in the thousands of people who are speaking up and fighting against the discrimination daily. I live in Los Angeles, and it's packed with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
I feel music has a very important part to play in making the world a less negative place.
I think that now, more than ever, it is important to remind people that the world is made stronger and more beautiful by different cultures, countries and songs. I feel music has a very important part to play in making the world a less negative place. After all, it has no language and can transcend all borders and every limitation.
Have you ever thought about singing in Bollywood? Have there been any offers?
No offers yet, but if the right project comes along, I'd love to be a part of it. I love AR Rahman, Shreya Ghoshal, Shankar Mahadevan, Sunidhi Chauhan and so many others! But I'm not actively pursuing at the moment, as I'm working on my EP and exploring my own song writing.
You've finally released an original, how did that happen?
I think it was a natural progression. Experimenting with fusions and different sounds helped me understand myself and figure out my unique style. It helped me decide what direction I wanted to go in. I feel ready to introduce it to the world now, so I released Kuthu Fire. I'm so excited because it's nothing like anything I've done before.