Vidya Vox: 'This is my music... This is who I am'
YouTube sensation Vidya Vox has managed to rack up a huge fan following. Despite the naysayers, she's proved that East-meets-West mashups can be a genre
The first time I heard of Vidya Vox was a few months back, when she was all over my Facebook feed, singing a cover of Ed Sheeran's Shape of You. As one of the biggest songs of the year, this was fairly par for the course, seeing as the Los Angeles-based YouTube singer was not the only one in love with the Shape of You hit single. But 15 seconds into Vidya's version, and you know this one is different, as the richly exotic strains of the Indian violin (played by young maestro Shiva Ramamurthi) enter the fray, and Vidya soon starts singing that other hit song of the year, Cheez Badi Hai, from the Bollywood movie Machine.
The mashup video has garnered over 11 million views in the one month since its upload, but that's just averaging the number of hits her YouTube channel usually receives. The 26-year-old is first to point out that mashups have been around for a long time ("I certainly didn't invent them") and have always been a popular genre. But ask her what exactly about her music - which combines pop hits from the West with popular Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Telegu film songs - resonates with viewers so much, and she staggers. "I honestly can't fathom it myself sometimes," she exclaims, speaking by telephone from the US.
Vidya's biggest hit - a mashup of Closer and Kabira - is currently at over 51 million views and counting. "If you think about how many people that is, that's insane," she says. "It blows my mind." Hazarding a guess though, she says it probably has to do with how much more "global" the world is these days. Mixing the two worlds is clearly what people are connecting to. At least, it couldn't have been truer in her case.
Born in Chennai, Vidya's family moved to the US when she was nine years old. The move triggered a major identity crisis for her, as she tried to balance both cultures. It didn't help that her schoolmates weren't very kind about her immigrant status. "It wasn't cool to be Indian in school," she says, recalling how she was constantly trying to hide her origins back then. "Kids could be mean. I'd be eating dosas, practising Carnatic music and listening to AR Rahman at home, but the second I stepped onto that school bus, it would be Destiny's Child and Backstreet Boys. I never shared this completely other world that I was part of at home."
The constant attempt to maintain this frail balance was beyond her parents, who couldn't understand why their daughter needed to maintain two separate identities. But all of that changed for Vidya, once she started going to college and signed up for inter-collegiate raas (traditional folk dance) competitions. "I've been waving my Indian flag high ever since," she laughs.
For all that flag-waving, her first mashup - blending Sia's Big Girls Cry with Kabhi Jo Badal Barse - was a completely chance production ("a quick, fun project") that took just a day to produce - but took off in a big way online two years ago. There's been no looking back since.
The creative process for the budding star - who collaborates with fellow YouTube artist Shankar Tucker for her music - takes anywhere between a day to two weeks. "Shankar and I often brainstorm options and try to figure out what songs fit each other, both in terms of music and lyrics. Other times, it's far more random. I came up with the Shape of You mashup when I was in the shower," she adds, with a laugh.
No doubt, it's the versatility of the singer's vocals that has contributed to her immense popularity. It's an East-meets-West appeal, in which she switches just as easily from classical to pop - and even rap! Though she insists she's only a "closet rapper", Vidya's vocal influences are more firmly founded in the Carnatic music classes she underwent since childhood and the training she's currently undertaking in Western styles. "I used to hate learning Carnatic music," she confesses. "My mom has a lot of stories about how uncooperative I used to be. I didn't understand the beauty of it till I was about 13, but I'm so glad she dragged me to those classes now! They turned out to be a really strong foundation for my current vocal style."
Today, not only does she wear her "Indian" badge proudly, she's also unreservedly unapologetic about it - or the music she makes. That's something that 'being on the Internet' taught her - the hard way. "About a year ago, I happened to go through the comments section on one of my songs. We were trying something different and had done an EDM remix with a popular song. But people were very divided in their responses towards our version. I read so many really mean comments that I couldn't get out of bed for a day and a half."
As a mere two-member team, Vidya says it can be very depressing when you "bust your butt" working so hard on something, only for people to dismiss it so easily. But that's how she learnt to develop a thick skin - and, of course, to never read the comments section on any of her videos again. "Someone, somewhere, is always going to hate what you do. So now I say: this is my music, this is who I am, and I'm going to be unapologetic about it."
Thankfully for Vidya, her music speaks for itself. The kid who needed to be dragged to music lessons has indeed come a long way. With several tours across India, the US and South Africa already down, she even made an appearance at the White House for their Diwali celebrations. The irony was not lost on her. "It's amazing how I was always hiding my Indian identity in school, but was celebrating Diwali at the White House with [former] Vice President Joe Biden."
The singer is now focusing on songwriting and looking forward to her album which will be out in August. "It's very scary writing your own music, when you're baring your soul - completely heart on sleeve - and people can so easily hate on it from behind a computer. But I'm just trying to be as authentic and true to myself as possible."
Vox, by the way, is not Vidya's real surname. That would be Vidya Iyer. The former is Latin for 'voice', and something Shankar used to sign off her track labels with. Are Vidya Vox and Vidya Iyer two separate personalities? "Only when I'm on stage," she responds. "I'm a very shy person by nature, so when I'm performing for a crowd, I just imagine that I'm in my bedroom, singing and dancing in front of my mirror. Vidya Vox is just an extension of me."
Though the star did make a pit stop in Dubai last year, she doesn't have "anything confirmed" for when she'll visit next - but she does have a lot of love for her fans here. "I don't even have words for how much your support means to me," she remarks. That's okay, Vidya. Just keep the mashups coming.