At 17, you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist as young as Willa Amai with as much high profile experience. After being introduced to multi-platinum songwriter and producer Linda Perry at only 12 years old, Amai has spent the last five years under her wing, honing her already natural talent into the dynamic performing force evident in collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton and Brandie Carlile. Now, two months after the release of her single “Ocean” comes “Not a Soldier,” a beautifully haunting take on love and control. The track is the newest single for her upcoming debut album, I Can Go to Bed Whenever.
With an equally poignant live acoustic video, premiering today on The Untitled Magazine, “Not a Soldier” takes a philosophical look at the relationship between romance and control, highlighting just how important a lack of the latter can make way for more meaningful connections. It is that kind of introspection that makes Amai so remarkably in-tune with herself at such a young age, and what made her a perfect Ambassador for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The Untitled Magazine caught up with Willa Amai about the new track and album, as well as her mentorship with Linda Perry and partnership with NAMI.
Check out the full interview and watch the live music video for “Not a Soldier” below.
I would love to hear more about your beautiful new single “Not a Soldier.” What was the songwriting process like on the track?
A line came into my head, lyrics and melody interwoven, and I wrote the song from that first line. What was special about writing that song was it was the first time I really accomplished a song that felt quick and intense that also conveyed insecurity. I wanted to show both that I have a hard time losing control and also that this loss of control is important and exhilarating, and I was and am proud of myself for accomplishing that on this track.
You’ve mentioned before that the song is about love and romance being out of our control. Why is that lack of control so important?
The lack of control we have around love is incredibly important in my eyes; I consider myself a control-freak, but all human beings are programmed to like control in some capacity. But if we could control love for someone, or their love for us, it would defeat the purpose of loving and being loved in the first place. Loving and being loved is, fundamentally, a demonstration of the highest level of trust. You, metaphorically and literally, give someone your hand to hold and protect and expect them to keep holding it, despite the fact that in the end they have no obligation to. It’s this protection and compassion without reason that makes love so powerful, so if we could control that, reassure it, tame it, there would be no point in loving at all.
Your upcoming debut album is called “I Can Go To Bed Whenever.” Where did that title come from?
I Can Go To Bed Whenever has a double meaning for me. Firstly, the album itself was all written as I was coming to terms with my transition from childhood into adulthood; preparing for college, living out all of the classic high school tropes, all of it was both incredibly exciting and terrifying. I wasn’t sure of myself or my ability to be a real adult, so as I was grappling with this, I Can Go To Bed Whenever was born. The title works in the sense that having no bedtime is a hallmark of a transition from childhood, and that’s the meaning I expect people to get when they first read it. But the deeper, more personal meaning to me is that it represents my transition from my childhood anxieties. When I was younger, I struggled often with anxiety surrounding sleep. For some reason it terrified me that it was possible I wouldn’t fall asleep, and I would stay up all night worrying about staying up all night. So, every night, as my mom lovingly tucked me into bed, I would make her promise me that “I could go to bed whenever.” She made that promise to me every night for a few years, but I’ve ended up in a place with my mental health now that I no longer need that nightly reassurance. Growing out of that need was such a proud moment for myself and such a hallmark of my self-growth, I knew it had to be my album title.
What can we expect from the album overall?
The album is raw, emotional and real. All of the songs were recorded live with my band, playing together all throughout, and I’m really hoping the sense of intimacy is conveyed when you listen.
I want the listener to feel like they’re in the room with me, understanding the lyrics from up close, feeling the music as an active participant. The songs themselves are all wordy and thoughtful, which isn’t surprising if you know me, and I’m so excited to share all of these thoughts with everyone. Terrified, too, but mostly excited.
I understand your mentor is the incredibly prolific and influential songwriter Linda Perry. What has that mentorship journey been like for you? What specific career or creative knowledge has she imparted on you?
Linda Perry mentoring me these past five years has been truly incredible in so many ways. She’s watched me grow up; I grew from 12 to 17 over the course of our journey thus far. She’s taught me the importance of openness and acceptance of emotion, true courage, and created an expectation for me that has pushed me to my highest potential every single day. She has made me a better musician and a better person, and I will forever be indebted to her for that.
You recently became an Ambassador for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. How will that partnership influence your songwriting going forward?
Songwriting has always been my outlet for my anxiety; songwriting plays a huge role in the strength of my mental health. So being an Ambassador for NAMI will have a more profound effect on my life itself than my songwriting. I’m so honored to be able to help those in need, and I can’t wait to pay my own support forward. I’ve been so privileged to have had all of the love and aid I’ve received my whole life, and now I feel it’s my duty to be that support for others who aren’t as fortunate as I have been.
You attribute your melody writing process, in part, like several other successful songwriters, to your synesthesia. Can you elaborate a little on that?
My synesthesia adds a fourth dimension to my songwriting. I’ve always loved creating dynamic landscapes I knew very few people could see; not because I wanted some exclusive club that could alone enjoy the visual aspect of my music, but because I love the idea of cultivating music that is precise and thoughtful from every angle, even if some of those angles are invisible to most.
At such a young age you’ve already worked and performed with incredible artists like Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile. Do you have any dream collaborators you’d love to work with?
Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile were most definitely dream collaborators that exceeded every unrealistic expectation I had, but a product of having parents with incredible music taste is I have a long list of dream collaborators. First and foremost, though, is Stevie Nicks. I have dreamed since my youngest days to sing with her, and I am manifesting that idea with every chance I have! Stevie Nicks I love you!
We can’t wait to hear your full debut album this summer, is there anything else we should keep our eyes out for on the horizon?
To be honest, every plan I’ve made in the past couple of months has changed for one reason or another. What I will say is that I’m writing constantly, and releasing my music is so exhilarating that I’d keep your eyes out. It’s highly possible I’ll release more very soon!