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The Extraordinary Rise of Lisa Mishra

The popular singer-songwriter on how she went from singing in her bedroom to playing shows for 30,000 people

Riddhi Chakraborty Feb 17, 2021

Lisa Mishra styled in United Colors of Benetton; Accessories by MNSH. Photographed by Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India

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It’s 7 pm on a Thursday when we connect over Zoom for our chat, and Lisa Mishra is excited about going home. The Chicago-native moved to India full time in 2018 to establish her music career and–thanks to a certain virus that plunged the world into chaos–hasn’t seen her family since November 2019. “I know in general, everybody has had it tough because of social distancing,” she says. “But there’s another layer of just isolation added to it when your families are not only inaccessible but so far away that it feels impossible. But finally, I’m going to be home next month.” 

Before she heads out however, there’s a lot she needs to get done. Her schedule is packed with music videos to shoot, meetings to attend and recordings to complete. The best part is getting to be back onstage post COVID-19. “This week has been hectic, mostly just been a lot of rehearsals.” Everything is pretty much back in season in full swing and Mishra has a couple of performances lined up over the next few weeks–“Under strict precautions of course,” she assures me. “I think our first show back, which was a private show about two weeks ago, was really emotionally overwhelming. I announced on stage that this was our first show in 10 months and [the audience] got emotional. There was a wave of applause because for a lot of them, it was the first time they were getting out and doing anything social in almost a year.”

Lisa Mishra on the cover of Rolling Stone India’s February 2021 issue, photographed by Kunal Gupta. All clothing by United Colors of Benetton; Accessories by MNSH

Mishra spent most of 2020 social distancing at home much like everybody else, but did her best to connect with her fans through Instagram livestreams and by increasing her output of song covers. There were also numerous career victories to mark, including her solo debut and an appearance on Global Citizen’s ‘One World Together at Home’ in April. 

The event was curated by Lady Gaga and featured some of the biggest names in music from across the world. Paul McCartney, Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift, Maluma were all on the roster, performing from their homes via YouTube to create one of the most important livestreamed concerts of our generation.”Who would have thought that would happen?” Mishra declares with a laugh. ”My name came up and right after me was Charlie Puth. It was a dream come true.” Seeing her there was powerful in a lot of ways; for those few minutes she was a link to our country’s culture, heritage and background, plus a direct glimpse of what India’s music scene had to offer. Did she feel a sense of pressure considering the amount of people who were watching, hoping that this could one day open doors for more Indians to follow? 

“I don’t know if it’s pressure,” Mishra answers carefully. “I think pressure implies that it’s something I didn’t want.” Whether it’s performing at Global Citizen or any other platform, Mishra understands that being an artist is about knowing what you can inspire someone else to do. “I can’t half-ass this. It’s something that I really just have to commit myself to because I want to be somebody that a person can look at and say, ‘If it’s possible for her, it’s possible for me.’ I think it’s a great thing to be a role model for people with a story like mine– to sing in your bedroom and then end up on the stage and play for 30,000 people. I’m literally living my dream. It’s bizarre. So I want other people to look at me and say, ‘It’s possible.’ I don’t think there’s any pressure at all. I think it’s just something I’ve signed up to do, and I’m happy to do it.”

***

In truth, Lisa Mishra didn’t plan on becoming famous. Up till 2018, the 26-year-old’s life revolved primarily around a job in data analytics and making music on the side on YouTube. “I didn’t have the guts to dream about a career in music professionally,” she confesses. While she did occasionally collaborate with artists on various projects within Chicago, she didn’t think there would be any drastic changes in her path. Life, however, has a way of disrupting plans.

On May 19th that year, Mishra posted a mashup of “Tareefan” from the Bollywood film Veere Di Wedding and “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber on her Instagram profile. Just 55 seconds long, the video was simple and featured Mishra singing in her bedroom and playing her guitar. It began blowing up among her fans who praised the combination of the two tracks and promptly got forwarded to various corners of Indian social media. It eventually caught the attention of Sonam Kapoor, one of the stars of Veere Di Wedding, and her sister Rhea Kapoor, the producer of the film. By May 25th, the duo had flown Mishra down from Chicago to Mumbai to record a reprise version of “Tareefan” and appear in its music video, granting her the first big step into the Indian music industry. Thus began Lisa Mishra’s brand new story.

“I’m literally living my dream. It’s bizarre. So I want other people to look at me and say, ‘It’s possible.’” All clothing by United Colors of Benetton; Headband by Joey & Pooh; Heels by Christian Louboutin. Photograph by Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India

Things happened quite quickly after that; Mishra moved to Mumbai full-time in 2018 and was recruited to work on several more Bollywood tracks through 2019 and 2020, including “Naadaniyaan” from The Sky is Pink, “Chandigarh Mein” from Good Newwz and “The Wakhra Song” from Judgementall Hai Kya. Each racked up hundreds of millions of views within months, making her a rising star in urban India. She signed a record deal with Universal Music India in 2019 to release non-film music under their platform VYRL Originals and finally made her solo debut as a pop artist with the emotional ballad “Nai Chaida” in 2020. Now in 2021, she’s one of the most powerful voices in the country’s emerging pop scene. Despite this whirlwind rise to fame, Mishra admits there are times when she finds it difficult to believe her new reality. “It’s funny for me to think of myself as an artist professionally,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to ever sink in.”

Considering blowing up via Bollywood was never what she pictured, did the success after “Tareefan” change Mishra’s vision of herself as an artist? “I really just didn’t believe this would ever happen for me,” she says with a laugh. “So it’s not that I didn’t think Bollywood was the path, I just didn’t think I would ever make it in music. Every day to this day, I have very bad imposter syndrome. I just struggle daily with accepting that I am worthy of being here. So forget Bollywood, music in any capacity didn’t seem possible for me. Not because I didn’t have the opportunity, I just didn’t believe in myself very much. Which is ironic, because the amount of work I put in. I worked very hard at it with very little self confidence for a long time.” 

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Over the last two years, Lisa Mishra has been splashed across the media as an ‘overnight sensation.’ The term appears affixed to her name in almost every story you can find about her on the Internet, making it look like she popped right out of thin air and surged to superstardom in minutes. “That’s the phrase I resented so much in the beginning.” Mishra sighs. “I made it very clear in every interview that this is not overnight success. It is a lot of work.” 

The vocalist’s earliest recollection of singing goes back to when she was four years old, and it has since been a key part of who she is. “I’ve been singing my whole life. But I never got formally trained. It was always an option for me. My parents tried to put me in training because I think they saw some sort of ability in me, but I’m a really bad student. That’s the only way I can put it. I really don’t like homework. I just do better when I’m allowed to skip ahead, go behind and not stick to a curriculum.” When Mishra’s parents enrolled her for piano lessons, the teacher would get frustrated because she would skip ahead of the rest of the group. The same thing happened when they attempted singing classes. “I would want to go to songs that appeal to me, rather than the ones I’m supposed to be learning. So every teacher pretty much came up with the same conclusion, which was to let me learn on my own. Because I don’t seem to be willing to learn step by step–I just kind of want to be able to move around a little bit more freely.” Mishra eventually taught herself how to play guitar via YouTube videos and old instructional DVDs, fueling her creative drive with covers and small original compositions. 

Despite her passion and talent, Mishra believed that music would always take a backseat. “My background and my upbringing does not come from a musical family whatsoever,” she shares, adding that she was the only person in her household to take music seriously. But even then, the desi outlook on the instability of the arts was unavoidable. “I took it seriously in a very middle-class Indian way, which was ‘school comes first,’” she explains. Having an academician for a mother meant her priority was education. Since there were a lot of expectations around which schools and eventual professional path she chose, Mishra dismissed dreams of diving into a music career headfirst and began with a careful step into the pool of YouTube in 2007 as a hobby. “It was just for personal fulfilment,” she says about the channel she launched when she was just 13. “I would make these [cover] music videos and put them on YouTube.” 

“No one is going to hand it to you… So just work really, really hard. Take a bunch of leaps and see where you land.” All clothing by United Colors of Benetton; Accessories by Outhouse. Photograph by Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India

For the next 10 years, Mishra remained committed to her YouTube channel and Instagram account, posting covers of various Bollywood and English songs, gradually amassing a steady fanbase. She did her own hair and makeup, lights, instrumentals, sound editing and mixing, learning each process off of the Internet. “I was entrepreneurial and maybe stupid enough to do all of this live in one take,” she recalls. “So if I messed up, I would have to start from the beginning. And it really doesn’t help when you’re a perfectionist. So I would be up for like, seven, eight hours trying to film in the dead of night when I could get a moment of quiet while my parents were sleeping, without disturbing them.” 

Now with a record label and several teams backing her up, Mishra admits that while she’s proud of the DIY hours she put in as a YouTuber, it’s also a relief to have professionals step in. “There is something great at a certain age about the DIY process. But the older you get– and I know this sounds like I’m talking like it as if I’m 100 years old–but the older you get, the more taxing it is because you juggle 100 other things, especially if you live independently. There’s just so many other things in life you have to worry about. So all that considered, I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.”

We discuss the evolution of YouTube from 2007 to 2021 and Mishra, who had a front-row seat to this growth, feels that it’s pushed the definition of ‘DIY’ into new territory over time–especially for musicians. “I think YouTube viewers have gotten used to high production and high quality work, because it now serves as the world’s premier video platform. So you need to look good, the video needs to look good. And the audience deserves to see something of that caliber, because in return you’re getting millions, even billions of people watching.” Mishra explains that the DIY format has grown into what she calls ‘DIY plus’; “In that it’s still self-shot, but like on a $3,000 camera. The finish has to be great and the sound has to be incredible.”

Mishra’s foray into working with major artists began in Chicago in 2016, way before the doors to the Indian music industry opened with “Tareefan.” The first to feature her on a record was fellow Chicago-native Chance The Rapper. She joined the roster of collaborators on his Grammy-winning mixtape Coloring Book and later his 2019 debut LP The Big Day. “I don’t consider that necessarily an achievement of mine,” says Mishra. “That’s his, you know, that’s Chance and his team’s. I was just lucky to be called in. I would say that I put the years of work into it for them to remember my voice and call me into work on the project. I’m just grateful to have been in that space.” She credits Chance for playing a big part in her artistic growth and being the driving force behind her immersion into the city’s music community. “I love that anytime I’m in Chicago, and if the boys are working on something and I just tell them I’m coming into the studio, they insist, ‘If you’re around, just hop on this track, work on this with us.’ So Chicago’s creative scene is something I’m proud of. Everybody works with everybody.”

It was this sense of community that led to her participation in creating the theme song for the Emmy-nominated 2017 web series Brown Girls with R&B artist Jamila Woods. “I think my first real contribution to songwriting was the theme song,” recalls Mishra. “I was so proud of that, because the way we made it was so organic, and then to see a really small-budget but beautifully made and beautifully written project get elevated to be nominated for the Emmys was amazing. And that opportunity only came because I had worked with Chance for most of 2016.”

“The industry was created by and for men and and we’ve kind of just been waiting outside the door for so long.” All clothing by United Colors of Benetton; Photograph by Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India

Although she’s featured on tracks by several prominent Indian artists since making the move here, Mishra hopes to cement her status as a songwriter and producer in addition to being a vocalist. She realized that for female vocalists to hit mainstream fame in India, they had to establish solid, long-term careers in Bollywood playback first. ”I didn’t come here to be a playback singer,” she says firmly. “I’ve insisted on being a co-writer in some capacity for all the work I’m doing this year because I want to push vocalists–especially female vocalists in India–outside of the playback singer zone.” For Mishra the mission is simple: put a face to the name and break any boundaries that stand in the way of it. “I was lucky enough to have Rhea support that vision from the beginning by putting me in that music video for ‘Tareefan.’ She never wanted me to be behind the scenes. So although playback is this amazing launching pad and gives you access to the entire mainstream fan base, I want to make sure that women are composing, writing and instrumentalizing, because we have so much more to offer.” 

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But what is the best way to encourage more women to enter the music industry? Whether it’s performance, production, sound engineering or management, there aren’t enough women. What’s stopping us? “The industry was created by and for men and and we’ve kind of just been waiting outside the door for so long,” Mishra says after a moment of contemplation. “I think we’re taught as women to compete, but we could just do so much more if we came together. My friendship with (rapper) Raja Kumari is a testament to the fact all women can help women. We are always constantly lifting each other’s work up. There’s no PR spin. Don’t look at the woman next to you as competition; there’s more than enough room for all of us in this industry. We’ve just been made to believe there isn’t.”

There’s a pop revolution brewing in India and Mishra is ready to stand at the forefront. She’s a firm believer in the idea that people don’t know what they like until they hear it, and if they keep hearing the same thing on loop, there’s no prospect for evolution on either side. “All the music will sound the same. It will all be a rip off of something else that we’ve already heard, because we’re trying to give people what we think they like, rather than introducing them to something that they’ve never even heard. Why does Ritviz work? Because there’s nothing like him. And we didn’t know people would be receptive to a sound like that until they heard it. So whoever is making whatever in their bedroom, if it sounds good to you, I can guarantee it’ll sound good to somebody else. Just put it out.”

While Mishra stands by the fact that there’s still stunning music emerging from the film industry, she knows that India’s rise as a digital superpower in the last couple of years has also sparked a hunger for content outside the silver screen circle. Audiences are more receptive to change and–like the rise of desi hip-hop showed us–they’re also determined to be a part of a new story rather than just a spectator to an old one. “Globalization has made us better listeners,” Mishra says when I ask why India’s audience is ready for this new chapter in pop music. “I think we just have the world at our hands, literally. And why would we just be so insular? Why would we only want to hear the same thing for the rest of our lives when we can listen to Maluma? When we have access to ‘Ghenda Phool’ at the same time that we have access to ‘Brown Munde’ and Drake. And K-pop! Oh my God, it’s the biggest example of what globalization is.” (She adds that she’s a BLINK, by the way.) With more artists in the country experimenting with unique collaborations and genres, Mishra feels a global glow-up is imminent. “I think India is ripe for a crossover takeover. It’s about time that we sort of start blending genres and cultures and music. I think that’s the next great step that we take. It’s about time we kind of got out of the comfort of Bollywood. We have to explore more.” 

“I’m gonna try to advocate for myself as a songwriter beyond just a vocalist. So let’s see how people receive it.” All clothing by United Colors of Benetton; Accessories by Eurumme; Heels by Paio; Eyewear by Urban Monkey. Photograph by Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India

Perhaps it’s a matter of creating the right kind of community here, much like what she found in Chicago. Women helping women rise, musicians with bigger platforms giving new voices an opportunity, and artists with a vision of breaking the mold together. It’s already happening. She mentions her collaboration with desi hip-hop icon DIVINE on his 2020 LP Punya Paap as an example of the latter. “He put up an Instagram post last summer that said, ‘Who should I have on the next album?’ I just commented on it and said, ‘Yo, hit me up.’ And he did.” The rapper sent Mishra a slow trap number called “Rider,” inviting her to write the verse with him. She worked on the English lyrics and contributed to the creation of vocal work on the melody and the hook. “It was such a seamless thing because when there’s faith in my ability from the person that I’m working with, I fly.” 

Mishra promises there’s a lot coming over the next six months–including a music video for “Rider”– but refuses to give me any more details. “We’re working on my next single. I can’t tell you who yet, but it will be out within the next month and a half. My single and then another single after that. And film music has already been made and is set in stone. All of it with large contributions from me. I’m gonna try to advocate for myself as a songwriter beyond just a vocalist. So let’s see how people receive it.” 

I ask what advice she’d give to anyone who plans on following in her footsteps and Mishra feels it really just boils down to one thing: finding the courage to have faith in yourself. “Whether it’s the story of how I was self-producing these videos at home, or the fact that I made a huge decision to move across the world to a country I haven’t lived in for 20 years to be alone in an industry I don’t know… I think we have to, especially as young Indian women, be leading this next generation and doing as much as we can.” There is a need to carve a space for ourselves at the table and Mishra sees it more clearly than ever. “No one is going to hand it to you. You just have to make your work speak so loud, that people will come to you and say, ‘please join us’ or ‘please do this for me.’ Your work has to be at the center of all this and that only comes from how much you put into it. So just work really, really hard. Take a bunch of leaps and see where you land.”

 

Photographer: Kunal Gupta
Art Director : Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor : Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair And Makeup Artist : Renuka Desilva
Assisted By: Pooja Parmar
Location Courtesy: Plum By Bent Chair, Bandra, Mumbai

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