As happens in the collaborative world of dance pop, Toronto singer/songwriter Kai hasn’t actually released an album of her own yet—but is already a veritable sensation.
Indeed, she quickly established herself as a highly in-demand session singer, with projects like her Grammy nominated collab with Flume, “Never Be Like You”; EDM legend Diplo’s “Revolution”; and “Crawl” by Childish Gambino. At twenty, she struck a development deal with Warner Music Canada, and began taking trips down to LA for songwriting sessions. These brief residencies allowed her to carve out a unique niche.
But now she’s taking her talents solo, with her lush, sultry debut single “in the now,” which she describes as an emotional portrayal of “self-sabotage and the fear of intimacy.” Not an unfamiliar theme, for many, surely.
While the buzz was starting to kick in, Kai took the time to chat with BlackBook about her swift rise, and how the spirituality in her music helps keep her grounded.
Have you been making music all your life?
I have, yeah. I wrote my first song at nine years old on the beach in Italy, and I was so proud of myself! I still remember the song to this day. Melodies are still kinda tight, haha.
You have an impressive roster of EDM collaborations to your name. How did you get connected with the likes of Diplo, Skrillex and Flume?
Diplo came into my life through a mutual producer friend, Imanos, who had been working with him at the time. I had written this ballad called “Revolution” for someone who was very special to me, who was going through a really dark time. I sent the idea to Imanos, and I remember Diplo tweeted at me saying, “send the a cappella” haha, and in a flash it was out in the world. He works fast like that. Then I had written and produced this demo idea called “Mind.” I sent it to him to see if he was into it, and within a week, he sent me a version back with Skrillex on the hook and it was a wrap. Flume was through my publisher at the time. I was a fan of his, and when he asked me if I was interested in working with him it was a no brainer.
I read that you first started releasing music in 2012 with the Montreal dubstep group Adventure Club—what were those beginning years like?
Those years were me writing and working with as many people as possible. I was learning the craft of song and trying on different hats creatively. I was still a baby. I hadn’t experienced much yet. It was a period of discovery on every level and saying yes to as many opportunities as possible.
So “Kai” in Japanese means “change.” Why did you choose that name?
The name really just came to me. I had heard it in a conversation with my sister, and I had a really odd, visceral reaction to it. I thought it was the most beautiful name I had ever heard, and its meanings in different languages like water, fire, change, warrior all resonated with my being so strongly.
What “change” are you hoping to embody?
I have always been a seeker so I am constantly evolving. I’ve gone through so many metaphorical deaths and rebirths over the years. Working to deprogram so many societal and familial limiting beliefs and illusions that are fed to all of us. I believe that is why we are all here, to remember who we truly are, our divine essence.
How does spirituality find its way into your music?
Music is an extension of my spiritual practice. Whenever I sit down to write a song I always ask how I can be of service. What lesson have I learned recently that could help someone? That is always my intention. That is what drives me to make music.
Apart from your own work, you’ve also written for other prominent artists. Is there a difference in your songwriting process when you write for someone else opposed to your own work?
My songwriting process is the most personal thing to me in the world, so I don’t ever go into writing a song thinking it’s for someone else, because I can’t. I only write from my own personal experience. My music is my shadow work, it is where I heal and learn to accept and honor those parts of myself that are challenging to face. The only time where I wrote with another artist in mind was “Sweet Talker” for Jessie J. I had been in a creative lull and I tried writing a song for Rihanna for fun, to see if I could push myself outside of my comfort zone; and it ended up being cut by Jessie J, which was super incredible. She’s amazing.
Who has been your favorite person to collaborate with?
Isaac Valens. He is my musical soulmate and best friend. I also love collaborating with D Mile, he’s an absolute legend. It’s like they can read my mind and know exactly what I like and want. That chemistry hasn’t always been easy to come by for me, it’s part of what has taken me a long time to get to this moment.
On your Instagram I saw that you were in the studio with Pharrell. How was that? I’ve heard he’s an absolute wizard.
It was something that I have been trying to manifest for many years, haha. He is one of my biggest inspirations and it was the most surreal experience to date honestly. He had heard some of my music and wanted to make something with me. It all feels like a dream now, but I got to sit beside him and watch him make a beat from scratch. Like, what is life?!
Can you tell us a a bit about the new single “in the now”?
It’s about this deep desire I have for presence in my life. It’s such a simple concept in theory, but in reality, it sometimes feels impossible. We live so much in our minds, whether it’s in the past or the future or being bombarded by constant external stimulation, but the present moment is where all the goodness lives. It also has to do with my fear of intimacy. I will either get super nostalgic about a past relationship, or fear the ending of one, and so I then give it a deadline in my head. It’s my mind’s way of protecting me because intimacy scares me—but it robs me of truly experiencing people while they are here. It’s literally a daily practice for me.
Considering we’re still kind of under quarantine, what are you doing to celebrate its release?
I struggle with celebrating myself. It’s actually something that I have really been working on, because it is so important to celebrate yourself and the milestones and wins in your life, no matter how small. I will probably eat a delicious meal and have a little dance party. Those are my celebration favorites!
His name is Alextbh…and he is “Malaysia’s first queer pop star.”
Born in Kuala Lumpur, the rising R&B/pop singer has made a name for himself through his lacquered, romantic and often playful music, as well as his outspokenness about queer identity in Malaysia—a country whose government has explicitly and consistently condemned the LGBTQ+ community.
Fully poised and confident in himself and his abilities, he fully holds the creative reigns, crafting emotive melodies and lyrics, producing his own music and even creating the visuals for his videos. His efforts have earned him co-signs from musicians such as Sevdaliza, Khalid, and Clean Bandit.
On his debut EP, The Chase, released July 17, Alextbh approaches the uncomfortable feelings that arise in hookup culture: the heartache, the ambiguous longing. It’s both visceral and thought provoking. About the early single “Between,” Alex says, “I wanted to see how comfortable I could be with my sexuality in my songwriting. It feels empowering to write something explicit in a physical context, and I guess it’s something I should explore more often. Queer bodies are human bodies and there’s nothing wrong with trying to frame that intimate moment and showcase it.”
Still under quarantine, BlackBook spoke to the twenty-three-year-old rising star about growing up in Malaysia, his time spent social distancing, and his experience producing and animating the video for the single.
These are strange times we’re living in. How’re you keeping busy?
I find that picking up new job hobbies tends to make me happier. Anything that I can get my hands on and learn to distract me for a bit. So far I’ve learned a little bit of 3D modeling on Blender, and I’ve recently started learning about photography as well. Still wish I could pick up at least one book to read or even a podcast to listen to, but I have an extremely short attention span.
What’s the hardest thing about quarantine for you?
Keeping a consistent workflow. There are days when I’m really burnt out from the state of the world, and when I do feel that way it’s really hard to pick myself back up again. For instance, I’d go really intense on working out one day, and then ignore it for the rest of the week. I also think it’s difficult for me to realign with my social circle. Like, I’m not a FaceTime person at all. I need to physically hug my friends!
What have you been listening to lately?
A lot of Kelela and Tinashe. There are days when Kelela’s “Bluff” just plays on repeat for like a hundred times while I’m working. She deserves all the coins! The main R&B girls really get me through a lot of the bad days. Oh, and Gaga too. I haven’t felt this excited since her “Born This Way” era.
Who are some of your strongest influences?
It used to be Flume. When I started out as a musician, most of the tutorials on YouTube were centered around EDM, and in my opinion Flume was the archetype of that genre. I then had a phase with James Blake, mostly because I admire his storytelling and his consistent and creative mix of analog and digital. Now I’ve transitioned to R&B and/or pop. It has been like that since “Stoop So Low.” I was obsessed with SZA, Sinead Harnett, Kelela and the like. So yeah, it depends on where my musical journey is.
Image by Samuel Yong
I know you produce your music as well as write it, so what’s your songwriting process like? Do you start with lyrics then move on to production?
At any given time, if I have any lyric ideas in my head, I’ll just write it down on my Notes app, so I have a catalogue of verses and ideas that I can play around with later on. And then when I’m producing, I usually start with a beat, and as the sounds are taking shape, I try to match the lyrics with with the beat. But I have no idea what comes after. My workflow isn’t really formulaic. Some days I’m able to write, and some days I scrap the entire thing.
I read you studied engineering, correct? What was the transition to music like?
Yes, I graduated with a Diploma in Electronic Engineering, but I didn’t want to continue on that path. There wasn’t really any transition, I knew that making music has always been my main passion. I’d fire up Ableton any time I could get. I remember the day when I received my transcript, I knew it was set in stone.
Where’d you learn how to make music?
YouTube. As with any skill, the resources are abundant, you just need to spend lots of time doing your research. When I’m bored I look up things like “R&B type beat tutorial” or “cool chord progressions” on YouTube. The world we live in is great.
For the cover art for “Between,” you’re wearing a VR headset. What was the idea behind that shoot?
It was my friend/stylist Evonne’s idea (@d8.eyes). The song is centered around sex and instant gratification from hooking up with strangers online. It’s all about that cyberpunk vibe.
The video is a sensual montage of closeups on male bodies (broken up with shots of flower petals), and you quite literally frame these intimate moments with a border made of your stage name. Can you elaborate?
It started off as a challenge to see what kind of video I am able to make with the littlest amount of money, whilst being in quarantine—and that was the end result. I didn’t have anything planned in my head, really. I was just going through pond5.com and all these stock video sites trying to figure out if I can find anything good. I almost gave up because none of the footage was even decent. Like, they’re great for generic company videos or ads, but not for something artistic. That is, until I discovered those two stock footages. I cropped them out because ambiguity is sexy, haha!
How has your creative process changed?
I learned to be more efficient. Like, when I come up with a song I sort of already know how it’s going to look visually. I know who to work with, I know what to source for. Obviously this takes a lot of trial and time, but I’m happy with the current team I’ve got.
What was the hardest song to realize on the EP?
It would be “Numb.” It was emotionally challenging for me. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted that in-your-face approach in songwriting. I was wondering if I only wrote the song out of guilt. It’s about hurting people, and it’s not something I take pride in. It took me a while to convince myself to fully open up.
I have a surface level understanding of the actions Malaysia has taken against the LGBTQ+ community—could you talk about what it was like growing up there and why you feel the need to inspire change?
Many people grew up with inferiority complexes, and I was no exception. You can’t blame me when it feels like the world demonizes your very existence. You head out and see billboards showing skin whitening products. You go on porn sites and see muscular white models. You try to buy contact lenses at a store and the salesperson pushes you to get the colored one because it’s blue and looks nice on you. Shit like that fucks you up. It takes a lot of tenacity to be queer and brown. I think a lot of us have been unlearning the complex, but it’s so deeply rooted and ingrained that it’s difficult to completely get rid of it. That’s why we need representation. That way, we can truly dismantle the broken system.
Where is your community centered? Do you find it in Malaysia? Abroad? On social media?
I’d say it’s in Malaysia. The queer scene over here isn’t big by any means, so you get to know people after two or three parties. I made a lot of friends from drag balls, or parties and [other] events.
Can you speak a little about that community and any guiding figures in it that you look up to?
As with any community, there are like pockets of people scattered around. Not unlike that Mean Girls scene when Janice talks about the cafeteria. Some of my closest friends are drag queens, like Carmen Rose (@carmnrose), Cik Teh Botol (@ciktehbotol), and Acne (@justacnescarr). Doing drag isn’t easy at all. The amount of dedication, hard work and love they put in their craft is inspiring. They also pioneered the drag-techno scene in Kuala Lumpur, and it’s so cool that they brought in something that’s conceptually so foreign. Like, this isn’t Berlin bitch, it’s KL!
Was it a hard decision to become an openly queer voice in music? Were you worried about backlash and criticism?
Not at all. I wouldn’t imagine taking my queerness out of my work. I am queer, and something about saying that over and over again gives you so much power, [you feel] nothing can hurt you.
What do you try to communicate through your music?
My emotions. All sides of the spectrum. In “Walls,” I was pleading. In “Stoop So Low,” I was infuriated. In “No Space,” I was adventurous. That’s what music is about, no?
What are you hoping The Chase will accomplish?
I hope anyone that listens to it can give me an answer to the questions that The Chase [puts forth]. Questions like, “do we need emotional visibility in hookup culture?”
As “Malaysia’s First Queer Pop Star,” do you feel as though you have a responsibility to communicate the queer community’s message?
Definitely. Each and every queer person here has lived a difficult life, and the ultimate form of reclaiming ourselves is to see everybody manifest that pain and turn it into something beautiful. Like drag. Or singing. Or becoming a data scientist. Or opening a law firm to help LGBT communities. I want to facilitate that change. I want my community to know that anything is possible, because I used to be the kid that felt like a failure.
The synth-pop dream girl with the oxymoronic name, Joy Downer has come out of the nationwide quarantine with a glittering new album. Indeed, Paper Moon is the LA songstress’ first full length, and it has put her on an aesthetic stage that’s distinctly reminiscent of some of her idols, David Bowie and ABBA to name a couple.
The familiar sonic stylings of ’80s pop are channeled and repurposed through she who actually makes up half of the Downer duo—the other being her betrothed, Jeffrey Downer. And on tracks like “A Song You’d Never Want to Hear,” lush synths create blankets of aural warmth that are punctured by reverberating snares, while guitars strut in a rhythm that will surely make you want to get up and dance.
BlackBook caught up and chatted with the alt-pop darling about growing up in a musical household, her songwriting process, and her break into the industry.
I read that both your parents are musicians. What was it like growing up in a musical household?
My mom is a talented pianist and composer—she writes gorgeous pieces that so often fill the house, sometimes way too early in the AM. My dad was the drummer of his high school band The Inner Minds, mostly Beatles covers. I have really fond memories of him playing dashboard drums in the car, very enthusiastically. My parents divorced when I was two. I lived with my mom and five siblings, and visited my dad every other weekend. At his house, there was my step mom and five more siblings. Each was very different as far as the music I was exposed to, but I did get to hear a lot—certainly a huge bright spot of my childhood, as well as a refuge.
What kinds of music did they play?
My mom played a lot of soundtracks from musicals: John Williams, Mannheim Steamroller, Frank Sinatra, Queen, Dolly Parton, ABBA. My Dad listened to a ton of great rock & roll: Creedence, The Kinks, Zombies, Herman’s Hermits, Pink Floyd, The Who, Crosby Stills & Nash. Also the occasional Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
I enjoyed all of it. But when it came to what I discovered myself, it was artists like Oasis, Jeff Buckley, Prince, Bowie, T-Rex, Pulp, Blondie, Arcade Fire, Billie Holiday, Tears for Fears, The Strokes, White Stripes…I could go on and on.
Some of your family members even made it onto the album?
Yes, my mom on piano and a voicemail sample, my brother on guitar and vocals, my dad’s voicemail sample, my sister on harmonium—my daughter and husband also sang on the ending part of “Paper Moon.”
Music has always been a thread within our family, but I don’t know that it’s been part of the relationship with anyone besides my brother Jon. He played music and wrote songs before I did. I was so inspired by the way he channeled feelings into music, I started doing the same. We definitely connected over it, and still do.
How did you celebrate the release of Paper Moon?
To be honest, I didn’t really celebrate. At the time it came out I was in a very different headspace, as were most people I know. I was also extremely sick that day from a stomach bug. Perhaps a belated celebration is in order though!
Was there a song that was particularly hard to realize on the album?
I would say “Over and Out” and “Good Bad.” Both went through a few different versions and arrangements. The former really came together once we tracked the horns, by Jared Dickinson. Whatever walls existed with that song, they were blown away by the new inspiration and life that he literally blew into it. And “Neon Turns” was a song we revisited after a year, because we hit a wall. It was such a monumental task to kind of dissect those songs and put them back together in a new way. But well worth the tediousness and annoyance of it.
Do you have a songwriting process that you tend to fall back on? Are you one to write lyrics first and then figure out the melody/harmony, or do you let things develop all at once?
I don’t have a set process. Sometimes I record ideas on voice memo in the middle of the night, sometimes I get really inspired and write a song in my head in full—I can hear all the instrumentation. I play or sing out all the counter melodies to Jeffrey and he plays it on the appropriate instrument. Sometimes he will be jamming or playing something, I almost always start hearing a vocal melody and other ideas that could go with it—which typically follows with a 20 minutes stream of consciousness idea session. Then the trick is picking which bits to build that song with. I typically write the lyrics in the moment, with a plan to rewrite at a later time, but almost always I stick with the original lyrics. Though towards the end of the record, I made much more of an effort to write intentionally and poetically.
You’ve been making music pretty much your whole life. Did your approach to songwriting change when you started composing with Jeffrey?
I’ve been writing music since I was eight, and writing music with Jeffrey since 2009—recording and co-producing with him since 2018. I would say that working with him has given me the opportunity to grow as an artist and explore all sorts of ideas and sounds in a very safe creative space. We both push each other to be better and to get out of our comfort zones. I also feel like this first full length record is just the start of what I am capable of creating. I’m looking forward to everything that’s to come.
After you settled down in LA, you took a brief hiatus from making music, until you decided to quit your jobs and pursue it full time. Was there a particular moment that helped you make that decision?
I was working as a “door girl” for a beautiful speakeasy bowling alley/bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, as well as auditioning and Uber driving in the day. After a couple years of doing the same thing, I was feeling very miserable, trapped, and unfulfilled. I had to gamble on myself if I wanted to tell a different story. As luck would have it, I booked a commercial after making that decision, where I met Lauren Kolar. I told her I was looking to record my songs, she said her husband Rob was the guy. And since I just made a decent penny on that commercial, I was able to hire Rob Kolar to produce my first EP of five songs. We actually recorded in his home studio. So being in the position of wanting to continue to create, and having had a glimpse of a home studio and all the possibilities, I started figuring out how to do that myself—and with Jeffrey.
What was that like, recording at home?
There’s a lot that I love about being in my own space. There’s a lot of freedom in it, having an idea late at night, knowing you can go track it right then and there. There’s also happy accidents that happen because we are at home—like my sister doing dishes in the next room during tracking, which once we pitched them up sounded really cool (in “Plastic Wrap”).
And something else I will say is that if you don’t have a time limit or end date for a song, calling it finished is a really hard thing to do. That’s when I learned how important setting “done by” dates is.
How would you describe Paper Moon? What are its intentions?
In describing the album, I can tell you it’s an adventure of sounds, textures, tempos, and feelings. Of course, that’s my description, and every listener will have their own discovery and meaning. I would say my intention in sharing the music I create is to offer connection. In creating it, I’m finding a connection to myself. In sharing it, I’m hoping for the connection it can be to and for others.
What’s next for Joy Downer?
I have a whole lot of songs to finish and so many more to write. The trick is finding the time to do that during a pandemic, and with a child at home full time now.
When you can’t find Miriam A. Hyman on set, you might find her in the recording studio, rapping under the moniker Robyn Hood. But then, when you can’t find her there, she might just be ghostwriting for the likes of Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o.
After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, she made her way towards off-broadway to perform Richard III at The Public Theatre in New York before landing the lead role, D’Artagnan, in a performance of Three Musketeers at the Classical Theater of Harlem. Her time on the stage gained her respect and recognition and, unexpectedly, led to her entrance into the rap game. Around that time, Miriam adopted her stage name and began releasing mixtapes and EPs, garnering for herself a Best New Artist nomination at the Philadelphia Hip-Hop Awards.
Her second EP Truth Teller was released in February, and a third is scheduled for release on June 25. But she is also notably slated to debut that same week (June 21) as Dre, the proud newlywed of Nina (Tyla Abercrumbie) on the third season of the hit series The Chi—Showtime’s poignant drama about life and strife on the South Side of Chicago.
BlackBook caught up with Miriam to talk about her big summer.
Have you been listening to any good music in quarantine?
I’m listening to my own music—to that new EP Truth Teller [laughs]. But I always have either my TV or my phone on Pandora, so I’m always hearing what’s new.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
I’d have to say Hova, of course. Rapsody, Common, I love Jadakiss, I love Migos. I’m all over the place because I love gospel, I love hip-hop, I love jazz, and I love R&B. Those are few of my main influences.
What role do you think music plays for you right now, amidst everything that’s going on?
Music is huge for me; it’s very therapeutic. To just write and be with myself and my thoughts. I kinda built an in-house studio during this pandemic; there’ve been some positives to quarantining. A lot of DIY projects. So I’ve been able to record a lot on my own. It’s been really good as far as that’s concerned. I can write something, jot it down, pop right into the studio, record, and send it off to my engineers and producers. There’s still a conversation that’s able to happen even though I can’t get into the booth right now.
When did you begin rapping?
What brought it on?
A combination of things. I had finished graduate school around that time, and basically I went on to do one of my first plays at the Public Theatre in New York—I was working on Richard III. I do a lot of Shakespeare, and the way Shakespeare writes is quite poetic. Like I always say, “I went from the bard to the bars.” I had a lot of time on my hands then. I was just coming outta graduate school, so I was very well prepared. I was coming into rehearsals off book, ready to go. And when the director wasn’t working with me, I had to fill my time with something. So I just started playing with writing verses. What I’d do is download a lot of instrumental beats and I would rap over them—some of the people who I named initially, I loved their lyrics, but I also loved the beats. Characters like Swizz Beats, he always has a lot of really great tracks. That’s kinda how it started, basically.
Do you find that there’s a relationship between your music and your acting? Does one influence the other in any way?
Definitely. I think I bring a lot of character and a lot of versatility to my music. I think I’m able to pull from my acting background for that. It’s interesting that you say that because for this EP I’m working on now, I’ve been pulling even more from that line of work. I think it’s kind of in my blood. It’s in my DNA. One can’t work without the other. Even when I’m working on something that’s completely acting related, the way in which some playwrights write, there is a very rhythmic function that’s happening, and I think I’m able to find those rhythms easily because it’s just embedded in my soul. I’m able to just find the flow of what a writer is trying to say… Or at least I think I’m finding the flow! [laughs].
Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Sure. I’m playing with a couple of different skits throughout the EP, and that’s something I’ve never done before. Rarely is that something that I hear. Eminem used to do that with some of his music. It was kind of like he was acting within the song—not even like a skit leading up to it or coming after—it was really within the song. So it’s just that idea that you can bring a different kind of life to the character a musician has already created. We can just evolve with it a bit more.
So speaking of characters: Was there a reason for choosing the moniker “Robyn Hood,” and do you feel your taking on qualities of the character by choosing that name?
I thought about a lot of different names when I started playing around with writing, as I’m sure a lot of artists do. Like you come up with maybe five or ten names before you decide on one. I just liked the versatility in terms of what “Robyn Hood” can actually stand for and mean. I think of myself as being a pretty well-rounded and grounded individual. And the name encompassed all of the ideas I wanted to relate in my music. So I changed the “i” to a “y,” being a female, but also to have a different swag on it. I didn’t want people to think, “Oh, Robin Hood. She’s trying to be a new example of the old-school Robin Hood.” But it is that idea of robbing for the hood, you know. Being very present for my community, and doing as much as I can to take what I’ve learned and give back and affect them in a very positive way. I also just thought there’s a lot of fun in the name, and that it’s something a lot of people could relate to. I didn’t want to call myself any old thing. So it was like, what can I come up with that’s going to be really representative of who I am as a person? Not just a musician, but a musician as well as an actor.
After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, you started performing off-Broadway. What’s the transition from theatre to television like? Do you find it hard to keep up the energy take after take after take?
No, I mean I had done a little bit of TV before I went into graduate school. I did an episode of The Wire. I did an episode of Law and Order. Another show called Conviction. It wasn’t completely new, but it was approaching it on another level because of all the training I had, which really helped me to up the ante. I think because of the theatre, I’m so accustomed to redoing. They call it “rehearsal” because you have to re-hear, redo, and repeat. I’m so accustomed to taking it from the top and running through it again that for TV and film, I don’t feel like you get as many takes as you do in the rehearsal room.
When did you begin acting? Was there a decisive moment that told you that this is what you wanted to do?
Oh my gosh, it was a very decisive moment. I started acting when I was a teenager, but when I was about ten years old, my mom took me to go see a film. I begged her—begged her—to see A Low Down Dirty Shame with Jada Pinkett, and I fell in love with her character and energy. How she made me feel as an audience participant. Prior to me seeing that film, I wanted to be a brain surgeon. But when I came out, I said these exact words to my mom: “I want to do that for the rest of my life.” I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know what that meant. It just felt right for me to say it. It’s just a testament to my faith, because I am doing the exact thing that I spoke about and wanted to do. I don’t really think my mom realized what I was willing to go through in order to attain my dream. But I’m glad she took me to see that film! It changed my life.
So for your newest project, you play Dre on The Chi. How’d you go about preparing for this role?
The Chi is a dope project number one. They’ve had two very successful seasons; a lot of really cool characters and storylines. I feel like my character was somebody who was kinda in the neighborhood in the first two seasons, but not somebody who was talked about or mentioned. And coming into Season Three, it’s like audiences get introduced to her, but some of the world in Chicago was already familiar with her. She’s a really dope character, really down to earth. I’m hoping everybody really loves her as much as I did—and do. I had an awesome time playing her; she’s gonna give you something that some of the other characters just don’t give. She just has a totally different energy that she’s coming with. Totally different background, and that has put her in the position to be who she is now. I’m excited for the world to be able to be introduced to Dre, and this season of The Chi, for sure.
Can you describe that energy she’s coming with?
Yeah, she’s really bold. She’s extremely responsible. Very loving. Very supportive. Dre don’t play; she’s a boss. She’s very firm in her decisions. She’s really rooted in who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. I love that about her. She’s really unapologetic about who she is, who she loves, and what she’s bringing to the table.
She’s a bit of a guiding figure in the show. Someone who aspires to affect positive change in people.
Definitely, for sure.
And it seems as though you attempt to do something similar with your music. You put songs out there that are not about the stereotypical themes of drugs, misogyny, and violence. Do you feel like you have these parallels with your character?
Most definitely. I always try to pull from what I know and what my experiences have been thus far, and use that as fuel, whether I’m working on a show or a song. I pull from either to help support me. Just musically, I want to give people a little something that they’ve been missing. Lotta people who hear my music say, “Oh that’s so refreshing, you don’t sound like anybody else.” Or, “I can understand what it is that you’re saying.” I always attribute that to how I was raised, and having this quality training. I’ve really been able to take all of my education and put it into both of my focuses. They play off each other, for sure. I don’t know if I’d be so successful at one without having the other.
Sophia Anne Caruso has had a musical theatre career most would kill for. She starred as Helen Keller in Academy-Award-winner Patty Duke’s The Miracle Worker; she’s performed at the Kennedy Center; played Girl in David Bowie’s Lazarus; and most recently, won the Theatre World Award for her role as Lydia Deetz in the Broadway production of Beetlejuice (which she just departed from in February). All of which before she was eighteen.
So indeed, the young star has carved for herself a particular niche in the theatre biz; and the eccentric roles she’s known for have led to many more knocks on her door. These days, though, she’s turning down far more roles than she accepts. She can afford to be picky.
Her success, according to Caruso herself, is in part due to a deep well of energy and a mind that gets bored easily. That’s perhaps why she has already made the leap to TV and is now beginning a career as a recording artist. Her debut single “Toys” marks the start of yet another adventure for her.
A week before its release, she took a moment to hop on the phone with BlackBook, to chat about her path to musical stardom, and the biggest differences between singing on stage and singing in a studio.
Who would you cite as some of your biggest musical influences?
Oh wow, that’s so hard. I listen to so many different kinds of music, and I don’t really have an answer—pretty much everything. You know, “Toys” isn’t so much inspired by others as it is by my co-writers and the collaboration we did. Really, it’s inspired by our relationship as friends.
But other than that, I have a fascination with Arabic music, with French music—I love rock & roll, I love old folk music. I grew up listening to jazz. As a kid I sang musical theatre—I was a performing kid—but deep down I love to sing jazz. To this day, that’s definitely an influence for me.
Who were some of the jazz artists that were playing in the house when you were growing up?
I grew up listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald—you know people ask me, “What’s your hidden talent?” And I’m like, “Well, I do scat.” Mostly, it was classic jazz.
Who are some of the actors you admire?
I love Saoirse Ronan. I have a sort of fascination with her, I think she’s really special and talented.
Do you have a favorite film?
I don’t watch as many new things as I do older things. One is called Wings of Desire. It’s really fascinating. It came out in ’87 I believe, and it’s kind of this fantasy about these two angels who are in Berlin and can hear people’s thoughts. One of them falls in love and ends up coming to life. It’s probably my favorite movie of all time. But I also love Alexandro Jodorowsky films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain.
Was there a particular moment in your life that made you realize you wanted to be on Broadway?
Oh, I just knew that I wanted to sing and act, to perform. I was always very, very artistic. I was never great in school, aside from English. I was always a very good writer, but aside from that I didn’t have a large interest in school. So, my mom always let me skip it and work with her in the antique store. She would drop me off at the local theatre—she would call it “free babysitting.” I would watch older people acting and singing, and I said, “Mom, I want to do that.” And she said, “Alright.”
So she took me to my first audition. The more I did it, the more I was like, “I want to do this forever and ever.” Of course, I have this very over-achieving, striving for the best–type quality, so of course when you think, “What is the top-tier of theatre?,” that’s Broadway. So I think that’s where it came from. I just had this really big idea of what Broadway was. My imagination created this huge dream.
What was the first play you ever performed in?
For my very first professional job, I played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, and it was directed by Patty Duke, who won the Oscar for it. And that was super exciting for me at the age of nine.
When you first get a role, what’s your process like for fleshing out a character?
I teach acting lessons, too, and I think a lot of girls ask, “How do I go in? And how do I book this job?” And I just say, “You’re going to get it if they want you, and if they don’t want you, then you’re not going to get it.” And what I mean by that is if you go in and try to be somebody else, you try to be what they’re looking for, they’ll see through that, and that’s not authentic to your interpretation. So going in and doing what comes up naturally, what your instincts are, and the unique performance and perspective you give is what will get you the job, or not. So when I get the job, I focus more on enhancing and bringing out these instincts. My “process” is very relaxed. I just show up every day and I work hard. That’s pretty much my process. Just showing up and working hard.
Do you find that doing musical theatre and film are very different?
Yeah, they’re completely different art forms. Even musicals versus plays are completely different. Depending on the musical we’re talking about—something like Beetlejuice for example—the style of it is very big, it’s got a sort of camp to it. It’s very intentionally like that; it’s written that way. And so if you take that versus film, for film, you’d pull back 90% of that. It’s much more intimate, it’s much smaller. You have a camera in your face, you’re not performing in front of 1,500 people with [some] in the nosebleed seats. You’re performing for no one except for the camera that’s six inches in front of your face. The difference is that you pull back. Instead of speaking with your face and your expressions, you speak through your eyes and tone of your voice, if that makes sense.
You have a bit of a history performing in funky off-broadway shows; what is it about those that you like so much?
I tell some of my friends that I’m chronically bored. And I mean that, because I start on one thing and I easily get bored of it. Especially if it’s something that doesn’t challenge me or is something that’s very common, like I’ve seen in every show. So when someone offers me a job or asks me to come in to read with the director, I always read the script first—I think that’s so important—and some of the time I do end up turning it down, because I read it, and if it doesn’t really speak to me, then I’m not really interested. What I’m looking for in a script is if it’s thought-provoking, what is it telling the audience, what are they learning from it? What is this putting out in the world? Is it a message that I believe in?
And also, is this role written well for a young woman? Is it authentic and real? What’s the difference between it and every other show I’m currently seeing? And when something meets all of those criteria, then it’s absolutely something I’ll pursue until I get it. I’ve been very choosy over the years with the kind of work I want to do between TV and plays and musicals, specifically with musicals. So that’s how I end up choosing things. I have always been on the darker side. I’m kind of introverted and introspective. Naturally melancholy. I think that the plays that speak to me most are those which I relate to. I’m less the chipper girl-next-door type and more the funky thing. I think that’s how I read on stage.
You’re adding “recording artist” to your resume now.
I have other music that’s out from doing cast albums, and I’ve gotten a lot of comments from people telling me I have a beautiful voice. The difference really is that when I’m recording those albums from a Broadway show, I’m singing in character. My voice sounds different. It’s still my voice, but the tone is different, the style is different from what my natural, instinctive vocal style is. There’s one song that we’re working on for the EP that they just stuck a microphone in front of me and said, “Do something.” So I started singing this melody to this poem I had written. That is uniquely my voice. I was very much in my own natural style. In a Broadway show, the music is written for you, and it’s just different than what I would put out as a musical artist.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut single “Toys?”
My collaborators Nick [Littlemore] and Henry [Hey] were primary writers on a lot of it. They had this idea for “Toys” eight years before I met them. And there was this moment where they said, “Oh my god, Sophia. We have this song. We haven’t really done much with it, but we think you would be the perfect person for it.” They pulled me onto this piece they had written. When it came to the lyrics, I of course added my own touch, my own style, my own adaptation. It was very collaborative. I think “Toys” is something unique to each of us. For Nick, it’s about watching your loved one fall apart. But for me, I see it more internally. It’s more about that part of you watching yourself spiral downhill. There are two very distinct voices interacting with each other—it was originally written as a duet that I would sing with Nick, but I ended up just singing it. If you listen to the words you can hear that. I think of it as me talking to me about myself.
Unless you’re Finnish, you might not yet know who ALMA is; but there’s a good chance you know her music. During her short career, the twenty-four-year-old rising pop star has graced the track listings of pop sensations such as Charlie XCX, Ariana Grande, and Miley Cyrus. Now, with her recently released and long-awaited debut LP Have U Seen Her, she’s teeing up to become a pop sensation herself.
In 2013, when she was just fifteen, she auditioned for Finland’s version of American Idol. After placing fifth, she returned to high school (she was still a teenager, after all). But not a year later, a judge from the show, rapper Sini Sabotage, asked her if she would like to come on tour and start collaborating together. You can surely guess what her answer was.
Her first few singles, “Karma,” “Dye My Hair,” and “Chasing Highs,” set her up as a rising star in the EDM world, as hundreds of millions of streams racked up. But with Have U Seen Her? (via Sony Music Germany/Republic Records) she has finally found her true voice. Dancey yet punky, glittery yet grungey, her genre-bending is surely part of her unique appeal.
Still under quarantine, BlackBook hopped on the phone to talk with her about her complicated relationship with LA, her leaving behind EDM, and, naturally, that signature green hair.
Did you do anything to celebrate the release of your debut album?
Yeah, some of my friends threw me a small quarantine party. They baked me a super cute cake, and we just got a little drunk. But obviously, like six months ago, I thought I was gonna have a huge party. I thought I was actually going to be touring at the same time. But, you know, when this happened, it threw us.
Have you been listening to a lot of music lately?
I’ve been listening to old stuff I was listening to when I was a teenager. Like Gorillaz, MGMT, stuff like that. Also, someone I always go back to is Amy Winehouse. She’s such an inspiration for me.
What role is music playing for you right now? Is it catharsis? Escape? Or something else?
It’s been a huge therapeutic thing. I haven’t been listening to a lot, but I’ve been making a lot of music. The first week that we were allowed to go outside, I went and got a studio set up for myself. I’ve been actually trying to learn how to produce, and it’s been a fun, therapeutic challenge for me.
When did you start getting into music? I know that you were on the TV show Idols when you were fifteen, which is quite young.
After Idols, I just went back to school. I was there for like a year. But then I started working with this rap label and was touring with this great female rapper (Sini Sabotage). And from there, I found producers to work with. I’ve always been singing in English, even though no one sings in English in Finland. Then, I don’t know how, but somehow people in Germany and the UK and America, they heard my tracks and suddenly everybody wanted to sign me; it was weird.
Had you always wanted to be a pop star?
Uhhh… yes. When I was very young I had wanted to be a pop star. Then when I was a teenager, I kinda didn’t want to be anything. I just wanted to have fun. There was a point where I was like, “Fuck it.” But then I went to the studio, and I just fell in love with making songs. It just happened.
Was there a moment in your life that really affirmed your skills and talent?
I think the first time I realized that I can actually make a career out of this was probably when Elton John played my track on the radio. Obviously for me, and for everybody, he is a legend. That was definitely a point where I was like, “Holy shit. People actually do like my music. There must be something good in me.”
You obviously write your own music, but you’ve also made a name for yourself writing for other pop stars. Is your songwriting process different when you write for someone else?
It’s not that different actually. I tend to write from my perspective. But obviously when I work with someone like Miley Cyrus, I try to talk about her life. Though I still try to mix my life in it; otherwise it’s very hard to write, if you don’t have anything through which you can feel the feeling, ya know?
A lot of musicians have complicated relationships with touring. The highs of performing can be followed by some pretty low lows. What do you do to stay focused and sane on the road?
I wasn’t staying focused on my first two tours, I was being very young and stupid. My voice just couldn’t handle it. You can’t party and do tours. That’s just a fact. In the long term, it’s just not possible. I lose my voice if I go to the club after the show.
Do you have a pre-show routine?
Yeah, we kick each other’s butts.
Literally kick each other’s butts?
It’s a bit weird, but we did it once, and now we’re paranoid if we don’t do it.
It’s an interesting ritual. I’ve read that you used to get nervous before going on stage, I’m assuming this helps? How else do you alleviate that anxiety?
I was very anxious during the early stages of my career. The first two years that I was touring, it was very hard to go to the stage. But I was just doing it. I forced myself to the stage and then it just got better. That’s my secret. Just go and do it. It’s gonna take a little while to love, but you just have to jump where you’re scared.
You have this song, “LA Money,” which doesn’t talk about the city in an entirely flattering way. Can you talk about why you have a complicated relationship with LA?
There are two sides of LA: There is the dark side of LA, when everybody is just super fake and they want to get something out of you; and then there is the LA where people are positive and encourage each other. I think the song is just about the other side. When I first went to LA, I’d never been that lonely. I’ve never been that scared or annoyed about a place and people. It’s about those times.
You’ve mentioned that you feel pressure living in the public eye sometimes. How have you learned to cope with that pressure?
Obviously in Finland, my home country, I’m on a different level of fame. I’m really famous here and it can be hard to be on the streets sometimes. I’m not the best when it comes to coping with fame. I think that sometimes it’s weird that some people really care that much. When it gets to be too much, I just take a plane and go to a different city.
Your neon hair is kind of your signature look. How’d you come up with it, and what does it mean to you?
My sister dyed her hair green when she was fifteen. She’s always been the bravest of the two of us—we’re twins. When she came out of the shower, I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the craziest hair ever. I have to do it.” I have to say that I copied my sister 100%. And now, it’s so easy because all I have to wear are black jeans and a black shirt and people are still like, “Oh, you have a cool style.”
Do you ever feel like changing it?
Not really. If I were to change it, it would be weird. But, if I did, I would probably go with neon orange.
Do you get people who tell you your personal style is incongruous with the music that you make?
Yeah, but even though people think style is really important to me, it’s not. The only thing I care about in life is the music that I make. Style just isn’t important to me. If I want to wear something sort of punkier, I don’t see any problem with that. Same goes for genre. I love pop music because you can make punk-pop, you can make indie-pop, you can make R&B-pop…you can mix everything.
You mentioned that Amy Winehouse has had a big influence on you. Who else has influenced you?
I was searching everything on YouTube. I could have literally been listening to Amy Winehouse and then the next thing I would be listening to was Prodigy, or something like that. During my teenage years.I was going to pop festivals; but then I would go to Germany and go to crazy punk festivals. I just love music. Music for me is not about genre, it’s about the attitude, and if it makes me feel something.
What do you want to say about your debut album?
I had to make a decision. Do I want to keep on making EDM style records that I’ve never connected with that much, even though I love them and they’re part of my journey? With this album, it’s always been clear—I wasn’t going to make a dance album. I can make singles that are dancey and feature on other people’s songs, but when it comes to my album, it has to be 100% me. It took a little time; I had to fight for it.
LA native Zolee Griggs definitively caught the public eye in the fall of 2019 via the first season of Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a stylized depiction of the formation of one of hip-hop’s most influential groups—and the interpersonal dramas which almost stopped it in its tracks. In it, Griggs plays Shurrie Diggs, the sister of Wu-Tang’s founder, RZA, and the de facto matriarch of the series.
Though An American Saga represents the start of a promising career on screen, the twenty-two-year-old is no stranger to the entertainment industry writ large. From a young age, she has been acting in commercials and doing photoshoots; and since the dawn of Instagram, she has been building a platform for the social causes she cares about. In addition to being an actor, Griggs is the founder of the mentorship program GRL:WMN, which allows women from ages fourteen to twenty to gather together, promote positivity, discuss mental health, and talk about what’s important to them.
In anticipation of the second season of the Wu-Tang Saga (no official release date yet), BlackBook caught up with Griggs to talk about social distancing, her six-month residency in New York, and the future of GRL:WMN.
How are you dealing with self-isolation?
Going insane—no, I’m doing fine. Just taking it day by day. But it is getting monotonous.
What are you doing to stay productive?
I’m trying to not be so lazy…just the simple things to give myself some kind of order. Getting up, making breakfast, taking care of my dog. Little things. Because that’s all I can do. I’ve watched so many movies and read so many books, I’m running out of things to do in the house.
What have you been watching?
A lot of ’80s and ’90s movies. Yesterday I watched Bowfinger and Woo. And that was pretty funny.
Are you a fan of old comedies?
No, that’s why I’m watching them. When I was younger, my parents didn’t let me watch a lot of movies. They’d keep to the age restrictions. Before I was thirteen, I couldn’t watch PG-13 movies. Now that I’m older, I’m venturing out and watching everything. I’m going back in time and catching up on things I should have seen years ago.
What drew you to acting when you were younger, and has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
I always performed at school and in church, I have been going to church since I was two. My grandmother was really heavy on singing in the church—she’s from the south, and the southern influences trickled down to me. So I was singing, being active with other kids, speaking—I had always done public speaking. I remember in preschool, we had performances with everybody, and that’s really what started it. I was just enjoying my presence on the stage and getting a reaction from the audience or people at church. Everybody just seemed pleasant and happy, and that inspired me to be pleasant and happy. I guess that’s what really triggered my acting.
How did the Wu-Tang role shape your acting?
I think becoming an adult is really what did it—I mean Wu-Tang added onto that—but when I turned eighteen, I had a conversation with my manager and agent, and they told me, “You’re eighteen now. The roles you’ll go out for are not just going to be teenage roles, they’re going to be serious, adult roles.” That’s when I started to take adult acting classes as well. And Wu-Tang, with it being such a serious show, opened my eyes to the fact that not everything is so easy. A lot of people believe think acting is easy; people watch movies all the time and are like, “I could do that.” And not that they can’t, but it’s a lot more than just crying on cue or being happy when someone tells you too. It’s more than just showing emotions for certain reasons.
What did you do to prepare for the roll of Shurrie Diggs?
I think the best thing, besides remembering everything I was taught in class, was moving to New York and working with Wu-Tang one-on-one. It was the best preparation, I’m not going to learn any better than from the people themselves, who actually lived this story—I mean I’m telling their story. And doing this all in New York for six months was even better. I’d been to New York before, but never been there for that long. So picking up everything I had and moving across the country to learn the culture was a beautiful experience. It helped me adapt, it was a fun learning process.
What advice did RZA give you to help portray the character, who’s really a composite of all his sisters?
We would do it based on the episode, we did them one at a time; I didn’t know what was going to happen during the next episode. Before we would start filming, I would get on a phone conference with Alex [Tse, Executive Producer] and RZA, and they would break down the script for me and answer any questions I had before we went over it on set. I was also lucky to have a meeting with Erika Alexander, who is my mom on the show, and one of RZA’s sisters. That was an amazing meeting, for us to sit down and have a personal chat about their lives.
Is it harder portraying a real character?
I take it more seriously, because I’m not making up a character, I’m literally portraying someone who already exists, who has had these experiences in real life. I needed to make sure that I was doing an accurate job while respecting and honoring these people’s lives… because that’s my job.
From an acting perspective, what were some valuable lessons that you left Season One with?
I think not letting your fears get in the way of things that you already know. Sometimes I don’t give myself credit, because I’m not, like, Robert De Niro. To tell yourself, “You know what you’re doing. You got it.” Sometimes those words of encouragement can be muffled by your own thoughts and humility. So I want to be more confident for Season Two, and not let fears hold me back. I feel really good about it.
What did you appreciate most about the experience?
Bonding with everybody outside of work, I really got to know everyone individually. The guys would show me around the city, and I became the little-big sister. Even though I’m the only girl and the youngest, I’m still the only girl. It’s funny, I’m kind of the matriarch in the show and in real life when we’re just hanging out. There’s a mutual bond and respect; I’m really fortunate to work with people who are fun, mature, and talented.
Tell us about your mentorship program, GRL:WMN.
It’s on hold because of everything that’s going on right now. But I’m working on bringing it back so it can be even bigger and better. If I can’t do things a certain way, I’m not going to do them at all. So I’m really taking my time, especially now, since I might have a bigger audience. I want to accommodate all the new young ladies and women.
What do you see for the program’s future?
The long-term goal is to take it on tour and travel around the nation. Public school reform is something that I’m really big on as well. I feel that the relationship that students and teachers have is not the best; same goes for the relationships that students have with each other, especially women. A great part of life is spent in schools, so I would love to be able to take the program to different schools and change the way young ladies interact with each other, change the way they speak with one another, and hopefully change how we interact with adults and teachers. It should be a cohesive unit, but it feels like a dictatorship at some schools—not all, but definitely at some.
And what does the future hold for you?
I have a couple guest-star roles on episodes of Boomerang, for BET. I did an indie film in January called Arch Enemy. I’m not sure when it comes out yet, but it should be really fun. It’s a sci-fi superhero movie—it’s really great. And it’s funny, since Wu-Tang came out I’ve had people tell me, “You would be great as Erykah Badu, if she did a biopic.” So I would love to do that if the opportunity ever arose, that’s a dream. But you know, dreams come true sometimes, so we’ll see.
If you follow the buzz on social media—let’s say especially TikTok—then chances are you’ve heard Isaiah Faber’s—AKA Powfu—breakout track “death bed (coffee for your head).’
Indeed, the lo fi, bedroom pop tune with hip-hop sensibilities spread like wildfire on TikTok and YouTube. Over four million videos have been made to the song, on the former platform, ranging from elaborate proposals, to breakfast in miniature. On the latter, “death bed” has accumulated 61 million streams. Its popularity earned Powfu the #4 spot on the Spotify Global Top 50, putting him amongst superstars like The Weeknd, Drake, and Dua Lipa; he’s now also certified gold in seven countries.
But even after storming charts all over the world, the twenty-one year old is surprisingly down to earth. Aside from a new record deal with Columbia, things don’t seem to have changed that much; he’s still spending his days just skateboarding and making music.
In anticipation of his new EP poems of the past, we caught up with the young chart topper sheltering at his home in Vancouver.
What kind of music have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to old punk bands.
Right, I’ve read that your dad was in a punk rock band, Faber Drive. What was it like growing up in a musical household?
It was really cool. Obviously not a lot of people have a dad who was a rockstar growing up. He taught me the basics of all the instruments, and I got to see what it was like to be in the music industry.
Do you think that’s prepared you? The industry now is quite different from the one your dad was a part of.
On the business side of things it’s different, but between the hard work and collaborating with other people—a lot of the basics he helped me with. He always encouraged me to work hard at it, and it paid off.
When did you start making music?
I started writing music when I was thirteen. Then, in grade twelve, when I was seventeen, is when I started taking it seriously.
What drew you to lo-fi hip-hop?
I was just into hip-hop at the very start. Then I started surfing Soundcloud, and I came across [these] lo-fi hip-hop beats, and I thought they sounded pretty cool; so I just started listening to them by themselves in my car. It seemed like not many people are rapping on these types of beats, so I [figured I] might as well try it.
Who would you cite as your main musical influences?
There are definitely a lot. Yellow Card and Blink-182 are really cool punk artists that I listen to and get inspired by. On the hip-hop side of things, I’ll listen to a bunch: Kanye West, Jaden Smith, G-Eazy, a bunch of rappers.
Speaking of Blink-182, I saw that they did a version of the song. How’d that come about?
Yeah it was crazy. I got signed to Columbia, and they asked me if there was anyone I would like to collab with…and I said Blink-182. They said, “Oh, they’re also signed with us.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s sick.” So then they told them about me and asked if they wanted to work with me, and they said yeah. They really liked “death bed” and wanted to remix it.
“death bed” exploded on YouTube and took TikTok by storm. How’d you feel when you that happened?
I was just really excited. Even before “death bed,” seeing like a hundred comments on a song would make me happy. It’s the same feeling, but with more people. It’s inspiring.
What are some of your favorite TikToks that people have made of the song?
There’re a lot; I like some of the Kobe ones. I like the ones where people confess their love to their best friends. And there’s another one where people are making miniature pancakes—I thought that was great.
“death bed” is unexpectedly sad, you rap about not wanting to die yet.
Most of my songs draw on pretty heavy topics, because that’s just what I feel drawn to write about. For “death bed,” the sample in the beat was talking about “not going to bed and getting a cup of coffee for your head”—so I was just trying to make a story around the chorus. I already had a song about sleeping, so then I went from the viewpoint of someone who’s dying.
You’d been writing songs for awhile. But has TikTok effected the way you write now?
For the most part, I’m just trying to make music that I’d enjoy listening to myself. I have for one of my songs, “mind your manners,” aimed for a TikTok type of song. I wrote cheesy lyrics and a catchy chorus for it. But most of my songs are just my own style.
Tell us about your new EP poems of the past.
I like EPs, because they’re short and simple, and I get to release my favorite songs. There’s six tracks on this one. I try to [include] a mix of genres. So there’ll be hip-hop songs and punk songs and lo-fi, bedroom pop stuff. So everyone has their own favorite song or sound on the EP.
Now that you’ve signed with a major label and have a song in the charts, what do you want to do next?
I was looking forward to touring before all of this, and meeting fans. But other than that, making music is like my favorite thing to do. And now I get to collab with bigger artists…so just more of that.
Some may know Lennon Stella from her role as Maddie Conrad on Nashville, the television drama that chronicles the lives of a handful of country music singers at various stages in their careers. Others may know her from her viral explosion on YouTube; one video, which features her and her sister covering Robyn & Erato’s “Call Your Girlfriend!” (popularly known as “The Cup Song”), accumulated over thirty-million views. But now, people are going to start to know Lennon Stella because of her own music. Indeed, the twenty-year-old, Ontario-born, Nashville-raised songstress is at last debuting her long-awaited first album this week, appropriately titled Three. Two. One.
Practically growing up onscreen—Stella first started acting on Nashville when she was twelve—afforded her the time to cultivate a dedicated fanbase. By the time she graduated from the series, she had already amassed over eight-hundred-thousand Instagram followers—who would surely be eager to hear what she had to say musically. She already has one European tour and one U.S. arena tour, opening for The Chainsmokers, under her belt.
We caught up with a quarantined Stella to talk about the album’s creation, her love of touring, and the video that started it all.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Nashville. I’m glad that I made it back. I would hate to be stuck anywhere other than home.
What’ve you been doing to keep busy?
Honestly, it’s been such a busy time because of the album. Somehow I’ve gotten more busy while in quarantine. But other than that, I’ve been cooking every night, which has been a real stretch for me. I go on Pinterest and see what looks yummy. I did a jambalaya.
You were born in Ontario—when did you move to Nashville? Did you move for the show?
I moved in 2009, before the show. My parents were on a reality show called Can You Duet. They moved for their music in ’09, and the show started in 2012.
What was it like growing up in a musical household? And what kind of music did you parents do?
Oh, they played Americana, singer-songwriter music. But they were also into really old-school country, like Roger Miller. Definitely grew up with that, and a lot of 70s music—my mom loves that.
Did that music influence you?
Yes, for sure. Definitely Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Nora Jones—it was all over the place, really. It’s all I’ve ever known, I think it was a great way to grow up. It was such a creative, free, and inspiring household, which I loved.
Nashville put you on a more traditional music track; but you were a YouTube star first. At a very young age, you had a video of you and your sister singing “The Cup Song,” with upwards of thirty million views. What was that like?
It happened spontaneously, at the same time as the show was starting up. I was twelve and my sister was eight at the time, and we posted this video, and it suddenly went viral. It was very weird. We had done nothing prior to it. But, it’s what got us on the TV show. We already had the parts on Nashville, but we couldn’t take them because we were Canadians without visas. And we couldn’t get visas because we hadn’t done anything yet. But because of the press the video got, we were able to get the visas and be on the show. Everything fell into place.
What a lucky break, yes. Had you always planned on becoming a singer? Or when you got your role on Nashville, did you feel you wanted to pursue acting?
Music was always a theme. My sister was the one who first auditioned for the show, but they had asked me to audition, too, because they saw a video of us singing together—a different one than the one that went viral. I had never considered acting before that, but I got the part, and we stayed on for six years. I definitely found a love for acting, and I would like to continue doing it in the future…but after I’ve given my full energy to the music world.
How would you describe your debut album?
People have been waiting for music for awhile, and I’ve been eagerly ready to put it out in the world. I feel that the album is just an honest representation of me as a person and artist; I’ve been given so much time and freedom to find my sound. This album reveals sides of me that I haven’t shown yet. It feels like a new beginning.
Tell us about the writing and recording process.
A lot of it was done in my writing camp in Cabo. It was just my favorite writers and producers, and we went there for eleven days and wrote for the album. A lot of the songs written in the camp actually made it on the album, which is lucky. When you do something like this, it’s rare that it works. But I lucked out that it was such a creative and inspiring space. I really understood myself and the people around me; and I feel like they all really understood me.
What’s your opinion on touring? It can be really difficult sometimes, surely.
With the last tour I did, I found a new love for it. I’ve always liked moving and not being super stable in one place, so I enjoy it. Headlining was so rewarding, and I really enjoyed seeing all these different places, meeting different people, and feeling the energy of it all. And now that I’m going to have an album full of music that I love, it’s going to be even different, because I’ll be playing songs that are new, fresh, and exciting…rather than songs I’m a little bored of. With that being said, I’m also a homebody. When I’m in that space, I’m ready to go, and I love it. But I also like being home and having some consistency. I also really need my sister, my mom, and my boyfriend to come out, or I just feel so isolated. I have to be in a good headspace. If I’m not, it gets really difficult.
What were some of the bad experiences?
I feel like I must have lucked out. The food is tough, all around; there have definitely been times where you go the whole day munching on chips, because it’s difficult to find solid food…especially on off days. But typically, it’s actually fine. As long as the bus is good, I can live off the bus. I don’t mind it.
On the Chainsmokers’ tour you performed in arenas, and that can be a different beast entirely. Did you develop any pre-show routines to get yourself in the right headspace?
Listening to music really loud before going onstage to get my energy up. You need to bring a completely different level of energy to an arena. You can’t rely on the people to get you there, especially when you’re opening. At my shows, if I walk out and I’m not feeling one-hundred percent energized, I instantly get it from everybody. But a lot of the times when you’re opening, you have to give it to them even if they’re not giving it to you. You just have to stay consistently alive throughout the entire show. So amping myself up is really crucial.
What songs off this new album are you most excited to perform?
“Fear of Being Alone” is a fun one Also excited to play “Pretty Boy” and “Much too Much.”
Are there any songs that are difficult to perform live?
Maybe “Older Than I Am”—I couldn’t sing it without crying. It was a very close-to-home song that was probably the hardest in terms of draining me emotionally. It’s also my favorite, though, and I had a really positive experience recording it.
You’ve mentioned that you believe it’s important to associate activism with your music?
I think, ultimately, I want to speak my mind. I read this quote, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s from John Lennon, and it said, “I’m not supposed to be a teacher or a preacher and tell you things you don’t already know. I’m just here to mirror human feelings.” I’m just singing about what I know, and I think what I want is that if there’s ever something political that I want to say or get off my chest, I’ll sing about it. I just want to be honest, transparent, and unafraid to sing about what I feel. But I never want to start problems just to start problems. If it’s something for the greater good, then I’ll sing about it; but I never want it to be drama-inducing.
If you could tell your younger self something, while she’s making YouTube videos with her sister, what would you say?
To not doubt yourself and trust your instincts. While starting out, finding your sound and the way you want to do things, it feels like there’s a right way and a wrong way. I don’t know why that happens, but it feels like someone always knows better than you. But ultimately, no one knows what they’re doing. And that’s a hard thing to learn because it can feel like there’re a lot of people who know more than you do; but really it’s just music. It’s just art. We’re all just doing it because we love it. Trusting myself and my instincts—that would be something that I wish I knew earlier.
What do you ultimately want for this album?
I just want this album to resonate with people, for them to really feel it and understand it…to take something away from it and have it move them in any way. Especially at this time when connection is so important—it’s one thing to really hold onto.