Do you ever daydream about a huge pop star discovering you?
If you’re a songwriter, you’ve probably at least once thought about how awesome it would be if someone like Katy Perry found your music and offered you a one-way ticket to the world of your dreams. For most of us, that thought remains, well, nothing more than a dream. But, for the Michigan-born artist and songwriter, Cyn, that dream is a reality.
Discovered by Katy Perry in 2016, Cyn is one of the “next big things” in the world of commercial pop music. Young, determined and wildly talented, Cyn dropped her debut EP Mood Swing in 2019 and has since built a sizable audience. Now, on September 18, Cyn is following that up with a second EP, Mood Swing (even moodier), which is a reimagination of her debut.
A fantastic embodiment of Cyn’s writing sensibilities, natural vocal talent and phenomenal taste in production, Mood Swing (even moodier) shows off a different, more confessional side of the 26-year-old artist. This makes sense considering that music has, since her childhood, been a form of escape and therapy for her. Throughout the ebbs and flows of even moodier, Cyn explores a variety of moods and visions which leave you feeling as if you’ve always known her.
Last month, American Songwriter caught up with Cyn to discuss how she got into songwriting, what her upbringing was like, what it’s been like to work with Katy Perry, how she approached reimaging this EP and more. Charming and infectious, Cyn has a certain lightness to the way she speaks, choosing words carefully and filling the room with a sense of wonder and humor as she spoke. Yet, she also demonstrates herself as a highly capable navigator of the industry and a truly unique and singular songwriting talent.
When did you first get into songwriting at a serious caliber?
I think around 15 or 16. I downloaded some Sony recording software and I would record the piano and then record myself singing over the piano. Then I’d YouTube how to record a vocal and what it meant to double a vocal. So, around 15 or 16, it kind of took the shape of, “Okay, write the verse, write the pre-chorus, write the chorus and double the vocal,” ya know? So, that’s when it kind of got a little more real.
Was that when you first envisioned the artist persona of “Cyn?”
No, actually. I didn’t start working on “Cyn” until I was maybe 20 years old and in college. Originally, I was just using my first and my last name. It wasn’t until Lorde released her first EP that I was like, “Oh, I can recreate myself with a different name and it could be one name and that could be cool.” She really inspired that.
How did embracing the single-name persona of “Cyn” influence your artistry?
I guess I’ve never really contemplated how calling myself Cyn affects my artistry. I think maybe when you take away a last name, you get to really define who that person is. It lets the stigma of what the name itself has meant for you or your family for all those years disappear. So, it was like starting with a completely fresh identity and I guess it really added a lot of freedom.
You were quoted describing your childhood as “not terrible, but tough” — what role did music play in your life then?
I think a lot of children who go through a divorce early — I was 5 or 6 when my parents got divorced — you just have to hear a lot of adult conversations. You hear things like your parents are talking about money. My dad used to say to me, “Your mom doesn’t love me anymore.” I mean, I don’t like that he said those things but I was faced with something a lot more complicated than people falling out of love. That very harsh reality to face when you’re basically a baby can inspire a lot of pain. You have to really search, if you can, for that healing and I think I did through music and being creative. I really found some kind of solace. Everything felt okay when I was singing, even if I was singing about that or sad things, things still made a lot more sense. I really credit my tough childhood as the reason for why I needed to become creative or why I’m an artist.
Does that still inform your relationship with music?
Totally. Let’s face it, life doesn’t totally get much easier. We understand things a little bit better, but I still face hardships in my life and I call upon the same tools and voices that inspire my melodies now. I still hear them.
Now, you’re in the interesting position of sharing your own story of hardship in a year where “hardship” has been placed front-in-center for a lot of folks around the world. What do you feel is your role as an artist right now in sharing your story while also advocating for others? What is the power of music in this moment?
I think that when I compare the way I came up, like, when I look at what really is hard or what really is devastating, I can minimize my experience in comparison to the rest of the world. But, when you’re a child, everyone exists within themselves. What you’re going through is still important. If it’s hard for you, it’s hard. So, I try to feel fully for the world and feel empathy and be active in supporting these causes, but I think people can do that and not minimize their own hardships. It’s important to acknowledge the privilege that we have while we do both of them. But, when your heart is broken, your heart is just broken no matter what color you are. You have to consider the world, but you still feel. I’m not saying that I don’t have privilege, I do. It does make it easier, in some regards. But, when you’re alone, it’s just you, yourself and you. I think we can allow ourselves to feel pain in our own individual experiences and also still feel wholehearted empathy for other experiences as well. It’s about feeling for everybody and feeling for yourself at the same time.
You were “discovered” by Katy Perry in the mid-2010s. What was that like? How has she supported you over the years?
I’m in this mindset now where I really have to think of her as a friend. I can’t be so caught up in the Katy Perry thing because then I start acting weird. Like, I can’t have a conversation and I get nervous. I’ve been very much like, “She’s just a person in your life now because it’s been years.”
But in the beginning, it felt like a fairy tale. It felt like my dreams were coming true. I was graduating from college and someone was like, “Do you want to write songs and do you want me to invest in your art? Okay I’ll do it.” Especially when it’s someone as special as Katy… it was surreal and I thought it was too good to be true.
Maybe some people look at it like, “Oh, who does she know? How did that happen?” But, honestly it’s not like that. I’m just literally a random girl from Michigan who put songs online and I know that I worked really for it. So, now I’m just really coasting in the fact that I’ve been writing for a year now with her guidance. Now, I finally have a Top-40 song and I’m just excited for what comes next. I’m trying not to focus on how awesome and out of this world she is. I just keep trying to respond to her texts like everything is normal!
How has your writing developed over time as you’ve gotten to know and work with Katy Perry?
Sometimes this happens, I think, for artists where you sign to a label and then go “Ok, I need to write songs that impress my label.” That’s just you being a good hired employee. That’s natural and normal. But, the truth is they are investing in your art because of your experience, for who you are, regardless of your relationship to them. So, I made this little mistake in the beginning of writing songs that I thought they would like. I lost track of my natural and authentic voice. It took me a year or maybe two years to really be like, “Close your eyes and just see where you go. Don’t be so conscious about these choices and trying to impress whoever.” So, I think that really influenced the writing in a strange way in the beginning.
Then, when I opened for Katy on her tour, I was like, “Wait a second! You better write from your heart if you’re going to be in front of 10,000 people.” So, that week after the tour I wrote the majority of Mood Swing. I think finally I tapped into something unique and I really leaned into my collaborator too.
What would you describe as your “natural and authentic” voice?
My recent writing in the last few months — I guess since quarantine began, really — marks another change in how I go about my writing. Before, I was being super social. I was recently single so I was going out a lot. That’s when I wrote “Drinks.” And so now, I’ve been at home a lot, I’m in a new relationship and am very in love. It’s different now. I think I’m hoping to capture — this is so lame to say — just the magic of being alive. Just the mystical things. I’m really inspired lately by really early Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland, even Lady and the Tramp. I think a lot of the language and even the scripts are just so enchanting. I’m hoping to recreate it.
In one of my new songs I write, “Like a Bambi lost inside a forest” which is something I don’t think I would’ve said on Mood Swings. Now, things are turning princess-y, but, I mean, they’re still attainable. You can still tell I’m a girl of this century, but things are just a little more romantic. So, I guess my goal lately is kind of to inspire magical feelings or the idea that anything can happen. Like an adventure is just around the corner and maybe ‘Prince Charming’ is there. I don’t know! It’s very fate-inspired, so there are themes of destiny or, like, “I’ve been changed” — because I’ve met a person recently who has changed my life. I just feel as though I am where I’m meant to be and everything feels very magical.
Backtracking a little, you mentioned that you leaned into your collaborators — what did that process look like?
It’s like a snowball going down a hill, you know? I don’t know what pushes it. Maybe it’s if I fall in love or get hurt, but when that snowball starts going, it’s going. As long as I’m in the room and there’s like a lead track or lead instrument playing on the track that’s my “brand,” then I can contribute to the song. I’d say that with my productions, I really let the producer follow their heart with the lead instrumentation. I’ll come in here and there saying “I would rather this chord go to that chord or this chord,” but I let them kind of shape it in a way. I like to write on top of their ideas. So, as long as that foundation is speaking to my truth, I can go with it. If I have something that changed my life recently, it just flows out of me. I think it comes from spending a lot of time alone and just thinking in your backyard.
You released a single earlier this year — “Drinks” — which is doing quite well. When did you start working on that song? What inspired it?
It’s been a while and I don’t really remember what we were arguing about, but my ex-boyfriend got mad at me about something and I was like, “This is so stupid.” So I called Alexa and I was like, “Wanna get drinks?” And she was like, “Sure!” And that was like really just what happened. She really did know the bartender and we didn’t pay for anything. In the cab on the way back, I texted JP Clark and Ryan Daly and I was like, “I think I have a topline,” and it was just: “He got mad, so I got drinks.” No one really responded because it was late. Then, the next day I went in and I thought, “I’m just going to put it down” and it turned into this like rap-y, chant-y, I-don’t-even-know-what-you’d-call-it type of hook. I was kind of terrified of it because it didn’t sound like a lot of my writing. And I also thought, “Oh my God this lyric is so silly.” I thought people would think it was a joke because I thought it was a joke — and some people do in the comments — but that’s kind of where it came from. I didn’t think, “This is the lead single! This is what’s going to happen on the radio!” But my label and my radio people were like, “This could be really good.” And I thought, “Ok! You try it, but if it doesn’t work don’t get mad at me!” It ended up doing well and I like it. I think that the verses are complex and there’s a lot of poetry and honesty there. But, it’s also so to the point and it’s not flourished or flowery. It’s just kind of like, “He got mad, I got drinks.” It’s funny.
So many things have changed in the music industry with the rise of social media. What do you see as the relationship between music-maker and content-creator?
Lately, if I want to say something — even if it’s the most random thing about sex or Komodo dragons or buying olive oil, even — I’ll just tweet it! It seems like the more random and honest I am, the more engagement I get. I try not to think too hard about it. I used to be afraid to tweet my thoughts but now I just go for it. I don’t really care anymore. I do get frustrated when my manager says — and I know she just means it out of love — something you like, “You should be more active!” or “We really need you to post a TikTok.” I think that pressure to present yourself does suck. But, I’m really not the kind of person, just the way I was raised, to be mad about the circumstance. It sucks, but I think it’s important to find a way to have that balance and hopefully it can work for you. I don’t know, I can’t dwell on it or let it take me out of the game because I just love music too much. Sharing myself a little bit here and there on social media isn’t really that horrible.
Your music has such a “confessional” nature to it — what is it like to share these vulnerable things with your audience? Is it therapeutic in a way?
I don’t really think about it. The only reason I write is to confess something. It’s not exactly a choice that I have. Either I’m confessing it myself or my subconscious is confessing it to myself, or whatever it is. I’m not really afraid to tell the truth about the way I feel. I’m not really afraid of the way someone will take the facts. If they don’t like the facts, that’s okay, but this is the reality and this is how I feel. If someone doesn’t like my songs, that’s on them because this is the absolute truth of me. When you write from that, when you write from the truth, if someone doesn’t like it, then okay. I never was pretending so I don’t have to feel bad. It can be scary in that regard too. I find that if you can be as authentic as you can, odds are that someone is going to like it. The more true you are, people can just feel that. I feel like if I’m not confessing, I’m afraid.
You’ve reimagined your first EP Mood Swing with the stripped-back Mood Swing – Even Moodier — how did that project come to be?
It’s just a reworking of five of the Mood Swing songs. It’s “Angel,” “I’ll Still Have Me,” “Nobody’s Keeping Score,” “Holy Roller,” and “I Can’t Believe.” It’s just stripping everything down. So, we tried to do minimal production, but I wouldn’t actually call them “acoustic.” Some of the vocals I didn’t redo. I redid the vocals on “Nobody’s Keeping Score” and “Holy Roller,” so those ones have a very new feeling. I guess I just wanted to show the songs in one more different light and continue that conversation before I release a new single (which I also am nearly done with!)
How did you approach reworking these songs to breathe new life into them?
“Holy Roller,” for example, is now a piano ballad, whereas the original is an electric guitar-clad pop ballad. It’s more of a like a flex, like a “Check out how many lives my songs can take on.” We just wanted to see what we could do and it was quarantine so we just decided “Why not?” We had the time and were just like, “If we can do something moving, why not?” So we did that and Mood Swing and the Even Moodier versions of the songs are such an experience that are going to inform my later experiences. I can’t separate myself from it. With Mood Swing, I was into “Let me say something shocking and unexpected.” Now, I really just want to say something beautiful. So, it was less about shocking people and more about “How can I be poetic and in love?” I think you get out certain urges in your early wiring that you don’t feel like you need to do again, but that experience informs how you do the new stuff.
Listen to the stripped-back version of “I’ll Still Have Me” by Cyn below: