How music has changed student artist EASHA — and her dad

March 31, 2022, 9:55 p.m.

Srikanth Nandyala didn’t expect to spend his Tuesday nights at a bar. For a software engineer who doesn’t drink, Trenton Social — with its naked brick walls and black leather seats — lies a town away from his comfort zone. Google is of no help: if you look up Trenton, the first hit is, “How bad is Trenton, New Jersey?”

But Easha Nandyala ’24 had begged him to go. His oldest daughter, who at 11 made a slideshow petitioning to move to Los Angeles for her singing career, had never been one to shoulder rejection like an inevitability. By 13, she was looking for a stage. She had an acoustic guitar, half a credit card to use as a pick and an agile soprano voice trained in Indian classical music. So with that, Srikanth Nandyala found himself packing his family — his daughters Easha and Shravya, as well as Divya, his wife, whom he fell in love with when he heard her sing — into a car for the 20-minute ride from Princeton. 

Easha approached the microphone. Around the family, a scene of tattooed barfolk milled about, guitar chords mingling in the air above the beer foam. 

It was 10 p.m. on a school night when Srikanth saw it: Easha was a hit. 

A man named Benjamin Parowski approached the family. Would Easha like to perform at open mic night again next week?

What could Srikanth do but agree.

Grit and marinara sauce

When I met Easha recently in her Stanford dorm room, she played me a song. A purple moth orchid sat on her desk; its shadow fell on a meme she’d printed and taped on her wall. The English major, who spoke seriously about music without ever seeming self-serious, bookended a moving performance by scooping marinara sauce out of a Wilbur Dining to-go box.

In song and conversation, Easha was packed with the self-assuredness and nostalgia of an octogenarian. A romantic worldview underlied her ideas (“No critical thinking,” she philosophized, “just vibes”), giving her an air of being wise beyond her years. Witticisms fell out of her as easily as laughter (“My skin is so oily, you could frack my forehead,” she joked in a YouTube vlog). Even her room, covered in fake ivy, looked like it could double as that of a collegiate forest nymph on study abroad. 

“There’s never been that insecurity of, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough,’” she said, adjusting her button-up sweater. “If anything — it’s so funny — it’s been like, ‘I’m so underrated.’”

These days, within her legion of fans, Easha is by no means underrated. Only 20 years old, the sophomore has, in the span of a year, amassed a loyal social media following, including 109,000 followers on TikTok. Her music, which alternates between singer-songwriter acoustic ballads and heavily produced pop anthems, oscillates between nostalgia and joie de vivre, appealing to fans across the country. Her most popular song — an upbeat pop tune, “Far Away” — has been played over 5 million times on Spotify.

“She opened her mouth, and I swear, I was like, this girl is going to be famous,” remembered Hailey Dawn, a Nashville-based friend whom Easha fondly remembers as having wet hands when they met outside the Belcourt Taps’ bathroom. “I thought [Easha] was the bravest person I’d ever met.” 

Easha had asked to sing at the Belcourt Taps, a well-known Nashville bar, in part because of her dad’s advice. Growing up, Srikanth had often encouraged her to do anything necessary to get a chance to play — even if it meant introducing herself as a Grammy winner to venue staff.

These days, Easha’s ethic of boldness is aimed at one goal: the desire to be a “cool aunt.” Her focus is not work, she says; it’s fulfillment, and she hopes to live stories she can tell her family’s future generations. 

Yet for Easha, fulfillment and grit walk hand in hand. In high school, she’d wake up at 5 a.m. to practice singing in the basement. At age nine, she had a black belt, and by the time she came to Stanford, she’d competed in the triathlon world championships in Switzerland. 

But onstage, Easha’s overachieving commitment to discipline isn’t immediately evident, according to her sister Shravya. When performing, Easha transforms into a “free-spirited hippie” — someone even her sister doesn’t recognize.

“If you give her $10 million versus 10,000 people to whom she can sing for free, she would pick 10,000,” Srikanth told me, his eyes earnest over Zoom. “She can go without food for a week if you give her applause.”

But Shravya was convinced that the applause still sounds foreign to Easha. “Even if Taylor Swift were to come up to her and say like, congratulations, like of course she’d fangirl, but I don’t think she’d process this happening in the same lifetime that high school kids didn’t really appreciate her.” 

It’s brutal out here

Easha couldn’t comprehend how some people enjoyed high school. Recently, a Stanford friend told her he was homecoming king. It floored her. 

“Olivia Rodrigo — I would have ate that shit up,” she said, placing herself in those years. “‘Brutal’ would have been, like, my affirmations in my head.”

Easha learned not to overesteem external opinions early on, says her sister. In ninth grade, she auditioned to be a jazz singer for a school band. The teacher, a cousin of Bon Jovi, told her she sang with an Indian accent. She didn’t get in. 

“After that, she had this sort of crisis, like, ‘is it because he’s racist?’” Shravya said. “Is he saying something valid, especially when it comes from someone who’s worked in music for so long?”

In time, a lesson revealed itself: the adult isn’t always right. Easha forged opportunities for herself outside of school, going to open mics and bars, and once convincing her dad to fly to Nashville with her to perform in a workshop for Liz Rose, a Grammy-winning songwriter who has worked with Taylor Swift.

Rose saw Easha’s talent immediately. Soon, they were co-writing songs in Nashville. After Easha graduated, she moved to Tennessee on a gap year to pursue music full-time. Her father had previously hoped she’d become a software engineer like him, but as Easha paraphrased their conversation: “Bestie, I don’t know how to tell you this. I did the computer science. I didn’t like it that much.” Music won out. 

Nashville was like a coming-of-age movie for Easha: she was independent, alone in an apartment, excited and a bit naive. Once, she got in a fender bender on the way to a Thai restaurant. She said the cop asked her for her “name, age and social.” “@eashamusic,” she responded. He clarified. Her social security number, he meant.

“She’s a dreamer,” her father said, teasingly. “And people who dream don’t get into details. She doesn’t have any sense of time, space and money.”

But Easha’s musical dream is changing her life. And her family too.

‘We were living a normal life’

Srikanth dropped his daughter off at Stanford this year with only one piece of advice: do yoga everyday.

“I was like, no ‘I love you’?” Easha put on his voice when she imitated him, considering other parting words he might have chosen. “No ‘Here’s the key to life’ type of thing? Just ‘do yoga’?”

Everything else he has taught Easha — besides yoga — Srikanth said she should unlearn. He said he comes with a lot of baggage. I turned the question to him. Is there anything he’s learned from Easha?

He told me a story. In high school, after years of Tuesday nights at the Trenton Social, the family got a call. Parowski, who worked at the bar and had become Easha’s advocate, had died of an overdose. Easha prepared a song for his goodbye. Srikanth sent me the video.

In it, a younger Easha strummed an acoustic guitar in front of a blue and purple painting. A man placed a box of tissues in front of her. “You were thunder, I was lightning / Perfect storm, except the timing / Wasn’t right.” The ends of her phrases dropped off, muffled in snot. A woman in the audience wiped the side of her face. 

Srikanth thought on the question more. What did you learn from your daughter?

Finally, he sighed, “Oh, why: everything and everything. Because we were living a normal life. Normal life where I was a software engineer. And then you get a promotion, you make money, you buy a house, you buy a bigger house, you buy a better car, and that’s it. That was our life, nothing else, right? That’s the American Dream.”

Now, the best dreams look different.

A new affirmation

The first day I met Easha, she told me the nicest thing her father ever said to her. We sipped chai lattes at Coupa Café. Since this whole music journey began, Easha’s parents have cherished reading supportive fan messages and hearing anecdotes about people singing “Far Away” with their boyfriends. Those strangers’ lives, Easha explained, are now intertwined with her family’s through the connective power of her songs. 

Months later, wearing an orange dress on a cloudless day of her new Stanford life, having traded Nashville and New Jersey for the shadow of Green Library, Easha still held her father’s words like an affirmation, using them as kindling for her grit and her dreams.

“Thank you for letting us live so many lives,” Srikanth once said to his daughter. Easha has yet to forget it.

Valerie Trapp '22 is a staff writer for Arts & Life and a contributor to The Grind. She is from Florida and the Dominican Republic and studies English and International Relations.

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