The prospect of mashing up Adele’s When we were young with Jodha Akbar’s Jashn-e-bahara might shock most music lovers. But it is surprising how well it works in Vidya Iyer’s earthy, textured voice. Iyer is an India-born American whose YouTube channel, Vidya Vox, has 1,96,972,344 views — making her a true-blue YouTube star. Her unique mashups blend mainstream English numbers with popular Hindi/ Tamil/Telugu and Malayalam songs.
“All of this is pretty much organic. I keep listening to songs — they might be from the top-40 list or just something I am tripping on. I switch between songs and that’s how I mix and match. Most of it happens when I am obsessed with a song or an artiste. Adele’s album, 25, had just come out, and I was playing that song on loop. Then I happened to listen to Jashn-e-bahara again, which is one of my favourite songs, and they blended beautifully. A lot of it is instinct, and varied permutations and combinations. Then Shanker (Tucker, American clarinetist and music composer) and I brainstorm and ideate if a sound works or not,” says Iyer, who sings in English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, French, Telugu and Bhojpuri.
Born in Chennai, Iyer was brought up in the US after her family moved to Fairfax, Virginia, in the late Nineties. She and her sister — as good Tamil girls must — were being trained in dance. “My mother enrolled both of us to learn Bharatanatyam. But we both gravitated towards music and started learning Carnatic music. That took a backseat in high school and early college. I rediscovered it again when I met Tucker at a youth camp in college, and he asked me to collaborate with him for his Youtube channel,” says Iyer.
For someone who grew up on a steady diet of Beyonce, Coldplay and Shakira, sprinkled with a heady dose of Shankar Mahadevan and Shreya Ghoshal, it seemed like destiny that she would end up making a career in music. Iyer moved to Mumbai to learn Hindustani classical music from Anita Goswami. “I kept going to Mumbai to learn from her for about two years, and then, here in the States, I learnt from Saili Oak — with whom I did the Charlie Puth We don’t talk anymore-Pani da rang mashup,” she says.
Iyer started her own YouTube channel in May 2015, and since then, she has produced about 32 videos. “When I launched my channel, I felt I was ready to do this. It’s not that I had learnt everything — because as an artiste you never stop learning, but I was ready to put out my voice in the world,” says Iyer. While Tucker produces her videos — he shoots them and also arranges the music — Iyer edits them. She is also her own stylist. “People keep asking me if I have a stylist — I am a YouTube artiste, I don’t have one. Most of the clothes and accessories in my videos come from my wardrobe. Most of my jewellery is what I picked up in India. Though, now I am getting offers to collaborate with some boutiques in LA,” says Iyer. Over the past two years, Iyer has collaborated with many artistes from the indie music scene, both in India and in the US. Her collaboration with Casey Breeves for The Chainsmokers’ Closer and Kabira mashup is one of her most popular mashups, with 26, 860, 715 views.
Iyer has a degree in psychology and, at one point, was studying to be a doctor. “There was so much of confusion that I grew up with. There were these two worlds I lived in. One was replete with coconut oil and a traditional upbringing. And then, each morning I would take the school bus to a completely different world — where I am eating pizza and French fries and listening to Destiny’s Child,” says Iyer.
Iyer is now working on an original EP — she released the first song, Kutthu fire, on YouTube on March 1. For starters, Kuthu fire has Iyer channeling her inner Chennai diva as she grooves to the loud percussion. “I grew up listening to dappan koothu songs and loved the fun party vibes they gave. I tried to pay a bit of homage to that beat,” reads Iyer’s description of Kuthu fire on YouTube.
While she definitely wants to write and sing her own creations, Iyer is not averse to the idea of singing in Bollywood, and to work with her favourite music icon — AR Rahman. Iyer, who will soon be heading to India for a three-city concert tour, says, “I am super excited about this tour. This will be my first time performing in Chennai, which is my home base,” says Iyer.