Wrabel talks to Rollacoasters' Octavia Akoulitchev
How are you doing?I’m pretty good. I'm sitting here with my little dog and hanging out. I just got to go to North Carolina, where my family is, for a few months. I was out there last week and it was really nice to build the family cup up again.Were you in North Carolina over lockdown or here in LA?I was here in LA, which was weird, I mean it was weird and hard everywhere so that’s not unique, but I was really thankful to have a few people I felt safe to hang out with, and to have this weather. I went on so many walks, I got ankle weights, very Jane Fonda vibes.I love it! You were also writing your debut album, “These Words Are All For You”, and I’m so excited that the track “London” is out today. It seems like such a personal song, can you tell me about the writing process behind it?Yeah, wow, where to start. “London” is one of my favorite songs that I've ever written. Basically the backstory is, London's my favorite city in the world. I know that's a cliché to say, but I got to go out there for about three months, when I was making what I now call “my imaginary first record”, because it never came out. While I was out there, I had my first breakup with my first boyfriend. We had the world against us, and without going into a three hour saga, it was really hard for us and so we broke up while I was in London. So I'm making this record and it was that feeling of, “I'll never love again, I'll never meet anyone ever again, that was it, what am I gonna do for the rest of my life?”. Then about two or three weeks later, I was at All Saints on Regent Street buying a jumper, and I met this guy. He was smiling at me and I was like, “what's going on here?” And we ultimately ended up hanging out and getting together. Maybe a week after that I went in to write for the last writing section of my trip and my album, and we wrote a song called “Love Is Not A Simple Thing To Lose”. It was winter, there was Winter Wonderland, and Carnaby Street with all the lights. It was so beautiful and magical and having such a big life thing happen there made me fall in love even more with the city and the charm and the character and the depth of it. I just feel so inspired while I'm there, and so it's always been a place that I run to and where I love to create. Long story short, it didn't work out with that guy that I met but I have such beautiful memories, and I had this idea to write a song called “London”. I’d had the seed of that idea for years, and had actually brought it into several rooms, but people didn't want to write it with me. I had the, “sometimes I miss London, sometimes I miss you”.That’s my favourite bit!Yes! Thank you, me too! I thought it was something special. But it was one of those ideas that I think had to be with the right people, because I brought it in several times and was shot down and I was like, “okay, if you don't get it, then I don't want to write this with you”. I got in the room with three really dear friends of mine, Drew Pearson, Cole Citrenbaum, and Stuart Crichton. Cole was playing guitar, and that's how it started - I was just floored by that. We all started chiming in and wrote this song. It's called “London” and I wanted to have the dual stories of missing this person and missing London so it’s almost like you can't tell which I miss more, because that's what it was for me. I was like, do I just miss the magic of London? Or am I missing this person? If this person was in California, would I miss them? Or would I be like no, I just miss the city? So it really is one of the most special songs to me, both for what it says and how it sums up such a special chapter of my life. And again, it’s just one of my favourite places in the world.You've created such beautiful music out of great pain and heartbreak in your life. It's really cathartic to listen to, and it seems like it was cathartic to write as well. What would be your advice to someone who's trying to channel pain, heartbreak or loss into writing a song? So often when people try to do that, it just comes across as a splurge of self-pitying words, but you're so masterful when you do it.That’s such a good question, thank you. For me, I try to not think that I know what it's going to be. So if I'm writing about something that's painful, I try to not put the nail in the coffin, I try to leave room for surprise in the process. Take in “London”, the turnaround after the bridge, of “next time I see London, I hope I see you”. We were all freaking out in the studio when we said that, there's this huge pivot in the song where it's like the clouds clear and the sun comes out. I remember walking around Hyde Park one day, it was pouring and I was wearing this bright yellow Paddington Bear raincoat, and all of a sudden the sky cleared up, it was a beautiful day, and somebody was like, “I think your yellow raincoat just cleared the rain away”. I try to leave room for moments like that in the writing process where, in this case, I had every intention of it being a sad song about missing a person and missing a place. So I think if I had any advice, it would be to leave room for surprise, as maybe there's a little hope, or maybe it's actually just a turn of the night and maybe it's sadder than you even could have imagined. I try to write really freely and leave that space for surprise because some of the most magical moments, in my experience, have come from that.Your lyrics are so intimate and emotional, they really have so much depth - and a lot of music in the charts right now isn’t like that. Do you feel like music is heading that way again, and we’re going to see a resurgence of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen style, poetic lyricism? How do you feel about the industry right now in that sense?I have a fundamental, foundational belief that a good song will always cut through, and there will always be space for it. You look at the pop charts, and there might be so much stuff on there that doesn't feel that emotional or raw, but then like Lewis Capaldi comes out and sweeps, and has a million weeks at number one, and that is just a raw nerve of a song. So I think there is always the space for that. I have to believe that, because that's all I know how to write.
Yeah, if it really speaks to people, they’ll listen. You’ve worked with such a wide range of artists over the past few years, from Kesha to Marshmello, how has that affected your songwriting process?I think my process has definitely changed. I like to think that we're all constantly evolving, learning, growing, and pushing ourselves but I also tend to rely pretty heavily on my comfort zone of writing an emotional mid tempo song that's narrative and literal. I try not to stray too far away from that, because I think that every writer has a different sweet spot, and I tend to think of comfort zones as sweet spots. “Comfort zone” has this negative connotation, but you can spend so long having people tell you, “get out of your comfort zone, branch out and do something totally unexpected” and I'm like, “no, I really enjoy the world that I've tried to create”. I think there's something beautiful about it. That's one thing I love about collaboration, if you get three people in a room, we’ll all have different sweet spots and different comfort zones. So you leave with this middle ground, or venn diagram, that’s something I wouldn't have created by myself and neither would they, but it has touches and colours from all of us. Working with other artists has definitely opened me up to different ideas and approaches. Kesha has cracked my head and heart open so much through the writing process. From day one, measure one, lyric one, I was so floored by the honesty and vulnerability and lack of ego in the room, the willingness to throw out an idea that might be outlandish. She taught me that songs don't have to be serious to still be powerful, and that was a big one for me that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. Every artist that I work with is totally different. I'm constantly trying to open myself up to be new, fresh and different, and at the same time not stray too far away from my wheelhouse. I think we all have a comfort zone, because that's where we feel like we are masters of a domain. I feel really confident when I'm sitting down with anyone writing an emotional, story-based song. That's what I love to do, and that's what I dream about, so I try to not go too far outside of that.So why did you release a debut album which was “you”? I know it’s not just you, but you’re not collaborating in the same way with other major artists here, and you’re doing it independently, without the backing of a major label.Yeah, so making a record has always been my dream. When I moved to LA that was my “umbrella dream”, and I went through a few record labels. I'm so thankful for the opportunities that I've had over the past ten years, but my biggest resentment was that I never got a full length album released. I'd written them before, one was even all produced, but it never came out. And so going independent, I made my own label and partnered with Nettwerk and it’s been such a cathartic, as in all caps, bold, underlined, italicized, “cathartic” experience. As clichéd as it sounds, because I hear artists talk about that all the time, like “I’m on a major label, and I don't have any control”. But it is really a hard thing when creatively, you don't feel understood by the gatekeepers between you and releasing music. Again, I'm thankful for the opportunities I've had, and I didn't leave the major label system with an “I hate you all” mentality, but it has been such a beautiful experience to lean into “what do I want to do? What stories do I want to tell?” I think the oldest song is eight years old, this record is like an autobiography and it's been really special. I made it with so many friends, and that's been a really beautiful thing to create something in a safe place with people that understand me. It's been such a long time coming, and I've worked so hard to make this record, three times over, and so now to have a release date and have it going to master... it just blows my mind.It’s a huge feat, congratulations. What do you want people to take away from the album?The album is so much more hopeful than it was in the past. The first time I wrote this album, it was a break-up album, and I'm glad it's not that. If I had a mission statement it would be that I hope something I do can make someone feel less alone. I hope that there's songs on there that people feel like they can lean on. I hope there's songs that people can play with their significant other and just smile and sit and listen and feel loved and feel heard and seen and understood. I just hope that people connect to it. I know what it's like to listen to a song and feel like, “wow, that is exactly what I needed to hear”. I hope that something on the album connects with someone in that way. Even one person, or one song, that’s enough for me.