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Sophie Created A Boundless, Genderless Future For Pop
By bringing outré elements inward to the mainstream, the Scottish visionary provided a looking-glass to pop circa the 22nd, 23rd and 24th centuries
Many artists now viewed as self-evidently revolutionary were once seen as merely provocative. The Beatles once sparked parental panics and religious boycotts; now, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both have "Sir" before their name. Jim Morrison made Nietzchean inquiries into sex, death and the nature of prayer; today, The Doors sound comfortable and comforting. Half a century later, get a load of Sophie, a gender-norm-shattering Scottish producer with a bold expression who refused limitations—in music and in society. The artist’s uncategorizable, maximalist tracks resemble avant-garde electronica meets IMAX-scaled sound design.
Immerse yourself in tracks like "Bipp," the alluringly fun club banger; "Ponyboy," an experimental track full of sexual inuendos; or "It's Okay to Cry," a song full of comforting vulnerability, and you'll find an artist on the bleeding edge of culture. Still, Sophie was perceptive enough to know the artist was one of many more to come.
"There's a huge amount of work to be done socially and culturally in the gap between where we are now and, I imagine, where we could be," Sophie, who was transgender and preferred not to be referenced with gendered or non-binary pronouns, told Arte Tracks in 2018. "The places that our imaginations can take us are so far away from what we're presented with a lot of the time. So, I can't get too excited about anything happening now. I'm really excited about what should be happening in the future."
Sophie tragically died on Jan. 30 after slipping and falling from the three-story balcony of an apartment where the artist stayed in Athens, Greece, while trying to take a picture of the full moon. Sophie was only 34. "She will always be here with us," the artist's label Transgressive said in a statement, calling the artist's desire for the lunar shot "true to her spirituality."
Sophie's girlfriend, Evita Manji, told Daily Mail she spoke to Sophie after the fall. "I managed to tell her I love her and to keep fighting," she said. "She's an immaterial girl now; she can be anything she wants... and she is in everything around us," Manji said in a later online tribute.
Sophie Xeon was born in Glasgow in 1986 and grew up absorbing rave tapes from the artist's father and experimenting with synthesis. In the early 2000s, the precocious musician relocated to Berlin and formed Motherland, a dance-pop collective. Motherland's Matthew Lutz-Kinoy used the artist's music at exhibitions in Europe and the New Museum in Manhattan and boosted Sophie's signal.
A decade later, Sophie began DJing and releasing music. In the early 2010s, the artist rose as part of the forward-thinking PC Music Collective production team, which operated parallel to and against the mainstream’s current.
The artist's career began in earnest with the effervescent single "Lemonade / Hard,'" keeping her identity a secret in the beginning. (She revealed her face for the first time in a music video in 2017). "I think about physics and materials [while creating]," Sophie explained to Billboard in 2014, revealing a scientific-like approach to creating music. "'Lemonade' is made out of bubbling, fizzing, popping, and 'Hard' is made from metal and latex—they are sort of sculptures in this way. I synthesize all sounds except for vocals using raw waveforms and different synthesis methods as opposed to using samples. This means considering the physical properties of materials and how those inform the acoustic properties.
"For instance—why does a bubble have an ascending pitch when popped and why does metal clang when struck, and what is this clanging sound in terms of pitch and timbre over time? How do I synthesize this?" the artist asked. "Perhaps after learning about these things, it might be possible to create entirely new materials through synthesis."
"Lemonade / Hard" ended up in a 2015 McDonald's ad and seamlessly worked in that context. Sophie had no compunction about licensing the artist's music in commerce. In the same interview, Sophie frankly called the artist's genre "advertising"—which might seem like anathema to those committed to operating in a counterculture at odds with capitalism.
"Pop should be about finding new forms for feelings and communicating them in ways which talk about the world around us right now," the artist told The New York Times in 2015. "There’s no need to view something commercial as necessarily bad. I believe you don’t need to compromise one percent on what you want to present and need to communicate to people en masse."
Almost immediately after the McDonald's ad, Sophie became part of the mainstream landscape, releasing the artist’s debut album Product in 2015. That year, the artist co-wrote and produced Madonna's infamous single "Bitch, I'm Madonna." Sophie followed that up with writing and production work for artists as divergent as the dance-popper Charli XCX (2016's Vroom Vroom) and Odd Future MC Vince Staples ("Yeah Right" and "Samo" from 2017's Big Fish Theory). Sophie also remixed Rihanna's "Nothing Is Promised," a track from Mike Will Made It's debut 2017 album Ransom 2.
"It’s impossible to summarize the journey I went on with Sophie. Even the most insignificant things felt enormous,” XCX expressed on Twitter. “All I can [say] is that I will miss her terribly—her smile, her laugh, her dancing in the studio, her gentle inquisitive voice, her cutting personality, her ability to command a room without even trying, her incredible vision and mind."
Staples also took to social media to remember the artist. "Sophie was different," he said in a Twitter tribute. "You ain't never seen somebody in the studio smoking a cigarette in a leather bubble jacket, just making beats, not saying one word. And don't let the verse be deep or heartfelt, 'cause she stopping the computer and walking outside until you get bacc [sic] on some gangsta shit."
In 2018, Sophie released the artist’s second and final studio album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. The album is fascinating, a tidal wave of disparate styles—glitch, techno, dream pop, ambient house, EDM, and more—coupled with a transgender and transhumanist visual aesthetic. The album was met with acclaim, earning Sophie a GRAMMY nomination for Best Dance Electronic/ Album in 2018. "This is the kind of music that, in 20 years, we may look back on as a pivotal point in changing the trajectory of the pop music sound," Exclaim! wrote in a glowing 2018 review.
Sophie left us far too soon, but for anyone wondering if the future of music will resemble this singular artist, here's a thought: Given how the Internet age has bled all genres and stylistic eras into one morass, like in Soundcloud rap—and how traditional ideas of gender are being deconstructed and reexamined daily in mainstream culture—this makes it not just conceivable but likely.
There may have only been one Sophie, but if you’re looking for a bellwether of what a pop musician might look and sound like in the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries, look no further.
Photos: Antoine Antonio/Getty Images; Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for NARAS; Kevin Winter/Getty Images For MTV; Denise Truscello/Getty Images for iHeartMedia; Don Arnold/Getty Images; Harry Durrant/Getty Images
Behind Mark Ronson's Hits: How 'Boogie Nights,' Five-Hour Jams & Advice From Paul McCartney Inspired His Biggest Singles & Collabs
GRAMMY-winning multihyphenate Mark Ronson details the stories behind 11 of his favorite releases, from "Valerie" and "Uptown Funk" to 'Barbie The Album.'
Mark Ronson's fingerprints are everywhere in pop music.
Whether he's behind the board as a producer, penning earwormy hooks for some music's biggest names, or employing a crate digger's mindset to create his own records, you'd be hard-pressed to find something on your playlist that Ronson hasn't touched. The seven-time GRAMMY winner might as well be considered the industry’s Kevin Bacon — he's worthy of his own "six degrees" game.
Today, Ronson is on his way back to New York City from some time spent in the Hudson Valley — a much-need reprieve after a blockbuster summer that saw his Barbie movie soundtrack top charts around the world.
"I love this film so much and I did something I've never done before by executive producing and overseeing [its music]," he tells GRAMMY.com.
That Ronson still has things to check off his professional bucket list is something of a surprise. The stepson of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, Ronson got his start DJing in New York in the '90s, bridging his twin loves of funk and hip-hop. In the latter part of the decade, Diddy hired Ronson to DJ several parties, thus opening up the then-twentysomething to a world of A-list talent. Ronson's elite status only grew over decades — from DJing Paul McCartney's wedding in 2011 (for which he refused to accept payment), to creating the ubiquitous hit "Uptown Funk," and curating the final night of the iconic 2023 Montreux Jazz Festival.
Ronson has released five of his own albums — beginning with 2003's Here Comes The Fuzz and up to 2019's Late Night Feelings — each of which is a star-studded affair, featuring everyone from Miley Cryus and Camilla Cabello to Bruno Mars and Mary J. Blige (as well as the occasional lawsuit over interpolation and sampling). Over the years, he's developed a cadre of session musicians and production collaborators, creating an incredibly pop savvy sound often built on horn-driven funk and soul.
At the bedrock of Ronson's production — and among his best-known works — is Amy Winehouse's GRAMMY-winning album Back To Black. Since that 2006 release, Ronson has collaborated with an ever-increasing number of major acts, composing, arranging, producing, writing or playing on (and sometimes all of the above) works by Lady Gaga, Duran Duran, Dua Lipa, Adele, Queens of the Stone Age, and even Sir Paul himself.
Ronson will add another first to his list: author. A hybrid memoir and cultural history, the still-in-progress 93 'Til Infinity will cover the New York downtown club scene of Ronson's salad days.
"It's really fun to revisit that era, and it was a very specific time in DJing where DJs weren't really famous," he recalls. "There was no stage; sometimes the turntables were shoved in the corner at the end of the bar and you would have to crane your neck to even see the crowd. I sound like Grandpa Simpson, but I loved it."
Ronson is en route to a DJ gig as we speak, though the new dad says he'll be "kicking back into high gear on the book" soon. "[Writing it] requires really falling off for seven hours in the basement, like Stephen King says in his book. But I like that," he says.
Ahead of a celebration of Barbie The Album at the GRAMMY Museum on Sept. 27, Mark Ronson shared the stories behind some of his favorite productions – including the song that makes people "stupidly happy."
"Ooh Wee," Here Comes The Fuzz feat. Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg, Trife and Saigon (2003)
I went to see Boogie Nights in the theater and I remember this scene where Mark Wahlberg's a busboy on roller skates and in the background there was this song playing that had just this string thing that just hit me so hard. I bought the Boogie Nights soundtrack and it wasn't on there — obviously this is 20 years before Shazam — then I figured out it was the song called "Sunny" by Boney M.
When I was making my first record, I was sort of locked up by myself in the studio on 54th Street just experimenting, making tracks all the time. That string line, I could never figure out what to do with the sample. I tried 80 different tempos and drum beats over it, and it wasn't until I just put that drum break behind it, the drums from the song, and it just all sort of gelled together.
Because that was an era in hip-hop where people weren't really using drum loops or drum breaks anymore. It was about chopping and having hard kicks and snares, like DJ Premiere and Timbaland. The DJ in me was like, f— it, let me just try putting a drum break under it. It all gelled and felt good.
I was a huge Wu-Tang fan, and at that point Ghostface was my favorite out of the group and I loved his solo records. I've never been more nervous in some weird way to talk to somebody — nervous and giddy, and what if I just sound so dorky?
I remember he was like, "Yeah, I get it. I think it's dope. It's like some Saturday Night Fever with Tony Manero s—." I guess because of the strings and it was so disco, and Ghost always had this pension for those disco kind of uptempo beats.
The album had to be handed in and I didn't have a hook that I liked on this song yet. Sylvia Rhone was the head of Elektra and she said, "I could try and get Nate Dogg on it." Of course that was the dream. I sent him the track, and it was probably two days before I had to master the album, on a Sunday. He sent me the files back, and all the waveforms were blank.
I had to call Nate Dogg at like 10 a.m. at home on a Sunday. While he's on the phone, he goes back in the studio and turns all his equipment on, trying to do the session.
The fanboy thing is still very real because I still work with people all the time that I'm a fan of. At that age, being in the studio with M.O.P., Mos Def, Q-Tip, Jack White, Freeway, Nate. I was just trying to keep it together some of the time.
"Rehab" - Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2006)
"Rehab" just came about in general because Amy was telling me an anecdote. She was really together when we worked — she might not have been sober, but she got her whole life together. She was telling me about this time in her life that was difficult and she was in a really bad place. She said, "And my dad and manager came over and they tried to make me go to rehab and I was like, 'No, no, no.'"
I remember that it instantly sounded like a chorus to me, so we went back to my studio and we made the demo. That was when the Strokes and the Libertines were really big. I remember [the drums] sounded much more like an indie beat, even though it came from soul and Motown and the original rock 'n' roll. She would tease me; she's like, "You trying to make me sound like the bloody Libertines."
When [studio group] the Dap-Kings played it, they just brought it to life. I didn't really know anything about analog recording at that point. I only knew how to make s— sound analog by sampling records, so to hear them all play in the original Daptone studio, all the drums bleeding into the piano…. I felt like I was floating because I couldn't believe that anybody could still make that drum sound in 2006.
Amy couldn't be there for the recording, so I was taking a CD-J into the studio with me and I had her demo vocals on a cappella. I was playing it live with the band so that they could keep pace with the arrangement. I loved it so much.
"Valerie," feat. Amy Winehouse,Version (2007)
Amy had never met the Dap-Kings, even though they had been the band for all the songs that I had done on Back to Black. There was this really lovely day in Brooklyn where I took her to the studio to meet all the guys. The album was already out; there was a very good feeling about it [and] they obviously made something really special together. Amy loved the way the record sounded so much, she was so grateful. They loved her.
While we're all having this love-in in Bushwick, I was finishing my album Version and I said, "Maybe we could just cut a song for my record?" The whole theme of the record had sort of been taking more guitar indie bands like the Smiths, the Jam, the Kaiser Chiefs, and turning those into R&B or soul arrangements. I asked Amy if she knew any songs like that. She's like, "Yeah, they play this one song down at my local. It's called 'Valerie,'" and she played us all the Zutons' version. I didn't really hear it at first.
The first version we did was this very Curtis Mayfield kind of sweet soul. Part of me was just like, This is really good, but I feel like there's a hit version as well. I don't have that kind of crass thing where everything needs to be a hit, but…
Everybody was already packing up their instruments and I didn't know the guys that well yet, so it was kind of a pain in the ass to be like, "Hey, I know everybody just wants to go onto the f—ing bar and get a beer right now, but can we just do one more version where we speed it up a little?" Everybody flips open their guitar cases and we do like two more takes, and that's the version on my album.
"Alligator" - Paul McCartney, NEW (2013)
We've done other things together, but I've only really [worked on] three songs on his album, NEW. "New" I just loved as soon as he sent me the demo, because as a McCartney fan, it gives you the same feeling as "We Can Work It Out"; it just has that amazing uplifting feel. That's just his genius. I love "Alligator" maybe a little more because it's more weird.
He definitely gives you a day to f— up and be an idiot because you're just so nervous to be in the studio with McCartney. By the second day it's like, okay, get your s— together.
I remember running around just like, What sound can I find for Paul McCartney that every other amazing producer who ever recorded him [hasn't found already]? He was like, "Anybody can record a pristine acoustic guitar. Give me something with some characteristic that's iconic. That feels like someone just put the needle down on track one on an album."
That's something I always try to remember: don't just make it sound like a guitar, make it sound like a record.
"Uptown Funk" feat. Bruno Mars, Uptown Special (2015)
My enjoyment of the song is now gauged by the people that I'm playing it for. I was playing at this party at Public Records [in Brooklyn] on Sunday. I knew that I wasn't going to play that song on that night; it wasn't right for that crowd or something. And then an hour into my set, the vibe is really good, and I was just like, f— it and I dropped it, and people went crazy.
I'm a little extra critical sometimes on the more commercial songs, thinking nobody wants to hear this or this doesn't really have a place in this space. I think it's just a song that makes people stupidly happy, and that's cool.
The lyrics [to "Uptown Funk"] came really quick. We had the jam: Bruno was on drums, I was playing bass, Jeff Bhasker was on keys, and then Phil Lawrence was there and we jammed for five hours. We just chopped up our favorite parts of the instrumental jam, and then just started writing lyrics almost like a cipher. Bruno had been playing the Trinidad James song ["All Gold Everything"] in his live sets and playing it over a sort of uptempo, funky James Brown, "Get Up Off That Thing" groove.
We were just throwing about lyrics, throwing a little bit of the cadence of the Trinidad James song. Then when Jeff Bhasker said, "This s—, that ice cold/That Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold." It was like a great rap line. Then everything started to elevate a little bit from there on up.
That first day, we had the whole first verse and it felt great. Every time we went back in the studio, a lot of the times it would feel labored and not as good as that first verse. So it really took a long time to get in. Sometimes we'd go in the studio for three days and then at the end of the whole session we realized, we actually only liked these four bars.
So we kept building on it, and luckily Bruno didn't really let it die. Bruno was touring Unorthodox Jukebox; I was just flying around the country with a five string bass just to get the song done.
"Uptown Funk" still ended at Daptone…to do the horns last with Dave [Guy] and Neil [Sugarman], me. It's almost like you've always got to go through Daptone to finish something.
Bruno came up with that horn line. He was like, "I know you're going to kill me because you're trying to get away from being the horn guy, but I have this horn line and I think it's kind of killer." He demoed it from whatever backstage room on tour and I was like, Okay, here we go.
"Shallow" - Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born Soundtrack (2018)
It's very rare that I write on a song that I don't have to produce as well. We wrote that song in the middle of sessions for [2016's] Joanne, and then Gaga produced the whole Star is Born soundtrack herself. I remember we all had some tingly feelings when we were writing it.
It wasn't meant to be a duet ever. Then Bradley wrote it into the film; it becomes the beginning of their love story. Bradley showed [me a rough cut] at his house, I remember just being like, he's taking this special song [and] made it put its hooks into you. This film, and the story, and the way this song is unfolding is so special.
Then also shout to Lukas Nelson, because that guitar that he came up with that opens the song was not in our demo, and that is such an iconic, memorable part of the song.
The film and the script was really powerful, and I think that me, [co-writers] Andrew [Wyatt], Anthony [Rossomando], Gaga were all in this sort of heartbreak place. We're all just going through our own dramas in the song. The juju was really good and a little spooky in the studio that night.
"Electricity" - Dua Lipa & Silk City feat. Diplo, Mark Ronson, Electricity (2018)
That song just always makes me happy. I don't have a lot of other songs [that sound] like that. I'm always psyched to play that in a set or to go see Diplo play it live.
When I came up DJing in the mid-'90s in New York, if you're a hip-hop DJ you had to be versed in dancehall, old R&B dance classics, and a little bit of house. So I knew 12 house records, but I love those records.
It came out of a fun jam, just me and Diplo — who I'd known probably at that point for 10, 15 years, but we never got in the studio together. He's just firing up drum s— and I'm just playing on this old tack piano that was in the studio I just moved into. But it also sounded quite housey.
We came up with those chords and [singer/songwriter] Diana Gordon came over. I never met her before and she just started freestyling some melodies, and it was just so soulful instantly.
We'd moved the key a little bit lower for Dua — she has this amazing husky voice — but we still left Diana's demo vocal in. She's singing these mumble, non-word melodies that sound like a sample.
We had that old studio where we did Version and all the Amy demos. It has an old-school elevator that was sort of manual and it would always break down. There were people that were just too afraid, like Cathy Dennis — the brilliant songwriter who wrote "Toxic" and "Can't Get You Out of My Head" — she would just always be like, "I'm taking the stairs." We were on the fifth floor and it was a steep, steep walk up. [Editor's note: The music video for "Electricity" features Ronson and Diplo stuck in an elevator. He notes that he's gotten stuck several times in real life.]
"Nothing Breaks Like a Heart" feat. Miley Cyrus, Late Night Feelings (2019)
I was in L.A. working in Sound Factory [Studios], and I had seen Miley a couple years back sing "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" on the "SNL" 40th anniversary; I had never heard her perform with that stripped-down arrangement. I was just so in love with her voice and the tone. I remember hounding my manager, because usually somebody who knows somebody, but Miley Cyrus was completely unreachable and just in another stratosphere.
I was in the studio with [Dap-King] Tommy Brenneck; he's just such a wonderful player, such a soulful touch. We got this thing going, and then Ilsey [Juber] was saying, like, "What about all these things that break, but nothing breaks like a heart?"
[I thought], You know what? I've been trying to hit this girl up for years and nothing ever happened, but let me just try it one more time. I sent it off to Miley, and I guess she was just in a really motivated part of life. She's like, "This is cool. Where are you guys? I'll be there Monday." She came down Monday to the studio, and then her and Illsey wrote the whole rest of the song.
"Break Up Twice" - Lizzo, Special (2022)
[I produced a few other songs on Special], but they didn't make the cut. There's one that I really love called "Are You Mad" that might hopefully see the light of day once.
We spent a lot of time together and I love working with her because she has a really eccentric/ avant garde music taste. Like, the Mars Volta is her favorite-ever band; she's a conservatoire flute player; then she has a strong Prince heritage because she spent time in Minneapolis and she's been to Paisley Park.
The thing that I really love about her is, even at the status that she was at when we were working, there was never anything too silly or too left field to try. It's really freeing when you're with a big artist who isn't afraid to just f— around and jam and make some s— that you know might not be the thing.
"Break Up Twice" was actually an instrumental that we had done at Diamond Mine with [Daptone family] Tommy [Brenneck], Leon [Michels], Victor [Axelrod] and Nick [Movshon]. I just played that, and it instantly spoke to her and she just started freestyling, adding the harmonies and the sax and the vocal arrangements. I just didn't quite know how versatile and talented that she was when we first went in the studio. I just remember constantly being impressed and amazed.
Barbie: The Album (2023)
I'm really proud of the Dom Fike song ["Hey Blondie"], the Sam Smith song ["Man I Am"], [Dua Lipa's] "Dance and Night," of course. Even the Billie [Eilish] song that we did the string arrangement for. I played the tiniest bit of synths on the Nicki [Minaj]i/Ice [Spice] song.
I love this film so much and I did something I've never done before by executive producing and overseeing it. There's so many songs that I had nothing to do with creatively; sometimes I was just doing admin, hounding Tame Impala to send in a demo.
I'm really proud of "I'm Just Ken." Of course Ryan Gosling is a superstar in a different kind of way, but the fact that he's not some superstar pop artist, and the fact that that song has managed to do what it's done….Obviously it's so much to do with the film and his performance, but I'm really proud of that song. I was so inspired by the script. I just instantly had the idea for that line.
There was never anything in the script that said Ryan was going to sing a song. It was just something where Greta [Gerwig] and him really loved the demo, and she loved it enough to write it into the film, which was just so exciting. It was happening in a way that felt wonderful and organic, and to then get Josh Freese and Slash, and Wolf Van Halen to play on it and even bring it to even this next level of sonic fullness.
On TikTok and Instagram, I've seen people singing it; [even] in Spanish, really intense, really earnest covers. We were never trying to write a parody song or anything that wasn't earnest, because there's nothing parody about the film. I guess the chords have a bit of heartbreak in them, a little melancholy, and Ryan's performance is really lovely.
Barbie score (2023)
We worked equally hard or harder [on the score]. It doesn't have quite the same shine because obviously it's not Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Dua Lipa, but it's something Andrew [Wyatt] and I did. A piece called "You Failed Me" — that's during both Barbie and Ken's meltdown in the middle of the film — I'm quite proud of that. I really love the "Meeting Ruth" orchestral interpolation of the Billie tune as well.
I've contributed music to other films and little cues and things like that, but this is the first time that Andrew and I really did a whole movie from start to finish while also doing the soundtrack.
It's incredibly humbling, too, because when you make a song for someone's album, you're working. It's certainly the most important thing that's happening. In a film, it could be the second most important thing. You could sometimes say it's the third most important thing after dialogue and the sound effects. All that's programmed into your mind about hooks and things like that it's like, No, actually sometimes get the f— out of the way and just provide a lovely emotional texture for things to sit under things.
The thing that I guess is universal is you're reacting to an emotion. Especially if it's a film that you really feel emotionally partial to, you're watching this wonderful performance on screen and how could you not be inspired by that? We're so spoiled to have this as our first film where we're reacting to the emotional heart of this film, which is so rich.
Photo: Aaron Marsh
Teddy Swims Is Letting Himself Be Brutally Honest On 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy'
As the world continues to discover the magnitude of Teddy Swims' soulful voice, he realized the power of opening up and letting go with his debut album, 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy.'
Four years into his career, Teddy Swims made a promise to himself to be more honest. With that in mind, he decided to be unflinchingly real with his debut album title: I've Tried Everything But Therapy.
While the title may be true for now, Swims is incredibly vulnerable. Across 10 tracks, he divulges the raw emotions of heartbreak, from reeling over what could've been in opener "Some Things I'll Never Know" to leaning into new love — while still in repair — on closer "Evergreen."
"It's the most honest I've ever let myself be," Swims, born Jaten Dimsdale, says of the album. "I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of myself. And it's a f—ing relief to just get it off my shoulders."
For someone who bares his soul in his music, both lyrically and vocally, it's rather surprising to think that he wouldn't be the type for therapy. But now that the album is out, his next step is seeking professional help — another promise he made to himself upon choosing the candid title.
In the meantime, Swims is already seeing the impact of being more and more open in his music. "Lose Control," the album's lead single, has earned Swims his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 and first solo radio hit (in 2022, his Meghan Trainor collab "Bad For Me" reached No. 15 on Billboard's Adult Pop Airplay chart). But perhaps more notably, his powerful vocal runs on the song's dynamic chorus are stopping listeners in their tracks. As one YouTube commenter put it, "Man has a voice that speaks to the core of your soul."
Just before the album's arrival, Swims talked with GRAMMY.com about how I've Tried Everything But Therapy has helped him understand the impact of wearing his insecurities on his sleeve — and how his bewitchingly soulful voice ties it all together.
How does this album feel different from what you've put out before this, whether it's lyrically or sonically, or even how you feel mentally based around the process?
I feel like this is maturity. I can listen to these songs and I feel proud of them.
Everybody kinda doesn't like their own voice, you know? But I feel like I belong on those songs, and nobody could say what I needed to say the way I could say it. I feel like I'm saying something that I need to say and get off my chest in an entirely different way than I ever have.
I'm kind of an emotional toddler. I'm getting more of a grasp on what I want to say and how to say it, how to talk about my feelings more. I feel like the more I do it, the longer I do it, the more honest I become, the more I get out of the way of things. I'm learning to get out of the way and let the creative flow just be what it is now.
Going into writing this album, like, what were you going through? And did you have a goal in mind about what you wanted the album to be?
I really didn't know at the time. In the last four years, I've written maybe four or five hundred songs. I didn't write it knowing that it was an album, or write it knowing that this was going to be the album; but more so, when it started coming together, it just felt like things fell into place.
I realized that I've been circling around the same feelings and emotions for a very long time. It's always about — I was in a very toxic relationship, and I have been a lot in my life. This is me kind of learning that I can be loved, and that I am beautiful, and I deserve love. That's kind of what the struggle is and always has been.
The album title is interesting to me, because so many artists compare songwriting to therapy. But has songwriting always felt like therapy for you?
Songwriting can be therapeutic if you have a feeling that you need to get out, and you write that feeling down, and you get it out. But what I tend to do a lot in my life, I'll write it down into a song, and then I'll write it into another song from a different perspective. And I'll write it down 100 different ways, in 100 different perspectives, to the point that it ends up that that small problem has now turned into the biggest problem in my life, because I've thought about so many different ways.
Instead of being more therapeutic, [songwriting has] been more of a way of highlighting what I'm going through, sometimes way too much.
The title itself was kind of a promise to myself that I would go to therapy when the album comes out. I think it's something that everyone can benefit from, especially me. But there's still something about me — maybe it's a generational mindset, like, I'm not crazy, I don't need that, or maybe there's answers to questions I don't really want to ask that I'm gonna get.
I like my coping mechanisms. I like how I am and who I am when I do cope. So there's a part of me that's afraid that I'll have to change.
But I made a promise to myself, put a deadline on myself where I'll go and I'll seek help, and I'll try. It's also me being honest and open about that, to you and to everyone, that I'm like, "I need help, that's okay." I'm gonna ask for help, and that's a liberating and equally terrifying thing.
The nice thing is, there has been a lot more public acceptance of mental health in recent years. How have you felt that change since you started releasing music, and how has it impacted your songwriting?
I think what's so great about our industry these days is that I'm not held to the same standard as, like, Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, where I have to be such a star, and you don't know anything about me. These days, as an artist, I get to be absolutely insecure and absolutely terrified, and it's what makes my artistry beautiful. And people that feel the way I feel can look at me and say, "That guy's so insecure, and he's so scared. But he's doing it, and we want him to win."
I don't want to swallow my insecurities. I don't have to wait until I feel like I'm worthy of love to put myself out there. Every bit of insecurity, and everything that's going on in my life, I'm allowed to just wear it and put it on for everybody to see. That has helped me in more ways than me trying to be anything I'm not.
You've said that for a long time, you worried about giving too much of yourself in your music, but seeing people connect to the music has made you realize it's actually making a difference. When did you start realizing that?
I am very lucky — every show we do, I have a meet and greet where I can talk to 100 people, and they tell me things that have changed their life, ways that I've affected them, and the ways that I've touched their lives.
I also want them to know that I'm just that fat kid from Rockdale County, Georgia, and still feels like that. And they make me be able to be honest and have an outlet to turn my trauma into something positive in me.
I feel like I learn it more and more every day that I am in a safe space, and I've created a safe space for people, and I become safer in that all the time. And I'm becoming more honest with myself, with them, in the safe space. It's just sacred, you know?
Was there a song of yours that kind of opened that up for you, because of the way that people connected to it?
I've had a few like that, but "Simple Things" that I released on one of my EPs is still a song I sing all the time. I thought the verses were only specific to my life and what I was going through — that was the first time I was honest, and I wrote from only what I was going through specifically to my life, and that connected and did more for people than anything I did [previously].
You've said that you're insecure, but would you consider yourself an introvert?
I think the more that I do this, the more I become one. I used to be the biggest extrovert in the world, but the more I do this job, the more I have to be social, I feel myself becoming more of an introvert.
Well, I brought that up because so many artists consider themselves introverts, when you are pouring your heart out in music that is then heard by thousands, if not millions, of people. Has that dichotomy ever crossed your mind?
Yeah, but that's kind of why I think I've become more introverted, because I gotta figure out what's still mine or if there should be anything that I should hold to myself. That is the question: What is still for me, or should there still be anything just for me?
That's so interesting to think about — I've never really thought about the battle that an artist can have when they share so much. Because it's like, at that point, you're so exposed, how are you even supposed to function as a private person in any regard?
Yeah. You figure it out, you let me know. [Laughs.]
It's cool that you're feeling so proud of this album, though, because I'd say that means that you haven't gone too far.
It's the most honest I've ever let myself be. And I don't feel exposed — I just feel like I said what I needed to say.
I've heard that I've Tried Everything But Therapy is coming in multiple parts and this is just part one. Is that true?
Yeah, we're planning on part two, but I don't know what that looks like yet. But I want to put out more music. And I think I want to come from a different place of what I've learned from how I've healed. I just don't feel like this story's done yet.
But you said you're going to start therapy after this album releases — so you're going to release a part two of I've Tried Everything But Therapy after you've been in therapy?
Yeah, I guess that doesn't make sense. But it will!
It would be kind of interesting to have part two be the response to therapy after you have done it.
Yeah, exactly. That's the vibe. Maybe we just go straight to part three and skip part two altogether.
Before you even released part one, people were going crazy over "Lose Control" because of how soulful you sound on it. When did you realize you had such a captivating voice?
It wasn't really a realization — I was bad for a long time. But I love this, and I wanted this, so I worked hard to become good at it. I wanted to be the best I could at it, because using my voice means everything to me, and I want to know how to do everything I can with it.
Well, you're doing something right, because people are exclaiming about it left and right. I saw a comment on one of your Instagram posts that said, "I just threw my shoe across my damn office, you better sing!" Do you feel the power of your own music?
I know, technically and dynamically, I am a good singer. When I listen to myself, I can't say I can't sing, because it's all there. Any singer or vocal coach could tell "That kid knows what he's doing. He can sing his ass off."
But also, there's part of me that still doesn't like my voice, too, just like anyone else. And I think that might be why I became so good at it. Because I want to hear it and be like, "Well, you can't tell yourself you ain't good, 'cause that was f—ing — that takes skill." I've learned enough to know that I can't tell myself I'm bad. [Laughs.]
And I have to say, I've been impressed with all of the people you've posted singing their own versions of "Lose Control."
People can sing! And people have been writing verses to it too. The love on it has been so rewarding.
I feel very justified [that the music] is connecting. I feel like it's already helping. I feel very humbled, appreciated and loved.
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Children's Hospital Los Angeles
Justin Timberlake's Biggest Songs, From His Best *NSYNC Moments To The Solo Smashes
As rumors swirl about a new Justin Timberlake album and *NSYNC fans pray for a reunion tour, revisit the defining songs that have made JT one of pop's greats.
From the moment Justin Timberlake first stepped into the spotlight at just 11 years old, his star power was strikingly apparent. Initially dabbling in country music on Star Search, he further displayed his knack for performing on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1993 and 1994 before being recruited for the boy band *NSYNC in 1995 — and soon, he was on his way to pop domination.
As the group's popularity soared and they sold over 70 million records worldwide, so did Timberlake's solo appeal. With his curly blond hair and falsetto that would make Michael Jackson proud, he became a defining figure in the late '90s/early 2000s zeitgeist. He took the lead in several *NSYNC songs and progressively developed his songwriting skills, hinting to the world that he was a star of his own right.
By the time <em>NSYNC halted in early 2002, Timberlake's solo career was not a mere possibility, but an undeniable next step. A few months later, he released his debut album, Justified*, which set the stage for one of the most innovative, defining artists of his time. In the two decades since, Timberlake has released five studio albums (with a sixth reportedly on the way), sold more than 88 million records, collaborated with the likes of Jay-Z and Madonna, and won 10 GRAMMYs. It's hard to imagine pop music today without his contributions.
Although Timberlake has periodically taken some time off music to focus on his family, acting and producing, a comeback was always around the corner. Last week, for example, he reunited with *NSYNC at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards and confirmed the release of their first new song in 20 years, "Better Place," out Sept. 29.
He also recently reunited with Nelly Furtado and Timbaland for "Keep Going Up," the long-awaited follow-up to their 2007 smash "Give It To Me." Timbaland — a longtime collaborator of Timberlake's — further teased what's to come for JT, telling Variety that Timberlake's next album is "finished up" and sounds like "FutureSex/LoveSounds part two."
To celebrate these upcoming chapters, as well as Timberlake's boundless creativity, GRAMMY.com looks back at the most defining songs in his trailblazing career.
"Pop," Celebrity (2001)
A response to all the animosity surrounding the success of late 90s' boy bands, "Pop" gave us *NSYNC at their most "no strings attached." Composed by Timberlake in partnership with choreographer, director, and songwriter Wade Robson, it blended electropop, metal riffs and Timberlake's signature beatboxing into a thrilling, limitless portrait of what being a pop star really means.
"It doesn't matter/ 'Bout the clothes I wear, and where I go, and why/ All that matters/ Is that you get hyped, and we'll do it to you every time," Timberlake sings in the pre-chorus. As the first single off <em>NSYNC's last album, 2001's Celebrity*, "Pop" foreshadowed key elements of Timberlake's burgeoning success — setting sights on his impending, hit-filled solo career.
"Gone," Celebrity (2001)
Another collaboration between Timberlake and Robson for Celebrity, "Gone" remains one of the most stirring ballads of the new millennium. Originally written for Michael Jackson, who passed on the offer — but later regretted it, as Timberlake told Oprah's Master Class Podcast in 2014 — "Gone" was the first and only *NSYNC single where Timberlake sings all the lead vocals and plays the music video protagonist.
Although its success led to a nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the 2002's GRAMMY Awards, the song unveiled uncomfortable feelings about the future of the group. If *NSYNC were to halt activities, it laid bare the fact that Timberlake could survive — and thrive — as a soloist just as well.
"Like I Love You," Justified (2002)
As many suspected, <em>NSYNC did go into a hiatus after the release of Celebrity, and Timberlake's much-anticipated solo debut came shortly after. In November 2002, he released the studio album Justified*, spearheaded by lead single "Like I Love You."
Pairing his penmanship with producer duo the Neptunes, Timberlake found an exquisite recipe to express himself. "Like I Love You" posed a sleek introduction to a fully-developed star, mixing funk drums, pop beats, Spanish guitars, sultry falsettos, and a participation by hip-hop duo Clipse. Coincidentally landing the same spot on the Billboard Hot 100 as "Gone" at No. 11, "Like I Love You" showed that Timberlake was able — and ready — to hold his own.
"Cry Me a River," Justified (2002)
If "Like I Love You" was an introduction to Justin Timberlake the soloist, follow-up single "Cry Me a River" cemented him as 2002's main character. A vengeful opera inspired by his former (and very high-profile) relationship with Britney Spears, Timberlake showed his spiteful side — one that would later resurface on his second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds.
The poignancy of his feelings is aided by producers Timbaland and Scott Storch, who crafted a haunting synthscape filled with wails and warnings. In the music video, Timberlake finally sheds his good-boy image, breaking into a Spears look-alike's mansion to film steamy moments of himself with another woman.
On top of giving the audience much to think about, "Cry Me a River" gave Timberlake one his first two solo GRAMMY Awards in 2003: the song won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and Justified won Best Pop Vocal Album.
"Señorita," Justified (2002)
Justified offered hit after hit, and although "Señorita" wasn't the biggest (it peaked at No. 27 on the Hot 100), it's still a Timberlake staple. The song highlighted Timberlake's commitment to go beyond expectations, as he created his own deconstructed salsa, pushing and pulling vocals around the Neptunes' unmistakable drum beats and Stevie Wonder influences.
While singles like "Rock Your Body" may have found more popularity, "Señorita" and its odd little strutting intro is instantly recognizable — and remains one of Timberlake's best displays of the fun he has in the studio . The call-and-response section at the end, where Timberlake directs "the fellas and the ladies" to sing in different vocal tones, is the cherry on top of it all.
"SexyBack," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
Four years after Justified, Timberlake returned raunchier than ever: "I'm bringing sexy back," he sings in the opening line of "SexyBack," unknowingly birthing 2006's ultimate catchphrase. The first single off his highly-acclaimed sophomore album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, "SexyBack" became Timberlake's first No.1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, and further solidified the finesse of his collaborations with Timbaland.
Scurrying through a suffocating dance floor, "SexyBack" distorts everything it touches, creating a cybernetic atmosphere where Timberlake will both "let you whip me, if I misbehave" and make you "watch how I attack." Timbaland's low vocals bounce off Timberlake's high-pitched lines and make for a breathless, sweaty run.
"My Love," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
Timberlake achieved his second consecutive Hot 100 No.1 with "My Love," a song that has been defined by many as the sequel to "Cry Me a River." Although borrowing from the same insistent staccato beats, "My Love" is rather a happier, snappier version of it. Gone is the desire for retaliation — Timberlake is now focused on the sweet highs of a promising relationship.
"All I want you to do is be my love," he sings over masterful production by Nate "Danja" Hills and Timbaland, who infuse the track with quirky distortions, beatboxing and a slow beat juxtaposed to Timberlake's frenzy. Atlanta rapper T.I. also adds contrast to the track, delivering a stack of verses that contrast Timberlake's lyrics and add to the multifaceted perceptions of love. If Timberlake's lines represent one's heart soaring with possibility, the other elements of the song keep it grounded, reminding us that true love runs steady.
"What Goes Around... Comes Around," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
The true "Cry Me a River" sequel lays on the grandiose "What Goes Around... Comes Around." Despite the single's lofty arrangements and a cinematic music video starring Scarlett Johansson, Timberlake is still heartbroken.
However, instead of seeking revenge by his own hands, he now trusts karma to take care of his lover's wrongdoings. The circular, haunting motifs of the lyrics are repeated through synth loops and Turkish strings.
"What Goes Around... Comes Around" is one of FutureSex/LoveSounds' standouts, bridging the catchy sounds of Justified with more experimental nuances. It also seemed to resonate with listeners, as it landed the singer his third consecutive chart-topper.
"LoveStoned," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
While violins surely can provide a sultry mood, it's not often that they will be paired with beatboxing and funky bass — which makes "LoveStoned" a peculiar feat.
One of Timberlake's most provocative tracks off FutureSex/LoveSounds, it could also be defined as a bolder cousin to 2002's "Rock Your Body" due to its rushing, disco-esque energy. Along an easygoing progression, it carries Timbaland's trademark vibes and fiery lyrics about what the internet would call a "baddie" nowadays ("She's bad, and she knows," Timberlake sings).
Originally named "LoveStoned/I Think She Knows (Interlude)," the track swiftly slows down in the last two minutes, where an Interpol-inspired guitar solo flourishes, offering a hazy conclusion to an innovative pop expedition.
"Suit & Tie (feat. Jay-Z)" The 20/20 Experience, (2013)
After wrapping up his highly successful FutureSex/LoveShow world tour in 2007, Timberlake took some time off to focus on acting and producing for other musicians. Following a six-year musical hiatus, he released his third studio album in 2013, The 20/20 Experience, led by the steamy "Suit & Tie," featuring rapper Jay-Z.
The single is anchored by samples of Sly, Slick and Wicked's 1972 song "Sho' Nuff" and swirls around a matured, glistening R&B production by Timberlake, Timbaland and J-Roc. It's the most sophisticated that Timberlake has sounded, accompanied by a fittingly classy, black-and-white music video — which won a GRAMMY for Best Music Video in 2014.
"Mirrors," The 20/20 Experience, (2013)
The second single off The 20/20 Experience, "Mirrors" was written back in 2009 and inspired by Timberlake's relationship with wife Jessica Biel, as well as his grandparents' six-decade marriage. Although the sounds harken back to "Cry Me a River" at times, the lyrics reveal that Timberlake is no longer bitter, but instead very much in love: "Now, you're the inspiration of this precious song/ And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on/ So now I say goodbye to the old me, it's already gone."
Paired with an emotional music video, "Mirrors" is a defining landmark in Timberlake's discography, showing how personal growth impacted his music for the better. Alongside trusty producers Timbaland and J-Roc, he proved that it's possible to turn an eight-minute prog-soul aria into a timeless, effortlessly catchy love song.
"Drink You Away," The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (2013)
Six months after the release of The 20/20 Experience, in September 2013, Timberlake dropped the second half of the album, The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2. Out of its four singles (which also included "Take Back the Night," "TKO," and "Not a Bad Thing"), "Drink You Away" stands out for its adventurous streak.
Here, Timberlake recalls his Southern roots, spinning a pop twist on Memphis soul and country rock riffs. "I've tried Jack, I've tried Jim/ I've tried all of their friends/ But I can't drink you away," he sings, matching love pains to alcoholism. Once again working with producers Timbaland and J-Roc, he daringly explores new scenarios, ultimately proving that his talents can't be restrained. (The track also teased Timberlake's later collab with country crooner Chris Stapleton, as the pair mashed "Drink You Away" with Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" at the 2015 CMA Awards.)
"CAN'T STOP THE FEELING!," Trolls (2016)
Timberlake's career may have firm pillars in experimentation, but 2016's "CAN'T STOP THE FEELING!" showed that he is also a master in well-rounded bubblegum pop. In 2016, after voicing the character Branch and serving as the executive music producer for the movie Trolls, Timberlake worked with Max Martin and Shellback for the soundtrack's lead single.
The result was a simple, yet contagiously happy disco track that quickly hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, followed by several other countries' charts. "CAN'T STOP THE FEELING!" was also the top-selling song in the U.S. that year according to Nielsen Music's Year-End Report, and quickly achieved an omnipresent status; the song remains a global staple today.
"Young Man," Man of the Woods (2018)
After another long break between albums, Timberlake released his fifth LP, Man of the Woods, in 2018. The title references the meaning behind his firstborn son's name, Silas, and features some of his most experimental trials to date, despite enlisting the same longtime producers like the Neptunes and Timbaland.
As Timberlake's personal life changed with marriage and parenthood, so did his music. He plunged even deeper into his Tennessee origins and the country music of his childhood, as evidenced in singles "Filthy," "Supplies," and the Stapleton-featuring "Say Something."
However, the most essential song to understand Timberlake's current moment is the sweet, deeply personal "Young Man." It closes the album on a vulnerable note, showing the singer not as a superstar, but as a devoted father passing on his teachings. Vocal snippets from both Silas and Jessica Biel make it even more special, framing a fleeting moment into eternity.
After seeing Timberlake grow from a teenager himself to raising his own family, there's a full-circle element coloring his next steps with much expectation. What will be his next reinvention? If Timbaland's words are true, luckily we won't have to wait too long to find out.
Photo: Sasha Samsonova
How Tori Kelly Used Hair Dye, Y2K & Collaborators To Create Her Most Authentic Project To Date
Tori Kelly unpacks her new self-titled EP — the "big sister" of her expansive discography — and illustrates how her 11 years as a recording artist unlocked her most bona fide songwriting yet.
Blondes might have more fun, but Tori Kelly can tell you brunettes keep it real.
Almost one year ago, Kelly posted an Instagram video debuting a new brown 'do. For most pop stars, hair is a playground to define the different chapters of their lives. But if you know Kelly, her curly golden mane was a hallmark of her image for over a decade, and with reports of a record label switch, a seemingly dramatic change was on the horizon.
The next few months saw Kelly head-to-toe in shiny cybercore ensembles and Buff sunglasses until she released a cryptic teaser for her new music. She sat down next to a vintage television, watching the highlights of her career pass by — from her viral 2012 cover of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T" to her acceptance speech for Best Gospel Song at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards. The screen went static, officially commencing a new era.
On March 17, Kelly dropped "missin' u," a 2000s R&B-inspired single with a fast-paced 808 drum beat and a sample of Craig David's "Fill Me In." The song's accompanying music video solidified Y2K as the aesthetic of the hour, as a starry-eyed Kelly daydreams about dancing in crimson leather and silver bodysuits, like a modern-day Britney Spears.
At the beginning of her journey, Kelly created her music from the ground up, writing every lyric, producing every note, and singing every vocal stem. "I had to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do it," she reminisces. But with tori, Kelly lowered the shield to be candid with her process. Ultimately, it became an exploration of what it meant to be "authentically Tori" in her thirties, and a rekindling with the childhood version of herself that started it all.
Between tour rehearsals and preparation for the release of her deluxe EP, Tori Kelly sat down with GRAMMY.com to discuss her potpourri of sounds since her debut, what it means to return to the stage in a post-pandemic society, and how dyeing her hair back to its natural color tied tori together.
Sonically, you have been flexible throughout your career. You started with acoustic pop, then gospel. Now, with tori, you fully step into the realm of pure R&B. What was the genesis of this shift?
Sometimes, I feel like I'm all over the place genre-wise. A lot of my career has been like, "Oh, I hope people come along with me for this right now." But at the same time, when I listen back, I see a through line: my voice. That has always been what connects my music and these different styles I love and are authentic to me. The way I sing and what I bring to a song is the grounds for everything.
It's interesting to look back at the previous chapters of myself and see where I am now. All of those past versions have culminated into who I am today.
Self-titled projects are often considered a declaration of who you are and what you stand for. What does tori say about you that might not have been evident from your other releases?
Naming this project, I went back and forth with titles. It's an EP — there's definitely more to come, so it was like, "What should I call it?" I tried different lyrics, but nothing was hitting. I kept coming back to the idea of making it self-titled because the music really does feel like me.
The biggest thing at this moment, as I'm getting older, is stepping deeper into myself. I want to show versions of myself that have always been there but I haven't been able to express yet.
You dyed your hair brown. There's something symbolic about returning to your natural color on a self-titled project. It feels like a rebirth. How did that play out during the development of tori?
I was blonde for 10 years. I actually stayed blonde throughout the making of this EP, but I slowly kept putting more lowlights and highlights into my hair. Subconsciously, I always knew I wasn't loving it for whatever reason.
I didn't know exactly what it was at the time, but the music felt different. Aesthetically, I wanted it to be different, too — that's when I started exploring new looks. Right before my 30th birthday, I was like, "You know what? This is it. I just need to do it." It was the cherry on top of the other things I was expressing and the confidence I was feeling.
What initially prompted the blonde at the start of your career?
I started playing with the idea when I was 16 by putting streaks into my hair. When I graduated high school, I wanted to do something crazy, so I went full blonde. It was a big deal because that was around the same time I had my first viral video, which was a cover of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' 'Bout You."
The first time I bleached it, it fried my hair, so I went back to brunette, but I was becoming recognizable as a blonde. As I'm trying to get my music out there, I'm thinking about what kind of things will connect. I went blonde again, but I still felt like myself because I had the big curls. That time, I did it the right way. It was healthy. [Laughs.]
When I returned to brown hair again, I didn't expect it to be a huge thing. It went completely over my head that people only knew me as a blonde.
The brunette hair puts me more in touch with my childhood self. I look at photos of me as a kid, and I look even more like her now. I have always tried to stay true to myself, but I feel more like myself than ever. A part of that is going back to my roots, physically and musically.
You said that the lead single, "missin' u," was a Y2K-inspired track. What were some of the projects of that decade that left an impact on you and inspired the creation of this EP?
When it came to making the music from tori, there were so many songs that I was reminded of, even if I didn't grow up listening to it religiously — like Craig David, for example. Jon Bellion and I were really inspired by him, especially on "missin' u" and "cut," which have that fast, drum-and-bass UK garage sound.
Do you remember the moment when you decided "missin' u" would be the lead single from tori?
It was definitely a process. It actually wasn't the first choice. Everyone had a different favorite, which was cool for me to experience. In the past, there was usually an obvious single. This time, no one knew what the single should be, and that tells me we did a great job at creating music that feels really good.
It was the head of my label who was like, "Wait? Why aren't we going with 'missin' u'? It feels so big." I began envisioning the music video concepts and the styles and references I could incorporate into it, and it started to make sense. It was the perfect song to push the Y2K theme, so we ran with it.
I can hear those Y2K references on "missin' u." Maybe it's the guitar.
Oh, yeah. It's a combination. We were very intentional. It's very "Say My Name" and Darkchild in the verses and bridge. When the chorus hits, that's when you hear the influence of Craig David's UK sound, but that was also 2000s R&B. It's a hybrid of all those genres that makes it sound fresh and new.
You collaborated with Ayra Starr, who is 21, and Jon Bellion, who is closer to your age. Was there a dichotomy between working with someone from an entirely different generation and someone who is similar to you in age?
Working with Jon has been amazing because we're similar. We grew up with the same music and can pull from those inspirations.
It made sense to throw one of those younger, up-and-coming artists into the mix, like Ayra Starr. Whether through fashion or music, Y2K is coming back. Ayra walked into the studio, decked out in Y2K, and I had the realization that we were in the same world, meeting in the middle.
"Unbelievable," the song with Ayra Starr, marks the first Afrobeats track in your discography. How does your approach to a new genre differ from something that might be more typical of the Tori Kelly sound, like "alive if i die?"
I'm stretching myself into these genres I love. I've been obsessed with Afrobeats for the last few years. Fireboy and also Ayra. Jon had the idea for "unbelievable," and I thought it would be awesome to have an actual Afrobeats singer featured on the track. Ayra took it to the next level.
For me, it's all about having fun and experimenting — making it sound true to my artistry.
The Take Control Tour will be your first tour in four years and the first one post-pandemic. How has that preparation shifted with our new reality?
I'm looking forward to this tour like crazy. I said that so monotone, but it's because I can't even find the right words to express how excited I am. I feel like a shaken soda can, about to explode, because I've been waiting so long.
I was four shows into what was going to be my first world tour in March 2020. It felt like it got yanked away for me, for lack of a better term. Health and safety were obviously the most important, but it was a bummer to cancel those shows.
The tour before that was all acoustic. It's such a contrast to Take Control because I'm going with a band. It's a way more energetic show.
Touring is my favorite part about doing what I do. I love being in the studio, but performing live is the heart of what I do. That's what little Tori wanted to do: go on stage and sing her head off, and I haven't been able to tap into that for a really long time. I'm going to be very emotional.
You posted a clip of you practicing "Nobody Love" on Instagram. How has your relationship changed with those older hits?
During rehearsals, we were playing those throwbacks. I've done so much in my career with so many styles like we've been talking about — but it's cool to play those older songs and go right into the new music. If anything, I feel like the songs from tori have been a big sister to those older songs, like "Nobody Love" and "Should've Been Us."
We're going to put a new spin on it so they feel fresh again, but I'll always love performing those older songs.