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| 2 April 2021 | Reply


According to a recent press release: “At nine-years old, Willa Amai began her journey writing songs about heartbreaks she had yet to experience, losses she had never felt, and social injustices she didn’t even know existed. With an eclectic mix of inspirations – from Regina Spektor records played during bath time to the poetry books her parents read to her – this Los Angeles native quickly amassed a body of work revealing lyrical complexity far beyond her years. She also created imaginative melodies, something she partly attributes to synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which one sense triggers the perception of another sense, such as seeing letters and words as color). Now 16, Willa has begun sharing her music with the world, showing the extraordinary depth of her narrative voice and the subtle power of her songwriting. “When I’m writing it’s almost like I’m turning on a radio,” she says. “It might take a few songs to find a station that comes through, but once I do find it, it’s just right. It’s like the song already exists and my job is to pull it out of the air and into the world.” We get Willa to discuss new music, influences, and much more…

Toddstar: Willa, thank you so much for taking time out for us. We appreciate it.

Willa: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me.

Toddstar: This is fun. Not often that we get to feature a 16 year old with chops, and a voice, and songwriting at your level.

Willa: Thank you so much.

Toddstar: Let’s talk about some of the obvious stuff. You’re putting together an album, you put some singles out there. What can you talk about, about what you’re putting together right now? I believe you’re recording with Linda Perry.

Willa: Yes. I’ve been working with Linda Perry since I was 12 and a half. And so we are really close to releasing this full album. And it has been an incredible process. Linda, her mantra with me has always been that she didn’t ever want to touch any of my music. So every song that I’ve ever put out that has been put out under my name, it’s a hundred percent mine. I wrote a hundred percent of it. She never changed the lyrics or the melodic structure. All she ever changed, if anything, it would be the key or the tempo and that was it. And so I’m so excited to put out this album because it’s such a large body of work that I can call completely my own.

Toddstar: You structured your response perfectly in my mind. It lends itself to where Linda really has just played that mentor and producer role with you instead of coming in and saying, “Nope, we’re going to do this, this, this, this, and this.”

Willa: Yeah. And that she really wanted to protect me from. Since we started working together when I was still young, I think a piece of her still sees me as that 12 and a half year old that she met four years ago. I think that she knew that if she threw me in a room with really big time producers or songwriters, that I would be eaten alive. And she also knew how important authenticity was to me. She knew that I wanted to be putting out music that was completely mine. And so it just worked out really incredibly and she’s really worked extremely hard to protect me in that way and I can’t take credit for that. And I think that’s why I’ve grown so much as a musician is that nobody has ever tried to put me in a box. So I could always just be the songwriter that I was in that moment without judgment, without tailoring, without editing.

Toddstar: It’s great to hear that from such a young artist, because you hear so many of the stories on the other side of that coin.

Willa: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s part of why my parents were willing to let me start my own career or start a real job at such a young age. Because Linda was very clear in that she would let me be who I was and if that meant taking a break from music, writing a different style of music, whatever it was, she wanted me to be always authentic to myself. And if that wasn’t the case, I don’t think that I would’ve gotten this far in this profession.

Toddstar: Let’s talk about the music a little bit. Anybody who’s been exposed to some of the videos back in February, you launched the single and the video for “Ocean.” And anybody who Googles you will find you’ve done some cool collaborations. I’ll let you touch on those in a minute, but let’s get to “Ocean” and other songs of yours. What can you tell us about the music itself and the lyrics that people may not grasp the first or second time you’re listening through some of your music?

Willa: My music has always been a product of my anxiety. Happy songs are about when that anxiety is relieved and the darker songs are when that anxiety feels more consuming. But I think always music has been what keeps my anxiety at bay. And I’ve had the privilege to have never really succumb to anxiety and the ways that a lot of other people have because I have music and that is an outlet for my demons. And so like “Ocean,” for example, it’s about my first love and how they made me feel worthy. And they made me kind of let go of some of that anxiety and sort of the burden that I kind of carry on my shoulders. And that was an overwhelming feeling. And so then that song was born and then “Unorganized Crime” that song is about how I thought that I was going to one day kind of break free of the confinements of society and show everyone how rebellious and free I was. But the truth is I’m not like that I’m straight. And I’m straight and square and I like to read. And I’m never going be that person. And so, I think a piece of that comes from the fact that I’m too anxious and afraid of freedom and rebellion to ever be that person. And so, I wrote that song kind of in memoriam of that idea of myself. So, I think that’s too, why a lot of people ask me like how I could write about mature things when I’m only 16 or 14 or 13, whenever it is that people ask me that, and it’s because the truth is we all feel the same stuff. I was 16, and I’m anxious and it’s not a less important anxiety than someone who’s anxious who is 50. It’s all the same. Nobody has a monopoly on pain.

Toddstar: How do you prepare to write? Do you put yourself in a mindset when you think, “Okay, it’s time to write, it’s time to put something together and I want to be creative” or is it just a situation where the tail wags the dog, when suddenly something comes to you and you realize it’s time to be creative?

Willa: Definitely more the latter. I have always been a very spontaneous writer. I’ve been really prolific my whole life. I just, because I need songwriting just for my own mental health upkeep. But 99% of the time it’s that I hear a word, or a rhythm or a melody, and I have something in my brain. And I need to get it down on paper. And so, most of the time it is just a spontaneous spark of creativity that I kind of try and create a song out of.

Toddstar: You hit on a couple of things in there, and one you’ve mentioned the mental health and things like that. And you’re an ambassador for NAMI – National Alliance on Mental Illness – and at such a young age. I don’t mean that in a negative connotation, it’s just, most people wouldn’t associate somebody of your age having these kinds of issues. At what point did you have self-realization to understand the concept of music really is kind of my release and my freedom?

Willa: I think that in order for me to acknowledge that music was my outlet, I first had to acknowledge that anxiety was something that I struggled with. And I think that my whole life I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t really have a name for it until I was in like fourth grade, maybe? I started having panic attacks about sleep. And so I went to my pediatrician and she said, “Well, you have anxiety.” And I’ve been to a couple of different therapists and in those points in my life, I needed them. But I think I’m at a place now where music is really all I need to be able to kind of deal with and reconcile my anxiety. And I’m really proud of that, how far I’ve come. But I guess it was when I was diagnosed with anxiety that I realized it was music that was kind of keeping me as sane, and high functioning, and happy as I was. Then obviously, I’m really privileged to have an incredible support network around me. I’m very close with my family. I have a very tight knit group of friends and these people have always supported me and have always been a huge part of my mental health. But music is what lets me get that anxiety out. It’s what lets me help understand it. And then the people around me are what kind of support me through that process.

Toddstar: With everything going on in the world right now, we’ve all got some anxiety. So we could all take a little lesson from you. But you’ve been very productive and that’s just what is known. Like you said, you’re working on stuff. But from my count, you’ve got three or four songs in 2020 alone that launched with videos. Yet, you had a cover of “What’s Going On?” And then a couple of others, you mentioned “Unorganized Crime.” How did the pandemic, and lock downs, and everything else… How did that affect your process from songwriting, to producing, to putting together, to ultimately launching this to the masses?

Willa: I mean, there are a couple of different changes that happened with me during the pandemic. First and foremost, I think the actual songs that I was writing started to change. And maybe that’s just because I’m getting older. I turned 16 in the pandemic and I turn 17 in like a week or something. So I’ve now done two birthdays at a young age in quarantine. And so it’s normal for my songwriting style to change. But I think what the pandemic did is I started to appreciate the quiet of music more, if that makes sense? Songs that have space for you to breathe as a listener. Because I think that was needed more and more as the pandemic and everything else that was going on in the world got louder and louder. I think music… People needed a space in music to breathe. And so my songwriting style kind of morphed more into that, into songs that allowed for breathing room. And then in terms of the business side of it, I think that I’ve had to rely a lot more on social media because I can’t do shows. And I can’t do a radio tour or anything like that. And I would never be able to do a three month tour because of school, but social media kind of became my only marketing tool. And so, I had to learn how to love social media enough to be okay with using it as a crutch in the way that I’ve had to. But Linda has been incredible this whole kind of quarantine. Safety has been of the most importance. So I’ve been so lucky to have been able to record because she controls the city own. So it would just be me and her. She would stay in the booth and I would stay at my microphone. And so we’d be in separate rooms the whole time and she would disinfect the whole room, even instruments I wasn’t going to use. She would disinfect the whole thing before I came. And so I got to still make music in that way during the pandemic, which I’m really, really lucky for.

Toddstar: It’s definitely contrary to what a lot of people have done where they’ve done the remote thing right now with home recording studio. So it’s kind of cool that you were able to get that experience. You’ve done some really cool covers. I have to say I was blown away by your version of “The Show.”

Willa: Well, thank you so much.

Toddstar: You’ve collaborated with legends. You’re working with Linda, you recorded with Dolly, you’ve done live stuff with Brandi Carlile. These are bucket list opportunities for some people. Who’s still on your bucket? Who’s out there that you’ve thought I would just love to do something with?

Willa: God. I mean, there are a lot of people. I mean, it’s funny. My mom actually said to me, because I recorded with Dolly when I was 13. And I was saying to myself, “You know, where do I go from here? I’m 13 and I’ve just recorded with one of my all-time idols. Not just my all-time idol, the world’s all-time idols. How do I go up from here?” But then I got to perform live with Brandy, which I just have so much respect for her song writing, her work ethic, her perseverance, her resilience. And so if we’re talking, are we saying dead or alive? Or only things that could actually be possible? I mean, this is possible, but not likely. Stevie Nicks is probably the top one. I grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac. I took so many songwriting and singing tips from that band when I was first learning how to write and sing. So to sing with Stevie Nicks, oh my God, that would be crazy. Another one that is not likely at all, but it’s possible, is to do what kind of Adam Lambert has been doing, which is to sing with the band Queen. It’s one song. That’s all I need. My parents have spoiled me in that they played only the greatest songwriters of all time when I was younger. So it’s like all of my lifetime idols are people who would never want to sing with me.

Toddstar: Well, that’s thing, when think about it. Did you ever think when you were 11, that Dolly Parton would sing with you?

Willa: Definitely not. I won’t say never. I won’t say never, I’ll have faith in myself. But, Stevie Nicks, she can’t hear this phone call, but if she happens to come in contact with this interview, I love her with all my heart. Please contact Linda.

Toddstar: You’ve done so much in such a short time. Willa, what song or album resonates with you at this point that it’s still hits you as hard in your heart and soul as it did the first time you heard it?

Willa: God, there’s so much music that has inspired me my whole life. Because, like I said, my parents really wanted to introduce me to the greatest music of all the time, when I was young. They banned the kind of baby music. And so, but I think the music that has been the most consistent in its, kind of, inspiring factor for me, there are two songs, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” Both of those songs have changes within them that I still aspire to achieve in one of my songs. I’ve never done a song that is so creative, so different depending on where you are in it. And I really want to be able to do that and I haven’t been able to do it yet. And so those songs I listen to on a pretty much daily basis and just hope that something comes to me. But I mean, all of Billy Joel, all of Queen, all of Fleetwood Mac, all of those artists inspire me every single day and new artists too. Hozier, I love Hosier so much. Sam Smith, there are current artists like that who also inspire me daily. But I think that the kind of common thread among all the artists and all the music that inspires me is that I really just am drawn to authenticity and creativity of mindset. I really like that. So artists past and present who have championed something in some way. like the Grateful Dead, they started a business model that’s followed by most companies today. Like even that, I love that. I love the uniqueness of that.

Toddstar: I know you’re busy. So I’ve got one more for you. I want flip the coin of what inspires you. I hate to pigeon hole anybody… I’m all over the place. I can go from you, to Kiss, to Manilow, to Zappa, to Rob Zombie in the matter of about three hours, which I do on a regular basis. What are the one or two guilty pleasure songs on your phone, or your iPad, or your computer that might really strike somebody as odd or funny?

Willa: “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates and “Thunder” by AC/DC are my two, I think. But mostly “Rich Girl.” “Rich Girl” is my karaoke song. But every time it’s “Rich Girl.” And if they don’t have it, I just sing it without the music. And maybe I shouldn’t say the guilty pleasure because it is just an amazing song. But that song… My dad is a really big Hall and Oates fan. And so when I was going to school in person and I had my driver’s permit, and my dad would be in the car with me while I drove myself to school and we would just play “Rich Girl” the whole way and just kind of belt it out. And then “Thunder,” that song gives me the chills. So I think those are my two that might surprise people. I think it always just surprises people. At least in my experience, I remember I was on a bus ride for a choir thing and I was listening to a playlist that had both of those songs on it. And this girl who was sitting next to me with asking what I was listening to and I showed her and she was very taken aback. So those are the ones that normally surprise people in my experience, that I listen to.

Toddstar: Again, I really appreciate you taking all the time. We can’t wait until you have a whole package to put out there, including the world opening up and you being able to deliver this to the masses in a live situation.

Willa: Thank you so much for having me and talking to me.

Toddstar: Awesome. Well, we’ll talk to you when that album comes out and we’ll push some more.

Willa: Yes. Perfect. Thank you so much. Have a great day.





Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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