There’s a lot to be said about making your first impressions as a musician — from whom you collaborate with, to your initial influences, and in an increasingly digital world, how you appear to a potential audience of millions.
With over two years on the road behind her, you’d assume Ambika Nayak to approach questions on her journey from open-mics to packed clubs across the country with some level of healthy skepticism, especially if you consider that her solo journey as Kayan spreads neatly across India’s tumultuous tryst with the pandemic. Instead, there’s a genuine spirit of thankfulness and joy, even effortlessness between each of her increasingly popular live sets and DJ gigs, peppered with experiments in the form of photoshoots, music videos, and new singles.
What’s not surprising is that like many good artists, Nayak’s influences all point back to a childhood steeped in creative expression and play.
“I’ve grown up in a family that’s been very connected to arts and culture, and have always encouraged me to take part in dance and music,” she reveals. “I grew up going to plays and also watched my mom perform because she’s a Hindustani classical vocalist, while my grandma was a kathak dancer — so it’s always something that has been around me.”
This heritage manifests in the form of several childhood memories — a kaleidoscope of days spent with her father’s ’00s rock cassette tapes, as she toyed with jewellery from her aunts’ collection and played host to several musical influences as a bonafide ’90s kid. Yes, there was a new-age punk phase, a barbie-glam era where only pink was to be worn, followed by an eventual coming-of-age metamorphosis as Nayak began to study music in her late teens.
What keeps her going, both now and then, is a close collective that’s followed her journey from Mumbai’s live music scene to spreading across the subcontinent’s hottest nightlife venues. This initially manifested in the forms of RnB x Neo-Soul outfit Kimochi Youkai, and all-electronic Nirmit Shah collab Nothing Anonymous — both of which echo throughout Nayak’s post-2020 discography as Kayan.
“In this time, I’ve primarily been writing and performing songs like Cool Kids, On My Own, Don’t Fuck With Me, but I’ve also been playing loads of DJ sets,” she continues. “I’ve really gone hard on trying to understand how to release music better. Even in the lockdown, I was working to make sure that I released music videos for the songs that I was putting out. All of this helped me grow a lot as an artist — it all requires several different skill sets, which is great.”
These explorations set off something of a chain reaction that, as a listener, I largely credit Nayak’s explosive success to — something she delightedly agrees with. Passionately genre-agnostic, driven by feel and an inexplicable sixth-sense tied to her spectators, a Kayan live set comes with a certain degree of wild unpredictability.
This results in an ever-blurring line between performer and audience, as both sides draw around her DJ decks, swaying to Justin Timberlake in one moment, switching lithely to old-school Punjabi bangers in the next.
“I think I’ve spent so much time going to gigs and watching others perform, that I remember at one point being at a show, not enjoying it, and feeling like ‘I wish I could play my own music here’, so I really wanted to learn how to DJ,” she quips.
“You always have to understand the vibe a little bit. Sometimes [an audience] vibes with a certain genre, sometimes they don’t, so I always play very different genres of music on my sets. I kind of design my [DJ] sets in the way that I design my live sets. Well, not entirely, but there are similarities. Before I started DJing or doing stuff as Kayan, I used to just play a lot of gigs as just Ambika. There were a lot of cover gigs I used to do at different bars and restaurants — setlists, and setlists, and setlists of different songs. I try to use that experience to read the audience.”
Apart from dishing out catchy sets, Nayak also offers a slick, sexy aesthetic when it comes to her work as a model and visual artist. Pulling in some of India’s best talent and offering herself as an ardent canvas for the likes of ex-Elle superstylist Divya Gursahani, who executed one of the Weekender’s most original looks for Nayak’s live set, the two have collaborated on many high-profile shoots the last year.
“I do love fashion a lot, it’s ultimately a way in which I express myself, and it makes me feel really good,” she enthuses. “Divya came along, and she has absolutely been a gem. We worked so much together — one cool thing about working in music is being able to do music videos and photoshoots, which allowed me to experiment so much with fashion, it’s such a big part of it. Divya has really helped me understand, see, and experience that.
“Even for my live performances, at the NH7 Weekender for example, there was a lot of thought and effort that went into the outfit. There was a whole narrative there, it was custom made for me. Even now, for the upcoming live tour, we’re looking at custom outfits and designs. To me, all of this helps tell a story.”
But all of this admittedly leaves little room to write, a tough compromise that deprives Nayak of a chance at her preferred form of catharsis. “For the last three-four months, I’ve not written anything new because I’ve just been touring. I can’t just poke myself to write randomly, it doesn’t happen that way,” she admits.
“Whenever I do, it’s just literally me feeling stuff, and that’s how Don’t Fuck With Me was written,” she says of her last single release. “It was written two years ago, actually at a time where I was in, well, not really a relationship, more of a toxic experience that I was having where two people just want to play a game, and you always have to be on top of it — just that kind of whole not-very-fun situation.”
Nayak’s feelings as a performer have recently taken a more mature, gracious turn, perhaps signaling a certain paradigm shift in her career, although she dismisses the notion herself. “I used to feel quite awkward saying this before, but recently, over the past few shows, I’ve really seen audiences show up and it feels so surreal, you know? It’s only going to grow bigger and better, and I really appreciate all this support and love,” she proudly concludes, and shares that she is set to release a collaborative single/music video this summer, with a three-city live tour currently planned for the next few months.