You’ve talked about the musical influences on Emotion, was there anything else on your mind, like TV or film?
I really loved Solange. “Losing You” was the video that led me to Dev [Hynes], that song was pretty big. Sky [Ferreira], I was really into, which led me to Ariel [Rechtshaid]. I was into a lot of old school Prince. I remember running to Prince records in the morning before my Cinderella rehearsals, digging the punctuation that he sang in, kind of drum-like, “I wanna. Have a bit of that. You know that I do, too!” And early Madonna, too, kind of sassy. I wanted there to be a bit of a sexual thread throughout this whole thing, too, but in coy way rather than a “come hither.”
You said in an interview, “My desire now is to see how far I can stretch pop.” Are you already working on something new?
I don’t mean pop, I mean for me, for my comfort zone and for all the music that I’m making. Like trying a song with Rostam from Vampire Weekend, and trying a song where like he turns me into almost like this vampire halfway through it. I heard it and it was weird and I liked the sound of “Warm Blood” but there was something it triggered in me where I was more excited about that than some of the safer choices. I know that whatever I do next, it will be more along the lines of allowing myself to explore that, but yeah, I’ve weirdly been writing a lot. There’s always, strangely for me—in the three albums I’ve done—a prolific phase for two months [after the album comes out]. I write all the time and it’s awesome ’cause I have it for the next album, but also strangely inconvenient ’cause you’re like, Really? Why am I writing right now? But I’ve been experimenting with a really understated kind of disco-y sound, almost like Feist at the disco. That’ll probably take me a while, but I’m constantly on the search for what I’m going to do next.
What do you do with the songs or lyrics that you end up not using? I know some people don’t care, and some have a ritual for honoring the darlings they had to kill. Do you ship any of them around for the next album, or does it feel like it’s over?
There are some songs that I love that cohesively don’t match, and those ones I’m keeping for myself for a future project. I feel like some songs don’t make it because they had really good moments in them but they weren’t right yet, whether the production didn’t get there or the songwriting structure was off, there was a reason that didn’t work for me. Those are still in my shelf as works in progress. Then there are other songs I wrote in the moment and the feeling of the day that don’t even really feel like mine; they felt like an exploration of sorts. I’m happy to give those away. My publisher called me like, “You wrote over two hundred songs, you’ve handed in 17, so can I have the rest of them and sell them please?” Not all of them, but definitely the ones that I don’t think I’m gonna use, that I feel could be good for a different artist. But I also know coming from people who were pushing songs on me—I wanted to write, but even I imagine if I didn’t write, I would want to feel like the person had met me, and understood who I was and purposefully wrote something for me, before just like sending me something. I’d like to meet the artist if they wanted me to write for them, really figure out what they were into.
For a while, you were being sent songs, right?
I really had to put my foot on the ground like, “Stop sending me songs,” like, yeah. And they got it, and that was wonderful, and if [someone else’s song] was a really really great something, it might get funneled through because there’s nothing wrong with covering stuff, as long as it suits what you’re doing and you feel connected to it. I just needed to put, for a period of time, at least, an absolute no, so they understood. Even meeting Cyndi Lauper and other people who’ve been women artists who have been in the world of writing—that [it] is a challenge, to find yourself as a writer. Even if you know that you are [one], even if you wrote “Call Me Maybe,” you have to keep proving it. I don’t feel like I have to prove that to my team anymore, I feel like, even listening to old demos of things before I’d gotten truthful to what I feel, I feel very much like they know me and they know what I’m capable of and I think that’s one battle I don’t have to fight anymore, which feels really great.
What was some of the wisdom passed on to you from Cyndi Lauper or any of these other female artists?
It was a quick flash of a beautiful moment on the red carpet, of all weird places, and she whispered in my ear. I inaugurated her at the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, which is like my one goal in life now, is to somehow [be inaugurated], that would be the honor of all honors. I was saying, “Congratulations, this is my dream one day, you’re living it right now, this must feel like such an honor.” And she said, “All my life I’ve struggled to get my own songs on my own albums, it was uphill, every step of the way.” And I was just thinking, not much has changed. I didn’t say that, but part of me was like, “Cool. I’ll fight it.” I think she’s made it easier for women like me, and hopefully I’ll make it easier for women after me. But I think there is a stereotype that if you’re a pop artist that other people feed you songs, and you don’t write them. But you can have a voice. There’s nothing wrong with doing that either, it’s not like I’m saying you, it’s more like to me. The reason that I sing is because I write.
Do you feel more like a writer than a performer?
No, I’ve got my showy side, too. But I feel like I wouldn’t be able to do the performance if they weren’t words from my own heart. You can connect to songs [written by other people]. I did the “Queen of Wishful Thinking,” my Go West cover, and I felt totally like I got every word of why he wrote that. It was my song by the end of it, even though it’s not. If I get nervous onstage, I hook into the song and I can feel my confidence come back.
So between working with people like Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid, or asking to stop being sent songs, and then also getting more time to complete the album, how did you build up the confidence to feel like the authority?
I do remember going in to School Boy Records and sitting down with suits and being like, “I think we need a beat. I, personally, am sick of hearing myself on the radio. I also don’t know what I want to do for this next album and I know that whatever it is it’s gonna be different from what I’ve done, and I need time to figure that out.” [They were] very on board and got it immediately and was like, “Yeah.” I don’t think they thought I would take quite as long as I did. Cinderella was a little bit of a detour for all of us and they were like, “When are you coming back?” But I started to gain my confidence once I started to land in the direction where we were cooking with oil. We figured out the song “Emotion.” It started to be, like, songs that I knew I was going to fit the album around, versus songs like, we’ll see if they make the cut. It started to be like, “This is essential, this is essential.” Then I got it to my top 40 and I was teasing my label, being like, “Would it be weird if I released 40 songs, after being away for three years?” [Laughing] They’re like, “Yeah, that’s just not gonna happen.” I’m like, “Are you sure?” They’re like, “Yeah, we’re sure.” So, OK, I had to narrow it down. We had heated debates and passionate emails back like, “Don’t kill my babies!” ’cause I originally thought I got to have 21 songs and then I had to go down to 12. [We] somehow brought it up to 17 for the deluxe [edition] and it was a lot of arguing, but pleasant arguing; everyone was really understanding of where I was at. Through friends and family and [on] my own, just re-listening and re-listening, I narrowed down my favorites and…I don’t know if that answered your question, I went on a tangent.
I didn’t even know that was Sia’s voice on “Boy Problems.” That’s so fun.
I remember being really nervous to ask her. When I say it’s weird to say stupid ideas out loud, it could either really work or it could be the stupidest thing you’ve ever said—it was one of those moments. It was the first day really meeting her. I’d seen her play when I was bartending at Media Club years earlier where she came to perform and I was serving drinks and watching her, so this was unreal that I’m in the room with her now and showing her ideas. So I was like, “I have this almost ’90s-style phone call idea for the beginning of it and you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but if you did, we could like…if you don’t like it, we’ll just delete it. But, like, just go in there and say something along the lines of, like you’re really fed up with me, ‘“If you wanna go, just go.’” And she’s like, “OK.” She did one take of it and I was like, “That is perfect! Thank you!”
It made me think of how we need an essential collection CD of songs that start with women talking to each other about men. There’s a Janet Jackson song…
“Boy Is Mine”?
Oh my god, there are so many!
Yeah, there are. There should be like, Women Intros: 2016. We’ll like make a collab
That’s a good idea.