Artist session #04: Mali (IND) - Exploring Uncharted Melodies and ExpandingComfort Boundaries to Redefine Her Musical Boundaries

Mali, also known as Maalavika Manoj, is a singer-songwriter from Mumbai, India. Her music uniquely blends classic pop influences with a contemporary twist.

Artist session #04: Mali (IND) - Exploring Uncharted Melodies and ExpandingComfort Boundaries to Redefine Her Musical Boundaries

In May 2020, amid the lingering uncertainties of the pandemic, Mali's "Age of Limbo" emerged as a musical refuge, offering solace during challenging times. Beyond Mali's enchanting melodies, the release gained distinction for its groundbreaking crowd-sourced music video, providing a unique lens into the global experiences of individuals navigating the pandemic's effects.

The captivating visuals of "Age of Limbo" acted as a virtual portal, offering glimpses into people's experiences navigating the pandemic's intricacies, from intimate home spaces to deserted streets. With its collaborative and inclusive ethos, Mali's creation stood as a testament to the unifying potency of music and visual storytelling, presenting a shared perspective on the human experience in an unprecedented era of uncertainty.

Fast-forward to 2023, Mali once again captivates with her latest single, "Semi-automatic Butane," prompting a fascinating conversation about comfort zones, childhood memories, and music's profound impact on all our lives.

Srishti Das: Can you reflect on a childhood memory that lingers in your mind, especially when you consider your journey in music or feel gratitude for your achievements? Is there a moment from your early years that made you think, "I knew back then I would be in music"?

Mali: You know, one childhood memory that always sticks with me, especially when I reflect on my musical journey or feel grateful for my accomplishments, is the time I learned my first song. It was during a singing contest in the first grade, just among the kids in our class or batch. I had sung casually before that because my parents encouraged me, saying I had potential. But for this contest, I remember thinking, "What song should I choose?" Until then, I only knew a handful of nursery rhymes and Savage Garden songs.

Growing up in the '90s, I relied on the album covers and the lyrics that came with them. It's funny to think about now, but those moments shaped my early connection with music. I guess you could say my journey started right there, in that first-grade singing contest, navigating through nursery rhymes and Savage Garden tunes. It's like looking back at a snapshot of where it all began, and it's pretty special to me.

Srishti: To the moon and back. Yeah?

Mali: "To the Moon and Back" always held a special place for me, but the song that truly captivated me was "I Want You." The fast-paced mix drew me in, and I took the inlay cover, teaching myself to read and understand the song. It became my go-to for the first-grade singing competition. Realising the need for a prepared song, my mom introduced me to a 50 Songs For Children CD with "500 Miles" on it. She decided to teach me this song, confident I would love it and perform well in the competition.

As the competition unfolded, my confidence grew. Despite initially experiencing impostor syndrome, I won, hands down, surprising myself. This marked a turning point, not just in my self-perception but also in how my parents viewed my singing abilities. I changed schools somewhere in between, from a coed private institution to an all-girls convent. During the admission interview with a high-ranking church official, he asked about any special talents. Without hesitation, I mentioned my ability to sing.

Choosing "Mockingbird Hill," a song I had recently learned, I performed it on the spot. The reaction was immediate – the official looked at me intently, put his glasses down, took another look, and then signed the necessary papers, declaring, "You're in." It dawned on me that singing had not only won me a competition but also secured my admission into a new school. These early memories marked the beginning of my realisation that music could be more than just a passion – it could be something I excelled at.

Srishti: How supportive were your parents when you decided to pursue a music careerNot to Make an Album?

Mali: Well, I'd say they were both incredibly supportive and, at the same time, posed the most significant challenge to my musical aspirations. Initially, they assumed I would follow a conventional corporate career path, as I did well in school, particularly excelling on my boards. Being on the first list of accepted students for all the colleges in town reinforced their belief in my academic inclinations.

When I expressed my desire to pursue music exclusively, they dismissed it as a phase, suggesting I would outgrow it. Their expectation was for me to consider it a gap year and then proceed to pursue a more conventional academic path, possibly with a master's or even a PhD. It turned into years of negotiation, starting from encouraging me to think about serious options to eventually urging me to at least continue my studies in music.

Over the years, I tried every tactic, from appealing to their sense of karma to emphasising that music was my spiritual path. Despite their initial resistance, small affirmations began to accumulate. Articles about my performances surfaced, and people approached my parents out of the blue to commend my musical endeavours. Slowly, they became convinced that music was not just a passing phase and that there might be nothing else I could excel at as much and as passionately as I did music.

Srishti: Yeah, it's great that you eventually pursued your passion.

Mali: Absolutely. Now, it feels like my family is living vicariously through me because, interestingly, my whole family is filled with closet artists. My grandma is an excellent painter, my dad was a breakdancer, and my granddad was into music. However, they all considered these talents serious hobbies rather than potential careers. They assumed that if I had a musical talent, it would be a neat party trick but something other than something to be pursued professionally. I might be the first in the family to turn it into a career, which is probably why I faced both encouragement and resistance.

The fights with my parents during my move to pursue music in Bombay were tough because I understood their concerns. They genuinely looked out for my well-being, emphasising the importance of studies to avoid future regrets. My mom, a high achiever in school, sometimes expected me to fit within certain academic parameters. At the start, my parents supported me by paying rent for a few months in Mumbai. However, it was a test of sorts, as my mom purposely stopped funding me, hoping I'd reconsider a corporate career. Determined not to show weakness, I took on small gigs to cover basic expenses. My mom's tactic, though challenging, turned out to be the best thing she could have done.

Over the years, I've proved to myself and my family that I can thrive independently. Now, they're incredibly appreciative of my journey. Even my active grandmother follows my social media closely, celebrating milestones like hitting 90k views on a music video. While their involvement is supportive, it can be challenging to navigate the constant scrutiny. Despite the occasional frustration, having such an engaged and supportive family is ultimately a blessing.

Srishti: Back in school, listening to Western music was considered a ticket to popularity and coolness, taking us away from what being Indian truly means. Now, a generation with confused identities is neither entirely Indian nor at par with the Western world. It's not about reverting to folk roots but embracing family values and the richness of our Indian heritage. The challenge is maintaining authenticity while facing the pressure for numbers and financial success. How do you navigate this balance?

Mali: Balancing the quest for numbers and financial success is an ongoing challenge, but I prioritise always keeping in touch with authenticity. More than authenticity, I strive to preserve a part of myself that's still childlike. I didn't grow up in an ethnically rich environment, with English as our primary language and a preference for Western music. Despite this, my Indian upbringing included listening to film songs on the radio and engaging with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam lessons. While my childhood differed from the Bollywood-centric experience of many Indians, I connected with my cultural roots through Tamil songs and my mom's religious practices. As young Indians, we need to reflect on our diverse upbringings and identities.

Srishti: As someone not in the artist's shoes, I'm curious about your experiences. When I seek music, I want to see what being Indian means to the artist. Your background, like your parents' influence on Western music and your connection to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, adds a unique perspective. I love that you explore different genres, including film music. What motivates you to diversify, and how does film music impact your independent projects?

Mali: I think, you know, throughout my life as an artist, especially as an indie artist, I've invested a significant amount of time in my own project, let's just call it the Mali project. While having control over everything is great—I can work at my own pace and pursue what I want—there's a downside. You tend to get stuck in a comfort zone and might miss opportunities to challenge yourself. That's why I involve myself in projects where I collaborate with other artists, singing in different languages and styles. It proves to me that I'm capable of more than what I initially set out to do.

For instance, I worked on a song with Rahman sir that didn't ultimately materialise due to script changes. He reached out to me, mentioning a song he had this song that was “straight up my alley”.  I  thought this would be great; he probably wanted me to sing an English Pop song, but when I entered the studio, it turned out to be borderline Carnatic, in old Tamil, with intricate nuances. I hadn't sung in this style since I was 12, during my Carnatic music lessons. I found myself in a studio filled with people more adept at this style than I was. Initially, I was questioning why I was there and what I was doing. The challenge was immense, focusing on pronunciation and dealing with the complexity of the music.

By the end of the first recording, I was almost in tears, wondering why Rahman sir had chosen me for this task. His response to my concerns was straightforward—he believed that uniqueness comes from pushing people beyond their comfort zones. Reflecting on it, I realised it was a significant hurdle that I had overcome. Even though I no longer have the song, thinking back made me appreciate the growth and confidence it instilled in me. Now, if someone suggests a more classical style, I wouldn't hesitate, thanks to these experiences that push me beyond my indie style. I believe it's crucial to surprise myself, and even in failure, it contributes to personal and artistic development.

Srishti: Even if you don't succeed, there's always something new to learn, right?

Mali: Absolutely. I recently came across a post on Instagram that struck a chord. The speaker emphasised how success teaches us nothing, serving merely as a dopamine hit, while failure is the true teacher that forces introspection and course correction. It may sound clichéd, but it holds true. Reflecting on my first EP, which was a complete failure, I realise it's not even available for listening. In college, I collaborated with a producer who disregarded my ideas, claiming experience and expertise. I raised funds, collected investments, and produced a disappointing album. I made every possible mistake, but it became a profound learning experience.

The music industry needs a guide on making and releasing music, leaving room for mistakes and self-discovery. I used to joke that my experience could be compiled into a book titled "100 Ways Not to Make an Album." Despite the setbacks, this journey taught me invaluable lessons. Now, when approaching a new song release, I know the pitfalls to avoid, where to stand my ground, and when to welcome creative input. The key is navigating that delicate balance, a skill honed through trial and error.

Srishti: Would you ever consider re-releasing those songs, perhaps by re-recording or rewriting them?

Mali: Those songs hold a lot of sentimental value as I wrote them between the ages of 16 to 18 or 19. However, they are associated with a challenging period of abject depression in my life. For a long time, I distanced myself from those songs to avoid revisiting that time emotionally. Even now, playing those songs might evoke anxiety. I prefer looking forward and focusing on creating new music rather than revisiting the past.

Srishti: How easy or difficult has it been navigating as a woman in the music industry?

Mali: In my specific part of the music industry, which is more niche and indie-focused, people tend to be more open-minded and progressive. The indie scene operates as a community, fostering a supportive environment. I'm grateful for this atmosphere, especially in Mumbai, where there's a more enlightened atmosphere. However, I acknowledge that there can be resistance to female voices and ideas in the broader music industry, especially in film. There have been instances where I've been talked over or faced challenges in having my ideas acknowledged. Singing has been empowering for me in such situations, providing a medium to amplify my thoughts. I've encountered passive forms of gender policing and had to prove myself in subtle ways, such as demonstrating technical knowledge in male-dominated spaces. Many women, including myself, have experienced the need to subtly assert themselves to be taken seriously in certain industries. While I've been fortunate to be part of a more open-minded indie community, I recognise that gender imbalances still exist. Women may be outnumbered, but there's progress and a shift towards a more inclusive environment.

Someone once suggested, "If you can't have women as managers or CEOs, at least strive for more women in the workplace." It's a similar concept in the music industry – even if you can't feature an all-female lineup, make efforts to have more women involved in the creative process, creating a safer and more inclusive environment for the audience. I've observed a trend where some men predominantly listen to male artists, and a specific type of man appreciates the sound of a female voice. There might be a psychological aspect to this phenomenon that deserves deeper study. Many men I know have playlists dominated by male artists, and I wonder if it's rooted in genre preferences or historical associations. For example, certain genres like Pop have traditionally featured more female artists compared to genres like metal. I recall participating in a Spotify video with fellow female artists, and a surprising statistic was shared – male artists are more likely to be heard on streaming platforms than women. This raised questions about whether being a female artist puts me at a disadvantage in terms of reach and audience engagement. It's a fascinating paradox that warrants further exploration through research.

I've also noticed some bizarre things, like sometimes when event organisers or promoters share the lineup or post pictures after a gig, they strategically place the image of the woman artist first in the carousel to attract more attention. It's a form of tokenism, a deliberate effort to draw people in by showcasing a specific image of women. This practice occurs quite frequently, and it's something I've become more aware of.

Srishti Das: I feel we've become blinded by numbers in the music industry. Let's go back to what feels good because only so many artists have consistently had massive numbers. I think of growing a fanbase as - How many people follow you, engage with you, and will come back to your music without needing to be prompted? If you remove all the editorial playlists on streaming, it comes down to something straightforward. How much does the music connect to an audience? How likely will someone come back from a hard day at work and choose your song to soundtrack that moment? That comes down to the bare basics of the song itself. As much as everyone is seeking the bigger, better, shiny thing, people must focus on what it takes to write a truly good song.

Mali: Absolutely. What does it take to get a fan to be at every gig in that city, to buy merch, or to vote continuously in a competition? It all comes down to the impact of a song or a performance. This impact is ephemeral, and people need to understand it more. I try to reply to every single person who DMs me. Some are weird or awkward, not knowing how to talk to a person who's both a friend and a fan. More people need to engage in this way. I often get responses saying, "Wow, I never thought you would even read my message, but thank you so much for responding as well”.

Srishti Das: Good point. So, how do you prioritise community engagement and growth in your planning, especially considering the challenges of measuring fandom and ensuring inclusivity for those who may not have direct access to certain interactions or events?  

Mali: Currently, Nickhiel (my manager) has convinced me to join Snapchat, and even though I already spend a considerable amount of time on social media, I now understand its value. I might have resisted a few years ago, thinking it was not authentic to me, but I've realised that as an artist, my role extends beyond making and releasing music. 

Over the years, I've understood that I'm more of a community builder and leader. People look to me not just for music but also to live vicariously through my journey and seek collaboration opportunities. So, when I put myself out there, I have to consider all these perspectives. Responding to messages is crucial, and I believe that entertainment goes beyond the stage. During the pandemic, I learned how to entertain offstage, from doing silly online activities to creating challenges for friends. This fosters a sense of community. Each artist may have their own way, whether through live broadcasts, newsletters, or social media updates. For me, it's about finding authentic ways to involve people and make them feel part of my journey.

Every day, people are eager to understand the authentic persona behind the artist, delving into who the person truly is and what they stand for. While a stage persona is crafted for performances, online engagement and storytelling require a more personal and genuine approach. This evolution in how we connect with our audience signifies a positive shift.

Srishti Das: I'll wrap up with the final question, which is probably the easiest one. What aspect of the music industry today brings you joy?

Mali: Over the past few years, I've witnessed significant growth in the industry. If you told someone you were an indie artist a decade ago, they might have been puzzled, but now there's greater awareness. Many indie musicians, including those from smaller towns and diverse genres, are making a living through live shows, sync, and more. It's not just limited to Delhi, Bombay, or Bangalore; there's a broader representation of talent, including female sound engineers, producers, and writers. The industry is evolving in size and diversity, with more people aiming to include artists in a global narrative. Seeing artists featured on the Spotify Radar in Times Square is a visual representation of how far we've come. It might be one person's success, but to me, it feels like a collective win for the industry—an exciting beginning with the potential for even more remarkable accomplishments.

Mali begins her Semi Automatic Butane Tour tomorrow

Tour Dates and Venues:

Here's your itinerary for this remarkable journey:

Friday, December 1: Darjeeling (Venue: Glenarys)

Saturday, December 2: Gangtok, Sikkim (Venue: Gangtok Groove)

Sunday, December 3: Siliguri (Venue: The Tribe)

Friday, December 8: Shillong (Venue: The Evening Club)

Saturday, December 9: Guwahati (Venue: Freemasons)

Friday, December 15: Bengaluru (Venue: Fandom)

Sunday, December 17: Hyderabad (Venue: EXT)

Friday, January 19: Delhi (Venue: The Pianoman)

Saturday, January 20: Gurugram (Venue: The Pianoman)

Thursday, February 1: Mumbai (Venue: Anti Social)

Friday, February 2: Pune (Venue: High Spirits)

Sunday, February 4: Indore (Venue: Seed Centraal)

Saturday, February 10: Pondicherry (Venue: The Storytellers’ Bar)

Tickets are exclusively available on Paytm Insider:

Tour is organized & promoted by: KAQI Entertainment