DIY Creativity Shapes Alumna's Career in U.S., India

Singer-songwriter and alumna Zoya is finding success in her native India and the United States with her signature folk fusion that combines elements of pop and Northern Indian music with varied, unusual instrumentation.

December 16, 2015

Singer-songwriter Zoya ’14 is building a successful career in two countries: she’s getting noticed in her native India as well as in the United States, thanks to a combination of business savvy and a real sense of identity as a musician. Born in New Delhi and raised in Newport Beach, California, the mononymous Zoya began writing songs at age 12. At the end of high school, Zoya had an experience with an L.A. producer in which she lost control of her music. She recaptured and honed her own sound while at Berklee, where she studied music business/management and songwriting.

“The music business program really equipped me with the tools to be able to get as far as I have in such little time,” says the recent graduate during a Skype video chat. “I’m not world-famous, but I’m going to New York City and playing shows, doing master classes, and talking to younger kids about how you should understand the business we’re in…It equipped me to book myself, manage myself, and do all my marketing.”

When she wasn’t focusing on the business aspects of music, Zoya’s time in the Berklee Indian Ensemble informed her developing sound by bringing her back to her roots. These days, her folk fusion music combines elements of pop and North Indian music with varied, unusual instrumentation. It has earned her accolades from the Huffington Post, Rolling Stone India, and the MTV Indies. Her Kickstarter campaign supporting her album, The Girl Who Used to Live in My Room, and its 2015 tour exceeded its goal by $1,000, and now that the tour is over, she’s pursuing several new opportunities in India.

Back to Her Roots

To her surprise, in the past couple of years, Zoya began to get recognition in the Indian press for her music. “Companies like Pepsi MTV India started talking about me just on the basis of searching for Indian American songwriters,” she says. “Also, [India’s foremost film composer and songwriter] A. R. Rahman posted one of my videos, and when that happened, I had a ton of messages from India…so I started researching what was going on [there].”

Incidentally, Zoya shared the stage with Rahman when he visited Berklee in 2014 to receive an honorary doctorate in conjunction with a concert honoring his life and music; but the two never met. Three months after the Berklee show, Rahman—whose scores include Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours—posted Zoya’s video. “It was kind of out of the blue!” she says.

Zoya reached out to Berklee friends who knew more about the burgeoning Indian music scene than she did, and what she found was an opportunity unlike any other: the chance to stand out as a singer-songwriter, because that genre of music remains unusual in India. “Right now, India’s mainly Bollywood music, but there’s this huge independent scene just starting,” she says. “It’s like the ’60s here. People are just realizing, okay, I can pick up the guitar and write my own songs.” She adds, “I’ve met so many interesting artists, and it’s such a small scene that if you’re here for two weeks and you know five of the right people, you know everyone. And I think it would be so cool to see how much this grows in 10 years because I don’t think people even know this exists.”

Music for a Cause 

Zoya isn’t just a savvy businesswoman, however. She also saw the possibility of doing some good in her native country. Her most recent release, Zoya: Plugged In, is an album of electronic remixes of nine of her songs by nine different Berklee producers and friends who decided collectively that they wanted to donate the album’s proceeds to provide two different schools in Udaipur with electricity, fans, and lights for their classrooms. With an overall fundraising goal of $5,000, they are planning to help a primary school run by the government and the Khushiya Toy Library, which is run by an NGO and provides a place for children to play and learn while their mothers work on handicrafts. Currently, these schools serve more than 150 children without electricity. Zoya is excited about this project and also about the future of music in India, which she hopes will improve, in part through the Berklee India Exchange.

“Bringing people like [Indian composer and performer] Clinton Cerejo and A. R. Rahman to Berklee is really amazing, not only for the school, but for people in India. Kids here, they’re like, 'you went to Berklee? I really want to go to Berklee!' And it’s cool to see that because back in the day, they’d be like, 'oh, I really want to write for this Bollywood movie,' and now they’re like, 'I want to do my own music and create a new sound,' which I think needs to happen.”

Zoya’s current plans include more time in India to organize a tour and work on a new EP, and then she hopes to do another American tour and perhaps spend some time in her home base, California. And she has one piece of advice for every Berklee student who is open to it: “You should be exposed to how to manage yourself, book yourself, and market yourself, and you should know all of that before you rely on someone else to do it for you. I’m thankful [that happened for me at Berklee] because I wouldn’t be where I am if not for that.”