As unsung heroes of music, songwriters have been behind you're favorite chart-topping hits, record-breaking albums and stan-worthy pop stars without you even knowing it. Too often buried in the liner notes and Genius annotations, they play a vital role in shaping the modern music landscape. They're the ones working alongside your faves to make sure they hit a hook just right. PAPER has teamed up with superstar songwriter Justin Tranter for a June Pride series spotlighting queer voices you may not have known are behind today's biggest bops.
Related | Behind the Bops: Justin Tranter
Tayla Parx is the quintessential definition of a triple threat. She can sing, she can dance, she can act. You may have clocked her on episodes of Gilmore Girls, Victorious, Everybody Hates Chris, True Jackson, VP or even as Little Inez in the 2007 adaptation of Hairspray. You might have caught her on tour with Lizzo or Anderson .Paak back when we were able to go to such things. You might even have caught one of her own headlining shows in support of her debut album, We Need To Talk, released last year with features from Joey Bada$, Duckwrth and Cautious Clay. But even if none of that manages to ring a bell for you, there is almost no chance you haven't heard her work in some capacity.
Signed as a songwriter to Warner Chappell Publishing at the age of 19, Parx has written for the likes of Demi Lovato, Mariah Carey, BTS, Janelle Monáe, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Kesha, The Internet and more. In 2018 alone she was a co-writer on three of the year's top 10 singles; Khalid and Normani's "Love Lies," Panic! at the Disco's soaring summer anthem "High Hopes" and a little song by Ariana Grande called "thank u, next." Parx is undoubtedly a powerhouse — and at just 26 years old, she's only just getting started.
Justin Tranter caught up with Tayla Parx to break down her biggest year yet, her forays into K-pop and embracing fluid definition of sexuality.
Justin Tranter: So you're quarantined in LA right now?
Tayla Parx: Yes, I am in LA. I travel a lot so, honestly, I haven't been in LA this long for a very long time
Are you enjoying it or is it driving you crazy?
I'm enjoying it, actually. I just finished up jumping from the Lizzo tour coming to the Anderson .Paak tour back to the Lizzo tour to my own tour. I have been in tour-crazy mode and it's just nice to be at home, you know?
Yeah. I did it only for about a year and a half. I was still in my band while also playing for other people, and I find it so miraculous for those of you who can continue to live in both worlds and play both worlds. I mean, to go and tour with Lizzo and Anderson .Paak while also having possibly one of the biggest years of your [fucking] whole career. That's so insane, how are you feeling about all that shit?
It's something that I feel like is grounding. I'm sure it's something that many writers who are also artists feel when you're having the biggest year of your life. It's very grounding when you have to build up that same thing for you again, which I think is necessary in the lifestyle that we live. I think that when you've had the number ones and it's kinda nice for things to be just different. I like to come off of the road and things not be about me, for a bit. To have time to find that balance.
Related | 'We Need to Talk' About Tayla Parx
Speaking of number ones, one of the amazing songs that you co-wrote this year was, "thank u, next" by Ariana Grande. I was fortunate enough to work a tiny tiny bit on the thank u, next album, but you were deep in that shit and the music you guys made in that album is just mind-blowing.
Champagne and tears and laughs, literally all of the above. This album was about life crumbling and rebuilding itself all at once, and it was awesome because we were able to be a part of telling that story. I honestly thank her because she was real enough to get that real with us. All we can do [as writers] is build based off of emotion that you give us. If they're genuine, you're a lot more likely to write a "hit song" because it's just relatable and real to you. The biggest thing that we did was really dive into those therapy sessions, and say, What stuck out in particular. What do you like about this relationship? What did you hate about this relationship? What did you learn about it? Did you then mess it up or was it them? It was literally diving into all of those things, and she was a great sport about it.
I find it so powerful, the more specific something gets, the more universal it becomes. I think the song "thank u, next" is possibly the best example of that, of all time. You guys are using ex-boyfriends' names, and it literally doesn't get more specific than that, but it was an anthem for the whole planet. It was this sort of healing and became a mantra for the whole world on how to deal with past relationships.
Thank you, thank you. That's right, we tried to be specific without being too specific. Everybody has a "Ricky," everybody has a "Shawn" and everybody has a different named version of that in their life.
Yup, totally. Your team sent me "Dance Alone." It's so fucking fire. The baseline is insane, your vocal is so fucking beautiful. Tell me the story behind that.
Thank you! I was in New York when I wrote it and I was just finishing up a tour with Lizzo actually and we happened to be going out. They invited me out and it was the first time I was going out while on tour and I had an incredible time. I actually stayed out hours and hours dancing my ass off, you know when your clothes are drenched and your hair and makeup is fucked up? That's the kind of dancing we were doing. I ended up meeting somebody that night that made me want to stay long and dance with him and I wanted to catch that moment in the song.
I fucking love it. I want to talk about Janelle Monáe's "Pynk." That song is just so fucking cool, and I think you and Janelle writing that together means so much to the world and why I'm doing this [series] with PAPER. I want people to know all the different diverse voices behind some of these big pop stars. Specifically, you and Janelle making a really modern, feminist anthem. I'd love to hear about the story of that song.
Yeah, I think we're in the prime right now of music and in the world period where we're having a lot of women say, You know what, it's time to really really grab life by the balls. Honestly, Janelle is one of those artists that I can explore with and say the things that we're all thinking, but do it in a different way. With Janelle, we're able to push those boundaries and say, What are the things we love about being a woman? So we're talking about the brain, we're talking about every little body part that just embodies "Pynk" and I was really proud of that song cause I felt like we really pushed the limits and made people be like, Oh I see what they did there.
We've known each other for awhile now, but I realize that sometimes in sessions, we're just so used to talking with other people about their lives that we're not used to talking about our own. I know obviously that you're in the music business and that you've been here for a very long time, but I don't actually know where you grew up, how you ended up in LA, I don't know any of that. As your friend, I would love to actually talk to you about all that stuff.
You're so right about that, we're always talking about some other shit. We've known each other for the past few years, so I'm excited to have this little catch up. I'm from Texas. When I was like 9 or 10, Debbie Allen ended up hearing me sing at this dance academy when I was just this kid and she was like, You can sing, but can you act? She introduced me into this whole world of knowing what a "triple threat" was. From 9 to 11, I performed at the Kennedy Center and so a lot of people that I didn't really know at the time, Herbie Hancock and Steven Spielberg, were coming to galas that Debbie would put on. I did three or four, until my parents picked up everything and moved me to LA when I was 11. My mom would sneak me into auditions, she would go on online message boards. I didn't have an agent, didn't know the first step in finding one. She would just sneak me in, find out what the other moms were saying and show up. I think about that a lot. My parents were just like, We believe in her, our kid, and we're going to do what we have to do to get her the opportunity. I ended up getting caught at a Gilmore Girls audition. They noticed that I didn't have an agent, but I got the part and it changed my life.
Related | Janelle Monáe: Trans Folks to the Front
No! You got caught, but you still got the part?
Yeah, I still remember some of the things we had to learn: the periodic table, but it was in song form. It was a very interesting thing. They said, "You gotta get an agent and we're going to call up a few options for you." That was a real blessing, because I didn't know anything about this. I don't have any family in the music industry, I only have the belief in myself that I can do this. I sat down with the agents, and said, "Anyone who can give me an audition for the movie Hairspray, I'll go with you." I know that you can't help me get it, none of that stuff is in your control, but if you just get me the opportunity, I can take it from there. I ended up being blessed enough to get the role [of Little Inez]. They introduced me into a whole new world, being in LA, which transitioned really well.
When I met you, I couldn't believe how young you were. I was like 33 when I first started writing pop with more than four other people, and you were young. I remember being in the session and had friends who were musical theater super fans, and I mentioned, "That girl is so fucking amazing, but she's so young, I feel like I'm definitely way to old to do this. I missed my opportunity. Her name is Tayla blah blah blah…" They said, "Wait, did you work with Tayla Parx from Hairspray!?" They freaked the fuck out. How did you go from being musical theater royalty to writing the top pop songs of our time? How does that happen?
It was very slow throughout the years. I was 17, I was going to college, doing the acting on the side. At that point I had done Nickelodeon and stuff like that by the time that I met you. That's where I first met Ariana because we knew each other from the stage. She was a fan of Hairspray, I was a fan of 13. We both ended up on Nickelodeon shows. We kind of reconnected through music. So 17, I was going back and forth between college classes to Babyface's studio because one of my best friends knew Babyface. He ended up telling him about me and inviting me down to the studio, and this is the first time in a real studio, I'm just going to soak up everything. Before that all my demos were songs in my room. From then on I've been trying to find myself, figure it out. Very similarly to how I approached it when I was younger, getting into the rooms, which is how I ended up getting into the room with you. It was really me learning, being a student to this. I could honestly say I would show up and be confident that I could write a song. I don't know where the songs will go, but I know that I can write a song.
"More queer people need to know that their ideas are mainstream and have been mainstream for a very long time. Now we're finally getting that credit."
Wow, how fucked up is this? That we've known each other for so long and never ever talked about all this? That story is crazy.
That story is really crazy because our lives revolve a bit around other people and telling their stories. It is pretty fucked up that we never were able to sit down and just talk about us.
I need to know how it was making the "Micdrop" with BTS featuring Desiigner, like were your socials just fucking destroyed for like two months? Tell me everything.
It was pretty crazy, I've been doing K-pop for a few years now. There was always a K-pop even before it was as popular as it is now and honestly, I can tell you one thing, they are to be learned from. In so many different ways. From the marketing to the way that they show recognition to songwriters and the way that they produce music in general. They've been doing what we're doing now and that's defying genre boundaries, defying gender roles and things like that. It's something that I've always respected about K-pop.
Is "Micdrop" your biggest K-pop moment? Or is there other stuff that the K-pop super fans should be looking for?
I mean, they know about Red Velvet, f(x) and BTS. I kinda worked with a lot of the big K-kop groups, but obviously BTS had an incredible past two years. For the simple fact that it was able to combine a US artist, K-pop and merge these worlds, for them to really be the first group to be able to crossover like that is very impressive.
That's amazing, I didn't know that you were so involved in the K-pop world. That's so fucking cool.
Yeah, I love it. I love to mix genres and stuff, I see that as a fun challenge. They really don't care about whatever rules and conventions that we have over here in the US. I go over to Korea and for months and just write.
I do remember being inspired and thinking of the future, and I remember we were in Vegas and I think I asked you about your sexuality or something and you said something like, "I just live." I was like, That's the future, these kids don't have to define themselves like my generation did, as survival. So I just wanted to ask you, whatever you're comfortable talking about, how has the journey in defining sexuality and all these different things been like.
Yeah, it really was a journey, which is a massive part of why I felt like I had to show that in my artistry. It's something that I've had to learn how to be. I've always been like, I like this and this, I like that some days, and that's fine. I couldn't figure out the perfect way to describe it. And then I was like, Why do I have to describe it? I never had that coming out moment with my parents, just "this is a girl that I like right now." It wasn't a big thing because I've always been very strong on the fact that it doesn't really matter, honestly. Coming from the south, I used to identify with being a tomboy all the time. It was very hard for me to be like, I like the color pink and I love all of these girly things, because that is what I had identified with all of my life. So when I realized those things that we try to identify with as some type of grounding to say, This is what I am, this is who I am. They're really just boxes. I get it, we all need something to keep us going, something to hold on to, give us some type of boundaries, but those boundaries also stop you from becoming who you truly are and the things that make you truly happy. I've learned to wake up every day and be like, This is what we're in, let's run with it. I take the same approach that I do towards everything else in my career. I'm really blessed to come up in a generation, and same thing with everyone else younger than me, that will allow you to be a little bit more yourself without judgment. I'm not saying that it's all perfect right now, but I'm saying it's easier.
I identify as gender-nonconforming, as queer, but this conversation wasn't happening when I was 20. I would have definitely said I was just gay, but I also feel like a girl a lot of days, romantically in those situations I feel like a woman. When I was young we were having these conversation, but people would think I was crazy. What's so beautiful now is this fluidity and freedom to move throughout your life and be who you are. Which is why I want the world to know that our ideas are mainstream, and you are one of these peoples who is making some seriously amazing mainstream music, who comes from our community. I just think it's fucking amazing to watch.
Thank you so much, and thank you for doing this. I think that more queer people need to know that their ideas are mainstream and have been mainstream for a very long time. Now we're finally getting that credit. Let's inspire the next generation to know that it's okay to be you because you're only going to bring more talented people.
Photography: Joey James
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