Zoya Balances Her Indian Roots and Western Upbringing

Shriya Samavai

By Shriya Samavai

on 01.30.15 in Features

Every place singer and songwriter Zoya Mohan has lived in the course of her 21 years can be heard in her music. Though she was born in New Delhi in Northern India, she has also lived in Southern California and, more recently, Boston, where she just graduated from Berklee College of Music. Her birthplace exposed her to Indian classical song and dance, and she grew up learning a traditional dance called Kathak as well as the more popular style of Bollywood. In Southern California she was introduced to the folk scene, and in her songs she strums her acoustic guitar gently, singing honestly and fervently about her life and her experiences. At Berklee, where she took both music business and technical courses, her songs became more complex and refined, with added layers like vibraphones and tabla beats. Zoya’s music reflects her journey — the perfect balance of her Indian roots and her Western upbringing.

Zoya and I spoke about her heritage, the philosophical concept of “Atomic Living” and her new album, The Girl Who Used to Live In My Room.

You just graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston. What was your experience like there? What did you learn?

Berklee was amazing. I initially planned on studying songwriting, but when I got there, I decided to do music business/management, so I could learn how to make a career out of my music. I took technical classes, too — ear training, harmony, arranging, conducting even. I got to sneak in some songwriting classes. It was really a great opportunity.

You collaborated with drummer Kiran Gandhi on the track “Lunar Eclipsed.” She developed a concept called “Atomic Living,” and I read that you have a tattoo on your foot inspired by her ideas. What, specifically, is Kiran’s philosophy?

Kiran is one of the most amazing woman I have met; she’s so inspiring. When I first met her, she spoke at Berklee about her life as a touring drummer and a music-business entrepreneur, and how she balanced both acts. After the clinic, I felt so drawn to her philosophy of Atomic Living that I asked if we could go get a drink. She explained to me that it’s basically the idea that our world is filled atoms and, just like humans, atoms bounce of each other and create new connections. She said to pick three to six things that are most important to me — my passions or pillars. For me, it was traveling, family, art, learning, things like that. She said that I should always make decisions based on those pillars instead of looking to the future and making decisions based on some job I want to get five years down the line, or making decisions based on what other people are telling me.

She said then there will be no room to regret any decisions and the “atomic moments” that form are so much more true than if I followed a path just to get to Point B. Instead, I should be open to numerous paths that may come out of my “atomic decisions.”

So my tattoo says “step atomically” in Greek (since the Greeks were the ones who first discovered the atom), and that’s why I got it on my foot. So with every step I make in life, I keep her philosophy in mind.

‘I was never formally trained in Indian classical singing, but I always had the influence from my childhood and traveling every year to India. A lot of my family members sing, dance or have some passion in the arts, so I owe it a lot to them.’

What is your relationship with your culture and heritage? What Indian influences do you pull in your music?

My family is super musical. They would host these huge Indian parties in Orange County, where I lived when I was younger, and the parties would always have a one or hour segment of performances. We would all learn Indian dances and family members would sing old Indian songs. I grew up dancing to Bollywood, Kathak and other forms of classical Indian dance under Nakul Dev Mahajan, and that is a major source of where I got my Indian influence. When you dance Indian dance, you have to lip sync to the words, so I would always end up singing each song while dancing. I was never formally trained in Indian classical singing, but I always had the influence from my childhood and traveling every year to India. A lot of my family members sing, dance or have some passion in the arts, so I owe it a lot to them.

Do you have any Indian musicians you look up to?

A lot! Susheela Raman, Sanam Marvi, Lata Mangeshkar and definitely A.R. Rahman. Sonu Nigam, too. A.R. Rahman is a big, big one, since a lot of the songs I danced to were his. Even at Berklee, through the Berklee Indian Ensemble, we always sang an A.R. Rahman medley. I had the chance to meet him and perform with him last month at the Boston Symphony. His compositional expertise, his demeanor and life expertise is so inspiring. Susheela Raman is a British Indian musician, and her music has pretty much no boundaries. She goes across borders like no one’s business, and her vocal style is something that has really influenced me.

Do you think there are any major differences between the music industry in India and the one in America?

Yes. Popular music in India mainly comes from films, where here in America, music is made and then is set to films just to enhance it. It isn’t as much a part of the art of the movie as it is in India. I feel like now independent bands and singer-songwriters are rising in India — which is really cool — but it’s something that America has been doing since the late ’50s and ’60s.

Let’s talk about your new album The Girl Who Used to Live in My Room. What does the album represent to you?

The new album is called that because it is a collection of songs that are a reflection of myself when I was growing up — the hopes and lessons I have learned. A few songs from the record are songs I wrote when I was a teenager that I have reworked and made into my sound now. So it seemed an appropriate title for those particular pieces. But for the rest — they are lessons I have learned while going through college and things I struggled with. The title track portrays a girl I talk about like “she” does this and “she” does that. But it is funny because it is more about the girl I am now, and the chorus of the song pays a little tribute to the future when I grow from this phase I am experiencing in life as well.