When I was 11 years old, I was obsessed with Hairspray, so that’s where I know you from.
Of course, of course.
And when I think of you, I kind of think of this batch of LA artists who have been working in music since they were very young—JoJo, Tori Kelly…
Yup, but in a different way. They’ve kind of done music all of their lives, but when I was young I was getting deals for acting. This is my first venture as an artist, but they’ve kind of been doing the music scene since they were twelve or thirteen. I was too busy filming, but I was able to watch them, and over the years I watched them grow into incredible singers. They can both write, too.
When I think of them, I also think about the struggles they had. JoJo had so much drama with her label, and I know it took Tori a while to get to where she is. How do you think you are separate from that?
I think that when you’re very young, you don’t really know yourself as an artist. And so when you’re thrust into a world very quickly and you’re kind of figuring out who you are as an artist, people’s first impressions really matter. That’s why it took so long to come out with my own artistry—because I’ve seen my friends struggle with finding out who they are in front of everybody. And the main difference is that they don’t write for other people. Their brand is contained for just them. I’m not just an artist who happens to be a good songwriter, I also write for other people. And that was also a really key factor in finding myself as an artist—knowing that if I wrote for all of these artists, well, that’s not me. Figuring out who I am will take time.
I’m super interested in the songwriting side of things. You got signed to a publishing deal when you were 19, right?
Exactly. After Hairspray, nobody wanted to write with me because I refused to sign a deal. I didn’t want to be in messed up contracts at a very young age like some of my friends, so I tried to go in the completely opposite direction and stay independent for as long as possible. This first project is tailor-made for me—no label, no anything.
I guess it’s a question of finding visibility when you’re still young and everyone else having overwhelming opinions that keep you from expressing your own.
True. Especially when you’re working with so many types of people. At a very young age, [those girls] were working with heavy hitters in the game, so it’s very easy to get caught up in people’s opinions that you look up to.
Have you ever written a song for another artist that you wanted to keep for yourself?
This just happened recently. There’s a song that I wrote for Selena [Gomez], and I was like, “Oh, this is really great.” But I actually like her better on the song, sound-wise. And then there’s some stuff that I did for Janelle Monae that I really like. I have three or four songs on her upcoming album.
Janelle has also been breaking barriers by doing a lot of acting lately.
Exactly! She’s going the complete opposite direction, and she also has her label and other ventures. So she brought me to Atlanta, and over the past few months we’ve been going in just really trying to finish up this album. Same with Christina Aguilera. She kind of met me right in the middle ground of, “I understand you want to be creative, but I also understand your label—they want a hit.” So finding that middle ground for my project was actually a lot less complicated than I thought it was going to be. People are always like, “How do you have thirteen songs that aren’t yours coming out over the rest of the year and still have twelve songs coming out on your own project?” It’s literally just about staying focused and going back to knowing who I am at a very young age.
Since you’ve written for such a wide range of artists and genres, was it hard to compress this into your own sound for this album?
I think that since I’ve written for so many people, I was able to be like, “Okay, I’ve been down that road, and that’s not me.” I know I would never sing the same thing that I wrote for Fifth Harmony. Maybe 16-year-old Tayla would.
I’ve found myself by saying, “This doesn’t sound like anything that I’ve ever written for anyone.” And I’m not afraid of that now. I can just fall into it.
Interesting. I know Sia released a whole album of songs that were rejected by other artists. Yet she’s still been consistently on top of the pop game somehow.
Because people don’t know what a hit song is until it’s a hit song. There are so many songs that were passed on that massive hits. And so I really, really respect Sia because she is an artist that can also say, “Hey, I believe in this song regardless of whether this massive artist believed in it or not.”
I listened to your new album last night. It’s a very fresh-sounding R&B—the “new” R&B, if you will. Is this the type of music you personally listen to?
I listen to everything, yeah [laughter]. You described the album as this “new, fresh R&B,” and I kind of wanted to redefine what the “urban” space is because I’m not all the way Urban, and I’m not all the way Pop. I think I’m somewhere right down the middle where every day I wake up and somebody is saying that their favourite song [from the album] has changed. I love dance music. I love “feel good” music. I was listening to Kaytranada on my way over here and I noticed that. I also travel a lot, and when I go to London, for example, you can obviously hear those influences in my music.
There are so many different sounds on the album. Were there any favorite samples or sounds that you used?
Well, funnily enough, the song “Baby Blue,” came to be when I went on a date with this guy and he was like, “There’s this song that’s been stuck in my head all day,” and he started singing that Outkast hook, “Pretty pink, baby blue.” Fast forward two months later, and I’m sitting in the south of France in this castle just writing songs with incredible other writers like Adele. Just five people. I’m sitting there and I’m like, “What if we play a crazy bassline but take this hip hop song that is an Outkast album track?” Everybody who knew the track was so shocked, and the people who don’t know it thought it was so fresh. That was one of the most exciting, cooler songs I’ve sampled.
I think it’s cool that you got Syd on a track because it kind of reminded me of Syd’s latest record. But some of the sampling also kind of reminded me of Frank Ocean.
They’re mixing genres. They don’t care about what a girl’s supposed to say or what a guy’s supposed to say. They just care about relating to people. At the end of the day—no matter what color or sexuality—we all have the same emotions. You’re either loving somebody, hating somebody, getting your feelings hurt…those are all just human emotions.
When I think of current pop songwriters, they all kind of have a specific sound and work with the same kinds of artists, whereas you can work with any kind of artist and still make your sound fit.
Anybody. We don’t have to only do pop or urban. We don’t have to be locked in because I think that also gives you a creative block. Obviously, not everybody wants to cross genres, but I’m super, super happy I can because I think I would get bored. It’s very different writing for people who have a “box” that they’re in and that their entire team wants them to stay in. Lately I’ve been finding that people bring me in to break an artist out of their box yet still keep them, you know? I’m going into my own artistry and walking into the studio, and I ask myself, "What do you feel like saying at this moment?" Then I'll just go, “Play me the weirdest beat. Play me the beat that nobody could write over when they came in.” And don’t play it yet until I step into the booth, because it’s always going to be the first thing I do that’s gonna be like, “Got it.” When I try to revisit, it loses something that’s real. That’s what “In Common” by Alicia Keys was—a freestyle. And then the next day, her label had flown in and were like, “Yo, there’s the song.” I’m like, “I don’t even remember what I was saying!” It’s just mumbles that I blurted out, and then there’s a song. I don’t know where it comes from.
You said an album is coming next year. In preparation for that album, what do you hope people take away from this mixtape?
Well, this is just the intro to me. I want them to all have that same exact reaction that you had where they say, “Oh, what is this? This is something new and something fresh.” I’m excited to see what this continues to evolve into. That’s all I want people to do—hear something that makes the inside of your brain go, “Huh.” You can love it, you can hate it, but it’s going to make you think.
Tayla Made is out now.