Editor’s Note: Willa Amai was just 12 1/2 years old when she was discovered by legendary producer Linda Perry, who is also known for the song “What’s Up” by 4 Non-Blondes. Willa Amai has two singles out for music videos in “Trampled Flowers” and “Unorganized Crime”, and she’s appeared on The Today Show and The Ellen Show. She’s also sang duets with Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile and they both have offered her advice and mentored her fledgling career. Now, she has a new album ready to hit the airwaves. In this Mental Health Conversation with Madness To Creation, Willa Amai discusses mental health, her music videos for “Trampled Flowers” and “Unorganized Crime”, and the role that her family has played in her development as an artist and in her mental health. Willa Amai is on the rise to put it mildly. Fans can listen to this podcast via Spreaker, Podcast Addict, YouTube and Soundcloud. Fans can find Willa Amai at the following locations:
- Disclaimer, if you want to head straight to the interview go to the 6:45 mark
Madness To Creation: How are you coping with Covid-19 and with this crazy world?
Willa Amai: I think that I’ve been put in an incredibly lucky position and I try to be thankful for what I have everyday, and my outlet is music obviously and a lot of people lost their outlet when Covid hit and I still get to do what I get to do in order to stay mentally healthy, and so many people didn’t get that, and I count myself lucky every day, plus the fact that I have a family around me, who are really close and support me in everything that I do and to have that network of support and it definitely has positive consequences on my mental health and I have every possible chance to be coping as well as I can, and I’m really trying to be grateful.
Madness To Creation: You mentioned a supportive family, how big of a role have they played in your development as an artist and as a musician?
Willa Amai: My family has always been my biggest fan, especially my little sister, I have a little sister two years younger than me named Harper and she is just the most incredible person and even before she understood what I was doing, even when we were really little and even before she understood what songwriting really was, I was songwriting at a very young age, she has supported me to the ends of the Earth, so I think her in tandem with my parents, who I’ve always had such a great respect for when they raised me and my sister because they’ve always treated us as equals and so to have their support in this endeavor as well I think really gave me confidence in my ability and also helped me acknowledge at the end of the day if this didn’t work out, in worst case scenario, I have these incredible people behind me who will catch me if I fall and as far as my development as a songwriter, my family loves music, whether my little sister just plays the cello and my mom used to play the piano, whether just playing music or as a connoisseur of music as my father calls it, they’ve always just loved for their own enjoyment that I love music and I love to create music, they’ve helped me grow thus far less as a business savvy music and more just bringing out the emotion in my songs.
Madness To Creation: Speaking of the emotions in your songs, you have recently released the music video for “Unorganized Crime”, I love how the song is so packed with emotion and just cuts right through the person. Can you take us into the song and the music video?
Willa Amai: Thank you so much, I love to hear that, that is the best compliment. “Unorganized Crime” is different from all of my other music that’s out and all of my other music that I’ve ever written really for a couple of reasons. As far as it’s different from the other things that are out, I think that song is the best representation of my songwriting style, I’ve had such amazing albeit collection of things that I’ve done so far, duet with Dolly Parton, a cover of a Daft Punk song for a global Quickbooks campaign, these are incredible opportunities, but none of them are really truly me writing for myself, so this was the first song that was really like that, so I think it’s different from all of those songs because it begins to define who I really am in the music industry. I wrote it differently than I have for any other song.
The thing it’s about was when I was younger, I thought that I was going to be really rebellious, I thought that I was some rebellious soul that was going to break free one day from societal norms, like I would listen to Lana Del Ray and just cry, but the truth is that I’m not rebellious, I’m square! I like rules, I like structure, and so when I came to accept that I was never going to be what I thought I was going to be, I wrote that song in memoriam of that idea of myself, writing and imagining what it would have felt like if I had grown up to be that unattainable image. I imagined everything that scared me, whether it’s something concrete like drugs or alcohol to something more abstract, such as the idea of being free, I guess those scare me in all reality, so I pretended like they excited me, so that’s where the song came from.
Madness To Creation: That’s so important. How important is it to have that routine and to have that structure in your life when you’re crafting your music?
Willa Amai: The reason why that music is my outlet is because music is where I’m loosest with my structure, like I have a very meticulous planner, I get very anxious when the timing of something changes, my day is planned down to the minute ultimately, but music is the one thing where I can be freer and that’s why I think that I can get out all of the bad stuff with music, so when I make music, it’s only forget about time and about my planner, school and everything that is happening in the world, so yeah, I need structure but probably to the extent that it isn’t healthy, so I think music is my savior a little bit in that respect.
Madness To Creation: Would you consider yourself a perfectionist in the studio?
Willa Amai: I definitely used to be, when I started working with Linda Perry as my producer, I was definitely a perfectionist, she has videos of me and we filmed the whole series of recordings with her when I started working with her at 12 and a half, so she has video evidence basically of me recording my own songs and my back is straight like a wooden plank and my elbows were so rigid that I was so scared of messing up, but working with Linda has taught me that being a perfectionist can sometimes sacrifice the emotion, so that’s definitely been toned down a little bit, so I understand how important it is to prioritize honesty and emotion into recording music as opposed to perfectionism.
Madness To Creation: How did you get linked up with Linda Perry, she’s legendary, how did you get linked up with her?
Willa Amai: I actually met her through a mutual friend, if you know Soleil Moon Frye from Punky Brewster, so her and my mom are actually really great friends, so Soleil knew Sarah through her wife, so when I was 12 and a half, Soleil just called Linda, and she’s just the sweetest person ever, she goes, “oh, please be an angel and just talk to her and give her advice, and whatever she said, and that was all that it was supposed to be was just advice, on the music industry and I played her like a third of a song and she just sat there very silently, which was just terrifying and she said to come back to her in two months with five songs, and so I did, I came back to her in five months with six songs and played them for her and she said that we have to record these, and so we scheduled to record in my two weeks of Spring Break, which was about a month away, and when I came back to record those six songs, I had seven more. In two weeks basically, we recorded 13 songs and we’ve been doing this journey ever since.
Madness To Creation: And look where you are now. You’ve performed on the Ellen Show, you’ve performed with Dolly Parton and you’ve performed with Brandi Carlile, what would you say your biggest reward or biggest accomplishment is?
Willa Amai: That’s a really good question. I think that some of my favorite moments have been with Brandi Carlile, the Ellen Show, singing with Dolly Parton, even my first show at Largo when I was 12 and a half, but I think that my biggest accomplishment or the thing that I’m most proud of myself for is the ability to listen to my own music. When I started out on this journey, I was very dissatisfied with everything that I produced and I hated to listen to myself sing or even talk or listen to my own music, I couldn’t do it, I hated it, but one of the things that Linda has shown me is the importance of self-confidence in your own music and in your own abilities and your magic, so I’m able to appreciate my own music and that is something that I never thought I’d be able to do.
Madness To Creation: I feel that sometimes people can be their own worst critic, do you feel that sometimes you get in your own way when you make music?
Willa Amai: Oh definitely! I think that sometimes I get in my own head about what I should be writing. The way that I write, sometimes it comes in waves, it’s the style that I like to write in, and so often I’ll find myself writing a song that I have just written and I stop myself, and it’s terrible because sometimes my best songs have come out of my struggles with my own psyche. As with all artists, I have a dark side too, I battle with myself every day, I always want to be the best ultimately, so sometimes it’s hard to tell that half of myself to just shut up, so I can make something.
Madness To Creation: What’s one thing as a musician that I think “hey, I’m pretty damn good at this”, and one thing where you feel, “I need to get better at this?”
Willa Amai: The thing that I’m proudest of myself in my musicality is melodic structure, I’m always proud of my melodic structure and sometimes I get repetitive and sometimes I have groups of songs that sound exactly the same, it’s just what I needed to write at that time, but I’m always proud of my melodic structure. I think the thing that I can work on, and I’ve been trying to work on is being less wordy, the whole “less is more” thing, cause I have a lot to say, but I think my default is to is when I have something powerful that I want to say is to say as much as I can, but that’s often counterproductive, so what I’ve been working on is maximizing the impact of every word, then you don’t need as many, and I think some of the best songs have the most space, some of the best song lyrics have very few lyrics, so that’s been something that I’ve been really trying to work on.
Madness To Creation: Do you find that to be more of a challenge with this year, with social unrest, with Covid-19, with everything going on in the world, do you find that do be more challenging to write lyrics?
Willa Amai: Yeah definitely! Because I’m 16, I can’t vote and in a lot of ways I’m not seen someone that can outwardly even make an impact with the things that are going on, but I have things to say, I have opinions, I want to feel like that I can make a change and the only way that I know how is music, but sometimes you sit down to write a song, and it’s like I’ve tried this before, I tried to write a song about Covid, I tried to write about how you can’t see people or having to say goodbye without knowing it, there were last days when you saw someone and you didn’t know it was going to be your last day seeing them, and that’s a really hard topic to talk about, and I tried writing it, and I couldn’t find a way of saying it without convoluting the idea, and it may take some time for me for the idea to settle, and this may sound bad, but desensitize myself to the feeling before I can write a song that is truly impactful because I think right now, it’s just too hard and it’s too raw, so I think it’s hard right now to write about current events recently because there’s so much to say.
I think right now Black Lives Matter is a good example of this, I’m a privileged white girl and I want to be an ally and I want to promote anti-racism and I want to feel like I’m making a difference because as a person of privilege, it’s my duty to actively go against the systemic racism that’s in our country, but how do you put that in a song? I’m trying and I have tried and I will continue to try until I get it right, but it definitely is really, really difficult.
Madness To Creation: I was going to say sometimes having those moments of reflection really help, I like to work out and I like to get my camera out and do my photography, what are some things you like to do to help you reflect when you don’t feel like writing music?
Willa Amai: I really like to walk, so I walk as much as I can. I also like to talk to people. My sister and my boyfriend have really cultivated these safe spaces for me to say what I feel without fear that if it comes out wrong, it’ll be misunderstood, so walking and talking honestly and sometimes being in nature, I guess. I went to the botanical gardens recently with my boyfriend and being just in that naturally incredible setting, which I haven’t been getting enough of being cooped up in my house, I think that it really helps kind of cleanse my mind and it shows you that some of the most simplest and natural things in life are the most beautiful.
Madness To Creation: What would you say the biggest lesson that 2020 has taught you?
Willa Amai: That’s a good question. I think that this is incredibly cliche, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in this sentiment, but I think that 2020 has taught me that I’m better than I thought I was in every way, smarter than I thought I was, stronger than I thought I was, and more determined than I thought I would ever be. I have been pushed to my limit in a lot of different ways this year, but I have made myself proud, even that in itself making myself proud, I never thought I would be able to do that in all honesty, I think that I have exceeded my own expectations this year.
Madness To Creation: Absolutely. I kind of want to go back to the question where we talked about Brandi Carlile, Dolly Parton and the Ellen Show, what are some things that they have taught you whether you sang with them, performed with them or performed on their show?
Willa Amai: Dolly was just amazing! I mean everything that you would hoped that she would be and more. I mean she was coming into the studio to sing with me and talking to me about how we’re not that different and encouraging me and nurturing me, she’s just the kindest. The song that we recorded together, I did the arrangement for “Come Again” and she sang with me obviously on it, and it went into the soundtrack for the movie “Dublin” which is a Netflix movie with Daniel McDonald, and so I went to the premiere, so I showed up at the premiere and I walked the red carpet, and I look down on the end and I see Dolly coming down on the carpet, and I was back at the beginning, and she sees me and waves me over and starts taking photos with me and she puts her arm around me and poses with me, and all of the press were like, “get the girl out of the photo” and Dolly just took my hand and walked away, I mean just amazing. So, I think from her, don’t get me wrong she’s crazy, in the best possible way, from her, I think I learned that just because there’s a little bit of misconception, but you have to become to a degree a little bit self-centered when you have that level of fame, but she, just the humility is just baffling, so I think that really taught me something about fame is that it always isn’t as corrupting as it’s made out to be.
From Brandi Carlile, it’s sort of a similar thing, she’s just like a normal person, she just talked to me like she was a normal person like I was equal to her. We did a duet at the Grand American Music Hall and we were on stage practicing, and we practiced it once backstage and once for soundcheck and that was it then we were on stage. When we were back there, she was so receptive to my ideas and she respected them. To see the music industry, which can be cutthroat as a community as she did, that taught me something too.
And as far as Ellen goes, I know that she was in the center of a lot of negative attention recently, and obviously I can’t speak for any of that because I never worked for her. What I can say is that performing on a show like that that has so many viewers, I think that it was in that moment that I realized that there is something in me that shows that I can do this. That was what I sort of took away, was that if I can do this, if I choose this and this is really it, then I can do it.
Madness To Creation: I kind of want to get into your other music video for “Trampled Flowers”, take us into that video and song.
Willa Amai: “Trampled Flowers” was released because we felt that it was right, but I don’t think that it was representative at all of my writing style. My writing style is a lot darker, it’s less pop and it’s more emotional and it’s deeper, so I think after that, the music video with Mark Romanek was incredible and he just turned the song into something completely different and more emotional and more complex and I couldn’t be more thankful for him, but I think between that and “Unorganized Crime” I needed to release something that was truly mine, I needed that to look like me and to sound like me and tasted like me, and that’s what “Unorganized Crime” is. I think that added an extra layer of excitement for me when I released “Unorganized Crime”, and I felt that it was the first time that I put something out that was really and truly mine.
Madness To Creation: What is next for Willa Amai?
Willa Amai: Well, recently the acoustic version of “Unorganized Crime” just came out, so we released that, on November 30th, I will be releasing a Christmas song actually, and we will take a little break until the New Year and then I have a whole album that is ready, so that will be coming out, you’ll see that very soon.
Madness To Creation: I would love to follow up with you on that album. Thank you so much for your time!
Willa Amai: 100%! Thank you so much, this was a great time!
And there you have it! Check out her Christmas single entitled “December” below:
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