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My dream is to create my own music by combining Carnatic music and Heavy Metal: Maya Neelakantan from America’s Got Talent

My dream is to create my own music by combining Carnatic music and Heavy Metal: Maya Neelakantan from America’s Got Talent

Eleven-year-old Maya Neelakantan took the world by storm when she performed on America’s Got Talent on June 25. Simon Cowell called her a “rock goddess,” the video of her performance went viral, and Maya Neelakantan became a household name in India. Famed industrialist Anand Mahindra took it a step further, calling her a “Rock Goddess from the Land of Goddesses” and saying he wanted her to perform at the Mahindra Blues festival in Mumbai soon. (Also Read: Anand Mahindra Blown Away by ‘Guitar Goddess’ Maya Neelakantan on America’s Got Talent. Watch)

Maya Neelakantan recently impressed the judges of America’s Got Talent.

In this exclusive conversation with Hindustan Times, young and talented guitar prodigy Maya Neelakantan talks about her passion for music and more.

At what age did you discover you enjoyed playing the guitar and how did you start learning?

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Well, I wanted to play the guitar since I was five years old, but I actually started playing the guitar when I was six. I have always loved music since I was two and my dad played the guitar as a hobby. I started learning my favorite songs with my dad and he taught me how to teach myself through YouTube videos and guitar tabs. Now I can learn any song by myself!

What was your first public performance? Do you remember how you felt in front of the audience?

The first time I was on stage was recently on the number one talent show in the world, America’s Got Talent (AGT). But the first time I performed in public was actually in an ashram with about 50 people watching. I absolutely loved it and it was a whole new experience, but AGT was completely different because there were over 1,000 people in the audience. The main thing that made me nervous before I went on stage was the screaming audience, but once I started performing, I started enjoying it and I wasn’t nervous anymore.

When did you start training professionally and how much did you train for AGT?

I have been learning Carnatic music from Guitar Prasanna for two years now. I have been doing the same thing all the time except that I am playing more difficult techniques now. I have been training for AGT for about two to three weeks. Many people have helped me and given me advice for AGT. Guitar Prasanna helped me in making the song and I finally rearranged it.

Also, the award-winning actress from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, Jessica Pimentel, coached me on the moves for AGT and helped me mentally prepare for the show, because it was my first time on stage. The guitar that I used on stage was the one that Adam Jones from Tool gave me. And all of my guitar heroes gave advice for AGT, and Gary Holt, the guitarist from Exodus and Slayer, came out to see me on stage and support me and cheer me on. Gary came out from Sacramento to LA to support me, and that made me a lot less nervous.

What was it like for you when you performed on AGT and the audience went wild?

When I was on AGT, the two-minute song felt like 30 seconds. But when I was done and everyone was standing up, cheering, and chanting my name, it felt like I had been there for hours. I was soaking it all in at that moment, and now I totally understand why everyone says that after the first time, they want to be on stage again and again. I’ve never experienced that before, but now I want to keep performing on stage. The next time I’m on stage, I know what to expect and I want to have that same feeling.

Simon called you shy, which is a contrast to how you are when you first start playing guitar.

Yeah, I always feel more comfortable when I play music. I was a little bit more shy than usual because it was my first time on stage with all the cameras and everyone looking at me. But I felt at home once I started playing and just started enjoying myself and didn’t want it to stop.

Combining classical Indian music and rock is not the norm. How did you develop a passion for this?

My dream is to create my own music by combining Carnatic music with Heavy Metal. Since I dream of merging these genres, I did a little bit of that for AGT and I am very proud of the result.

How much do your parents support you and what advice do they give you?

My parents are very, very supportive and always have been, and it’s because of them that I can continue to follow my passion and meet so many guitar legends. They always tell me that the most important thing is to enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome. I really enjoy everything I’ve done in my life and when I joined AGT I saw it as a party, not a competition. I never worry about the outcome and I make sure I enjoy the process. So that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life and that’s helped me get to where I am today.

Who are your idols in the music world?

My idols are Adam Jones, the guitarist from Tool; my Carnatic teacher Guitar Prasanna; Gary Holt, the guitarist from Exodus and Slayer; Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson, both guitarists from Testament; and the band Metallica, who first inspired me to play guitar.

What do you ultimately want to do in the music world?

I want to make my own music with the intricate Carnatic slides, Thrash Metal elements and making songs like Tool’s music. All these different genres trigger different emotions for me and I want to merge them. I believe you have to really dive into the music to enjoy it, so I want to make music so that my listeners can go on a journey with me through the song. So that’s the dream I’m working towards and all these events are bringing me one step closer to making my own music. It might even be a genre that has never been heard before!

And when are you going to play in India for the crowd that cheers you on?

Nothing has been officially confirmed at this point, but I am looking forward to performing in India for my Indian fans and I can’t wait to get back on stage!

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