Video Feature & Web-Exclusive Interview

Video:  “Unorganized Crime


At 12-1/2 years old, Willa Amai won Linda Perry over with a voice that sounded emotionally beyond her years and songs that carried both depth and heart. After years of development, the 16-year-old is ready to share her music with the world. She has already garnered the attention of Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile, other industry leaders and appeared on The Today Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

When mentor Linda Perry first heard Amai’s songs, she says “I told her there was something here. Write five songs and come back in two months. She did and played me five songs—and I wept. As a songwriter, I’m really happy that I was able to find my voice, discover my own emotions and not be one of these people who sing someone else’s story. I didn’t want that to happen to Willa, so I let her be. Everything you hear—every song—is Willa. She writes everything and all I do is give it a thumbs up or thumbs down—and maybe a nudge here and there—that’s it.”

Amai speaks her truth with honesty and perception way beyond her years. Her lyrics pierce through anxiety and stress and provide clarity to navigate the tough teenage years. Some of it seems to be innate and some clearly must be good parenting. She balances her art and her life with an assuredness that will ensure she will certainly make it far in this often brutal music business. With Perry’s guidance and her passion for songwriting, she is forging a path all her own.

We talked with Willa Amai about her songs that empower teens (and adults) and allow listeners to embrace their independence, her unique approach to songwriting, how determination continues to pay off and how she writes from the heart to free her mind.

WILLA AMAI Interview
with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David

How did the idea for “Unorganized Crime” come to you?
It’s a tribute to a memory. When I was little, I thought I was a rebellious spirit and one day I’d be set free. But it’s not the case. (Laughs) I’m a square. I’m a dork. I feel most comfortable in the confines of structure and rules. When I realized that rebellious spirit I thought I was going to grow into was never going to happen, I wrote “Unorganized Crime” as an “in memoriam” of that idea of myself.

At what age did you feel rebellious?
It was when I was 7 or 8. (Laughs) I wasn’t ever rebellious, but I thought I was gonna be. I thought I was a confined spirit, but that’s not the case. I haven’t really accepted that I’m just a dork. I listened to a lot of Lana Del Rey’s “This is What Makes Us Girls.” I would listen to that song and cry—thinking ‘that’s me. I’m that rebellious spirit who’s going to be sent away.’ But I’ve never broken a rule in my life. (Laughs) I don’t even know how I convinced myself of being rebellious, but I did. I finally realized that’s never going to happen. I’m going to be a square forever.

Are you a rule follower?
Everyone in school doesn’t like me—at least a little bit. I’m a kiss-up to my teachers. I’m that person. I’m always raising my hand. I realized I was never going to be rebellious or break a rule because I was too afraid. With this song, I’m imagining—what if I had grown up like that. How would it feel? What would I do? It was easy to imagine because I pretended about all the things that scare me—like breaking the rules, running away, drugs and alcohol. This song helped me pretend.

Willa Amai speaks her truth with honesty and perception way beyond her years. Her lyrics pierce through anxiety and stress to provide clarity. She balances her art and her life with assuredness.

You’ve been writing a lot to prepare for this album.
I don’t even know how many songs I’ve written. When we were first starting the process of writing these songs, Linda Perry (my mentor and producer) told me to come in with all the songs I’d written within the past six months and I had over 38 songs. That was a year ago. I write often and a lot, probably because I have an anxiety disorder and school is stressful and life is stressful—especially during quarantine. Writing is my outlet to get out of my anxieties and fears. I can be articulate with factual stuff and telling stories, but when it comes to real emotions—it can be hard for me to talk about them. Music is a way to express how I feel. I write often—just for me.

What did you learn about yourself?
The songs on the album taught me to love my own music. Any of my longtime friends will tell you that I hate to hear myself sing and hate to hear my own recordings, but I love writing the songs. Spending so much time with these songs, caring for them, developing them into what they are and exactly what I wanted them to be—after that much time with them—I realized if I loved writing them, then they deserved time to listen to them. If I expect others to love them and listen to them, then I have to love listening to them. It’s given me more confidence in my music. It has helped me with my musical self-esteem.

Tell us about the video for “Unorganized Crime.”
Amanda Demme was the creative behind the video. She is such an incredibly talented woman. She cares very much about the artist’s point of view and the artist’s creative because she’s done so much with her art—photography, videography, music, sculpting, painting. She understands that as a creative person, you’re not simply confined to one type of art. She let me have a lot of control and input on the video—which encapsulates the innocence of what the song is in memoriam of—of the young me who thought I was rebellious. The video evokes that feeling of youth, yet maturation. I credit that completely to Amanda. She took my feelings displayed in the song and turned them into a visual. It’s amazing to watch.

Who originally inspired you to write songs?
Music has always been a big part of my life. We found my preschool report cards. My teachers said I would walk the perimeter of the playground and hum songs of my own invention. Neither of my parents liked baby music. Even as a baby I was listening to Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Regina Spektor and Amy Winehouse. They formed my writing style. I started writing seriously when I had this amazing piano teacher, Lauren Chipman, who’s a professional violist—she set me on this course. She was constantly encouraging me to write. In third grade, we started a poetry unit and I decided to combine my two favorite things—poetry and music. That’s when I started writing a lot more—more complete songs. I’ve been doing it ever since.

What songwriting tip can you offer?
It might seem counterintuitive. To make the most people relate to your song, be as specific as possible. When making music, the most important thing is to try to create a song where people are reflected in it. That’s what people connect to. It’s that feeling of connection—I feel it and they feel it too. The best way to show emotion is to be as specific as possible. It doesn’t matter if the specifics of the stories are the same. It just clarifies the feeling and that helps people connect. Favorites for my family and friends are the songs that are the most specific.

What instruments/equipment can you not live without?
I write almost all songs on a piano. I use a guitar but I’m not really good at it. I’ve been playing piano for more than 12 years—since I was four years old. I’m much more comfortable at the piano. I write the melody, lyrics and the piano parts all at the same time. I just let it flow. I write most of my songs on this amazing Roland—a white wood [oakwood] done in collaboration with Kiyola—a KF-10. It’s an incredible limited edition Roland that my family and Linda got me for my birthday a couple of years ago. It’s beautiful and it’s the most amazing sound. We also have a Boston grand piano [designed by Steinway & Sons] in the house. I don’t use it as often because it’s loud and everyone can hear it. But I love writing on that too.

Are you deliberate with your songwriting?
Sometimes, when I’m out and about and I get an idea, my family now recognizes the face I make. I have to run to a piano as fast as possible. (Laughs) If I don’t have access to a piano, I find a quiet spot and do a voice recording on my phone and then try to re-create it when I get home. Other times, I sit down and write just to make myself feel good. I may have a lot of anxiety or stress and writing is my outlet. I feel a lot of weight on my shoulders. If it piles up and it gets too hard, I have to write to take the weight off—so I don’t topple over. With every song, there’s a pound that comes off my shoulders. It helps me sleep, eat and feel motivated. Even when I know the song won’t be good, I write because the creativity of it really helps.

Which Top 5 Musicians inspired you to become a musician?
When I was younger, it was Queen, Amy Winehouse, Fleetwood Mac, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. Now, it’s Bruno Major, Mumford & Sons, Brandi Carlile and Sam Smith. A huge range of artists inspire me in different ways. The common factor is their passion for music and passion for creativity. Sharing my individual creativity with the world helped me start on this journey.

What are your Top 5 favorite albums?

A Song for Every Moon (2017) — Bruno Major

By the Way, I Forgive You (2018) — Brandi Carlile

Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020) — Fiona Apple

Any and all albums by Fleetwood Mac and Queen.

Tell us a “pinch me” moment when you thought “Wow, this is really happening to me!
I’ve been lucky enough to already have so many of those moments. The first one was singing with Dolly Parton. She’s just on another frequency. She’s so kind and nurturing—an amazing person. Brandi Carlile invited me to San Francisco to sing a song with her—“By the Way, I Forgive You.” I’ve never gotten that nervous. I truly almost passed out before performing with her at the Great American Music Hall. It was truly amazing.

What is the best advice someone has given you?
I have a ton of anxiety and I worry a lot. My Mom always says that worrying about it won’t change it. I really like that advice. I remind myself of that simple fact more often than anything else.

Where can new fans get more info and stay updated?

Instagram: @willaamai, @reallindaperry

Twitter: @WillaAmai, @RealLindaPerry

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