A Conversation with Up-and-Coming Hyperpop Artist wsteaway
February 3, 2023
By Alyssa Goldberg
Sounds of Saving spoke with the 21-year-old hyperpop artist wsteaway on Friday, January 13. Ahead of our interview, we ramble on about our shared love for Friday the 13th, and they show me a the flash tattoo they're planning to get after our call: a grown-out tooth with an eyeball to pair with their 'XIII' tattoo from Friday the 13th's past.
Diving into the interview, we spoke on their upcoming project with producer Wxmell, creative expression through fearless exploration, and mental health within the hyperpop genre.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sounds of Saving: What inspired your move from Reno, Nevada to LA?
wsteaway: Growing up I was always interested in music. I was in orchestra for six years but I didn't want to continue being a performer because it's very stressful. When I was a kid I watched 500 Days of Summer, and I was like, oh my god, someone put together the soundtrack for this movie and got paid for it. That sent me into a deep dive and I thought if I learned about the music industry I could be set on the path to being a music supervisor. USC has a program, so I just moved out for school, really, but also because I love film and I love music, so I felt like LA is like the perfect place to go for that. I'm in the spring semester of my junior year at USC and I’m majoring in Music Industry and minoring in Cinematic Arts.
SOS: Is there ever a conflict between what you learn in class versus what you actually try to practice as an artist while making music?
W: Honestly, I find the classes to be really helpful as an artist. It's really important for artists to understand how the industry works because not understanding the business side of music is why a lot of artists that are new to the industry kind of get screwed over with deals and stuff. I feel like a lot of the professors are definitely on the side of the artist as opposed to the label because they're just aware and want us to go into the industry knowing as much as we possibly can and being prepared for what's to come. So it's been super insightful to just learn about things like publishing and what to look for in a contract, all the important stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise understand or know if I wasn’t studying it at school.
SOS: Yeah, learning how to present yourself as an artist and navigate the industry is super helpful. In some conversations I’ve had with artists studying music, they’ve expressed feeling overwhelmed by having to write in a way that's going to sit well within an industry and sometimes that can cause people to steer away from their vision of writing in a way that feels true to them.
W: I took a songwriting class last semester and I definitely felt the pressure of having to write songs at an academic level. I had to butt heads with my professor a few times because I write about sad, depressing things and he would be like, ‘The music is not about you, it's about us. It's about the personal to universal.’ But I felt like I should be able to use music as an outlet and have it be something that others can relate to. I have a new awareness in my songwriting process because of it, which I'm thankful for. But at the same time, sometimes I'm too hard on myself because I think about what my professor would tell me to edit. So that's the only conflict I can really see there, but at the same time I'm learning how to expand on my writing and make it better than it was before.
SOS: I think hyperpop is a really interesting genre to practice songwriting in because it’s heavy on the sonic side of the music. In your approach to writing a song, do you write your lyrics first or find a cool sound that you find attractive and then write on top of it?
W: In terms of the more hyper-poppy stuff that I've been working on, I've actually been collaborating with my friend Wxmell. He's a producer and he sent me an instrumental asking if I’d be down to write to it. Then we met in person for the first time for a studio session and since we've just been working like crazy. So all of my more electronic and hyper-poppy stuff has started as beats that he's produced and sent to me, and then he just gives me creative freedom when it comes to writing for them. I was like, ‘Dude, I'm warning you. You're sending me these really happy and upbeat beats and I'm probably going to write something really dark and depressing.’ He was like, ‘No, I love that. Let's do it.’
Usually I will just sit down with the instrumental, loop it, and sing a melody on top of it. Then I'll record that as a vocal reference on my phone, and then use that to write lyrics to it. I had my partner in mind for one of my songs "Bloodsucker.” That track is about not really being used to being in love and feeling those happy feelings, but like ‘if you're down I'm down so let's do it.' That's a super upbeat, happy, hardcore type song. Other stuff is more drum and bass and slow and more dark in terms of the writing. I tend to write about things that I'm struggling with or don't really allow myself to talk to other people about because I use music as an outlet for myself.
SOS: When you use music as an outlet to process your emotions, is that a conscious effort or do you later reflect on something you’ve written and realize it describes exactly what you were feeling?
W: Both. My depression comes and goes, obviously, but it will hit really hard. I notice it when I’m at rock bottom, and will need to sit down and just write. I don’t even think about what I’m writing, I just write down what’s going on in my head, what’s bothering me, what I’m feeling. Usually that will take up a full page and it’s not even a song, necessarily, but sometime after that I'll look back and read over it, and I'll be like, ‘Oh my god, this is so sad, but some of this is really poetic.’ So I’ll take those poetic pieces and try to construct them into a song. Sometimes it does start off more like poetry and I’ll try to alter it into a melodic version, but writing is also just to get these feelings off my chest because I have a tendency to bottle things up, which is something I need to start actively working on. But, it’s a process.
SOS: Does it help alleviate any of the darker feelings when you finally get it all out on paper?
W: It definitely does. I'm not the best at being conscious of when I should go out and reach out and talk to people about things so I have a tendency to keep it all to myself. When I’m writing it out, that’s a way of having a conversation with myself. I’m able to put everything going on in my head on paper and then reread and reflect on it later to figure out what’s going on. I can try to trace back certain things that might have triggered these feelings or certain reasons why I might be feeling the way I am, or realize that I'm just feeling depressed right now and that's okay, because it's going to happen and as long as I’m aware of it and doing the things to help myself, I can get through it. So it's definitely a great way to just help me flush it all out.
SOS: You said that it's like writing in conversation with yourself to say the things you have trouble saying out loud. How do you break past that next barrier of being writing something that's so personal that you had trouble expressing but then going on to share it with the world and allowing everyone to listen to it?
W: It's interesting how I won't sit down and talk to people about things but I can turn it into a song and then be okay with sharing it and letting the whole world hear my thoughts. I think being able to write it out and then think about it is me being able to eventually open up the conversation. Once I give myself the time to sit down and write things out, that's when I'll be like, okay, maybe I should reach out to someone. I'm able to look back and recognize what I was struggling with and that I went ahead and turned it into something that is beautiful in a sense but still a little tragic.
This is where the whole ‘making the personal to universal’ thing comes in handy because I can take a general topic or idea I'd like to talk about and expand on it. So, I'm feeling empty but it's so much more interesting to describe how that feeling of emptiness is rather than just saying like, “I feel empty,” you know? When I can make it more poetic or creative sounding, that makes it a lot easier for me to share it out. I hope that if I put a song out into the world and other people relate to it, that it kind of gives them that song that's like a big hug when you need it because I have definitely had like songs I listened to in those times and I hope that I can create stuff like that for other people.
SOS: What artists have made music that feels like a hug to you?
W: There's this artist called Boy Scouts. They have a few EPs that are kind of acoustic and really slow. I love my slow, depressing, sad music. I also have a playlist I made called "the 1975 but it's just pain" and it's all of [The 1975’s] slow songs.
SOS: What circumstances lead you to listening to something so devastating?
W: Honestly I don't listen to it that bad but I unfortunately let things bottle up and sometimes I just need to hear every single slow and sad song.
SOS: You're stronger than I am. I'd crumble and fall listening to that playlist.
W: The thing is I don't allow myself to cry. Growing up, my parents would always have a negative response to me whenever I felt the need to cry. They’d ask what’s wrong and I’d be like, ‘I don't know what's wrong’ and then they’d get mad at me. So that kind of instilled this idea that crying is bad. Like, don't do that. So when I'm sitting down and listening to these slow songs that are about heavy topics, it brings it out of me and then I'm like, okay, I can cry now and then I feel way better afterwards.
SOS: A lot of the artists you mentioned are more classic indie folk or indie rock, like very traditional bands. So what drew you towards hyperpop? When did that become a genre that you decided that you wanted to create in?
W: In 2020 my friends from back home really introduced me to the genre. A lot of Quinn, blackwinterwells, SOPHIE, Bladee, and Ecco2K. I really liked it, especially Quinn who talked about heavier, more depressing topics and this artist Grandi who has a few songs with those darker themes. I've always liked EDM, I think when I was a kid one of my uncles burned me a Cascada CD and that was one of my favorite CDs to listen to. So when I was introduced to hyperpop by my friends and was around people that listened to the genre a lot, it sparked my interest in it and since then I've done deep dives into that whole hyperpop scene and genre. I have an artist discovery playlist that I update. It’s helped me really dive deeper into the genre and find niche like 20,000 monthly listener type artists. It’s been fun to not transition but to explore more genres and sounds because I’ve always been open to listening. I’ve always been one of those ‘I listen to everything but country music’ type of people.
SOS: I used to be one of you and I'm no longer. I was like that for the first like 20 years of my life and then I realized that I really do like folk and I just hate pop country.
W: I think that's it for me too because I love “Roadkill” (The 1975) and then I feel like I'll listen to some country songs.
SOS: Yeah, I just had to find the right artists and now I can appreciate it.
SOS: Being relatively new to exploring hyperpop, are you set on building your artistry and in the genre? You mentioned having a big background in music, so do you think you’ll always want to bounce between genres or maybe return to those roots?
W: I definitely wouldn't want to box myself into being like a “hyperpop artist.” I've been trying to discover the trailblazers of the scene as it's still growing, you know? Trying to find those things and surrounding myself with those people. But at the same time, I'm very open to doing whatever comes to me in the stuff that I make on my own, which is a lot more like Lo-Fi rock or alternative indie rock. I just happened to meet this artist (Wxmell) who has an EDM background and can make hyper-poppy beats but also does more drum and bass styles of electronic music. I really like the idea of being able to blend these different influences into my music because the thought of being stuck in one genre for my artist career just doesn't sound fun to me at all. I want to be able to make slower stuff. I think one of the first songs that I ever made had a three Viola part that I recorded. And I have this concertina, it's like an accordion, and I want to make music with that. So I definitely want to continue to expand and reach out to different areas of music and sound but I think right now for this upcoming project I'm working on it's just good to focus on the electronic, hyper-poppy, alternate music.
SOS: I think too that the music is an expression of your personhood and your individuality. Like you said, you don't want to box yourself in as just one genre because you want to be able to express yourself through various forms of music.
SOS: In your experiences of both studying and making music, has mental health been talked about or accepted?
W: I definitely feel like mental health hadn’t started to be something that’s acceptable to openly talk about until recently, especially during the pandemic. I feel like mental health was definitely a struggle for a lot of people with everyone having to actually sit at home and be with themselves, which probably caused a lot of stress for people that weren’t used to that. We were actually just talking in one of my classes about how more artists are being honest and open about their mental health. Like if a big artist doesn’t want to do a tour because they feel like they can’t do it mentally, then they’re allowed to do that nowadays. A lot more of my professors have also brought up this area of mental health and talk about how important it is for artists to be able to take the time to make sure they’re okay. And even [with classes], they’re very understanding. Like, I’ve had a few days where I’ve emailed professors that I can’t come in and need a mental health day, like I can’t get out of bed. They’ve been okay with that and supported me. It’s also cool to see that more artists are willing to talk about these darker issues because people need to have people they can look up to that are open to talking about mental health issues. My professors have been saying too like back in their day it wasn’t really something okay to talk about, like ‘the show must go on’ type of vibe, but now we can sit down and have a conversation around depression and anxiety.
SOS: Yeah, that's really awesome. I agree that, especially over the pandemic, the idea of canceling a tour has become more normalized. With every show now I always know that there's like a percent chance that it won't happen and fans just have to learn to be okay with that.
W: It's also important for fans to learn to be okay with these things because especially with super big artists, I feel like their fan bases have a tendency to feel entitled to what the artists can give them and it's like, you people need to understand that these artists are people too and they all have their own issues going on. So I think it's really cool that artists nowadays can be like, 'I'm not doing okay. I love you all and I'm so sorry, but I'll be back when I'm feeling better' and more people are accepting of that and supportive of that.
SOS: You have a new album on the way, how’s that process coming along?
W: I'm aiming to have it drop in March. I actually just had a music video shoot last week and we have shoot day two coming up next week. It's gonna be really fun. I got all dressed up and I went to these crazy locations. I'm so excited for this project. It'll be cool because it's Wxmell and I but we're gonna have an alter artists name: “Indigo Forever.” That's like our collaborative artist project.
Indigo really encompasses the overall vibe of a lot of the topics I talk about and of the album. It's very reflective and has a lot of self-awareness and being able to sit and look at these different aspects of things I was struggling to process while I was adjusting to LA and being away from my family and all my hometown friends. I really had to sit with all of the things I'd experienced in the past year or two and this album has really helped me in processing those experiences and now it's this huge project. We're still developing and evolving it as we're working on it and it's just really exciting.
SOS: So exciting. I read in your bio that you see expressions of gender as performative. Has that influenced your artistic vision for these videos or for your projects?
W: It definitely has. Just putting together cool outfits and wearing whatever I want because I know that it looks good has made me so much more confident. The only downside is that other people will still perceive me as being a woman but at the same time, it’s like deep down I know that I’m not. I know that I still identify with being gender nonconforming and at the end of the day still have the ability to express myself in a more masculine or more feminine way or however way I want to. In terms of this project, it’s really helped me embrace this sort of aesthetic and vibe that I want my artist persona to have for it. I think if I had tried to do this without having this whole gender epiphany it would be a lot more difficult for me to be more comfortable with doing it. I still have those moments where I think people are going to perceive me, but it’s like, dude, who cares? I try to remind myself to just not care and to do what makes me feel good and it’s definitely helped with my confidence in my ability to just put on a cool show and get into my character and do whatever I want.
SOS: I love that. You're saying that too that yeah, it doesn't matter how people are going to perceive me. Obviously it matters in the sense that like, it has a consequence on how you feel, but it's also like, the most important thing is coming to this better understanding of yourself and this greater sense of authenticity and comfort that you're able to have in your own body.
W: Definitely, like you said it perfectly.
SOS: I can resonate a lot with that too, knowing who you are and not having to worry so much about what other people think of you is such an easier way to live your life.
W: It's so much more fun that way too. Like even yesterday, I had bought five inch platforms and I put on an outfit and I was a little nervous. I was texting my partner, like should I put a silly little outfit on? And they're like yes, you're gonna slay like you do every other day and I was like, oh, you're so right. And like it's just fun. I just love presenting myself in this maximalist sort of way because like, I only get to live this life one time so why not go all out whenever I can.
SOS: So true. At the end of day, again, it's your life and you want to do things that make you happy. So if it's gonna make you feel good to go wear your great outfit and boots and slay at class, why not do it? It's not affecting anybody else.
W: Exactly. It's made me appreciate just like existing and being and having a sense of identity a lot more too. Just like being comfortable with myself and being comfortable with doing what I want because then other days I can go out wearing the most simple little outfit and I still know that I look cool because I’m just doing what I want to do.
SOS: Earlier you said that music is a big expression of your mental health. Is there anything else that you do for your mental health, like therapy, that has helped you?
W: I've tried to do therapy through USC, but you're only allowed to meet with them five times before you have to change [providers]. So I had a psychiatrist and I had a certain amount of times I could meet with him and then he was like, ‘I'm so proud of what you've been working on but unfortunately I do have to refer you to somebody else.’ When I tried to make that transition, I was like, I don't want to sit here and retell my story seven million times, so I stopped seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist. I think I've gotten to a point in my life where I am able to be aware of the things that are bothering me and the things that I'm doing towards myself that are harmful, even if it takes some time. I'm trying to be accepting of that and realize that like right now it's really hard for me to get access to like professional care, but the things that I can do are be aware try to be more mindful of my actions and how I'm treating myself and also just reaching out to those that are close to me. And I feel like over the years I have really grown when it comes to my mental health, like even me now and me two years are two completely different people when it comes to the way I interact with my relationships and the way I am towards myself. There's been growth and I aim to keep growing. My New Year's resolution this year is to be more compassionate towards myself and to be more understanding. I have a tendency to set my expectations really, really high and then I like shit on myself when I don't meet them. [I remind myself that] I need to stop doing that. I’m working and I’m in school, and it's good to have high expectations but I’m just not always going to be able to meet them and that's okay because I’m constantly trying to do the best for myself anyways. So even though I don't have access to a therapist or anything right now, like it's just too expensive, I still try to actively do these things that are kind to myself and kind to those around me, you know, just trying to be aware of my actions and mindful about what I'm doing.
SOS: Is there anything on the topic of either your upcoming album or mental health that you wanted to share that you felt like we didn't get to in our conversation?
W: I talked about how a lot of my music is about expressing darker things and wanting other people to connect to it. That's really important to me. I've had a few friends and people tell me that they listen to “losing sleep” or even my first song “lonely” and say they’ve cried to it, like so many times. And I'm like, ‘I'm sorry, you're crying’ and like, ‘I'm sorry, you're hurt,’ but I'm glad that my music was something that supported you through those times. People also told me how “losing sleep” is so relatable and that makes me so incredibly happy. It makes me sad at the same time because like other people are, you know, going through these experiences but it's nice to know that my art is something other people can find comfort in. I really hope that this upcoming project can continue that drive and everything else that I write continues to create that space for people. I'm really excited about the album. We're still definitely in the developing stages but Wxmell and I are super focused on getting this project out this year.
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Alyssa Goldberg is a writer and photographer living in New York. Read more of her work at alyssaegoldberg.com and find her on Twitter @alyssaegoldberg.