You recently performed your new single, “Try,” on Dancing with the Stars. Tell us what that song means to you.
I wrote it as a reminder to always be myself, and to only be myself. It's extremely hard to unlearn old or bad habits. I'm still in the process of learning to embrace who I am, the way I look, and the personality I have, which is very shy. I'm very much an introvert. Getting to perform a song that means so much to me on television is so special. It’s my favorite song on Gypsy Heart.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention for the video of this song, which shows women of all ages and appearances—including you—wearing less and less makeup, until they’re wearing none at all.
This song is to remind us all that we should embrace who we are and how we were made. And not change ourselves for anybody. I wrote “Try” about feelings I've had most of my life. I was finally at a place in my life where I felt comfortable writing about it and sharing it with my listeners. Self-confidence and lack of self-confidence start very young. For me, I was lacking it, mostly because I was always a little chubby, had bad skin, and was very shy and uncomfortable around people besides my family, so I didn't make friends very easily. That set me up for having stage fright and always worrying about what people thought of me. Then in adulthood, being in the entertainment industry, the quest to look great and be polished was a requirement. And that's exhausting. Last year when I was in a writing session with Babyface, Jason Reeves, and Tony Dixon, I told them how I felt about the pressures we put on ourselves and the pressures society promotes. They reminded me I don't have to “Try” so hard. They instantly freed me from that pressure. And I try to practice not trying every day!
The music business has unique challenges for women, especially in terms of how to look and behave. What advice would you give other female artists who want to succeed on their own terms?
The physical demands of the music industry are extremely challenging. I got lost in them for a while at the beginning, because I did not know better. What I learned was to follow my gut. That's the smartest decision ever. And if that decision ever gets cloudy, I think about what I'd be proud of and what I'm most comfortable representing. Knowing when to say yes and when to say no is difficult. It's finding a balance and knowing yourself enough to accept advice from others and also know that suggestion just isn't right for you.
Your video for “Never Gonna Let You Down,” also on Gypsy Heart, is an unabashed appeal for animal welfare. What inspired it?
That song is about always being there for someone when they need you, and when you need them. Animal adoption and treating all living things humanely is the most important thing to me. Kindness. Animals are kind and helpless. I wanted this video to show real-life animal rescues and to be impactful.
You also support several other charitable causes. What prompts you to devote your energy to a particular issue?
Being in a position where you have opportunities to have lots of eyes on you, it's important to make it count and teach people something new, open their eyes to what's going on in the world, and how together we can all help make a difference. I like sharing causes I'm concerned about and love. Though there's a fine line between informing people of what's going on and how they can get involved, and alienating people by oversaturation of information. That's always tough.
How have you evolved most as a musician since you started out?
Over the years I've learned so many new things. Songwriting styles, the use of unique instruments, different song structures, broader lyrical concepts, combining genres, a variety of production styles. I've learned that I can incorporate all of these into my new records. I don't have to stick to one genre; I can work with multiple producers and multiple writers. I can be even more vulnerable and honest with specific moments or scenarios in my lyrics, or I can be so broad that it covers all emotional bases and more people can relate. I've learned that it's my company, my art, and my reputation, and I choose what I want to put out for my listeners to engage in.
Tell me a little about your songwriting process. Do you usually start with a melody or chord progression, or with an idea or emotion?
Every song I write has a completely different story and method of how it was written. When I wrote my first song, I was sitting on my parents’ bathroom floor in the house I grew up in, in Southern California, playing my dad’s 1968 Martin guitar, and I wrote the whole song by myself. After that, I learned to write with a friend of mine, Jason Reeves. We shared lyrics, melodies and song ideas, and wrote my first album, Coco, together. For my next record, Breakthrough, I was in writing sessions every week, with new people every time: producers, writers, other artists. And we wrote the songs together, sometimes three or four people in the room writing to a track or a beat. Sometimes someone would bring in an idea and then we’d all finish writing it together. It's so much fun, and you can never get sick of anyone’s process, because every day is different and every person has a different technique. Now I write in all those different formats. And if I get writer’s block, I take a few months off from writing and live life so I can write about it all over again.
“A GREAT SONG CAN FILL YOU UP WITH EMOTION, MAKE YOU SMILE ON A GOOD DAY, AND LET YOU CRY WHEN YOU ARE GOING THROUGH A DIFFICULT TIME.”
You’ve worked with some famous producers, like your dad, and Babyface. What are the most valuable things you’ve learned from them?
Learning from legendary producers has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career. Learning to sing 30 vocal takes so you have all the options you need, and so you really get the best take for that line or song that will eventually be played forever, and that you'll be remembered for. Learning to make your own sounds for instruments. Asking every person in the building to come sing background vocals in one big room together, all on one microphone, to make it sound huge. I've learned what microphone I like singing on, and what mirrors my voice the best.
You have a Yamaha Disklavier piano at home. Do you use it to write songs?
I love my Yamaha piano, and am so grateful to have it. It sounds so beautiful. We just moved it to my new house, and it's in my favorite room. The doors open to the courtyard, and you can hear it being played through the whole house. I've written many songs on it. One with Gavin DeGraw called, “We Both Know." One with Jason Reeves and Kara DioGuardi called, “In Love Again," which is in the Nicholas Sparks film The Best of Me. I play it as an acoustic, but I love having the option to have the piano play music for me, especially songs that I can't play and never will be able to because they’re so intricate. It's also fun to turn it on and scare people with!
What’s most important to you as a musician: expressing how you feel personally, or tapping into universal emotions that everyone can relate to?
I think in songwriting they are very much connected to each other. Yes, we write about personal experiences and moments that happen to us, and that's the part about songwriting that I find comfort in—I know I'm not alone. We all go through the same situations in life, and always surprise each other that we have felt and experienced the same things. Falling in love, heartbreak, loss, adventure, celebrating life and good times. We love music because it reminds us we aren't alone. It's personal therapy to write a song, and personal therapy to listen to one. There is a conscious decision on how far you go lyrically on the universal, conceptual front. Leaving out "he" or "she" is a major one. Saying "you" instead makes it more universally relatable, and makes it easer for anyone to sing to their loved ones or to make a cover version.
Do you think a great song can help you understand yourself better?
A great song can fill you up with emotion, make you smile on a good day, and let you cry when you are going through a difficult time. Whether you’re writing an emotional song about a depressing breakup or writing a song about learning to accept yourself for who you are, and reminding us all to not try so hard, they have the same goal: to remind you you're not alone in that experience or feeling, and to help you come to peace with the situation.
What’s in the future for you musically?
I'd like to start co-producing records. And I would love to write for other artists more often. I have so many songs that I can hear specific artists recording, instead of keeping it all for myself!