Teenasai Balamu aka GrapeGuitarBox (they/them) has officially made their mark in the indie music circuit with the release of their instantly hummable single Run. From growing up learning Carnatic music to launching their YouTube channel performing covers to finally becoming a full-time indie-pop artist, Teenasai’s journey is a celebration for the desi queer community. Their 6-track EP Out released this June. Gaysi had previously featured their interview here where they speak about their upcoming music. They spared another morning for a candid chat on being a ‘queer-and-musically inclined’ child, falling in love with Taylor Swift, and fighting the stigma around mental health.
With their album launch just a few weeks away, I was surprised to learn that Teenasai was currently in Singapore. On asking whether they had embarked on their international promo tour already, they chuckled. “No, I am actually on a short trip to visit my brother”. Despite a hectic lineup of events scheduled, their desi-ness of ‘family-comes-first’ is on point.
Surfing their social media profiles, I had come across covers of popular Tamil songs. “I grew up in a Telugu family, but spent ten years of my childhood in Chennai and listened to a lot of Tamil songs”. They admit to being a fan of incredibly mushy but catchy-beyond-belief love tunes, their super-heteronormative lyrics notwithstanding. I do my best impression of Koffee with Karan and quiz them on their guilty pleasure and ‘Hey Pillagaada’ comes the reply cringingly. They win no hamper.
Being half-Tamilian myself, I still peddle stereotypes of people down South and ask them – music runs in your blood, na? “Not really. My parents were not too inclined towards music, although I guess my mother did not have the opportunity to learn. She encourages ‘us’ wholeheartedly”, they clarify. The ‘us’ includes them and their elder brother. “He took up piano sessions as a hobby, and I followed suit. It wasn’t my cup of tea and I switched to Carnatic music”.
I wondered what sparked their interest in the guitar. Both Teenasai and I were almost the same age, and I remember back in the days, Hannah Montana was a huge craze among tweens. I thought that show had caught their fancy, perhaps but oh no, I was wrong again. “The first time I wanted to try my hand at the guitar was after watching this children’s show called Blue’s Clues. The host on the show, I forget his name (Steve Burns) would play these awesome kiddy tunes and strum the guitar”.
Teenasai had a brooding emo phase in their life before the Lord-almighty herself – Taylor Swift – entered their life and shook it off! “She is my biggest influence in music. My own style I’d define as easy-on-the-ears indie-pop along the lines of Swift and Ed Sheeran”. Their teenage days were spent listening to other English music, of Linkin Park, Green Day, etc.
They joined the Media and Communications programme at Symbiosis Pune and became active in college circles. Misled by Student of the Year fantasies, I asked them if they had performed for the rich-and-the-famous. “No, it was just my batch mates then. And I’d play the guitar but rarely sing in public”. The reason – anxiety. Teenasai had been battling anxiety and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for a long time, and singing, which involved directly facing an audience, became daunting. “So the guitar became my shield, and made me feel super-confident”.
After graduating in 2015, Teenasai shifted to Bangalore and dabbled in copywriting, screenplay and production work. Not wanting their passion to die, they began a YouTube channel in 2016, besides having an Instagram account and a SoundCloud profile already. “I had a YouTube channel during school days and had uploaded some covers but felt I lacked direction then, so they were taken off”. This was Teenasai’s second attempt, and this time, they were getting it right. They came up with the quirky moniker GrapeGuitarBox. “The name is an amalgam of the three things I love”. From my past interviews with YouTubers, I have learnt that their journeys begin raw with little resources at disposal. Teenasai’s beginnings were no different. “I took a tripod one day, recorded a cover of Vance Joy’s Riptide on my Nexus, and uploaded it. It got decent views, but I was happy that the right people saw it and contacted me for collaborations”.
The indie music scene in India’s Silicon Valley was thriving with bands like The Down Troddence, Black Letters, Parvaaz, and Lagori. The young and driven Teenasai had to carve their own niche. “I met Sidharth Bharadwaj, a former batch mate of mine. He is a flutist and part of the contemporary rock band Aathma. We met at a pub where asked me if I’d like to do gigs in Bangalore”. This set the ball rolling, and the next thing you know, Teenasai Balamu aka GrapeGuitarBox featured at The Humming Tree, Foxtrot, bFLAT and other venues. “My anxiety would creep in now and then, but the rush of performing felt great”.
They were eager to expand their presence across cities and shifted to Mumbai for a while. Carrying nothing with them and staying over at friends, they continued winning over people at open mics. One thing led to another and they were featured in Rolling Stone India (today, several leading media outlets including The Hindu, Deccan Chronicle, and Indian Express have covered them). “I had already worked on an original when (Rolling Stone India) happened. When I shared the news on Facebook, the appreciation I received from people inspired me to go headlong into music”.
I asked them how they came up with the title of their upcoming EP Out, on which they had begun working in 2018. “It happened during a brainstorming session with friends, where one of them asked what I’d like to name my work, and I instinctively said, ‘Coming Out’. A friend then shortened it to Out“. Teenasai and their team, with Santhos Nataraja (recording engineer cum co-producer), Miti Adhikari (mixing and mastering), Joshua Gopal (drums & bass), Krishna Raj (violin), and others met at Santhos’ studio Third Eye early mornings to record the tracks.
The songs are varied and personal, ranging from tributes to luminous artists whose lives were cut short tragically (28); reflections on a toxic relationship (Run); waiting in anticipation for a loved one (Wait for You); unreciprocated love (It’s You), a super-cheesy track on a dreamy phase of puppy love (Like a Dream); and ‘Meant to Be Yours’ with its swingy vibe and a section featuring cellos and the French horn. The songwriting took over two years, but the production was very swift, starting in August 2018 and wrapping up by the end of October. Influences range from Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and Backstreet Boys, to the Indian maestro A.R. Rahman.
Through the journey of Out, Teenasai was figuring a way to come out to their loved ones. “While I had come to terms with my sexuality in college, I told no one, and that made life tough. So I opened up to my brother first and he was very cool about it. My parents took some time to understand, since this is a new experience for them, but I can say I am blessed with a supportive family. I did not come out publicly until recently. In spite of the family support, I had cold feet and wondered how my world would change once I am out. I finally did it on Instagram and am proud to identify as a non-binary queer person”.
We were easily 45-minutes into the interview, which was a pleasant surprise as Teenasai had described themselves early on as “quiet and awkward, someone who doesn’t readily open up to others”. I felt none of that whatsoever, and was rather graced by an honest, patient, chatty, funny and accomplished person who put their heart and soul into their passion. “Music has a healing effect on me. It helps me cope with tough times, be it my anxiety or my grandfather’s demise or shifting cities. I want my music to connect to people, and especially the queer community. I want them to know that the situation will get better for us if we just keep pushing and believing in ourselves”.
I go full Koffee with Karan mode as we conclude the interview, asking them trivia that seems trivial for most part to be included here. One response I shall – “Queer artists I adore? Hayley Kiyoko, Halsey, Chely Wright, Dodie Clark”. Hear, hear.
You can find Teenasai’s music on all major streaming platforms.