From singing bhajans to Indo-western mashups: YouTube star Vidya Vox speaks to TNM

In an interview to TNM, US-based Vidya Vox speaks about her music, fashion and projects.
From singing bhajans to Indo-western mashups: YouTube star Vidya Vox speaks to TNM
From singing bhajans to Indo-western mashups: YouTube star Vidya Vox speaks to TNM
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Getting approached by guys in college, who wouldn’t take a ‘no’ for an answer, gave birth to the number, ‘Tamil Born Killa’, says the US-based YouTube star and singer Vidya Iyer, who is popularly known as Vidya Vox.

From singing bhajans at home to launching her own YouTube channel in 2015, and creating mashups of English and Indian songs, Vidya has come a long way.

The number of hits on her YouTube channel, which was already climbing, spiked when Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan tweeted her mashup of 'Lean On' by Major Lazer and the Punjabi song 'Jind Mahi'. As of now, Vidya Vox has more than four million subscribers and almost 500 million views. Her most recent video, 'Tamil Born Killa’, is an original work and was inspired from her experience while in college.

“It was mainly about saying bye to your haters,” she says, and adds, “There were many nights in college when I went out dancing with my friends and there would be so many guys who would approach us – and wouldn’t take no for an answer when we said we didn’t want to dance with them. So they would keep creeping on us all night and eventually it became such a chore – I really started to hate going out.”

Although her earlier projects involved singing classics like 'Aasai Mugam Marandhu Poche' (a poem written by Mahakavi Bharathiyar), it was her 2015 mashup combining ‘Hosanna’ from the movie Vinnai Thandi Varuvaaya and ‘Love me like you do’ by Ellie Goulding for the movie Fifty shades of Grey that went viral.

Since then, she has experimented with songs across languages -- Hindi, Malayalam and Punjabi for instance -- blending it with similar and complementary tones in Western music. Her exposure to both kinds of music from a very young age helped her, she says.

“I have been listening to both styles of music for as long as I can remember. Of course, the styles of singing English songs compared with Indian songs are vastly different. Indian songs come naturally to me, because I’ve trained in Carnatic music. However, English vocals is something I really had to work on, unlearning some of the Indian training I’ve had. Now I just use the best of both worlds vocally and stylistically to give my songs a new flavour,” Vidya says.

Her mashup of the Malayalam song ‘Pallivaalu Bhadravattakam’ and an original composition, ‘Be Free’, which was released a year ago is still the most viewed video in her channel. With 89 million views, the song is based on a relic from Malayalam folklore. This original Malayalam song is performed in temple dance rituals and is known as ‘Mudiyettu’. It celebrates the victory of a goddess over a demon.

Speaking about 'Pallivaalu Bhadravattakam', Vidya says that the idea to take this part of ancient Malayalam folklore came from her friend Jomy, who grew up listening to it.

“My grandma also speaks fluent Malayalam, so between the both of them, they helped with the pronunciation and the meaning. This also helped Shankar (Tucker) and we were able to write the original English song, so we could keep in theme of the meaning of the folk song,” she adds.

Shankar Tucker, a clarinetist, music composer and producer, is a part of Vidya’s YouTube journey since a long time. In fact, one of her first ever videos -- ‘Aasai Mugam Marandhu Poche’ on YouTube was released by Shankar’s channel seven years ago.

Speaking about her collaboration with Shankar, she says that all her original songs are co-composed by him. Since both of them are inclined towards Indian music, composing songs involves a lot of going back and forth to make the tune simpler to accommodate English words. 

“Shankar Tucker is truly a genius. I haven't seen anyone else with such amazing sense of composition and production infusing Indian elements into Western arrangements. He went to school for a degree in clarinet classical performance, but all of the production is self-taught. He loves Indian music so much and his passion to share it with people who don't understand (it) in the US is really inspiring. It really depends on the style of the song – if it's English, the melodies are simpler and if it’s Indian style, they are based on classical music,” says Vidya

A trademark of Vidya’s videos are her trendy and colourful costumes. Often sporting fabrics with Indian prints on it and metal, Bohemian jewellery, her clothes go in tandem with the songs she chooses to combine.

Saying that all her videos are self-styled, she adds that the old sarees from her mother and grandmother are of great use for her to design her costumes for videos.

“I’m also a huge fan of clothes that are bold and bright, using Indian prints and patterns on Western silhouettes. I love all jewel tones and I think those colours look especially beautiful on brown skinned girls like me,” she adds.

We can expect to see Vidya in her next album which, in her words, involves a lot of different styles and writing sessions. She also has a tour planned next spring, after the release of the album.

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