The alt pop artist opens up about her brand new self-made video, the subtle gravity of her lyrics, and the power of an honest story.
From our Instagrams to our interactions with friends, we’re so accustomed to editing our lives that we often forget what it feels like to just be real with someone. My reminder came in the form of a recent conversation I had with Daniella Mason, the Nashville-based alt pop artist who’s forging her own path by being herself and putting in serious work while she’s at it. Like managing her own record label, designing the cover art for her upcoming album and new single, and making the video for it all by herself. Aside from her insane work ethic though, it’s her unabashed honesty that really struck me. I picked Daniella’s brain about the paradox of profundity in pop lyrics, the importance of sharing one’s story, and the secret power of crying.
I may be behind the times, but when I think of Nashville, I think of country music. What’s it like being an alt pop artist living there?
Yes, many people do. When I first got there, I was doing a singer-songwriter thing, which has since evolved into more of a pop, electronic situation. But the pop community in Nashville is growing so fast, and it’s amazing. I think the artists are still sort of under the radar, which is probably why you haven’t noticed that it’s growing. Pretty soon, people are going to catch on.
I really want to go! I’ve never been.
Oh, you have to go. It’s not as country as you would think. It’s a small city, but everyone’s from everywhere. It’s very much a melting pot with great food and great coffee. I feel like we’re in the middle of a renaissance, so it’s a good time to go.
Your song “Tell Me It’s Over” is about letting go of something and moving on from it, which I think this is one of the most difficult things a person can do. How do you do it? Did writing this song allow you to move on from whatever it was that you wrote it about?
Yes, I definitely think it did because a lot of times, when I’m facing something, if I don’t really know how to process it, I will write about it. And then in the midst of writing it, I’ll have a series of epiphanies, and then I’ll know what to do. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t know how to write–I guess I would have to learn another coping mechanism. Moving on from something takes a lot of bravery, so if all of the parties are honest about what they’re going through and what they’re feeling, I feel like you can make your way out and make it out alive. I think the hardest part is admitting that things are shifting, and if you don’t adapt when things shift, I think that’s how you get stuck. I’m still learning this, even though I wrote the song two years ago.
Your music is very personal and true to what you’re going through in life at that moment. Do you ever feel like certain things are too personal to write about or are you comfortable sharing all of it?
Every once in a while, I’ll be tempted to rein myself in. I’ll say something and then think, ugh, that’s so real, it hurts me inside. But at the end of the day, I think those moments that feel really true and personal are the moments that I have to push through and say the thing I’m afraid to say. Those songs end up being the ones that people resonate with the most. I think they can probably sense my inner turmoil. I’m fairly honest, so I’ve said yes to that feeling pretty much every time. Maybe if I was involved in illegal activity or something, I wouldn’t share that, but everything else is fair game.
Your music video for “Tell Me It’s Over” is so good.
I’m glad you like it! When I was making it, I was drowning in it by the end because it took me so long. I was like, I have no idea if any single person is going to like this.
I love it! How did you come up with the concept behind it?
I also did the single artwork for this song and the one that’s about to come out, and I wanted all of the artwork to feel cohesive. I loved this idea of stop motion with pictures—sort of like those scrapbooks a lot of us used to make as kids with magazine clippings. I didn’t have the resources to make a music video, so I was like, what do I do? I will make it myself, I thought, which is usually my answer to that question. I had no idea of the undertaking it was going to be when I started, but I’m really glad I did it. I had this story I wanted to tell about trying to get out of something that is holding you down, but I wanted the shadow figure to be ambiguous so that somebody could put their story right in the middle of it. It was very challenging, but it is legitimately my heart and soul because it was all of me for 180 hours or something ridiculous like that.
You’re self-titling your upcoming album, which you’ve attributed to this newfound sense of independence and confidence. Can you talk about that?
I’ve been [making music] for about 13 years, and I’ve had a crazy journey. I was independent for a while, then signed to a major label, and then independent again. I’ve learned so much in the last three years—I feel like I got my phd in the music industry just from observing, taking notes, making mistakes, and working with people who were further along than me. This is the first time I feel like I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. The work that I’m putting in is creating something that’s going out into the world, and people can make up their mind about it. But if I can at least get it there, then I feel good. I’ve been doing this long enough that I think I’ve finally figured a few things out. We’ll see if they work. I’ll keep you posted.
You’ve credited singing to kids in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake as this defining moment where you realized that music was it for you and that you can really reach people through it. When you’re writing and recording your own music, what part of that process is for yourself and what part is for other people?
I always have to start with telling my story because if I try and tell everybody’s story, I get really overwhelmed. But I think as humans, there are so many similarities in our stories. Like, sadness is sadness. It might be at different levels or because of different reasons, but the emotion is still sadness. Or happiness or joy. I want to feel a sense of connection with my fans and vice versa. A lot of times if I’ve come out of a place of darkness and I’ve found some light, I’m singing to people about that. Sharing something that happened to you is really powerful because people can learn from that. I know that’s what I get from listening to other artists. Sometimes, even if they’re not telling me that there’s light, just to know that someone else is feeling the same darkness makes me feel less alone.
I was talking to this artist recently, and she said that people, women especially, connect more through shared pain than shared pleasure.
Yeah, I guess we don’t really sit around and say, listen to how great my day was. We’re all drinking moscato and talking about our hardships. It’s funny because my music does have a vast emotional journey. Some of my songs are so cute they make you want to throw up. “Planet” is the cutest song. The chorus goes, “You’re my favorite person on the planet. This thing can’t get much better, can it?” But the first verse is, “I had my hair dyed. You asked me why I was so blue.” It’s a story about my husband and how we met right after my mom died. I was not doing well at all, but I found this sense of light in our relationship that pulled me out. I write pop songs that you can jam out to on a road trip, but if you ever want to dive in, those lyrics are there waiting for you. The verses have real stuff going on in them. We just submitted “Planet” to be on a spooning playlist on Spotify, and I thought that was so funny. The next song I’m releasing, we’re submitting to the heartbreak playlist. And I was like, this is just life, isn’t it? Spooning and heartbreak.
When it comes to your music, you literally do it all. Writing, producing, mixing tracks, directing and editing music videos… it all seems incredibly empowering, but also exhausting.
Yes, that’s actually exactly what it is. I literally said, I feel very powerful and very exhausted.
Do you ever feel discouraged?
Yes, a lot. This season of my life has been such an emotional rollercoaster—one day I’ll feel so empowered, and the next day I’m having an actual breakdown. And what’s interesting is that that’s kind of new for me. I used to be very even and consistent. My husband’s been gone a lot, and I feel bad because every time he calls me, I’m having some kind of breakdown. He’s not used to it, so I’m like, I know this might be a learning curve for you, but I might start weeping in five seconds. I’ve felt discouraged recently because I’ve been really tired, and it’s easy to feel discouraged when you haven’t slept, but I think I’m also realizing the gravity of what I’m doing and what I’m taking on. I’ve done this for so long that it’s like, well, if this doesn’t work, what else am I going to do? I’ve tried all the things. I have a feeling it’s going to, but that feeling isn’t around 24/7. I’m in my late twenties, which, in the rest of the world is so young, but in the music industry is not that young. I see the dark hole that I can dive into, and I don’t dive in, but I’m walking along the edge, breathing really hard. That’s kind of what my life has been like in a giant metaphor. I just have to take it day by day and know that what I’m doing is important in that it will find its place in the world. That’s where I come back to every night, and that’s how I can wake up every morning and keep doing it. But it’s not easy. At all.
That makes me feel better because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how you’re taught that life is supposed to get easier, or, at least you’re supposed to get better at handling it. But I feel like I’m much more of a mess now than I was in high school.
Yeah, when we’re supposed to have hormones that are supposed to make us crazy? I’m way crazier now.
I don’t know what it is! I’ve cried so many times that I’m not even embarrassed anymore—I’m just confused.
I used to say that I’m not really a cryer, and I realized the other day that I can’t really say that anymore because I am. I played at writers’ round in Nashville last week, and the whole room was singing along to “Planet.” I hadn’t slept because I had been working on the “Tell Me It’s Over” video, and I literally said into the mic, “Oh my god, I think I’m going to cry.” I ran into a friend afterwards and was like, “Guys, I just don’t do this. I don’t cry,” and he was like, “Um, you do. You do cry a lot.” And he’s known me for six months probably. I was like, oh my god, I’m a cryer. That’s who I am now. Then I had a whole identity crisis and cried about that! But I don’t actually know if I’m handling things worse because I’m showing more emotion. I think I might actually be handling them better. I’m processing the emotions I was never mature enough to process before. We were created to have emotions, so I feel like the very fact that I do feel vulnerable enough to cry means that I am growing.
I love that.
This is getting very counseling session! I like it.
You’ve said that you think stories have the power to change the world and help you empathize with other people. Where does your love for stories come from and what makes a good one?
In my own life, when someone tells me their story, it’s way harder to judge them. I’m also an actor, and that’s what showed me that stories are very important. My acting coach said, “I think what you guys do is really brave and important because you’re showing humanity what it is to be human.” We need to hear each other’s stories more just to know where we’re coming from. Even today, my filter that I have between us is changing the more that I get to know you. I feel like it’s really disarming as well. It’s hard to bulk up and fight somebody when you’re hearing them pour their heart out. Those are the best stories—the true stories about being human. They remind us that we’re more similar than we are different, and I think if that took off, it would actually change the world.
At the writers’ round, there was this group of congressmen from D.C. who came to learn about the music industry because they’re getting lobbied by people about songwriters’ rights and intellectual property. One of them asked, “What are the kinds of stories you guys are telling?” I basically told them what I just told you, and one of the congresswomen was like, “Yes!” The thing that she really resonated with was that when you hear someone’s story, your stance dissipates and instead, there’s an understanding. It’s really easy to have a stance about an issue, but it’s not quite so easy to have a stance about a person with a story.
Daniella Mason’s self-titled album comes out this fall. You can find her on Spotify or wherever you stream your music.