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From “Hide Away” to “Sit Still, Look Pretty” to “Don’t Let Me Down,” singer-songwriter Daya has had her fair share of hits. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native released her first album, Sit Still, Look Pretty, in 2016 when she was just 16 years old. From there, she was met with massive success from winning a Grammy award for Best Dance Record for her single with The Chainsmokers, “Don’t Let Me Down,” to earning gold certification for her debut album. Daya continued her streak by selling out her tours and releasing more singles until she slowly took a few steps back from the music scene.
She’s now returned with a brand new body of work — her new EP titled The Difference, a bold and vulnerable set of songs that’s miles different from her previous album. Written during quarantine, Daya laments the experiences she had in her last relationship as well as opening up about her sexuality. We chat with her about The Difference, why she took a step back from music, and how far she’s come as an artist.
I’d love to touch upon your break between your debut album and your EP. What was that like, what were you up to, and why was now the perfect time to make your comeback into the music scene?
The EP that I released this year is the first full body of work that I’ve released in almost six years, which is so insane. I think it just has to do with me, my progression as an artist and as a writer, and just kind of wanting to also live as a human and have more life experiences to pull from when writing. I had this gut feeling when I was going through the motions with my first album that I just needed time for myself.
Time to get to know me and who I wanted to be as an artist, and what I wanted to sound like — lyrically and conceptually. I definitely knew that I wasn’t in a spot where I was fully confident in the music that I was making and part of that had to do with me being a 16-year-old just out of high school. I hadn’t had time in the music industry to really make connections with different writers and producers and explore. I was kind of confined to this one team that gave me so much and I’m really grateful to them, but there wasn’t exploration or experimentation yet with other writers and genres. I think with every single, you can see a natural progression of me coming more into myself. Hopefully, that has kept people engaged as much as possible. I just know that I wanted to come out with a whole body of work that I was confident in and I loved listening to. Not just for praise from others.
Starting out as young as you did and having all these hits, you’ve mentioned that it did mess with you and your identity a bit. How did you work through that and get to where you are now?
I never want to discount all of the amazing things that I have and had gone through at such a young age. I’m very privileged in that way. I’m grateful for that time and early success. I wouldn’t be here where I am without it. I do think that I was very young. I was in my developmental formative years and a lot of my friends were going to college and just fucking up and doing things that they’ll definitely regret, and just not really caring about what other people think or what other people are saying about them.
I feel like it’s definitely hard to be in this pressure tunnel as soon as you get out of high school … I wasn’t even out of high school. I was a junior. In so many ways, it taught me to grow up really fast. So I took a step back because I didn’t want those formative years to be so analyzed and projected into the spotlight.
What was the process like when you were working on this EP?
Most of the songs were actually written within the last eight months, so all of them were in quarantine except for “First Time,” which is a song that I wrote in Sweden around two years ago now, but we went back and forth in production and stuff like that. So it didn’t really get to where it is until quarantine. And then the rest of them, I started writing from August on. I signed a new deal in early August and then it was just sessions after that.
I kind of hit this wave of insane feelings of cabin fever and restlessness and wanted to do anything to get out of it whether that was through my imagination or writing or creativity. That was definitely a catalyst. And then being excited about the new deal and working with new people and being in rooms with just really talented songwriters. I wrote “Montana” with Nick Long. It was the first time we met over Zoom.
Pretty much the whole EP was over Zoom, which you would think is not good for the art and writing together for the first time, but for some reason, it just worked. I feel like we were both in this vulnerable state, and a lot of people I wrote with were also in a desperate, vulnerable state. It brought the best out of us, I think. And I’m just really happy and lucky to work with the people that I did on this EP and it was really motivating. The creative freedom that I’ve experienced with this new label is something that I could have never imagined a few years ago, so I really am happy.
Is there a song that you’re most proud of?
I think probably either “Tokyo Drifting” or “Montana.” “Tokyo Drifting” was just a fun one to write lyrically. It was cool to put myself in that world. I’ve never written a conceptual song like that yet, so that was really fun to me. “Montana” was one I’m very proud of because it’s the only stripped-down, acoustic-sounding song that I ever put out. I think the only other one would be a ballad on my first album, but it felt raw and emotional.
We started out with just me and Nick, who’s on the guitar, and didn’t have a producer. I hadn’t written a song without a producer in the room in a long time. It was fun to get back to how I would have written when I was 15 in my bedroom with just my guitar. And then we added in Andrew Seltzer, who produced the rest of it and kept stripping back elements until it had that original feel to it like the first day we wrote it when it felt vulnerable and emotional.
What does this EP symbolize for you?
It definitely symbolizes freedom in terms of me and my career. I felt so liberated and free in the last year of my career. It took me places I wouldn’t have expected myself to go. It’s like stepping stones that I’m working on that feel risky in terms of pop music, but I don’t really want to label anything. I don’t have these weird boundaries in my head or parameters to measure how good my music is. It’s stuff I listen to and love, and I genuinely am so proud and confident in it. If other people like it, that’s amazing, and it’s great, but if they don’t then that’s honestly OK with me.
This EP is your most vulnerable body of work yet — is this something you want to continue doing?
I think that’s what songwriting is about. And I think that that’s what I’ve definitely been searching for. I really connect with music that I feel is completely genuine and unapologetic and unfiltered. I think for a while I was in this environment where it was formulaic and manufactured … like we need to do it this way or that way.
It was a puzzle everyone was trying to solve. Why couldn’t I just write what I experienced last week, and while it was stuff like that, it was also that we needed to have specific elements to make it a certain way to please types of listeners and get radio play. I think that letting go of those expectations for myself has been so good in producing work that feels much more honest and free-flowing and unfiltered in that way.
I’m so happy for you! I think that feeling is so universal. We’re all looking for approval in different ways and once we let go of that, we’re so much happier.
Yeah, it’s so weird the things that we have built up around artists in the music industry. It’s all these weird extra things that become obstacles to really get to what is the good stuff. I would love to see a day in the industry where we don’t have 50 cooks in the kitchen and we’re trying to constantly tame the writing or creative process. And I think that some people are really helpful at labels and obviously I’m not trying to diss labels as a whole. I think that the main goal should be to support the artists’ vision and to help bring that to life rather than insert different opinions into it.
It’s interesting that your first album really focused on being independent and doing your thing, while with this EP, you sort of grow from that through experiences and you talk about things like codependency and love. You can just see the way you progress through your lyrics.
I was coming at it from my point of what I knew at the time at 16, and what I knew was that I wanted to be independent and a strong, standalone female. I wanted to be empowering. Then I feel like it’s one thing to say and then another to be in a real relationship and experience things. Just like how disorienting it can be and have this debilitating hold over you like you don’t have any control or power over it.
You can’t just be like “I don’t need you and I’m over it.” It’s much more complicated than I once thought after having that experience. Going through my first relationship in the past three years, I’ve definitely experienced what it’s like to be codependent and to be so fully invested in one person that you’re getting like all of your happiness and worth out of it, which is not something that I obviously want to tell other people to do because it’s not a good thing, but I think it is a real thing. At times there can be moments even in a healthy and balanced relationship that happens and that you have these thoughts. It’s just a realistic take on what it means to be in love. I don’t want it to be this preachy thing, but I wanted to share my relationship and what it felt like to be in love.
Exactly. We all think we know so much when we’re young, but then we’re proven wrong most of the time as we grow older.
It’s funny because I thought I was so confident. Like, I was even more confident than I am now. I thought I was preaching the right messages, and kind of being that girl. I’m unlearning a lot of things and going through life a second time in a different way. I still love those songs. They still hold a huge piece of my heart and I think that they still ring true for me. I definitely have days where I want to be completely independent and not need anyone to make me happy.
“Bad Girl” is a song you’ve said you love and are really proud of because it’s the first one in which you address your sexuality. You’ve mentioned how you want to normalize queer stories. Do you feel that even now in Hollywood, and music, we’re still lacking music from queer artists who are honest and vulnerable within their songwriting about this topic?
Definitely, It’s really important to have these power anthems for queer love but also just normalize it and put it into everyday songs by using different pronouns or whatever it is. And that way, it’s not like, I am defined by this song because I’m queer. It’s more like it’s a part of my life that I’m talking about because I’m in a relationship with a girl.
It’s the same if I’m talking about a relationship with a guy. I think that people are genuinely connecting with a lot of queer artists right now, which is really, really cool to see. I hope that it keeps going in that direction because I know I feel like we as a culture are really moving past that point. I would have been scared to release “Bad Girl” a few years ago because I wouldn’t have known if they’d play it or if I’d lose fans, which I’m not concerned about now. It was different back then, but it’s cool to see that radio has embraced “Bad Girl” and not just in the US, but all over the world. It’s great to see culture progress, but we have a long way to go still.
In the song “Montana,” you’re singing about wanting to escape the flashiness of LA and going away somewhere far with a lover. If you could do that, where would you go and why? Paint me a picture of your idealistic getaway.
I think a big wide open space and landscape. Maybe like an old ranch or something … some farm animals and horses. I’ve never been a country girl. I grew up in Pittsburgh, which isn’t, like, a city-city, but I grew up in the suburbs part of it. Even while touring and traveling, I’ve never really spent much time in the northwest part of the country.
I’ve never been to Montana before, but I wrote this song, just as this ideal, remote location where no one’s bothering me. I don’t have my phone or anything like that. I’m just with the person I love. And we’re living off the land and growing our food, like starting a garden. While I was in quarantine, I kept thinking, “Why am I spending so much time here in this city?” I just want to have a yard and roam and do these things.
I can totally get the appeal, especially when we’ve been cooped up for so long and kind of scared of breathing in outside air.
That’s another thing for me — I’m super sensitive to air quality. I can just really smell it when it’s smokey and it’s terrible. Even when I go an hour outside of LA, like to Big Bear or something, it just feels so much better.
What is next for you in terms of your career?
I’m back in the studio and we’re working on music. I feel like I’m just in a really good space creatively and I want to keep rolling with that. I feel like I’ve built out this team of people that I really love working with. I just moved so I’m trying to build my studio at my house. I’m gonna spend all my energy focusing on music because I feel like I’m on a roll. I’m in a good space with it.