Abhaya Subba has seen it allThe musician, a steadfast rebel, started breaking age-old norms the day she stepped foot in Nepal’s music industry.
In January 2022, Abhaya and the Steam Engine released the music video ‘Laijau Malai’ on YouTube, and within days, the song was trending online. At the time of writing, the music video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube, and the song has been used as a background score for thousands of short videos on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
“The idea for the song germinated in late 2020 when the country was under a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. It was an emotionally difficult year for me, and I was also feeling creatively stagnant. At this challenging period, the song came to me,” says Abhaya Subba, the lead singer and founder of Abhaya and the Steam Engine.
Known primarily for their rock music, Abhaya and the Steam Engine took many by surprise with the release of ‘Laijau Malai’. The melodious track that combined multiple musical genres showed the band’s versatility and ability to redefine its own set norms.
But those who have followed Subba's musical career know that she has never shied away from going against preconceived notions.
She broke into the music scene when there were hardly any Nepali women performing rock music, and for many years, she remained the only female rock musician in the country.
Subba started harbouring dreams of becoming a globally renowned musician when she was studying in grade six. She started writing and singing rock songs in English when she was a college student.
“Even though I wanted to become an international rock star, back in those days, one had very limited avenues to reach that position very early in a musical career," says Subba. "But this is not the case anymore. Thanks to social media platforms, it’s much easier to become an international sensation.”
Subba began her musical career by performing as a guest artist with bands like Parikrama, Red Skywalkers, and Panchatatva.
“When I was performing with other bands, I was operating as a vocalist, lyricist, and sometimes even as a music composer. I was working as a complete musician, but I never took credit for what I was doing because I did not believe in my musical potential,” says Subba.
After years of working with other bands, in 2003, she decided to form her own band ‘Abhaya and the Steam Engines’. But even to her bandmates, she had to prove her credentials, she says.
"Whenever I suggested changes to songs, my band members would either get offended or question my musical sense," she says. But things began changing when she wrote 'Hami Sabai Nepali', which was the first song Subba created on her own.
"When I was done making the song, I let other band members hear the song, and they really liked it. From then on, they started respecting me as a musician," says Subba. “Now that I look back at my musical journey, I realise that I went through a lot. But back then, the challenges never really bothered me because I was so focused on being what I had always wanted to be, a musician. In the process, people started giving me this tag of a 'bold' artist. I think that says a lot about who we are as a society.”
The same year she founded ‘Abhaya and the Steam Engines’, Subba also started the ‘Women in Concert’ campaign. “Having seen the music industry up close, I knew the need to create a platform where aspiring female musicians could come and learn all that it takes to form a band and become a musician,” she says.
Subba also gave a two-month intensive boot camp training to 'Women in Concert' participants. During the training, participants were given singing lessons and classes on personality development and media management, says Subba. Bartika Eam Rai, Shreya Sotang, and Megha Shrestha were some of the participants of the training who later on went on to make a mark in the Nepali music scene.
When it comes to her musical career, Subba has shown time and again her inclination to experimentation. While rock songs might have helped 'Abhaya and the Steam Engine’ earn widespread recognition and fame, the band has dabbled in various musical genres—EDM (Electronic dance music), contemporary, and hip hop. “I would often have arguments with my band members about my choice of songs, and they would urge me to make rock music instead, but I couldn’t stop experimenting. I just don’t want to be limited to a specific genre,” says Subba.
The process of experimenting with different genres is a tedious journey in itself. But Subba puts in the work required by researching music from various genres and keeping herself updated with all that is going on in the music world.
It was this musical curiosity that turned Subba into a fan of BTS, a South Korean boy band, in 2020. Talking about BTS brings a different side to Subba's personality. She turns into a fangirl that idolises the boy band.
“That year , I was going through a challenging period and wasn’t able to make any music at all. Coming across BTS and listening to their music helped me a lot during that difficult phase of my life. That is why my relationship with BTS is quite personal,” says Subba.
In the 19 years that Subba has been active in the Nepali music scene, she has seen the highs and lows of what it takes to be a musician. In 2018, she was one of the judges for the first edition of ‘The Voice’, a music reality show. The show's success helped soar Subba's popularity. The following year, her band released ‘Hawa Huri’, which was a huge hit. But for the next one year, Subba hit a creative dead end and was unable to compose any songs. In August 2021, she started a YouTube podcast, ‘Grooving with the Steam Engines’.
“The podcast was a big flop. The maximum views an episode got was 42,000. In my career, I have seen both highs and lows in my musical career. I have seen how people start viewing you when they feel that you are no longer successful. I have seen people eager to write me off and say that I was no longer relevant,” says Subba.
But just when things seemed to be going downhill came ‘Laijau Malai’.
The song's popularity put the band firmly back in the public eye.
“Having experienced setbacks many times in my life, I have discovered that I am no longer afraid of failure," says Subba. "I am afraid of not trying.”