From Bombay to Boston. An interview with singer/songwriter, Avanti Nagral.
I sat down with powerhouse Indian-American singer, Avanti Nagral, who just released her second single “Treated”. In addition to attending both Harvard and Berklee College of Music—at the same time— she still finds time to create music that has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube.
What made you start singing?
That’s a great question, and I mean this in all seriousness, my exposure to music started in vitro. Because my dad plays the thabla— the Indian drums— and he used to teach thabla to put himself through grad school and the early days of his entrepreneurial journeys. so I grew up hearing a lot of rhythm— and so that’s how I got into it. and I think, you know, growing up in certain kinds of families, similar to how you have some kind of church background or some kind of religious devotional background, I grew up doing a lot of devotional music. and I grew up doing a lot of different artistic and creative things— but at the age of 6 or so, my parents said that I went to them and said: “I choose music.” So, it was definitely either very stupid or very prophetic coming out of my mouth, but it was great— that’s how I got into it— I started learning piano at the age of 5, and kind of continued along that journey, that’s how I got into it; but the rest of the journey was, diverse.
You are literally building up your music career on your own. So can you walk us through the process of how you get a music video out, how to get producers, directors, tech people on board?
So as an artist especially you are both the product, and the brand, and the entrepreneur. And you learn how to do a lot of things DIY. And … it’s as if you’re building up a startup, but it’s a startup with yourself versus a startup of something else. And learning how to do all these skills DIY— marketing, PR, and everything— it’s just about using your creative juices to collaborate with people and finding like-minded people to help you along the way. So I feel really blessed to be in Boston, which is such a diverse student community and being able to work with filmmakers and graphic designers, and different people from different parts of the world. Anything in life, it’s all about your network, it’s all about who you work with, how you speak to different people … and I think along the way, you never know who you meet. So I did a lot of theatre in high school, and that led to a lot of professional theatre opportunities where I was the featured singer, which led to the lead role in a Broadway reproduction— Agnes of God— it’s a 1982 Broadway show. They brought it to India, and I played the lead role of Agnes— and it was phenomenal. We ended up eventually getting nominations at the National Theatre Awards, and I got a nomination for best actress. But my point is, I never knew that this would lead to me then having a professional career in music and being exposed to the network that I was exposed to. So it’s really just about who you meet … and not burning bridges with anybody. And just trying to build and find a team of like-minded people who can support and empower you, and who you can support and empower as well.
So tell me about your song, “Treated.”
“Treated” is my own empowerment anthem, and what I mean by that it’s an empowerment anthem— written literally for myself, and for anybody else whose listening who … hopefully takes away the message. It’s a song at its very core about relationships, but not necessarily romantic relationships; it’s relationships of all kinds: work, school, parental, family, acquaintanceships— whatever. It’s about the foundation of respect in every relationship and really the golden rule, treat others the way you want to be treated. The chorus of the song is “All I want you to do is be there, show some care, treat me how you want to be treated.” and the way the song came about was…when I wrote it, I was at a time in my life where I was going through a lot of misunderstandings with friends … and other types of relationships. Interestingly none of them were romantic, but I realized it could be applied to that. Where you know one person is trying to pursue their dreams or be ambitious or whatever, and the other person does not necessarily understand where they’re coming from, there can sometimes be a mismatch. And the idea behind the song is just all people really want is to be treated the exact same way, or to be treated equally. So if I’m there for you, I would hope you do the same for me.
So your degree isn’t the only thing that’s dual; so is your cultural identity. Can you tell us how your varied cultural background has become imbibed in your music?
I was talking about this concept of duality with someone the other day, and I was like everything in my life is just 2 … By next year I would have lived exactly half my life in 2 places— I mean in the US and India, but specifically honestly in Boston and Bombay, ‘cause I grew up in Boston, and now I’m back here for school… and its a beautiful thing to be able to have an actual understanding of my culture and heritage by having lived there, and by having been there for as long as I have. For example, I moved [to India] when I was 8 years old, and at 8 you’re really annoying and you ask a lot of questions; so there were certain things in Bombay— Bombay’s a city of paradoxes— there is immense wealth flanked by immense poverty, and I remember asking my parents a lot of questions. And I think coming in as a “tourist”, even though it was still my motherland so to speak, helped me see things in a different way; whereas I’ve seen some people who, having grown up [in India] their whole life, become desensitized to things around them. So I feel grateful for the opportunity to come in at a place where then things became so apparent— that it motivated me to do a lot of work in that area as well … So to me— I think I’m an Indian with hopefully a global outlook and global identity, and I feel lucky that I have a very American understanding as well. And I think in my music, being able to bring in the Indian influences … and also the foundation of English Pop and Pop Soul, trying to mix them together is always something I’m actively seeking and trying to do.
What are some musical genres that have influenced your music?
Musical genres that have influenced my music are actually pretty varied. Even within Indian music there’s a lot of different things… within Indian music I would say Sufi music has definitely influenced a lot of my identity, or at least that’s something that I draw a lot from. Sufi is a type of devotional music— and it’s not even where I’m from. Sufi is usually associated with Islam, but just that idea of being completely lost in something, is something that I really appreciate. I also listen to a lot of classical Indian music as well— I listen to a lot of world music [in general]. In the English side of course I listen to a lot of contemporary pop. I [also] listen to a lot of soul, so your old Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin … one of my favorite artists is Tori Kelly— she, I think probably is motivated from a similar background. She’s very strongly connected to her faith— and has had a lot of different [musical] backgrounds, so I love her music, it’s so honest. The other thing that I grew up listening to a lot or rather, have been exposed to a lot, was through my work in Broadway, and theater music. So, Liza Minnelli’s “If Not Tomorrow Then The Day After That”, and like, may of those others have really been the anthem to my life. And most people are like how do you combine Broadway with church music— ‘cause I went to a christian high school, with like, Sufi and classical— and they just seem so random and different but I think that’s the beauty right, being able to listen to all of these and then see what comes out of it.
What are some upcoming songs, tours or events you got planned?
Starting September, I am going to be doing a college tour across the US, starting with the Northeast. This June and July I’ll be on tour in India, and I’ll also be spending a lot of that time training with my guru. She’s 85, and I never might get this opportunity again. I’m [also] looking forward to doing some creative collaborations; one other thing that’s on my agenda is revamping my Youtube channel, and my online presence. So I’m going to be more a Youtuber, so I’m going to put out regular content every two weeks. And you know, really cool collaborations with different types performance artists, so be on the lookout for that.
Thank you so much Avanti!
Of course, thank you!
Follow Avanti’s journey on her social and streaming channels