Avanti Nagral is a singer and songwriter from Bombay and Boston who just came out with a music video for her song “The Other Side.” She lives in Adams House, and you can find her music on her website, Facebook, or YouTube and catch her at an upcoming performance around Boston!
Can you tell me more about your background growing up in Boston and in Bombay? How does making music fit into that story?
I’ve lived exactly half my life in Bombay and in Boston. I’m very grateful to my parents that we moved when we did–I was eight, and at eight you’re really annoying and ask a lot of questions, so it allowed me to see different aspects of my roots. The city that I grew up in, Bombay, is a city of paradoxes: there’s immense wealth juxtaposed with immense poverty right in the same area. I think coming in as a semi-tourist allowed me to see allowed me to see it in a different light, and kind of use that as a lens with which to look at the rest of the world. In the Desi communities–Desi is the correct term for the South Asian community–there’s this term called ABCD, which is American-Born Confused Desi, and I think my parents wanted to prevent that.
In music, that’s also been really important because when I lived here in my early childhood I basically started out doing music in utero because my dad plays the tabla–the Indian drums. And my mom is pretty spiritual, so we grew up doing a lot of devotional music. But when we moved to India, I think my parents at that point had realized my passion for music, so I started training in Indian classical music. In any form of art, having a great foundation helps add rigor, and for me that was Indian classical.
Then, being in India, I first went to an international school which valued music a lot, so that I was exposed to different types of music. Then I moved to a Christian high school so I was exposed to a lot of church and gospel music.
So you have this great mix going on. How did you make those connections?
I connect with the soulful aspect of music. I think music at its core is a universal language. Also, most music is about love in its many forms. Whether it’s the loss of love or love, love toward an individual, or to a god, or to whatever that might be–even heavy metal you can attribute to that. It helps bring emotion like no other form. That’s been my connection, and I think my music today is rooted in all of these past experiences. It’s also very important for me to have this global sound that incorporates my dual identity. You’ve got that Indian and American sense, really making Indian sound popular.
In terms of getting into music, has anything surprised you about your trajectory?
Actually, a lot has changed. To answer the question I’ll have to go back in time a little bit.
In India, there’s no pop music industry. Obviously, there’s popular music, but popular music is all sourced through film, through Bollywood. It’s unlike the American pop culture, but it’s also unlike other Asian pop cultures, like K-pop or C-pop. Where those industries are artist-driven, the Indian music industry is song-driven. What I mean by that is that all of the singers, mostly, are what we call playback singers–essentially they are voiceover artists for the songs in the film. Most people associate the song with the actor lip-syncing to it, or the video visual, rather than the singer themself. Even if the artists are part of the song-writing process, it will all be written for the purpose of the film, not necessarily the artist making a message of their own.
That being said, the independent music industry does exist in India, and it’s growing. It’s almost like the US was in the sixties, when people were starting to perform at clubs and bars and cafes and there were venues supporting it. The difference is we are in the late 2010s, and technology’s moving faster and faster. A lot of people in India now have purchasing power, so people are appreciating that more. For example, five percent of India listens to English music. Five percent of India is the population of the UK. There’s a lot of opportunity, it’s just that the industry structure doesn’t exist.
The reason I bring this up as historical background is that even five years ago there weren’t many opportunities. Here, I could perform at a coffee shop, or at a club bar, whatever, and it would be fine. There were very few opportunities to do that, even in a city like Bombay, which is one of the most happening cities, just because it doesn’t exist and because the opportunities that existed weren’t necessarily the ones you want to do for your reputation, you know.
For me, my avenue initially was theater. I was the featured singer in a lot of productions, and it was a really good audience and an audience that listened to English music. Technically I do a lot of devotional and dual-language music as well, and I find my outlet in combining another area of my passion, which was related to social issues and global health. I would sing at cancer charity fundraisers, like the Terry Fox foundation, or the large marathons in India, or, for example, we had a terrorist attack about ten years ago and we have an event every year at the Gateway of India for 26/11. I would do things like that, and there are now festivals that are cropping up, and though they’ve existed over the past ten years, in the past five years it’s just become crazy.
I know you’ve incorporated a lot of influences into your style, but would you say that your style has evolved over time? When you’re performing, does it change depending on what country you’re in at the time?
I definitely think it’s evolving and changing, like it should, but when I perform in different areas one thing that’s important to me is to create a genuine connection wherever I am. In India there’s several different regions, all with different languages, so depending on where I am I’ll try to perform in that language because it just makes people connect with you a little bit more. I did a tour in the Philippines last summer and I made sure I learned a couple songs in Tagalog, and I can tell you that it did wonders.
I think that growing up speaking English and Hindi, and having a little bit of French, that I have a little bit of phonetic range so I can do most languages. I actually did this social media challenge last winter, just for fun, which I called a 24-day, 24-hour cover challenge.
What’s your writing process like for new songs?
My musical process varies each time. There are some songs that start off with a hook. For example, the first song I ever released is called “I Like.” It’s a song about doing what you like and following your dreams and your passions, but the “I-” part, that main part of the chorus is the hook- that note pattern is from Indian classical music. It’s called the taan. I was just fiddling around with that taan and then I’m like, “I like.” I was trying to say that I like the sound but then I’m like, wait, “I like” can fit into this, and that’s how it became a song.
In my most recent song, “The Other Side,” I actually toplined, which means that there was already a previously produced track rather than my idea becoming a production later. I picked out a few tracks and I really liked this one so I worked with the producer toward refining it toward the sound that I wanted, and then I wrote lyrics and melody over that. Every single time it’s different. With “The Other Side” I had a co-writer–she’s from Brooklyn and she’s amazing.
I know you just came out with a music video for “The Other Side.” What’s involved in that?
We released the music video for “The Other Side” on October 26th, which we’re very excited about, and then we’re releasing a dance video. I’m working with different dance and fitness groups across the US; one is a Bollywood-based fitness group called BollyX, there’s a group that’s hip-hop based, and there’s a group that’s contemporary-based, and the idea is to bring together all of these dance styles to serve this global pop purpose. “The Other Side” is about choosing between two or more places, people, identities, or whatever that choice might be for you.
Along with this dance video, we’re also releasing a dance challenge. It’ll be great–it’ll be a good marketing opportunity for them, and good exposure, but for us it’s really important that everyone interprets it the way that they want. So if you want to do the chicken dance to it, you want to do the robot dance, you want to do ballet, then be our guest.
What shows do you have coming up?
Upcoming, I’m headlining a show at the Milky Way, which is a venue close by–it’s in Jamaica Plain, and that should be really exciting because it’s a really diverse lineup. That’s on November 18. I’m doing a mini college tour as well, so I’m performing at Berklee, at Harvard [at the Queen’s Head Pub on November 30], at MIT, and a few other places and rounding that out toward the end of the year.
Can you tell me more about the Song on the Spot series?
The Song on the Spot series is a Facebook and IGTV series that I have. Essentially, at live shows during my set we’ll stop the show, invite an audience member to tell me a story about anything that they want and ask my band to play anything that they want, and we make a song out of it. It’s always super fun. People have given me stories about shark attacks and bike wrenches and teddy bears and really bizarre things.
We have a few episodes online and they’ve been doing really well, and what I love about this concept is that first, I love doing it since it’s a way to mix my theater background with my music, but more importantly it shows that music can be made out of anything. It goes back to that universality concept.
What’s your favorite part of being a musician?
I love being able to meet new people every single day, because you have to work with so many different kinds of people, and it’s such a creative space. People forget that to be a commercial artist that you also have to worry about the business and the commercial aspect, right? I actually really enjoy that part of it.
There’s some musicians who love being in the studio, and I enjoy that, but that’s not where I get my greatest joy–my greatest joy is really just being on stage. I love that connection that I am able to have with the people all across the world.
What song do you have to sing to completion whenever you hear it?
This song I love singing along to every time because my brother was obsessed with this song. My brother’s four years younger than I am, and for some reason my parents had this CD in the car, and my brother was always like, “I want the mambo song,” even though he had no idea what the actual lyrics were or what it meant.
Do you have a favorite song for fall?
“Chasing Pavements” by Adele definitely reminds me of fall.
What’s a song that you love but that your friends can’t stand?
I may just play this too much at group gatherings, the DJ Casper song “Cha Cha Slide.” It’s so much fun, everyone dances!