For Teenasai Balamu, music was her solace, her passion and something that set her free from everything –including herself.
by Aisiri Amin
If self-doubt is holding you back, let Teenasai Balamu be the inspiration you need. From working as a copywriter to being a solo musician, Balamu also known as GrapeGuitarBox, has seen a nationwide recognition in India in just a matter of months. In fact, Rolling Stones India has already included her as one of the 10 budding women artists to watch out for this 2016.
Indie and alternative pop as her allies, Balamu’s music is nothing short of inspiring. Balamu talks to INKLINE about her incredible journey so far.
INKLINE: Tell us about your connection with music.
Teenasai: As a kid, I really liked playing music so I thought maybe I’ll do it for a living someday. But it was after the death of my grandfather that I really gave it importance. After he passed away and we moved to Bangalore, things changed for me. I was a depressed 11-year-old.
At that point of my life, music was something that helped me keep myself together. I had a lot of sadness in me. Music and poetry helped me channel it the right way. I’m a person who has a lot of anxiety issues. Music has always been the way I dealt with it because I am not a very expressive person. For me, music is a no-filter zone. It’s the most raw and straightforward form of expression for me.
I: How did the transition from a media student to a solo musician happen?
T: I finished my under graduation last year. I studied media and I specialised in advertising and I thought I will go on to be a copywriter. While in college, I played here and there. Eventually, I did a gig or two in Pune. That was the start. I still remember being extremely anxious and my voice quivering. But, I had very motivating friends who cheered me on. But after graduation, I came back to my hometown and I wasn’t playing anymore. For some reason, I decided to not take up a job.
I thought maybe I should take some time off, do a bit of freelance work and at the same time try my hand at screenwriting which I was always interested in. I started doing that. Somehow it didn’t click and it wasn’t satisfying enough. I realised it wasn’t making me happy. So, then March of this year, I got frustrated.
I uploaded a video on YouTube. I had no expectations and I just did that for myself. After that I started getting gigs and a few months later, I decided to take the idea of doing this seriously. I stopped doing freelance work and decided to give this an honest shot.
I: Your first YouTube video was quite a sensation. How has your journey been after that?
T: I uploaded my music on SoundCloud first and that surprisingly got a good response. Then YouTube happened. My video was watched and appreciated by a lot of random people which encouraged me further. I didn’t expect that at all but that definitely gave me the push that I needed. Then I was invited to perform in a few places and things started to fall into place. I have one single out. I’m working on an EP right now and in the next few months I plan on releasing a few more singles.
I: What has been your biggest motivating factor?
T: I have to give the credit to my friends and family. They have really stood by me, no matter what. Also, one of the moments that really gave me a push was getting featured on Rolling Stone India. That came as a ray of hope. And there is this one thing I always remind myself: I’d rather be a musician than anything else so I should give it my best.
I: What are some of the challenges that you have overcome?
T: There is one incident that I remember clearly. It happened when I was 15 or 16 years old. This was the time when I was in a band for the first time. Though it was all very exciting, the funny thing was that I had ended up in a metal band and I don’t even play metal! Honestly, I have no idea what I was doing there. But there was another guy who was singing along with me in the band so I had support.
This one time, we were playing in this particular place. It was a small set up and we had lined up about 3 to 4 songs. Frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing. I was very shy so I kept moving away from the mic and no one could even hear me properly. Unfortunately for me, I happened to be the only singer as the other guy couldn’t make it that day. I was visibly very awkward and I wasn’t interacting with anyone.
While playing I had an anxiety episode. Everything froze and at the same time everything speeded up. I just wanted to get out of there. For me, it was a flight response. The person in charge then came forward and asked us to politely leave. It was an experience that I have learned a lot from.
Today I consciously decide not to think too much while playing and I just try to be in the moment. And that helps me enjoy when I was playing. Sometimes it’s important to just let go of what is holding you back and that worked for me.
I: How is it being a solo musician?
T: It’s uncertain and scary. It’s not very supporting until you are big and people recognise you. Until then, you don’t even know what you are doing next month. But from the monetary perspective, you just have to keep doing gigs to make ends meet.
But I feel in the past few years, India has gone through some positive changes. There is a lot more room for independent musicians. People are open to listening to new music and that brings hope to musicians in India.
I: What is one advice would give others?
T: Try. Give it a try. I know how it is to go out there and do it. But if you don’t, you won’t get to the next step. So, before calling quits, give it a fair shot. There are a lot of creative and talented people in our generation. It’s important to collaborate and work with people who are in at a similar stage of their career.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).