Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, UPSAHL grew up influenced by the punk scene that her dad was a part of, the bands that would regularly crash on her living room floor, and artists like Weezer and OutKast. Perhaps it’s her punk roots that explain the unapologetic edge to her music. Because sure, she’s co-written songs for artists like Dua Lipa and Madison Beer, released multiple chart-topping singles, and made viral TikTok hits, like “Drugs” which has been featured in over 2 million videos, but even after such success her music remains refreshingly unfiltered. Take “Drugs” – a track which many artists in today’s “PR-ified” music landscape would be hesitant to put out.
“I was very scared to put it out”, UPSAHL admits, “but after a lot of fights with my parents because they weren’t stoked I was putting out a song called ‘Drugs’, and after a lot of contemplating, a light bulb went off in my head.
I was like, ‘If I’m not saying whatever the fuck I want, not pissing a few people off with my music, and not being unapologetic, then what the fuck is the point of making music anyway?’ I was like, ‘That is what music is. That is what art is. It’s controversial and it’s you doing and say- ing whatever you want.’”
This honesty is inherent to UPSAHL’s debut album, Lady Jesus, an autobiographical journey of her first heartbreak. Sitting down with Rollacoaster, the singer opened up about the new album, finding the courage to not care about other people’s opinions, and what she’s writing about now that she’s happy.
How are you doing? How’s the past year been for you?
I’m good! My new album Lady Jesus just dropped a week ago and it’s a cool feeling because
this whole past year has been leading up to its release. I’m stoked that shows are coming back, and I’m stoked that I’m travelling again and in London. I just feel like I’ve reached the full circle closure moment of quarantine. Life is getting back to normal and it’s a good time for me to be releasing my album.
How did you first get into music?
My dad was in punk bands all throughout my growing up, so I was always watching him like, “That looks sick. I want to do that.” I remember watching him interact with the punk community and we would always have bands crash on our living room floor when I was a kid because they would have a show in Phoenix and wouldn’t want to get a hotel. I would see all of that and be like, “I need to be a part of this. I want to do that.” And then because my parents are both so musical we had a band room in the house, and l had access to guitars, piano and drums since I was born, so I naturally started gravitating towards instruments. When I was five my dad started teaching me guitar and my grandma started teaching me piano so everything just happened very naturally. Music very quickly became the biggest part of me. As I continued to get older, it just became clearer and clearer to me that there was no other option for me, I wasn’t good at anything else, and I had to make music work.
Congratulations on the release of Lady Jesus! How would you describe the album?
I feel like the sound is a culmination of all the different kinds of music I grew up listening to. I grew up listening to a lot of Weezer, No Doubt, Gwen Stefani, OutKast, and then I got into MIA and Radiohead, and you can hear bits and pieces of those influences throughout the album sound-wise. Conceptually, at the start of making this album I had just gone through a breakup and I was like, “I’m going to write the saddest album of all time”. I had the first few songs that are now on Lady Jesus and I was like, “I know how the story starts, but how does it end?” Then I remember one day I was doing a writing trip with some friends Johnny and Will, who I made a lot of the album with, and it hit me out of the blue. I was like, “wait, I’m actually not sad anymore. I’ve just been hanging on to this sadness – I’m actually good now, I’m over this dude. I feel like I’ve been reborn.” I looked at Johnny and Will and I was like, “can we write a song about rebirth? I feel like I’m like a new bitch”. That day we wrote the song “Lady Jesus” and that was when the whole album just made sense to me in my head. I was like, “Oh my God, I have narrated my journey from point A, which is the song ‘Douchebag’ and the breakup, to point Z which is ‘Lady Jesus’, and how well I’m doing now and how I feel about myself now.” So yeah, it’s a very autobiographical album.
That’s amazing. Do you think that writing it changed you and made that process of moving on easier?
For sure. I feel like when you go through a breakup, and especially since this was my first real heartbreak, you experience all these feelings that you didn’t even know existed. Every day I was feeling something new and I was like “this sucks so bad”. My saving grace was being able to wake up feeling some type of way and then getting to go to the studio and write a song about it. This was also the first time in my life as an artist where I had a crew of writers and producers to work with on a project. I got to work with people that I love and respect so much, and they played therapist for me every day. It was great.
Is songwriting a form of therapy for you?
Definitely. A perfect example is the song “Lunatic” which is on the album. I wasn’t even going to go to the session that day, I was so pissed at the world, but I was like “no, instead of crying at home alone all day I should just go”. I went in and I was venting about what I was angry, mad and sad about and we ended up writing “Lunatic”. Fast forward a couple of hours later and we’re jumping around the studio, like “Yes! We just made the best song!” My whole day was turned around, so
I feel like yeah, music really is that for me. It’s my way to work through my shit and then you have a song out of it. It’s a win-win.
Do you think that you need to experience love and heartbreak to write good lyrics? Do you think it makes you a better artist?
Yes, but I don’t think you need to define love and heartbreak in a romantic sense, in order to be a good artist. I feel like there are so many things that can break your heart on a daily basis, like you can lose friends or family. I don’t think it has to be romantic. Before I was in love I was writing songs about other parts of the human experience, and having my heart broken in other ways. But definitely going through a breakup and having all of those feelings was the best thing for my songwriting, for sure. I was talking to my manager about this the other day – I was like, “What the fuck am I going to write about now that I’m happy? I need to fuck my life up a bit for the next album!” It was funny, I had a full-on realization like, “Wait, for the first time in my life I’m happy and content and good. And I have nothing to write about.” So we’ll see…
So what are you writing about now that you’re happy?
I’m writing about being in love with myself, which is a really big theme in my life right now. Dating again too, which is an absolute shit show but it gives me good content for songs. I milk all the drama for everything that it’s worth. Before I was in love and going through shit I would write about what I saw my friends going through, and I’m doing that again, and pulling a lot of inspiration from my friends. I’m writing about a lot of random shit that I haven’t written about in a long time, it’s very fun. The music I’m making for the most part is very happy, obviously there’s my own little dark fucked up twist to everything but yeah, the songs are happy. It’s been a fun time to make music for me.
Talk us through your writing process for Lady Jesus.
Honestly, most of the songs on the album were very day-of and spontaneous, I would just roll up to the studio. I think that’s the magic of getting to make
an album with your friends. I would roll up, we’d just be hanging out, I would be bitching about my life, and then somewhere along the way during the conversation somebody would say something and we would all be like “Wait, that’s a title” or “That’s a cool lyric”. It sounds so cheesy but then someone would pick up a bass and start playing a bass line and then someone would start fucking around on the computer and all of a sudden we’d have a chorus. All of the songs on the album and all of my favourite songs that I’ve written genuinely feel like you go from just talking, you blackout, and then you come back and you’re like “Wait, we just wrote a song and it’s kind of good”. That’s how all of the songs on the album came about, they very naturally came out of just a conversation we were having.
I wanted to ask about “Drugs”. I’m curious because so much chart music now is so “PR- ified” and in the video the drugs are literally glittering – beautiful, even. Were you worried about being accused of glamourizing drugs or setting a bad example to your younger fans? Were you scared to put it out?
Actually yeah. It was a very difficult song for me to put out. I remember I wrote it with Sean Kennedy and KillaGraham, and I loved the song. When we wrote it I was like “This is fucking rad. This song is special”. But when I sent the song to my team the original email was like, “obviously I would never put this song out myself…this could be for another artist. But I really like this song”. I really was like “there’s no fucking way I put that out”. Then they were like “No, this is actually kind of sick. You should put this out”. I had to do a full deep dive into myself and my artistry because I was very scared to put it out, but after a lot of fights with my parents because they weren’t stoked I was putting out a song called “Drugs”, and after a lot of contemplating, a light bulb went off in my head. I was like, “If I’m not saying whatever the fuck I want, not pissing a few people off with my music, and not being unapologetic, then what the fuck is the point of making music anyway?” I was like, “That is what music is. That is what art is. It’s controversial and it’s you doing and saying whatever you want.” So I put the song out. Honestly putting that song out is the reason why I feel like a lot of people who now talk to me about my songwriting are like, “you’re so unapologetic, you just say whatever the fuck you want”. “Drugs” was the turning point for me as an artist and as a writer. As challenging and scary as it was to release the song it changed my life and perspective as an artist.