Music

Miya Folick’s Pop Is Huge and Small At the Same Time

Miya Folick is just trying to live right. Not in a pious sense, but in the way of an intensely self-critical young woman who wants fiercely to do better by herself and the world around her. That still might sound preachily Catholic, or like a mundane hippie mantra, but on the Los Angeles pop upstart's debut album Premonitions, I promise you, it feels like a breath of fresh air.

"A lot of this album is about... how I get away with shit, and I don't want to anymore. I want to be responsible for my actions and I want to be a better person. And I'll probably fail again, and I'll try again," Folick told me.

Far from aspiring to be a saint (or a guru), she captures the herculean labor involved just in growth, compassion and accountability both to others and to the kind of person she wants to be. Over the album's 10 tracks, Folick demands brutal honesty in order to feel seen — flaws, scars, mistakes and all — so that she can move forward. "You reward my bad behavior/ Convince yourself I never lie/ But if you ignore the darkness/ Then you miss the point of life" she warns on the title track.

On one of Premonition's standout singles, "Thingamajig" Folick offers a slow, stunning, radical apology: "If you want to be angry/ I don't mind/ I'll let you go... I'll leave you alone." She released the track several days early, following Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court, after watching videos of men standing outside the Senate, apologizing to women because they had no other words.

Girl power has given apologizing a bad rap, but in 2018 — when it feels we're more aware than ever of the harm we do to each other, and the forms of harm we're complicit in by simply participating in society — we need an apology anthem and Folick wrote us one. Although she is singing about humility and accountability on a personal, intimate level, the song feels expansively political — a big-small quality that pervades the album.

In addition, far from Catholic, Folick says that the song was partly inspired by an idea of collective responsibility she learned from the Buddhist community she grew up in: "I grew up with this idea… that we are all made of the same elements, so... your actions are mine in some way, because we're living here in the same world... Your actions affect me and my actions affect you. So I can sing an apology for somebody else, because I'm sorry that I'm a human and so are you."

Although when they peek out, these themes are incredibly poignant — and what stuck with me from our conversation — they are mostly implicit on the album. I pull them out more to reveal what Folick is capable of as a songwriter, than to capture the whole story of Premonitions: an emotionally diverse collection, rooted in a deep sense of empathy, with chapters about love and encouragement for her friends, a struggle to free herself from bad habits and relationships, hope for the future, and triumphant joy.

Premonitions will surprise listeners who, like me, first caught wind of the 28-year-old in 2015 with her breakout debut EP, Strange Darling. We formerly knew her as an exceptionally poetic singer-songwriter with an indelible voice (the product of classical training and screaming at punk shows), using fairly standard tools: piano, guitar, lyrics about romantic relationships. Now, her left-field pop sound is full of shape-shifting grooves, drum machines, horns, 1980's synths that locate her somewhere between the Be The Cowboy Mitski and and Strange Mercy St. Vincent.

Unlike her first two EPs — which were successful enough to let the NYU and USC grad to quit her Jamba Juice and pursue music full time — Premonitions was created with a full studio of resources and a top notch producer, Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Angel Olsen, Sky Ferreira, Yves Tumor) at her disposal. It seems that, on just about every level, we are just beginning to find out what Folick is capable of.

PAPER spoke with Folick about the many stories behind Premonitions, and her transition to pop.

Did you play music growing up?

I've been singing my whole life, it's just part of the fabric of my identity, I think. I've always been singing. But I never really thought that this was where I would be.

When did music become your career?

I studied classical voice growing up, so like Italian arias and that kind of thing. But it was honestly just something I enjoyed, like a hobby. I never really thought that I would end up here. I didn't play in bands or anything. But I started writing my own songs when I was about 20, and I had moved to a new city, Los Angeles. I have this old guitar that my mom had bought me a year before, but I hadn't started playing. When I was alone and lonely, I took it out and started playing it, and just started writing my own songs, because it was too difficult to learn other people's songs.

I think when it became a career was the day I quit my job at the juice bar. I used to work at this juice bar in Los Angeles, like organic, vegan juices and smoothies, and I was, I would say, not a great employee. I made this E.P., Strange Darling, and I remember I started making pretty good money off of streaming and shows, enough to say, "I can quit this job." Partially because the sound of blenders is hell on earth. When you work there, you have to scream over the blenders to be heard, and I felt like I was hurting my voice. And I'm very protective of my voice, so I had to quit that job. That was a definite risk — it was maybe not the best idea — but when I quit it felt like, okay, this has to work.

How did your classical training translate to being a singer-songwriter?

I think it introduced me to different melodies and different ways of communicating. I think arias are kind of like pop songs in that the theme of most arias is very simple and repetitive. I think what is different about them, is that the melodies are very dynamic in that they go low and they go high, and they skip a lot of steps to people, whereas I think pop music is kind of all condensed into one sonic level of all mid-tones. I think you can hear it in my music in that I go really high and I go low and I use a lot of different parts of my voice. But I also had to unlearn a lot of it because the way you're taught to sing is very, very healthy and sounds really proper. So, I think my voice now is a result of training classically, and then going to a bunch of punk shows and watching people scream. So, I'm like, okay, I want to do that, but I want to do it this way. I want to be able to have this ethereal, very musical upper register of my voice, but I also want to have that guttural scream and make people a little bit uncomfortable.

This album feels like it's expressing so many different things — what were a few of them?

During the process of making this record, I went through a lot of different life changes and so did the producer, Justin. I think you can feel that in the record. Also, I think I intentionally wanted to make a record that felt like a whole world, otherwise, what's the point? To me, I wanted to make a record that felt like every song was vital, and not three singles with filler. That's the most obvious thing. A lot of the songs are about just trying to live right and be a good person, and constantly failing, and constantly trying again.

It felt like you were very hard on yourself on the album, like you were really interrogating yourself.

Yeah, I think that's definitely true. There is an overarching theme of being demanding — being demanding of yourself, being demanding of your friends, wanting your friends to be demanding of you. I think "Cost Your Love" is about me continuing to go back to bad behaviors. It sounds like it's about a person, because I personified it, but it's actually about going back to behavior that I know doesn't serve me. "I caved and I crawled right into your arms again/ I hate it all/ I can't do this anymore." It's that feeling of like, "fuck this, I can't do this." "Premonitions" is about "don't be casual about my bad behavior, be hard on me." I think that my favorite relationships are those with people where they call me out on shit. Otherwise, I feel like I'm not really seen. A lot of this album is about this — I feel like I get away with shit, and I don't want to anymore. I want to be responsible for my actions and I want to be a better person. And I'll probably fail again, and I'll try again.

What compelled you to release "Thingamajig" following Kavanaugh's appointment?

I was watching videos of men standing outside the Senate Chambers apologizing to women, this blanket apology: "I'm sorry, I've been wrong too." This is about not just saying that man is bad, but I am a good man, so I will stand beside you, they were saying, "That man is bad, and I recognize myself in that, and I'm sorry. I have to apologize before I can stand beside you. Otherwise I'm lying." That scene felt like exactly what the song is about, exactly what we wrote it about. Because it's not an apology of like, "I'm so sorry I hurt you, I'm sorry." It's an apology of, "I hurt you, and I didn't even know until my eyes were opened to the system. And once I could see the system, I realized what I was doing. And so I am deeply, deeply sorry. I was wrong."

When you do something and you know it's wrong, and then you apologize, it's not the same as doing something... I think when I feel the most guilt, is when somebody comes to me and says, "Hey, you know when you said that thing or you did that thing, that really hurt my feelings," and I had no idea that I was doing something wrong, that is when I feel the most guilt. To me, when we wrote that song, we were imagining a politician or a figure in power realizing they had done something very, very clear to their people, and the song was like a public apology, just in the imagination of the writing of the song. In my head, I'd love to see Donald Trump sing that song. I want to see these figures that we see as kind of bumbling idiots who are ruining people's lives to realize what they're doing wrong, and sing the apology to us. Apologize. I kind of want to make an animation of Donald Trump singing "Thingamajig" and have that be a video. [laughs]

There was something really cool about hearing a woman say, "I'm sorry, I know I'm wrong." It reminded me how everyone says, "Don't apologize, stop apologizing, women should stop apologizing." But I think apologizing is really important. Maybe women shouldn't apologize less, and men should just apologize a whole lot more.

I also think there's a difference between a casual, almost accidental apology that slips out of your mouth, and then this song which is like, "I've really been thinking about this, and I have something to tell you. I need you to know I'm sorry and that I was wrong." And I also think with this movement, and the Me Too movement, it made me reflect on my own actions, too. And I think that's something that's kind of lost. I've looked back on my sexual encounters and people I've been intimate with, and I was like, "Have I been bad and wrong? Have I coerced somebody?" I feel like I haven't, but it's possible that somebody felt another way.

I wish that were the way that people reacted to this, and not just always looking outward to blame others. You can, that's fine, people have done many bad things. But I also know I've hurt people that I didn't realize. So it feels false always just being angry at others, I can't do that, because I know I'm not blameless. I think I also am kind of hard on myself, maybe everyone would be like, "Oh, no, you were fine, it was normal." I would never want to hurt somebody. But part of what's interesting about the song is that I'm seeing this apology as an example for the people I really want to sing it, like, "See, I can do it, and you can, too!" I think it partially has to do with my upbringing and the community I grew up in, which was a Buddhist community.

How did Buddhist ideas inform you?

I grew up with this idea that we are all connected, that we are all made of the same elements, so you are me and I am you and your actions are mine in some ways, because we're living here in the same world. As long as I'm living here in the world with you, your actions affect me and my actions affect you, because we're the same. So, part of that is, I can sing an apology for somebody else, because I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I'm a human and so are you, and you did that bad thing, and now I'm responsible for it. Just like we're responsible for the environment as humans. Even if you didn't do something wrong, this is our community of humans, we all did this together, we all made this bad, or good, or whatever it is. I think part of the reason why there are so many different voices on the album and so many different perspectives is because I don't feel like I have to be the person to sing that perspective, if that makes any sense.

I feel like that's totally the vision of this album, self-interrogation, compassion and collective responsibility. Obviously, that's not explicit a lot of the time, but I really hear what you're saying about the album.

It really makes me happy that you hear that, because it wasn't explicit and I didn't want it to be explicit, but it was part of our intention, so it makes me happy that you could hear that.

I love that you wrote a lot of songs about your friends, because I think we should have more songs about relationships besides two-person, romantic, sexual relationships.

It was kind of a challenge that I set for myself. I felt like my first two EPs were pretty personal, relationship songs, and I wanted the album to feel broader. I'm not the kind of person who obsesses about relationships, really. I have good ones or bad ones, but most of my daily life is spent thinking about other things. So it was weird to me that all my songs were about love, because that's not always the most interesting thing to me. As an artist, you get bored with one thing so you want to do a different thing, but now I'm starting to write the second album, and I just want to write love songs. I'm like, "I'm sick of writing about the world! Too hard!"

I'm curious how your transformation from minimal, guitar-based music to what people are even calling "art pop." Is that a characterization that makes sense to you?

It does, yeah. I think if I had heard Strange Darling, I'd be like oh: indie singer-songwriter. I always intended for things to sound like this — bigger, I guess. I'm drawn to sounds that aren't necessarily guitars. I think the first two EPs were guitar-based because, honestly, it was easier, cheaper and faster, and I just wanted to make music, and I just wanted to make songs.

But I think for this album, I really spent time meeting a lot of different producers and people I could work with, because I knew I wanted it to have different textures, I knew I wanted drum machines and synthesizers, and I knew I wanted it to feel bigger and clearer. I wouldn't say it's like Top 40 pop, but I do think most every song on the album follows the structure of a pop song. Like first, pre-chorus, chorus. They're just a little weird. Like, "Stock Image" is a pop song, but it just has more words and stranger... I think it just has a bigger vocabulary than most Top 40, less repetitive. But it does have these signifiers of pop music.

I guess it's pretty common that an artist goes from simpler music to more complex music, not necessarily as ant artistic statement, but just because of just new access to resources and money.

It's resources, yeah. I've always liked these songs. It's not like I lived in a bubble of guitars, I've always liked pop music. In the studio we kept jokingly referring to it as "domestic pop," this album, because it's pop music, but it's not about partying. It's also kind of ageless — I didn't want it to only be for young people. I wanted it to be things my mom would listen to, you know, so people's parents could like it. Because it's not about, like, going to the club. Not that older people can't like music about clubs. But it's weird to me that the majority of music is made by, or written by, white men in their thirties, to be sung by women who are 20, about partying. That's mostly what we consume, and it's weird. I wanted a different perspective of an average person who does everyday things, but making those things feel massive and special and important, because they are.

How did you create the album art?

It's a photo of me and my parents because I wanted there to be a sense of time. I wanted there to be a sense of where I came from and where I'm going. I wanted there to be a look in my eyes that tells the viewer that I know something, kind of like a premonition. We also wanted it to have a sense of community, because the songs are very personal to me, but they also felt universal in a certain way, and I wanted that to be communicated. It's about you, it's about me, it's about family, it's about our ancestors, it's about our future children, you know, this sense of a timeline. So we were just like, "What if it was a family portrait?" And we just rolled with it. It was really fun, because my parents got a call sheet. I sent them a call sheet, and we pulled clothes, so everything they're wearing is their own wardrobe. I went to their house and pulled clothes that we thought would work. The stylist was also half Japanese, so we had a lot of fun digging into what that means, to be half Japanese, and pulling in different parts of that culture. I think it turned out amazingly well. It was one of those situations where it could've been awful. The photographer, shot all on film, so we didn't have any idea. It was like, "Do we have something? Do we not? I have no idea." It was kind of a dream team in terms of the artists working on that photo. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been worried, but I was kind of worried, because it's a little bit of a weird concept. I think on this album I was kind of obsessed with the idea of family and home life, and springing that into the magical world of pop music, but about home.

Photos via Miya Folick

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