In 2016, when Arunaja appeared for the auditions of The Stage, India’s only Western music reality show, she was excited but nervous as well since there were talented contestants from all over the country. But one of the judges, Vishal Dadlani, took one look at her and said, even before she started singing, “Just by looking at you I can confidently put my money on you, because I see the light and glow on your face.”

And he was right. The Kochi native came in third in the finale, and went on to become a brand by herself, singing western as effortlessly and expressively as regional music, fusing the two styles often to come up with her own signature creations, wowing listeners every time. She went on to collaborate with top-notch musicians, co-sang the song Dankila for the Bollywood film Manikarnika, did stage shows with her band, composed her first single in English soon after, and has two more original singles coming up.

So how did it all begin?
Well, my father used to play the violin and he enrolled me and my sister in Carnatic music classes when I was hardly 6. My father passed away but I continued with my training till Class 12. So Carnatic is my first language in music. I always listened to western music but started taking it seriously only after I joined St Albert’s College in Kochi, which is a hot bed of choirs and rock bands. It was the first time I was seeing western music being played live, up close, and I got a lot of insights into the different genres. I was part of a choir named Rock of Ages, and the creative director of the choir, Branco Stark, became my mentor. He believed in me and was the one who pushed me to try out the reality show. I was skeptical since I knew the kind of competition ahead, and my PG viva voce was coming up as well. But I took the chance and flew to Mumbai, and there has been no looking back. It was my first visit to Mumbai, my first flight alone, and I knew no one in the city. Getting that kind of a comment from a legendary musician like Vishal Dadlani really boosted my confidence booster. I moved to Mumbai that year and Branco continues to be my mentor, not just in music, in life in general.

Your versions of popular Malayalam and Tamil songs are quite a hit on Youtube…
I started doing those videos because I love revisiting those songs which I grew up with. I wanted to sing them in my way, combining modern pop with the traditional style. I knew there would be some backlash since they are songs close to Malayalis’ hearts. But that doesn’t stop me. This is just my way of expression and I know I’m doing it tastefully. I’m getting good feedback too. I’m glad I’m able to crack it without offending too many people.

It always seems like you enjoy yourself more than anyone else when you sing something. And your confidence and expressiveness on stage is something which sets you apart…
Oh no… I’m still intimidated by talented people. That kind of talent which is also a result of hard work, willpower and discipline. Also, I cannot sing something I don’t love. I absolutely love all the songs I sing. And that applies to everything in my life. If I’m not into something 100 percent, I’m not going to do it. As a person I’m very expressive and that comes across in my music too I guess. (laughs)

So you are your own manager…
Absolutely, which is how it should be for everyone, right?

You sing mostly western songs or in that style, have you ever considered training in western music?
Well, there is never an end to learning but I think at the end of the day, it’s all about making a song your own. And I’ve already got that part. I have my style. My voice is already trained so I don’t think it matters what school it was trained in.

What about your unique style of dressing and make-up? Do you have a stylist or is it all your own?
To be frank, I cut my hair short because of the humidity and pollution in Mumbai. It made it much easier to get ready in the morning. Also, I always liked short hair. And I love tattoos and piercing. I opted for the septum ring because I really liked it on Rihanna and I felt it would look cool on me. I’m not trying to be like anyone, I’m just doing things which I feel like at a given point of time.

You’ve been compared to Whitney Houston. Who’s your inspiration?
Well, I’ve been told I even look like Whitney! But if someone think my voice texture is similar to hers I’d be happy. And my inspiration has always been Michael Jackson, as a performer. There’s nobody like him and I’ve been through all his videos. I’ve studied him in and out and he has influenced me in a way no one else has.

Tell us about your upcoming singles…
The first one is called Game and it’s been made in Finland with a lot of Finnish musicians. It belongs to the genre of orchestral pop and is big, beautiful, grand and dramatic, just the way I like it. The other is a proper rock song titled For Who I Am, it’s about accepting the good and the bad of a person. Both will be released in the next three months. I’m also part of a musical from Mumbai called Passage to Bollywood, directed by Ashley Lobo. It has dance and music and a lot of other stuff and a huge crew. We had performed in China in 2019 and this year we will be travelling to France with it.

What have you been upto during the lockdown?
Right now, I’m at home in Kochi after three years. After long I got the time to focus on things I really like, my music, painting and cooking. I’m not a party person at all and the pandemic was a blessing in a way. Of course, there was no gigs either but I’m not complaining because I feel privileged when there are a lot of people who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.

What would your ultimate dream be?
I want to do everything – English, Malayalam, Hindi, film songs, independent music – you can’t contain me in a box. Whenever someone tries to put me in a box I do something which surprises everyone. But my dream would be to be happy whatever I do. I don’t measure my success with the amount of money I make. If you ask me if I’m successful I would say yes because I’m happy. I’m able to fund myself to do things I want to do, travelling the world, eating… and my family is happy so I’m happy too.

But if you ask me about my dream collaboration it would be with AR Rahman. Please tell him I want to do a collaboration with him!