As one listens to her pitch-perfect voice and the haunting lyrics, ‘Welcome to the age of limbo/ Welcome to the shifted paradigm/ In the wrong place in the wrong time’, (from her Age of Limbo video), with drone shots of empty European streets—a true paean to the pandemic—one can’t help but wonder why isn’t Mali an international phenomenon yet? The Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred Maalavika Manoj—professionally known as Mali—has been part of the music industry for over a decade, performing English pop songs as well as working in Tamil cinema. Her latest single Maange Manzooriyan from the Rajkummar Rao-starrer Badhaai Do, is a sweet melodious track that capitalises on her pristine vocals.
“I learnt my first song at the age of five. It was around the same time when I first heard Savage Garden, and learned the lyrics of I Want You, straight out of the inlay cover,” Mali reminisces. Born into a family of musical aficionados—her grandfather loved jazz and Mali’s parents were fans of electronic and pop music—she first took to the mic at the age of 12 at her grandparents’ anniversary party, singing an Ella Fitzgerald number, replacing some of the lyrics with her own little jokes, enthralling her family. No wonder she grew up to write most of the lyrics she sings. “I write to counsel myself through situations, and songs help me frame what I have to say in the best way possible,” Mali tells Bazaar India.
“I need to be able to time travel through my own music and go back to where and how I was when they were written, and that can only happen with being vulnerable in the process.” Mali’s most important quality is honesty, and it is evident in her work. It is important for Mali to tell her story and speak about her transformation over the years.
“Each song of mine bookends a chapter in my life, and my hope is that, on some level, people relate to it and feel comfort in knowing they are not alone in a similar situation,” she says. Speaking about her inspiration, iconic former Fleetwood Mac band member Stevie Nicks tops her list. “My singing technique comes closest to hers, even her lyrics,” adds Mali. Apart from Stevie, the upbeat style of music seen during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, from bands like The Eagles, Bee Gees, The Beatles, The Carpenters, Dire Straits, The Corrs, and Roxette, have been her early influences. “I like to tell stories about regular, everyday things. Sometimes, we get lost in the grandiose and want to write about ‘big ideas’, but it is the simpler themes with interesting perspectives that really get me,” Mali says.
And she follows a similar philosophy when it comes to her TEDx Talks. “Since I am not an expert, I like to speak about my experiences. I have spoken about my journey of being inspired by my grandfather, and about the importance of following through with even a simple dream.”
Though Mali has sung for Bollywood films, she tells us that she didn’t grow up listening to Hindi music. “It wouldn’t make sense for that to be my mainstay. However, there are so many ways of being involved in the Bollywood music industry without being a playback singer—the line between what we refer to as ‘indie vs film’ is getting blurred by the day,” she adds.
An indie artist like Mali thrives on collabs, and she has worked with bands and musicians like Sandunes, Indus Creed, Easy Wanderlings, Short Round, Tejas, Mosambee, Anirudh, Sapta, Anish Sood (Anyasa), Ox7gen, and Kamakshi Khanna, among others. She is cryptic when we ask her about becoming an actor: “I won’t close a door if it hasn’t been opened yet,” she says.