Tayla Parx: A New Kind of All-American Artist [Interview]
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The singer-songwriter talks the power and purpose in writing for others while maintaining artistic authenticity, defying music industry norms, and becoming a new breed of American artist.
In the first season of Spongebob Squarepants, the resident squirrel of Bikini Bottom, Sandy Cheeks, almost didn’t stick around. On the episode aptly titled “Texas,” Sandy realizes she’s homesick. Under the sea she starts crying after Spongebob releases a netted jellyfish, instructing it to be free in the wild. This prompts Sandy to run away to her treedome where she rises to the roof and somberly performs “I Wanna Go Home (Texas Song),” a country-abiding lamentation references the state’s BBQ, 20 acres of land, and pecan pie, with a twanged and yodeled hook that sees Sandy sing, “I guess deep in my heart I’ll always be a Texas girl.”
At her album release party on April 9th, at House of Yes in Brooklyn, Tayla Parx didn’t show signs of homesickness. Rather, the 25-year-old Dallas, Texas native seemed to be right in her element as she rolled through a four-song set of “Me vs Us,” “Rebound,” “Disconnected,” and “I Want You” from her debut studio album, We Need To Talk. The cabaret nightclub transformed into an art-pop carnival featuring bright pastel colors landscaping a flamingo party, with Parx’s aquatic, futuristic vibes soundtracking the festivities, while the same abstract wackiness of Bikini Bottom made its way to the heart of Bushwick
The building lobby continually buzzed with attendees attempting to match rubber ducks in a pond to win tickets for prizes. Others were getting their portraits sketched, eagerly awaiting the presence of the seasoned songwriter and new star. Fans recreated the chaotic album art at a photo booth of props while the DJ played We Need To Talk a few times, mixing in songs written by Parx, including Ariana Grande’s “NASA” and Christina Aguilera’s duet with Goldlink, “Like I Do.”
To peg We Need To Talk as a complete Yeehaw album following the current renaissance of Black country music would be a little unfair. In fact, Parx’s latest project is an eclectic assortment of music arrangements that time travel through decades while bending and blending country, pop, and R&B. It’s an advancement from her 2017 mixtape, Tayla Made, which featured discombobulated cuts such as “Cheap Liquor” and “South Beach,” which recall Azealia Banks’ house fusion signatures “Liquorice” and “Anna Wintour”.
The album’s opening track, “I Want You,” aligns with ‘60s-styled Motown Soul of The Supremes and The Marvelettes while springboarding from Janelle Monáe’s “I Like That,” which Parx co-wrote along with a few other tracks from the critically acclaimed album Dirty Computer. “Rebound” differs from that sonically, as a loopy R&B jaunt filled with basketball allusions, featuring an answer verse from Joey Bada$$. “Slow Dancing” commentates on how “it’s not easy to be a typical girl” over a tropical riddim that rings like an ice cream truck’s soundtrack. While “Dirt” emphasizes “we all got skeletons, we all got sidelines” in a faux-patois.
Once We Need To Talk skates through its neo-soul titular track, and the patty-cake bounce of “Happy Birthday (Interlude),” country influences shine the brightest on “Tomboys Have Feelings” and “What Do You Know (Interlude).” Just like Sandy Cheeks, Tayla Parx is a Texas girl who enjoys getting a little rugged, her attitude sometimes masking her vulnerability in the process. She’s almost scientific when speaking, but quick to let her southern drawl articulate her passionate thoughts. And like Sandy Cheeks, Parx is forging her own space in unfamiliar territory. She is among this generation’s Black songwriters who are not only developing their own musical identity while helping already established chart-toppers maintain their positions in pop music.
An hour and a half before Parx’s mini-concert, her background dancers assemble in her dressing room putting together the finishing touches to their costumes while chatting enthusiastically. Decked out in a lime green wig that matches her sweatshirt and pants, Parx remains undistracted by those around her, laughing every time we hear a song that she’s penned blasted by the DJ next door. In ways, it’s the DJ’s song selections that steer our communication— the core thematic element of We Need To Talk.
Okayplayer sat down with Tayla Parx to discuss the creative vision behind her debut solo album, sourcing inspiration through fantasy and reality, the power and purpose in writing for others, maintaining artistic authenticity, defying music industry norms, and being a new breed of American artist.
What inspires your creative vision?
I think it’s my personality that inspires it because literally, I’m bubbly. I’m colorful. I just found out, maybe last year, that I’m dramatic. And my friends were like, “you just found that out? We’ve known that already.” So I’m just like “wow, OK OK!” So when I started to discover myself musically I was like “hmm how can I make sure that visually I also represent my personality?” I just wanted to get into art more, get into color more. Get into taking risks with fashion. And [that’s how] it found its way to me.
It’s interesting that you say “bubbly” because when I listen to the album, particularly the first track “I Want You,” I hear bubbles, and it sounds very aquatic. Then I noticed the pineapple on the album art, and I wonder: Did Spongebob influence any of this album?
[Laughs] You know that one of my nicknames is Sandy Cheeks.
Which is hilarious because I’m from Texas. But I definitely love Spongebob, and I think he has one of the greatest discographies of all time. But it definitely was just one of those things where I wanted to find stuff that I could fit colorwise. When you think of pineapple, you think of summer. You think of sweet. Those are one of the things along with the pink wig and the different color cell phones. There’s a lot of detail put into all of my visuals.
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With the music video for “I Want You” it shows some polyamory possibly going on. There’s also a multiplication of [bodies through] numbers [like] Beyoncé’s “Countdown.” When you say that it’s “purposeful,” are there any specific messages that you’re trying to get at?
I think that one of the main parts of my album is communication. That’s also what “I Want You” is about: I’m not ready to be tied down yet.
The entire album is about the hard conversations that we don’t want to have [in relationships]. ‘Cause when you hear “we need to talk,” you’re like “ugh, I have anxiety.” Maybe it’s a bit of a challenge for our generation to see that communication is not such a bad thing. And maybe it will help a lot of us get out of these situationships and talking phases. That’s what my album is about. It’s about a situationship, a talking phase that made me realize “oh, I have this other side to myself, and it’s awesome in the end that I discovered it.”
“Rebound” is a very relatable song. What was the process behind penning that?
I really wanted to write a song about things that people don’t even want to admit to being or doing. So everybody’s had a rebound— whether you know it or you don’t. It doesn’t mean that that person was doing you dirty. Or it could be you might be the rebound and they fall in love with you. The idea [of the song is] “you literally could have told me what you’re going through” and maybe, actually, you could have said, “you know what I don’t want to be in a relationship anyway, I just want you around.” The idea of writing a song that was that open and honest. It’s like “you could have fucking just told me.” I feel like it takes a little bit of the fun out of it for people when they aren’t kind of seen as the only one.
The tracklist also includes “Tomboys Have Feelings.” That song is right on time with the whole Yeehaw Renaissance amongst Black artists reclaiming country music. There’s also the Lil Nas X [removal from Billboard’s country music charts] situation. First off, what are your thoughts on that incident?
Well, I think that would go back to what he identifies himself. Do you consider yourself a country artist? But it also goes to, does it really matter if you consider yourself a country artist, if your fan base — if the people you’re catering your music to as a radio station — loves it? The fact that they took him off is ridiculous! But I can kind of see both sides. Billboard could be saying, “well he’s not even a country artist. He says he’s not a country artist, he says he’s a rap star.” And then I see the other side [with me] saying my whole thing as an artist is to defy these genres and their norms. To break all those different rules that have been put in place for a long time. Now is the time that we can do that in music. I’m excited to see other artists make that stand.
What drove you to go for those country sounding influences?
The song goes back and forth between trap and country. I had that melody [starts singing in a distinct twang], “I never liked when people told me…” And then it was like, why base the chords of what genre I’m supposed to “be in?” Why not just make the chords that sound right? And they’re very country-ish chords depending on what instrument it’s played on. I wanted to keep the authenticity of what felt natural for the record. It goes on this journey between halftime and then back to this very happy swing. I’m happy I stuck with that because I didn’t know if it would be a music record that [would] make people think that I’m something that I’m not. And this is just me.
You’re from Dallas. When I was listening to the album I was trying to figure out what regional sounds were in it. What is it like and what are some examples on your album that represent that sound?
I don’t think that Houston or Dallas or Austin have a particular thing [that sets them apart]. I think they all have a particular type of swing. You can always hear that I might be choosing pop chords or I might sing a lyric that’s a little “indie.” But that cadence is in my swing, and it will always be there because I’m from the south! You always got to hear it. You got to hear that rock, even in my drums, in my mix. You’re riding around and bobbing your head. It’s the culture of the south.
You wrote [Ariana Grande’s] “Thank U Next” and it went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 immediately and smashed. What is the feeling that you get when you see your lyrics resonating to the point where it goes number one?
It’s exciting because you’re writing out this person’s life. To be able to look back on it all in hindsight, and be like “yo, I was able to create not only something that helped this person get through with what they were going through in their life but also millions and millions of other people.” That’s awesome.
What is a song on your album that fulfills that goal the most?
I think, right now, it would be “Easy” because I think for me, personally, I have to find the strength in my vulnerability. I was always the complete opposite— it was always “I’m not breaking down and crying, showing that I’m broken inside.” I showed a completely different way. And now I’m finding myself kind of running into that feeling of allowing myself to feel everything. You have an artist like Ariana— and a lot of other artists— that will make you feel everything, and they love it.
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“Love Lies” was the first song since Flo Rida’s “My House” in 2016 to have solely Black artists go number 1 on Pop Radio. Not as a feature, or just a songwriter. It was just an all Black bill of Normani and Khalid. When you hear something like that as a Black songwriter, and you see you’re breaking barriers, do you think that pop is more embracing of Black artists?
It makes me feel incredible because I think that the beauty for me as an artist is to break down those walls of what pop is supposed to be. Even the fact that I had to think twice that many people think I’m “trying” to be pop. It’s like “what is trying to be pop?” It’s the kind of thing where [people say] you’re talking [white], like what is that? It’s one of those things of steering the conversation away from what we thought music was and what it has been or gone to be right now. And what it is right now, it doesn’t have anything to do with gender, genre, or color of your skin. It kind of has to rewire people’s brains.
Even if a Black artist is singing pop music, they still qualify them as an R&B artist because they’re Black. It’s not flying anymore. I’m the type of person that wants to speak up on this type of thing because it’s just another form of just boxing in all the urban artists and African American artists to stay in a certain level of success. I’m happy to be an artist along with Khalid, Normani, and so many other talented African American artists that are saying, “you know what, yeah I’m going to be a part of this movement too.”
[Christina Aguilera’s] “Accelerate” was my favorite song of 2018, hands down. The reason why I liked “Accelerate” so much is it did what you said about [blending] genres. I looked at the credits, and you were writing alongside Ty Dolla $ign, Kanye West, and Bibi Bourelly. What was the process behind making that record with that all-star roster?
It literally came piece by piece. Christina brought me in, and I had already done a few records for her album [Liberation], even records that I hadn’t even started. And “Accelerate” was one I hadn’t started originally. She was like, “it’s missing something and the song is not it right now.” So they brought me in to basically be like “I see what the bigger picture is, and let’s play doctor. Rewrite some stuff. Tweak these melodies. Take it from good to great.” I was at an after party with Bibi. We really added to their genius because we all do different things really well, have different vibes and strong points. So when you put all of these brains into one of Kanye’s tracks, it becomes this gumbo.
What did it sound like before you came and what is the component you added?
Adding that bounce and making sure people are knowing the genuine side to Christina. ‘Cause you can write a song all day that’s a great song but if it’s not resonating with her, and the audience doesn’t believe that she loves this song when they hear it, it’s not going to work either way. It doesn’t matter how good the song is. When I come in, no matter what artist that I’m working with, I change whatever we have to make sure that artist says that particular word or this artist can hit that note in particular. I take all of those different factors and work it in. It’s a different vibe when you’re just writing [for] the artist, or maybe not even with the artist in mind. Everything I do is tailor-made.
Who was an artist that you had a hard time writing for? Where you got an assignment and couldn’t think of anything for the person after they told you their vision?
One of the artists that really stretched me as an artist was Janelle Monáe because she’s such a visionary and she was figuring out along the way. So it is hard to describe something that you’re on your way doing and you don’t know how to describe it to them. There’s certain things that she touches on. She touches on female empowerment. She lives in the south. She’ll have a refrain and then it’s like how do we bring that refrain alive. So, for her, because she likes to sing things in a completely different way— she’s not a pop star, she’s an artist. And I love that. To be able to exercise as a writer and reach into that bag for an artist like that is fun.
There are really retro-elements on your album that sound very ’60s. It gives off that aesthetic or vibe back then— similar to Motown Soul. Was that intentional?
I’ve always been inspired by different decades. To basically take a dive through all these different places, whether it’s the ‘60s, or ‘70s, there’s something to appreciate each decade. Whether it’s the harmonies of the ‘60s, ‘70s, or the ‘80s, the drums that you hear in “Me vs Us”— there’s so many different things to pull from to where if you have enough knowledge of music, you basically add in different elements and land on something new. Something that feels fresh, but a little familiar.
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Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101