Punjabi Wave: Jonita Gandhi Is Ready to Set Her Own Path

She's already a powerhouse playback singer for some of the biggest movies in the world, but the multilingual artist is ready to make her own bangers on new Canadian-Indian label 91 North Records.

Jonita Gandhi

Jonita Gandhi

Photography team: Ishmil Waterman, Lane Dorsey, Sasha Jairam/Billboard Canada. Styling by Veronika Lipatova, Nikita Jaisinghani, Aliecia Brisette. Makeup & Hair by Franceline Graham.

Jonita Gandhi doesn’t have to define her sound for anyone.

The New Delhi-born, Brampton-raised multilingual powerhouse playback singer has built her career on staying true to the mix of global influences that have formed her diverse musical palette — from the old Bollywood songs her parents played at home, to the soulful English pop and R&B tracks that dominated the Canadian charts.

From as early as her Canadian Idol audition at 16 years old, Gandhi has fielded questions about her unique sound. After auditioning in both Hindi and English (the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song”), the judges couldn’t quite wrap their heads around Gandhi’s vocal stylings.


“I sound very different when I sing Hindi semi-classical than when I sing R&B,” she recalls. “They were like, ‘That doesn’t make sense, go figure out who you are and come back.’”

Since then, a lot has changed for Gandhi. She has toured with Indian music legends Sonu Nigam and Grammy award winner A.R. Rahman, built a massive following on YouTube, collaborated with some of the biggest names in Indian music, and became an acclaimed playback singer, recording songs for several of India’s biggest film industries and some of the biggest movies in the world.

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She started her YouTube channel in 2010 and has since amassed a following of 1.17 million subscribers. It’s a window into the diverse palette of music she has been exposed to throughout her life. It’s filled with covers extending beyond genre and language. Gandhi’s channel exists as an archive of her growth and experimentation as an artist chronicling her journey from basement covers to world tours.

Her voice is striking and precise, whether in English or one of the many Indian languages she sings in, which she summons through an unmistakably vibrant stage presence. Though the pressure to define exactly where she fits in the music world is omnipresent, more opportunities are arising for Gandhi to continue to carve out her own path.


"I'm now trying to accept all my influences, put them together, and make music I like [without] stressing about how it has to sound,” she says. “I want to just do what feels good. Then it'll feel good for other people, too.”

Last month, Warner Music Canada and Warner Music India announced a joint record label 91 North Records dedicated to cultivating South Asian Canadian talent. Gandhi is one of the first signings. The artist lights up when talking about this new venture — she may not have known it before, but this is exactly what she’s been waiting for.

The world seems to struggle to define your sound. Have you felt that pressure as you move through your career? Or is it something you've sunk into naturally?

I think it's a constant battle, but I’m seeing it more as an advantage instead of a disadvantage. I get it from a marketing perspective and a branding perspective, but I've always struggled with that because I still don't know how to package myself. As of late, I've dabbled more into the independent world and into non-film music making. That's the beauty of being able to do all these different things.


How did your upbringing in Brampton inspire you to create music?

Being exposed to so many different cultures and people from around the world in my school was definitely something that opened up my mind to a lot of music that I might not have come across if I grew up somewhere else. The GTA [Greater Toronto Area] is so multicultural, and it's also a land of immigrants, right? I was definitely surrounded by talented people and people who were listening to music from across the world.


What was it like performing with your Dad for Indian music gigs in the community?

Having the ability to be free to be a musician at home and have this artistic outlet was really great for me. Growing up as a brown girl in school, there was a bunch of bullying that happened. So having this special ability to sing or dance made me feel cool and special. I'm realizing now how much I needed that growing up. If I really had bad days at school, I was like, well, you know what? I'm gonna be a star.

What was it like auditioning for Canadian Idol?

I was about 16. I think I auditioned the first year I was allowed. My audition never aired on TV, which I think is a good thing now. Their main feedback for me was that they thought I didn’t know where I belong musically — that I’m not an R&B singer, even though I say I am. And I was like, you can’t tell me who I am!

YouTube has played a big role in you playing with those different genres and putting it out there for the world. Even after you broke into playback, you still kept your YouTube channel alive. What role does YouTube play in helping you expand your artistry beyond movies?

YouTube came to me before playback. It’s a playground for you to do whatever you want. You'll have an audience for it because you're exposing yourself to the world and there are no barriers. Everyone can access YouTube, anywhere, no matter where you are and what you do. That instant connection with your audience, from me uploading a video to someone watching it on another continent and being able to comment, that's something I can't get from the Bollywood world.


How does it feel to be one of the first signings to 91 North Records?

I've been waiting to do this for so long. I’ve always wanted to put together a team that could help me do this, and now I feel like that team is in place. They're celebrating South Asian artists, celebrating our music, our culture, and presenting it in a way where I feel very equal to all the other artists that are trending in the world. I think we're gonna do a lot of great things together.

Are there other artists who have pushed that needle forward in terms of bringing a unique blend of Western and Indian sounds?

Jay Sean is a great example of someone who broke out as an Indian guy, doing Indian music, but also just straight up pop, English records. He is definitely one of the pioneers for me. There's Raghav also, who really put Indian music on the map. I was like, wow….we’re seeing brown people in pop, in Canada, on the radio.

Now that you’ve got this platform, what’s next for you?


Oh my God, everything and anything under the sun. I am crafting my project now that I'll be releasing with 91 North. I'm getting to do so many things I've always wanted to do and I'm ready to put it out there. I don't know how to describe what's going to come because it's a lot of different things, but it's bangers.

This article is part of Billboard Canada's digital cover story on Punjabi-Canadian artists. Head here for interviews with every artist featured.

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