On the menu, there would be dosas at home, and pizza in school. The playlists would feature Carnatic krithis and bhajans at home, Shakira outside. This was singer Vidya Iyer’s (25) life growing up. Born in Chennai, Iyer moved to Washington, USA, with her family when she was eight.
Two decades later, things have come a long way. She ditched her degree in psychology for a career in music. And her alias, Vidya Vox, is now a YouTube sensation. In less than two years, her eponymous YouTube channel of covers and mash-ups garnered 1.7 million subscribers. And the singer is finally gearing up for her debut India tour (the Mumbai leg will take place this weekend).
Last week, we Skyped with Iyer, hours after her debut EP, Kuthu Fire’s first music video (by the same name) was out. “The EP was a long-nurtured dream,” she says. And while she is equally excited about her India tour, she can’t help but hyperventilate about her gruelling schedule, which sees her fly to and perform in Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru over three days.
Iyer is known for mash-ups and song covers. But they are not like the unplugged covers that mostly populate YouTube. Iyer blends American pop hits and Bollywood chartbusters with an Indian classical twist. As a 5-year-old, though, she had to be dragged to Carnatic lessons. “Which kid enjoys doing riyaaz and singing ragas?” she laughs. However, across continents, amid myriad influences, she has managed to remain rooted. She still learns Hindustani classical music and is far from being bored. After her graduation in 2012, she even relocated to Mumbai for a couple of years to further train in music.
Around the same time, she managed to strike gold with her first YouTube collaboration — Nee Nenaindal (3.3 million views) — for American music composer Shankar Tucker’s channel. However, her first association with Tucker dates back to 2009, when the two met at a youth retreat during college. “We ended up performing together for a talent show,” she says. A year later, Tucker asked her to be on his YouTube channel. The duo have often collaborated on tracks since.
After a point, though, Iyer says she felt restricted singing for Tucker’s channel. She was only singing Hindustani or Carnatic-based numbers, and she wanted to go beyond that. “I have been exposed to both worlds. My music had to represent both sides too,” says Iyer. In April 2015, when Tucker and Iyer were experimenting with American singer Sia’s Big Girls Cry, she decided to add Indian touch to it. “We stumbled upon Kabhi jo badal barse. The two songs blended organically,” Iyer says. The song was the first she recorded for Vidya Vox. Soon after, she shifted base and set up a studio in the entertainment hub, Los Angeles.
The channel, Vidya Vox, has over 30 videos now. She has shot them in the streets of Mumbai, on the beaches of Chennai, nondescript parking lots in New Jersey, and empty woods in Los Angeles. In one of her popular videos, Taal se Taal Mila (Vidya Vox Remix Cover), you can spot the opulent Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, in the backdrop. Iyer chuckles as she confesses that the production cost of these videos is negligible. “We drive around until I find a location I like. Shankar and I make the two-person production unit. We use his camera equipment; he shoots the videos,” she says. The monetary returns are equally meagre. Iyer makes a living through private gigs, and the YouTube channel, as she puts it, is her portfolio.
After collaborating with several indie stars such as Casey Breves and Jomy George on her covers (most are friends and acquaintances, she says), Iyer is finally recording original compositions. Over the past few months, she uploaded two tracks — Endless Summer Stars, and Be Free. She shares songwriting credits with Tucker on both. Her first EP is in the works, while its first song, Kuthu Fire, is already going viral — 11 lakh views. “There are a bunch of original songs waiting for release. I had written some more, but I didn’t like them. So, I will keep working on it. It’s the only way I will get better.”