Daya is creating her most honest music, right now. After a year in lockdown, which forced the 22-year-old singer-songwriter to mine her deepest thoughts and write tracks alone, Daya's approach to making music has transformed with more confidence than ever before. Her new single, "Bad Girl," with a video directed by girlfriend Clyde Munroe, is a testament to this growth, as Daya proudly declares on its chorus, "Need a bad girl 'cause the bad boys just don't cut it."
The "Bad Girl" visualizer picks up where Daya's 2020 single, "First Time," left off, and continues an ongoing story of her evolution as a bisexual woman and artist that will be explored in an upcoming EP, due out later this year. Juxtaposing Old Hollywood glamour inside a club that appears in the middle of the desert, Daya cracks open her subconscious — with all its fear and anxiety — before emerging as a fully realized, powerful person.
PAPER caught up with Daya to talk about unleashing this creative rebirth, co-writing "Bad Girl" and collaborating with her girlfriend. Also: watch an exclusive stripped-down performance of Daya's single, live from The Belasco, below.
How has the past year affected the way you're making music now? What discoveries did you make about yourself along the way?
I've definitely, like a lot of people, spent way too much time with myself this year. So I've dug into the parts of me that I wasn't necessarily addressing or aware of before. That has ultimately made me a more creative person, and more inspired and willing to speak about it in my music and be vulnerable. My music before, I was skating the surface of a lot of stuff. So there have been a lot of realizations, and I have spent more time writing on my own than I've ever spent since I was like 15 in my high school bedroom. It's been good to have space to breathe, too, and to not feel forced into a session or forced to work with other people. I'm someone who definitely responds really well to that. Because my best work comes when I'm just randomly going for a walk or cooking and I'm not thinking about it.
Is it intimidating or liberating to be by yourself and write, after having done so many sessions that I'm sure were back to back before the pandemic?
I've gone through several different identity crises about it because I feel like I'm chasing what I've been in the studio in the past and then part of me still has the acoustic singer/songwriter side. I spent every day in my bedroom playing the guitar after school when I was 15. So it's definitely not the music I would expect myself to be writing in a studio with other people. Which is cool, because it shows a different side of me and some of the songs, yes, on the EP, I brought people in after I started writing them on my own. So it's been good to spend that time and see where it takes me because as soon as I was left alone to my own devices, I was like, "What the fuck did I want to write about?" Even though I'm so vocal in my other sessions and I'm like, "This is where I want to go," but other people's stylistic influences inform how the track ends up sounding. So when it's really, really just me, it's interesting.
The idea of "Who am I when I'm alone?" can be scary to address.
Yeah, we don't realize how much we feed off other people, and how much those interactions inform who we are, too.
You've had some big hits throughout your career. How do you balance, especially with a song "Bad Girl," telling a story that's personal and honest, and maybe a bit challenging or provocative, but still accessible to lots of people?
I don't think so much about the accessibility part as maybe my co-writers do or the label does. But to me, it felt like an honest reflection of where I'm at, and something that I feel would be wrong not to share and put in my music. It's a more natural, organic feeling, and if people don't like that, then they don't have to listen to it. But it's cool that I'm in a space where I want to talk about whatever I want to talk about and I'm not thinking about the pressures of the outside world. For a point in my career, especially when I was starting out, that was very much a part of things and I was very aware of that, and that was definitely not good for my creativity. Having all these blocks, like, "Okay, I can't go here," and, "This person won't like this." All of that is gone now and it's a really good space to be in. I feel like I'm making my best stuff now.
"The parts of you that you feel are the most crazy and psychotic and not relatable at all, are often the ones that are."
I've heard from other musicians that writing more personal, specific songs and stories is actually more relatable to lots of people versus if you're thinking, How do I speak to millions with this idea? Do you feel that too?
A 50-year-old trying to hang with the cool kids is like trying to make something that other people will like. That's never gonna come off as organic or human, it's always gonna be weird. The more you dig, the more vulnerable it gets, the more people feel like, "Oh, this actually hits a part of me that I wasn't even thinking I had in me." And it's cool that the parts of you that you feel are the most crazy and psychotic and not relatable at all, are often the ones that are.
Turns out everyone's a bit psychotic.
[Laughs] Turns out.
A lot of time has transpired since your debut 2016 album, Sit Still, Look Pretty, and you have grown as an artist. You mentioned you feel like you're making your best work now, but it also feels like you're making your most confident work, and especially in relation to queer storytelling. When you look back on your experience in music, how has it been finding that voice?
It's definitely been a journey. I needed those few years to take a step back and live as a person and go in and out of relationships and find myself in that way. I was 16 when I started, so I was so young and I had this gut feeling all along that I needed to breathe for a second and live as a person and go through these experiences. Also to help with my writing and inspire me in general. That has been crucial to my growth, and it's helped me learn more about myself or more about the world. My current relationship has given me the confidence to speak up as a bisexual woman. I'm not trying to be like, "I'm the spokesperson for all bisexuals everywhere," because everyone obviously has a different journey and a different story, but I think that connects me to a lot of my fans. If it's part of my life, I'm gonna write about it.
I would imagine it's hard, especially as a musician, if you're always working. Since you got started so young, you need to experience life in order to have something to talk about or something to say. Because how old are you now?
I'm 22. All my friends from high school were in college and fucking up and doing dumb things and not caring about what other people thought and being in shitty relationships, and then really great relationships. I felt like that was something that was missing with me, and I knew that there were parts of me that I didn't explore. I didn't know that I was queer at all when I was younger, either. And I knew that there was this lingering part of me that was unexplored. I didn't know exactly what it was, but I knew that I needed to take the time to do that.
With "Bad Girl," specifically, what story did you intend to tell through that?
In the past, I've always been drawn to these more promiscuous, mysterious "bad boy" situations. And it was always a desirable thing for me, but that's not sustainable by any means. It leaves you feeling unfulfilled. Once I got into my current relationship, I felt that I was finally having my desires reflected back at me and someone to understand my desires, and not only fulfill them, but mirror the same ones back at me. It's about finding a person who makes you feel like the best version of yourself and feel really confident. I'm lucky to have that. It also plays off a bunch of "bad girl" stereotypes of a problem child or girl who's more assertive or stands up for what she wants or goes against the grain, and flips that on its head and reclaims itself in that way, too.
You worked on the song with several people, right? I read that Charlie Puth was involved. What's that collaborative process like for you?
I wrote it with J Kash, who is the owner of my current label as well as my co-writer. He was in the room, Andrew Goldstein was a producer, he's amazingly talented, Michael Pollack and Madison Love, we were all in the room together. And Kash is good friends with Charlie, so he played it for him after and totally loved it, apparently, and wanted to add some production to it. I think that's really cool. He's wickedly talented as a musician.
Your girlfriend directed the "Bad Girl" music video. How did that shift the way that you felt filming it and performing for the camera, knowing that she was behind it?
I could let loose because I know she knows my angles and I know that she will never make me look bad. It's cool to work with someone you trust and love on that level. And not only that, but I respect her taste so much. She has a film background and we love watching movies together and dissecting them, so it was cool to bring those inspirations into it and have a really collaborative experience of coming up with a concept and throughout the entirety of its execution. Being on set was so comfortable. There weren't a lot of people there; it was my first full production set in a while, COVID-safe, obviously. It felt like home. There were no egos involved or anything, we were very straight up with one another about what we wanted. And we both knew that we wanted the same end goal of what it looked like.
"I hope to connect with my fans in a way that I don't think I fully have in the past because I was holding things back."
Have you worked together on anything before?
Yeah, we did a music video for my release in October, "First Time," and it was a super small, five-person shoot with makeup, hair and her. We went to the desert and we shot this video, which I love it so much. But that was the on ramp to "Bad Girl" because it was obviously a bigger production. We've done a bunch of shoots and stuff over the course of dating, but I think we wouldn't have been ready for this level of collaboration at this point. Like, we needed to go through a good amount of building our relationship. It could be really nasty.
It's good that you felt more confident with her directing because it could easily have been the opposite with you feeling self-conscious.
That's definitely happened with me. Because I'm someone who, if I'm performing for a couple thousand people, I don't really care, but if I'm performing for five of my closest friends and family, I'm sweating and shaking. I think with her too, I did feel a bit self-conscious at first and then we had a conversation. We were like, we can't involve each other's egos. We both want to focus on making this look the best it possibly can and "I won't judge you if you won't judge me." It definitely can go either way.
In 2020, you released "First Time." Are we working towards a larger project with these singles? What does 2021 look like?
I have an EP coming out soon, and "Bad Girl" is going to be on it, "First Time" is going to be on it and a bunch of songs that we're finishing up right now. I wrote "First Time" two years ago and had been working on it forever. It kept coming back and we kept revamping the production. Once I signed with J Kash, it felt like the first song that was right for my re-introduction to kick off this new era of my career. Especially with the visuals, we wanted to play off the theme of rebirth and reconnection to myself and my surroundings. So it exists in this dreamlike state of my subconscious. You see me falling into the water at the beginning, and then my subconscious goes through the process of getting control back of myself and my artistry. At the end, I emerge from the water and it's this baptism.
With "Bad Girl," we wanted to continue the narrative and do the same thing but with my sexuality. So we have the intro of me walking in the desert and then the bar exists out of nowhere in this dreamlike space. You go through the whole process of my subconscious: coming to terms with my sexuality and the confusion and frustration. At the end, we're emerging as this fully realized and confident, fully feminine figure with my dress. We wanted to play off Old Hollywood glamour, because it was me coming to terms with my femininity at the same time too, because I always felt a weird relationship with that. Once I got in my current relationship, I felt more confident in that. With all these things, we wanted to play off my rebirth as a person and an artist and starting over.
Moving forward, what artist do you feel yourself becoming that's different from the artist you've previously been?
Someone who's really honest and straightforward and vulnerable. I hope to connect with my fans in a way that I don't think I fully have in the past because I was holding things back. So I hope this new era brings a more immersive experience for all my fans. I want them to feel like they relate to it and that it's this family that we can all share our life experiences and go through it together and not have it be isolated.
Stream "Bad Girl" by Daya, below.
Photo courtesy of Clyde Munroe