You channel an old soul with a lot of your work, and that holds true with “11 Blocks.” How did you fall in love with music as a kid?
Well thank you! That’s such a big compliment to me… I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra nonstop. My mom would have him on repeat every morning on the way to school. I really fell in love with him. So much emotion in his voice. He was such a performer. The first record I bought myself was Aqualung’s “Strange and Beautiful.” I bought it at a Barnes and Noble (I think the week I got my first car). I saw it on a shelf and I liked the cover, so I bought it.
I remember putting it in the six-disc changer in the parking lot and driving around for the full length of the album. I was blown away. His voice, the stories, the lyrics. The beautiful sounds. That really inspired me to write my first song at 16. It was called “Believe.” It wasn’t good. But his work has really inspired me to tap into the darker spaces inside of my head and my heart. I tend to use music to say things that i can’t say out loud.
“11 Blocks” is a story in every sense of the word. How did the writing for this come about? To what extent do you tap your own life for these narratives?
Oh boy. It is a story, and it is a true story. I guess we all have our “first love.” I was with mine for a couple of years. We ended up breaking up while I was in London writing my last EP. I was devastated. I didn’t understand. It’s now been a few years, and it’s still in my head. That sometimes feels a bit pathetic to admit to, but the more I talk about it with friends (and strangers), the more I see that a lot of us have these people in our lives. The ones that last. The ones that linger. In the corner of your mind there’s always that one. Mine just happened to move 11 blocks away from me last year. It felt too close. It feels too close. We run into each other sometimes. It’s a bit terrifying, really. I don’t drive, so I find myself on foot a lot.
I was walking one day and decided to count the blocks to his house. It was 11. So I jotted down a note, “11 Blocks.” Maybe a month later, my friend showed me this Troye Sivan song called “Wild.” As soon as I heard, “Kissing up on fences and up on walls… on the way home,” I was googling to find the writer/producer credits. Something inside me clicked. I saw that Alex Hope had done quite a bit of work on the album, so I followed her on Twitter and emailed my publisher and said something like, “Hey, I know I have nothing going on and it’s probably impossible, but can we try to get in with Alex Hope? I feel like I need to.” I wrote her a tweet, something like, “Hi you are brilliant.”
Within ten minutes of me sending that email, I see a direct message from her saying something like “Hi! I love ‘I Want You’! We must write!” I cried [Laughs]. I was in a swimming pool in Palm Springs. Crying. Hmm this is starting to sound like the start of a new song… Anyhow, I knew she was the one to write this “11 Blocks” idea with. I just felt it. Months later, when she moved to L.A., we got together for the first time and we wrote the song. It all just clicked. Fell into place. It wrote itself, really. She is so brilliant and kind and warm and genuine and just one of the brightest people I’ve met and worked with.
I just saw the second part of the question. Or maybe it’s the third. I write solely from experience. When writing for myself, I write what is true and nothing that is not true. So, “Based on a True Story” could be my album title i guess. “The names have been changed to protect identities”… [Laughs]. But I mean, “11 Blocks”… It’s real. It’s all real. Too real, really.
You’ve experienced success on your own and also worked extensively with others behind the scenes. What’s the most important thing you learned while working on someone else’s song? Are you often in the studio or is it remote?
Trying to find the balance between getting out of the way, and also trusting myself to steer the ship. When you’re working with artists, you really have to feel out where they are and what they are and what they want to say and how they want to say it. At the same time, as writers we are all so unique. Yes we do the same thing, but in such different ways. The small differences are what make us all unique. Not better than or worse than, just unique.
I’ve been trying to really tap into that part of myself and my craft and trust myself and trust my gut just like I would when I’m writing for myself. Bringing your full self to an artist and really saying, “How can I help you say what you want to say?” Some of my work has been remote, some in person. Remote is weird! In person is weird too! [Laughs]. People are weird!
What advice would you provide about the publishing side of the business?
Find a publisher you love. A person. One person. The company could be great, but if you don’t have that one person, it’s so easy to feel so lost. Also find a definition for success and for happiness that doesn’t involve money or cuts or charts. So hard to do. Especially when it feels like all of your friends are so much more successful than you are. I can slip into such an apathetic place when it comes to writing. Then it’s all dark and it’s all bad. I guess finding balance between the ups and downs and all arounds. And having a team of cheerleaders. Not “yes” people, but cheerleaders and supporters. And write write write.
When I just keep my head down and try to put my heart into my work. Day in, day out. That’s when I look back at the end of the month or year and I see things happening. It is hard though, and nobody told me that. This isn’t a “pity me” whole bit at all, it’s just really hard out there. We write songs. We create something. It feels like we are sharing ourselves because we are. and to have that critiqued and judged can feel like being caught naked in a 360 degree fashion camera booth on the red carpet.
Who are you most inspired by? Why?
Paul Simon. Man oh man I love him. His writing. He can do anything. His stories. His stories! His wisdom. His lyrics. His words. All of it. I’m constantly floored by his craft and how he can express such sadness and heartbreak in one song and such joy and freedom and fun in another.
What do you love about the music landscape in 2016, and is there anything missing?
I don’t listen to the radio all that much. Or a lot of new music, really. I know people always say that… but it’s true! I don’t drive, so I don’t really have control of the music in the back of an uber. I mean I guess I do, but I’m far too passive to ask to change the station…
I have noticed that there seems to be a little bit of everything out there now more than ever. You can kind of create whatever you want to create and trust that, largely thanks to the internet, it can find its audience.
If there’s anything missing, I’d say just more stories. More simple. No drops, just an instrument and a voice and a story. That’s what really hits me. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t say that in a “Look at me I’m changing the world!!!!” kind of way, it’s nothing new. I just spent so much time trying to find that sound. Trying to be cool. It really ended up hurting me. Inside, my heart [Laughs]. I’m so thrilled to have found a home at Epic where I’m able to just sit down and write a song that is true to me and get such a reaction.
What are your next steps?
Trying to not walk those 11 blocks anymore? Is that funny? Not really, huh. I may be hopping on a tour, that would be so exciting. I get yelled at for oversharing when things aren’t confirmed, so I guess that’s all I can say for now regarding that, but I would be very, very excited [Laughs]. I’m putting together this album. Finishing up some production on a few more songs. Still writing very selectively. Trying to tell one more story.
I’m in a bit of a predicament…created 100 percent in my head I’m sure, but I still feel like it may need to be on this record. I’ve written it maybe five times and I still haven’t found it. I once read a little quote… something like, “If you’re having trouble saying something, it means you’re not sure what you have to say yet.” Something like that? So i think I’m not sure what I have to say yet. Which is ok. Just keeps me up at night sometimes trying to find the feelings and get them out of me.