'Mental health issues are debilitating to the soul': Singer-songwriter Gaya

Dubai - Dubai-raised singer and songwriter Gaya on battling mental health issues, her new album Qisse and scripting her own success story

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By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Thu 30 Jun 2022, 6:21 PM

Gaya’s first love is music – the kind you have a torturous relationship with.

After a long hiatus, the popular independent singer-songwriter and multidisciplinary storyteller is out with her new album Qisse. The title track, which released this month, has already garnered more than 55,000 views on YouTube. The remaining five multilingual tracks will have a staggered release throughout this year, accompanied by music videos that have been shot in Dubai and across India.

In a freewheeling interview via Zoom, Gaya talks about why the hiatus was also a mental health break and how she is ‘deliriously happy’ about her new album.

The early years

Full disclosure: Gaya and I were classmates in high school, although we resided in parallel universes. She was built for the stage – a star performer, with a voice like morning dew. I, on the other hand, tried to blend in with the school walls.

The 37-year-old was born into a South Indian family which she describes as a ‘music nerd club’. “My mom is a classical music teacher and my parents were such huge fans and appreciators of music. When we sang at home, there were always those subtle nods like, ‘Oh, that was beautiful’.”

Post college, she worked as an editor at a publishing house but realised she didn’t want to spend her life yoked to a desk. “I was writing songs, recording demos at home on my laptop - I just had the fire. I was watching Regina Spektor who is this incredible New York-based musician. She had done a lot of shows - it was just her and the piano. And I was always under this impression that you needed a band of people around you to create a sound that is very rich and lush. But when I watched her perform, I was like, ‘No, you don’t’ … I wanted to see if my music had resonance outside of my immediate circle of friends and family who are, obviously, going to be biased and are going to want to support.”

So in 2008, she reached out to live music venues in London, Berlin and Paris. “Fortunately, about six or seven of them wrote back saying, ‘We’d love to have you perform’.” Since then, Gaya has emerged as one of the architects of the independent music scene in Dubai. She has performed at Joe’s Pub in NYC, Hope & Anchor in London, The Highlander in Paris, Dubai Opera to raise funds for Beirut, and prestigious local events like F1, Dubai Music Week & the Fridge Concert Series. She has also released several EPs and albums like Disengage, Champion of Broken Hearts and her first full-length album The Unknown for which she successfully raised $23,000 in 10 days through crowdfunding. And more recently, she received a Golden visa.

Taking a break

Making it as an independent artist in Dubai, where the audience is very transient, is not easy. Critical acclaim doesn’t always translate into commercial success, for which one needs to get ‘discovered’, signed by a label, and tour. “Growing up in Dubai, where there isn’t a huge scene… you’re irrelevant in the larger world of creative commerce, because you’re not coming from a scene that is considered established in terms of music,” says Gaya, who splits her time between Dubai and Mumbai. “You may be a pioneer in your region but that means squat in the real world. And there are hundreds of artistes (from Europe & the States) who are considered deserving because they’ve put in the time.” Although she had prestigious gigs abroad, Gaya found it hard to gain momentum in places which she paid fleeting visits to while performing, and didn’t belong. “You’re not really from Dubai either, so you can’t be supremely celebrated there. So it’s this in-between place...”

Although her music had devoted fans, the fact that she wasn’t able to hit a ‘critical mass’ hurt her spirit. “I was doing everything I could, but things were moving in a certain direction. I also think it stirred up a lot of discontentment within me and I’d rather die than be a resentful, bitter person. But I couldn’t do it anymore and was really running out of self-belief.”

In 2018, Gaya decided to take a break from music and started working as a brand strategist and consultant, digital creator, and also designing spaces and making films.

Managing mental health

Gaya has been open about coping with depression and anxiety. For instance, she wrote on Instagram about blacking out from a panic attack in a cab in Mumbai last year. “I was engaged in a very intense project that was really sucking the joy out of me in many ways, but mostly because I knew it was time to be my artiste self but I was not able to get there. It was not because of any other external factor, it just felt like a betrayal within me, of what I was supposed to be doing and what I was doing. I once heard this thing that anxiety is the build-up of fear and depression is the buildup of sadness. It was a mix of both that got me to that point of, ‘Okay, hard stop’.”

Although she’d experienced stress-induced anxiety before, this time she went into a ‘state of depression’. “I couldn’t do anything. My entire nervous system was jacked. If someone was around me - even someone I loved - and if they were talking beyond a point, my heart would start racing and I would get a hot flash. It took about six months to start feeling okay – ‘good’ was a far cry.” Friends and family rallied around her and she began to recover.

As excruciating and scary as that was, Gaya believes that it was a cycle she had to go through to release her new album. “I was going through some personal traumas in terms of being triggered by certain things that had happened to me when I was a child and just realising that I was trying to face those demons. And as I did that, I was songwriting again. I went through a massive hiatus from writing because it was such a block for me, and it actually made me very sad: I was not able to do the one thing that I believed I was here to do. So once I started to deal with that through therapy, confronting certain people and things that I had gone through, the artiste started to rise again.”

“Now I am on the other side of it and ready to release Qisse,” she continues. “I am ready to recommit to my dreams and to this journey which I had hit pause and put a pin on for a while.”

It was important to her that she talk about mental health issues, especially as an artiste. “I know everybody is going through it. In that moment, you could feel like you are the only one on the planet who is that sad and dejected. You can really reduce yourself to feeling like a piece of nothing. It’s very debilitating to the soul.” It’s only fitting that the overarching theme of Qisse is self-love, healing, finding your own path and letting go of the past. The self-funded album is a return to Gaya’s roots – the next track to be released is in both English and Tamil, and the rest are in Hindi.

The first lyrics that she wrote were for the song Bhare Bhare Se Naina. ‘There is a line that I really love in the song: Aasu yeh sambhale saloo se kamzor banke beh na jaye. It’s the idea that ‘I hope that my tears are strong enough to hold themselves back’. And when I wrote those words, I was like, ‘Something new is happening here. Let’s go down this road’.”


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