As an artist who released her first single at 16 ("Hide Away," on which she famously questioned the coordinates of "the good boys"), Daya will be the first to say she didn't have full control on her 2016 debut Sit Still, Look Pretty. She has writing credits on four of its fourteen zeitgeisty, lovelorn club pop tracks — one of the throughpoints of which is a surprising aversion to various kinds of "other" girls — but she was still in high school in Pittsburgh while it was being finished far away in LA. She says she doesn't regret anything on Sit Still, but that "things went on behind my back that I would have liked to have had more control over — because these are the words that I have to speak in front of audiences, and stand behind. So I need them to be my story."
Three years later, Daya is committed to using her powerful (distinctively deep, agile and breathy) voice to share experiences that are meaningful and real to her. In those years, Daya signed to Interscope, won a Grammy for her hit-making contributions to The Chainsmokers' inescapable "Don't Let Me Down" and released several follow-up singles. In the last six months, she's also come out as queer, covered Gay Times, and traded her hombre waves and American Eagle-esque ensembles, for a heartthrob undercut and baggy streetwear. Most importantly, she fell in love for the first time.
The point isn't that she's "growing up" or "gone from cute to cool," but that Daya seems dead-set on reshaping a brand that was created, to some extent by others, in her own image. She co-wrote every track on her forthcoming sophomore album: "I wanted it to be my story, all the different parts of my stories."
Her new self-possession is already showing. The first single off the new album "Insomnia," out today," is a nervy, heart-racing bop with a jittery beat (a little reminiscent of "Disturbia") about being unable to sleep without an absent lover. It's full of poignant details ("I've been out for two days/ Tylenol PM ain't working") that Daya explains were inspired by a genuine battle with insomnia, how lonely hotel beds feel now that she sleeps next to her girlfriend at home, as well as her memories of the exhausted emptiness of post clubbing morning. It won't disappoint the fans she gained from her pop-EDM origins, but "Insomnia" is freshly marked by a kind of authentic storytelling that Daya is learning how to do.
PAPER chatted with the singer-songwriter about "Insomnia," taking control, and how coming out changed her life.
Sit Still, Look Pretty came out in 2016. Could you tell me a little bit about what the last few years have been like for you?
Yeah, so I signed to a major label, Interscope. I'm a serious perfectionist, so I've been wanting to wait until I really felt like it was time to release new music. I wanted to get the space that I needed, because for me, I feel like, you know Sit Still, Look Pretty was great to get my foot in the door. And I really appreciate the people who worked on and recorded it. But for me it wasn't necessarily in the kind of realm that I want it to be, fully. There are some aspects about it that I loved and stuff that I didn't like as much. So I kind of took some time to reflect and refine my writing and my style. I just want to make it more authentic to me. I also had to do a lot of growing personally before... because everything hit when I was a senior in high school. It was such a whirlwind at the time and looking back on it, I'm glad that I've had the past two years to reflect so that I can put the focus more on me as a person, and not on my work as much. I mean I have been working on my work [laughs] but like, I've been pacing. I wanted to take a step back and really think about what this has meant to me, and what it's going to mean to me.
What are the things you love and what are the things you wouldn't necessarily do again?
Well, the main thing is that I wasn't writing on it. I wrote on the main tracks, the majority of songs on the album, but I wasn't... I was in high school and the EP was kind of finished without me, and some things went on behind my back that I would have liked to have had more control over because these are the words that I have to speak in front of audiences, and stand behind. So I need them to be my story. I definitely don't regret anything about it, I think it's how it had to happen in order for me to have this reflective moment, and in order for me to work up to being more hands on in every aspect of creating, digitally, writing, production, everything.
So your upcoming album feels more like your story and your project?
Definitely. And also, I didn't have as many life experiences then! I have been writing for a while, I think I've always had an ear for writing, but I think I just didn't have that many enough experiences to pull from. So I think we definitely worked and wrote with what we could before. I'm happy that it got the reception that it did with everyone, but yeah, I think the last few years have held so much growth for me, and I think everyone will be able to see that in my music.
Tell me about how "Insomnia" came together. What is that song's story for you?
Yeah, well, it has a number of meanings to me. For one thing, I actually have been dealing with some serious sleep issues from touring and everything. It's just hard because you have to get up at 4:00AM to catch a flight to wherever, then one night your show doesn't end until 2:00AM, so your body has to be conditioned to be prepared for anything. I've rarely fallen asleep for a comfortable eight hours REM sleep. So I have always had a troubled relationship with sleep.
So it's sort of a double entendre then.
Yeah, it's a kind of double entendre. I recently got into a relationship. And there's something so comforting. This is my first real relationship, and I realize that there's something so comforting about falling asleep next to the person that you love and knowing that they're the last person that you'll see before you go to sleep, and the first person that you're waking up and saying good morning to. And I never knew the value of that before, so now the contrast is so much more defined in that I know what I can have. So when I wake up in a hotel room alone, and I know what I could have if I were home and if I were waking up next to my girlfriend, instead of going to sleep in an empty hotel room. It makes that exponentially more depressing. But yeah, it's really just about that longing, missing the person that you love, wanting to be with them.
But with the visuals, I also wanted to take it in a rave direction.
I see how it lends itself to that out-all-night kind of insomnia. Another meaning.
Yeah, for some reason I'm always the last person to leave every party. [laughs] Like I'm not always going out but when I do, I go in. It's like all or nothing for me. But we kind of captured that for the single art, the post-rave vibe.
Yeah, it's like you at 6AM, sun's coming up.
Yeah, exactly. Like the sun's coming up, I have glitter on my face, I look like I've been out all night. And then it's like this emptiness and vacancy that I have definitely felt before I had a girlfriend, when I was single and I'd go out and not having anyone to go home with. But I still feel that now, when I'm not with my girlfriend. There's that kind of empty loneliness.
It's a club song, it's a banger. But it's also really melancholy.
Yeah, yeah. I think it can definitely have multiple meanings, whatever the listener is feeling at the time.
I saw in a recent interview you said that your new album is "all love songs. I tried to write moody songs, but now I'm in such a good mood." So, they're all love songs, but that doesn't mean they're all happy songs?
Yeah, I feel like I tend to, in my lyrics, lean more melancholic. So it was definitely very, very strange and different going into this album process, and to be happy and in love and to not have those melancholic feelings to write about. But there are, I think, always, obviously personal things that I'm going through too. So I wouldn't say that all of the songs are happy, there's definitely some sad bangers on the album.
Do you feel like you're more creative when you're doing well, or when you're struggling?
I think it can go either way. It's a spectrum. I think, like whenever I'm feeling deeply, that's my best work whether I'm really happy and in love or I'm really lonely and vulnerable. No matter which, it brings out more soulful writing.I think it can go either way. It's a spectrum. I think, like whenever I'm feeling deeply, that's my best work whether I'm really happy and in love or I'm really lonely and vulnerable. No matter which, it brings out more soulful writing.
Is songwriting something you want to prioritize in your career?
Definitely. I want to create a direct connection and in order for that, I have to be real. I wanted it to be my story, all the different parts of my stories. I've always really been into poetry, writing, it's something I could never give up. I feel like I've improved a lot in the past couple of years, and have been working with some really, really talented people in the industry, like J. Kash, Jacob Kasher is executive producing my album and he has just been in the industry for so, so long. So it's nice to have people you trust who can take you story and my thoughts and feelings and reshape it into a more universal... Sorry, not more universal, but just sound-wise, a little more effective.
You've sort of straggled club/dance music and more melodic or ballad style pop. Where does this record land?
Yeah, she's definitely going to off to the club [on "Insomnia"]. But I think with the rest of the album it's a mixture. I tend to lean more toward very upbeat, danceable songs. Some of them have different influences and people will hear that. "Insomnia," I wouldn't say, it feels like — not to be pretentious — but it feels kind of like a timeless record to me in the sense that it has this kind of 80's-style beat but the melodies are very contemporary feeling. I like to write things that can stand the test of time, and span a few decades.
Who you were listening to while you were making it?
I like anyone who feels authentic, who doesn't see their music as a calculated act, who are saying things that are true and their actual feelings. So I love a lot of different people, Brockhampton is someone for sure. I definitely pull from a lot of different influences, pop and hip-hop and R&B, electronic. Oh, someone who's so incredible is Rosalía. She is bridging so many genres, and in the best way possible. I'm inspired by that concept of taking something that's kind of older and already done, and making it feel contemporary and fresh.
"I want to be that artist for young queer people who don't really identify with other artists... because I didn't see that in the mainstream when I was growing up. "
How life has changed for you since you came out this year. Do you feel freer as an artist?
I don't know, I'm happier [laughs]. I don't know that my art has necessarily changed except for the fact that I'm, for the first time, in love. I can say pretty confidently that I've never experienced a love like this before. That has definitely affected things. But in terms of the fact that she's a girl, that hasn't really changed things in terms of my writing and what I want. I've always kind of wanted to embody a sense of inclusivity amongst my fans and if anything, I want that even more now. I want to be that artist for young queer people who don't really identify with other artists, that they can see themselves in. So, I think it's really, really powerful for me, to be that person to a lot of younger people because I didn't see that in the mainstream when I was growing up. Hopefully, we'll see this more and more regularly and it won't be this entire thing, you know I think that it's important to just treat it as a relationship and the rest of the world will see.
There's so many incredible queer artists in pop right now. Historically pop has been so militantly hetero.
Yeah, it's really exciting. I feel like every day someone else comes out [laughs]. I feel like there's this band of us just cheering. There's so many queer musicians and producers, which has been really, really exciting for me.
Is finding other queer artists across music to work with and bring in something you've been trying to do?
Yeah! I just did this charity event for this young queer artist named Billy with Charli XCX and Allie X and Dorian Electra. It was just this really powerful night of queer artists performing and that was the first time that I'd really been part of something like that. It was super inspiring and definitely made me want to be more involved with queer artists in my writing and performing, and on my tours. It was so cool, it feels like a family.