interview, audio

Vardaan Arora: How OCD and India made a popstar

I have a playlist on Spotify. It’s called “Nat’s Perfect Playlist,” and it is perfect. I don’t know where on Spotify I discovered “Feel Good Song,” but I know it was immediately added to my pristine playlist. I couldn’t help jamming out to the sultry pop song while at work; I kept it on repeat. To my surprise, the artist behind the song was my age – and an NYU alum, too. He’d done covers before this, but nothing that circulated nearly as wide. My association of today’s top pop music with reality TV singing competitions, breakout social media stars, and the status quo musicians was expunged. You didn’t need a fanbase to sing a song and get people to listen to it. Just ask Vardaan Arora.

Natalia Lehaf: I heard your song on Spotify.

Vardaan Arora: Yeah, it was on a bunch of playlists on Spotify. It was on the “Mood Booster” playlist where it is gaining the most traction.

NL: That’s really cool. Did you upload it to Spotify and Spotify picked it up?

VA: I recorded the song in June in Nashville. I wrote it myself. I had worked with a producer named Kevin Leach I met in L.A. It all happened in a day. I had lyric and melody ideas with me, but it came to me in the studio. We released it the month after, because post-production took a few weeks. I had a release party in New York, with supportive friends and family who decided to buy the song – even though people don’t really buy music these days. I think Spotify picked up on people listening to it and has an algorithm that picks up on early adapter songs, and it ended up on viral charts. It’s crazy how Spotify helped put it out there; I use Spotify to find new music all the time. In terms of gaining exposure and traction, Spotify has been the most helpful. It’s also a testament to artists in 2016 – we can release something without a label and with the help of streaming services, like Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube. So many people have been reaching out telling me that my song is playing at the bar they’re at or the store – and it’s really cool.

NL: What were you doing there in L.A.?

VA: I lived in L.A. for six months after graduating. I went to NYU for acting and the “New York vs. L.A.” decision is huge for actors. I wanted to see what it was like to live there. I didn’t really like it – I don’t love L.A. After living in New York, I can’t live anywhere else. I’m a very social person and it’s a lot easier to meet up with friends in New York than L.A. Who wants to drive for 45 minutes just to see a movie with a friend? Also, everyone there is in the entertainment industry. I like meeting people from all different walks of life, and L.A. was a little monotonous for me. Even the food. L.A. has great produce and Mexican food, but when I want different cuisines like Indian or Thai, New York is much better.

NL: But, one of the downsides to the city is the limited space. Where was your release party in the city?

VA: I got a suite at a hotel in the Lower East Side. I played the song a few times – not back to back, throughout the night – and gave a little speech about the song.

NL: What did you say in your speech?

VA: I gave them insight into the meaning behind the song. It’s an upbeat, dance-y, fun song that’s supposed to make you feel good, right? But the message behind the song is to bring attention to what it means to feel good on your own terms. Not: everyday is going to be a good day, and when you’re having a bad day, you shouldn’t be expected to feel good because other people are telling you to. A lot of pop songs tell you to put your hands up in the air, and this song is like, “No, I won’t do that because I don’t want to do that right now.” It brings awareness to mental health issues, like when you’re feeling down and depressed and people are telling you to cheer up, but it’s not possible for you to cheer up in the moment. So it’s like, “I’ll close my eyes and sing my feel good song” – so whatever that means to you, whatever you need to do to bring yourself up, you should do without trying to meet other people’s expectations about what feeling good means.

NL: Did anything in your life inspire the song, particularly its touch on mental health?

VA: Yeah, in 2013 I was diagnosed with OCD. I drew from different experiences as a result of that to write this song. It’s about taking it day by day, and knowing that the thing that's bothering you right now might not even bother you tomorrow at the same time. It’s through the institutional paths mentality of “just breathe and revel in it and acknowledge you're feeling this way but do not get sucked into it.”

NL: How has having OCD affected your life?

VA: It’s one of the most debilitating illnesses. It got to the point where it was really bad and I couldn’t do everyday normal tasks because I had to repeat certain activities and had to do compulsions, so I would never really be present in the moment. Obviously, being treated for it was super helpful and becoming more aware of how your brain works was super helpful. It’s chronic and it’s easy to relapse and fall into bad habits and do compulsions all the time, but it’s like a battle and you have to keep going.

NL: What are everyday tasks that you’d have to repeat?

VA: For example, if I had a negative or intrusive thought while I was entering a room, I’d have to walk out of the room and un-do the thought and walk into the room again. The same with sending texts or plugging in your phone. I just did a video with Project UROK talking about my OCD and reaching out to others who have it. A lot of times you feel like you’re alone, when you’re not, which is why I reach out to people on Twitter and join support groups for it. It’s nice to talk to other people who have OCD. And OCD is an illness that’s been murdered by the media because people say things like, “Oh I am so organized, I have OCD,” and it’s a completely different beast.

NL: How do you feel about people who trivialize OCD?

VA: I hate it so much. I know people who do it all the time, and I don’t say anything because I don’t want to be that guy who is, like, politically correct about a mental disorder. Because people say things like that all the time, like, “Oh, I am so schizophrenic” and “oh, he’s so bipolar.” And it’s like: Are you really? Is he really?

NL: Knowing that makes me think about the song differently.

VA: Oh, yeah, if you go back to the song and listen to the lyrics again, it makes a lot more sense probably. Because people think of it as, you go dancing to it – which is good, too, because I want people to think that. I don’t exactly want people to be going through the exact same journey when listening to it, but for me, personally, it means something different.

NL: So, you went to Nashville to meet this producer from L.A. and you knew the words and melody, but it all came to place in the studio, right?

VA: Yeah, so I’d get lyric ideas in the middle of the night, or on the flight over there, but it all came together then. He laid down a beat and I sang over it.

NL: How long were you in the studio for?

VA: I think four or five hours. We recorded the entire song in a few hours and then the next day I went into a different studio and tracked all the vocals there, so I redid the vocals. So it took one day to write the song and have a version for it, and another day to re-do the vocals. I was only there one weekend.

NL: Was that a lot of pressure?

VA: I would say yes if I thought about it, but I was so overwhelmed and excited that I didn’t see it as being a lot of pressure. That’s when I knew that I love songwriting, because it came so easily. It was interesting to see that my own song was stuck in my head a day after recording.

NL: It’s even more interesting because you have OCD and are still going through treatment for it, but you were able to create a three minute song in two days.

VA: So, OCD – what it does is try to give you intrusive images and thoughts that aren’t true but feel true when they’re in your head. If I get a thought, like, “everybody hates your song,” I would have to do a compulsion and make a list of all the people who like it in my head until I feel better. And that would make me feel good for about ten minutes until the thought popped back into my head again. The more compulsions you do, the more it reinforces the obsession. So while I was there, I needed to be on the phone with my therapist, but because I was so excited and passionate about writing this song, it helped me overcome the OCD. When something exciting and big happens, the OCD takes a backseat – because it plays with you when your mind is a little empty, too. People like to think about OCD as a monster that’s always yelling things at you, and if you entertain what they are yelling, they get bigger and bigger.

NL: So you recorded one song; are you working on more music now?

VA: I was in Nashville again last month. I recorded another song. It’s a little slower – still pop, still catchy – but I am using more of my lower register. It’s cool. I’m also working on a music video for “Feel Good Song.” That’s what’s next before the next song comes out.

NL: Where are you shooting the music video?

VA: In New York. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it’s in a parking lot in Queens. The director is finalizing dates and locations now. There’s going to be a dance in it, which is cool.

NL: You’re from NYU acting, I am sure you have a lot of friends trying to break into this industry as well. How did they receive the song, and are you working with any of them on anything?

VA: I’m not working with anyone at the moment, but I am seeing a lot of people make their own stuff, which is awesome. I think that’s what people need to start doing – especially in the acting industry – you can’t just wait around for the phone to ring. It’s easy to forget why you chose to do this thing anyway, especially when you start to look at it as a business than an art form.

NL: I feel like so many people are waiting for their big break, but here you are putting your song out there on your own – no label, nothing.

VA: Yeah, you can get attention for your work. Obviously, you need to have the finances for it, which is the hardest part, but it’s possible.

NL: How much does it cost to record in the studio?

VA: It depends on the studio, but I know the studios in Nashville are a little cheaper because they are so many of them. It’s usually an hourly rate, like $70 or $80 an hour.

NL: I love the idea that in 2016 you can put your music out there, and I know there is some controversy with Spotify because they pay their artists very minimally.

VA: Yeah, I can’t say anything bad about Spotify because if you are up-and-coming you can’t afford to not be on a certain platform because they don’t pay you enough. You know? Because you don’t have the influence, you’re not Taylor Swift – Taylor Swift doesn’t have her music on Spotify and she says she is doing it for up-and-coming artists, but I don’t believe that. I almost owe my entire career to Spotify. Yes, they don’t pay enough – but think about all of the other great things they do for you, not just as an artist, but as a user. People would be listening to music illegally a lot more often without Spotify; people are listening to music legally in 2016 because of Spotify.

NL: Before this all erupted and you got this big break, what were you doing? Are you still pursuing acting?

VA: My student visa expired shortly after I moved to LA, because I am originally from New Delhi. So I moved back to India and I lived there for 6 months and then I got a green card and was settling back into New York City. While I was settling, I decided I really wanted to write a song and thought that if I didn’t do it now, when would I ever do it?

NL: You grew up in India and then came to New York for acting school?

VA: Correct. And through acting school, I’ve been able to get rid of my accent. I switch back whenever I am talking to my mom, though. America has always been one of my favorite countries to visit. I always felt like I fit in better here – with my sense of humor and taste in music, although now with this election I am not so sure.

NL: How did you decide on acting?

VA: I was always creative and always loved singing and acting from a young age. It’s something that’s always been a passion for me.

NL: I am first-generation and growing up with parents as immigrants allowed me a cool perspective of watching people acclimate to the American culture. What was that like for you?

VA: It wasn’t as hard as you might think. I found more like-minded people here, especially at NYU. I connect much better with people here than India. I also grew up watching a lot of American TV shows. What I am doing is not the norm in India. This industry is different from Bollywood – it’s more about the work than the glamour.

NL: How did you feel when you moved back to India? Were you depressed, after coming all this way only to have to go back?

VA: Yes – exactly. I was in limbo. I was just waiting for my green card to go through, and I hate waiting for things to happen. I applied for a green card when I turned 21 and got it when I was 23, so about two and a half years. I got lucky with that, some people have to wait a lot longer.

NL: Wow, and then you came here and got right to it.

VA: Exactly.

For more of Vardaan's music, check out his website.