Cotton top and matching pants, plastic earrings with crystals and matching bangle, and Hello Kitty Phone leather shopper. All Balenciaga.

Resisting labels, genres and pigeonholing comes naturally to Gen Zs, and with good reason. “My music is more influenced by the message that I want to send out and the message determines the genre for me,” says Nandini Rai. If her name is as yet unfamiliar, it’s probably only a matter of time with her luscious features and Leona Lewis-esque powerhouse vocals.

So far, the 16-year-old singer-songwriter (and student) has one official single to her name: Gasp, released three months ago. But one only has to listen to the evocative anthem to be drawn in by her soaring pipes and equally potent story within that describes her and her peers’ attempts to battle depression. She says: “Often I find that people – especially the older generation – find it hard to take the messages that artists my age are putting out seriously because ‘we haven’t experienced enough’.” Discount the youth at your own peril.

Below, a Q&A with the singer.

Hi Nandini, could you share a little on your background for readers who might be unfamiliar with your work?

Hey guys, I’m Nandini, a 16 year old singer songwriter of mainly pop/r&b music. I live in Singapore, and have lived in a few other places in Asia like Vietnam and Bangkok. I have a huge passion for music and I love to write songs and perform.

Let’s talk about your music – how would you describe your sound and genre to someone who’s never heard it?

It’s sort of a mixture of pop and R&B music, I don’t really feel like I have a specific genre as my music is more ran by the message I want to send out. I feel like the message determines the genre for me. The messages I want to share right now evolves around world issues, issues teenagers face, how things I see in the news effect me, etc. My main message through this is not only to make a change but to show that the younger generation has a voice on these serious topics as well, and it is crucial for these voices to be heard.

What is your approach to making music?

My approach is really free. However, I do have certain things that I am extremely passionate about and I feel that I try to stick to these passions when I write my music. For example, I find it comes very easy to write about events in the world, or general trends in issues, whether it be social issues, environmental issues, etc. This comes easy because of my huge passion towards writing about them.

What inspires and informs your work?

I get hugely inspired by other 17 or 18 year old artists my age and the music they make. Often I find that people, especially the older generation, find it hard to take the messages that artists my age are putting out seriously because ‘we haven’t experienced enough’. I get super inspired by artists my age who push past these kind of people and put out the messages that they want to. For example, Billie Eilish. I am a huge fan of her music, including of how she made it in the industry inspires me, as she creates such a high name for herself even around people like Alicia Keys, Billie Joe Armstrong, etc. These people have been in the industry for a lot longer than her, however she has confidence in the message she has to share and sees the uniqueness in it, and that is something I strive to have going into this industry.

What would you say are common themes in your music?

If you listen to the music I have out, I don’t really write the typical love songs. It’s not because I’m against it or anything but because I love to write from a place of passion, and I just haven’t experienced that much in terms of love and stuff yet! For my two current singles out right now, Money and Gasp, they are about real, serious topics. I wrote about these topics because my passion for real & raw issues in the world surpasses any other topics at this moment. It sounds like a cliche but I do want to see change in this world and I see my age as an advantage in terms of the amount of time and opportunity I have to make this change happen.

Like this? Check out Shye, the 17-year-old artist to watch, or Zoe Joey, one half of father-daughter band Vivid Shade’s dystopic steam-punk music.

Polyester babydoll dress, Hourglass leather top-handle bag, and plastic earrings with crystals. All Balenciaga

What drew you into making music in the first place?

I had a passion for singing since I was around 4 years old. I got into musical theatre for a few years first when my musical theatre teacher recognised my talent in singing in one rehearsal, and told me to start singing lessons. From then, I just kept singing, taking lessons and around the age of 12, I started writing original songs. My first song that was written about my mum was called ‘All You Want For Me’. Since then, my passion for singing and songwriting has increased so much as it has become my outlet to express myself, which was much more fulfilling than just singing cover songs.

What are your biggest music influences?

When I was around 11-12 years old, Adele was my favourite artist, I would sing, “Rolling In The Deep”, by her at every party. Although she’s not as active now, she still inspires me to this day. I also love Whitney Houston, her story really touched me. I also listen to a lot of underground r&b artists as I relate to them and what they are trying to do a lot. I relate to Alec Benjamin, and Majid Jordan a lot. They are not known by many, however I see important, amazing messages in their lyrics and relate to that in my music a lot.

Who’s on your playlist these days?

I listen to an extremely wide range of genres of music. Some of the most played artists on my playlist are Xavier Omar, Alec Benjamin, Jacob Collier. I love Jacob Colliers creativity! I listen to a lot of pop, r&b artists, a lot of which are underground artists. For example, artists such as Kyle Dion, Audrey Mika, Trevor Daniel, and more. These may not sound extremely underground as they are well known in many aspects, however I feel that their messages and music need to be a lot more heard.

What are some of your favourite moments as a musician so far?

Something that has stood out for me has been Asia’s Got Talent Season 2. I made it to the judges round and that was an extremely proud moment. I came out of the open audition not even expecting another call. In fact, I didn’t expect to make it to the next round in the open audition itself. Other than that, I am proud of some big performances I have done in Singapore, especially as part of musical theatre performances in places like the Sentosa Theatre and SOTA.

In the press release, it’s stated that you wrote the song based on your own anxieties. What would you say to fans who might be experiencing something similar?

My main problems with being at this age and dealing with things like anxiety or depression, is that the people around you and especially, a lot of parents, don’t believe in the seriousness of these issues. For example, I know a lot of Indian parents that don’t even believe that anxiety is a real thing. I want people dealing with something similar to feel that what they are going through is being recognised and acknowledged. It does not something that they have to dismiss because they are afraid of making it “a thing”. It needs to become ‘a thing’ in order for one to get better.

What are your biggest concerns now as a 16-year-old in 2020?

I want our messages to be taken seriously. A lot of young people are being more vocal and active in the causes they believe in. I see a lot of hope and potential for us to make a difference in this changing world.

Are there plans to have more music out in 2020?

Yes, there are many plans! In fact, 2020 is a year where I want to put out a LOT of music. I want to release music of all genres, and just finish all the little scraps of songs I have in my songwriting book. I want to bring them to the studio and make something happen with them. I currently only have 2 songs out there, and my passion goes far beyond this. I really want to take every opportunity in 2020, and I’m excited to see how I grow as a musician.

This story first appeared in the February 2020 print issue of FEMALE. 

Photography Vee Chin  Styling Imran Jalal 

Hair Erina Nakajima/ 1tto+LIM Makeup Sha Shamsi, using Dior