Talent like Ella Jay Basco is hard to come by. With her empowering new song, “Gold,” a collaboration with rapper Ruby Ibarra, Basco declares her indisputable self-worth. I don’t need your silverwear or your unfair comparisons / ‘Cause I know my hair is darker than hers is, she sings over glittering production.
“Gold,” co-written with her brother Darryl, leans upon brutally honest lyrics, as a way to discard crushing societal pressures, reclaim her life, and honor her Asian-American heritage. “Through the course of writing this song, we really wanted to create a story that was relatable. We talk about not being like other girls and trying to figure out your identity,” Basco tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. While wholly personal to her own story, the song “incorporates that universal concept of not trying to figure out how to fit in and then finding your way.”
Having seen Ibarra play several shows, Basco “met up at one of her shows, at The Getty actually, and we talked about wanting to collaborate for a while,” she recalls. “While writing ‘Gold,’ my brother and I thought it would be super cool to have her jump on the song. I’m really all about layering vocals and runs and harmonizing. With Ruby, her part was really easy. She’s amazing, and her work ethic is so great. She really just knocked it out and sent it over.”
At only 14, Basco has certainly endured plenty of struggles, particularly as a young girl of color. “I’ve definitely struggled with identity and things like that. With my family, they’re super supportive,” she offers. “Throughout this whole journey, I’ve been able to figure out through these songs what my identity is and how I’m able to empower myself and our community of young women.”
Head to toe I’m dipped in gold / And I know and I know that I’ll break the mold, she sings on the chorus. When you learn to love your true reflection, yeah / Then you’ll always be rich with a gold complexion.
Basco possesses a magnetizing charm and a presence you simply can’t teach. With Darryl, who frequently produces her music, she is able to take big swings that simply pay off. “We love writing music together. It’s been that way the entire time,” she says of their creative dynamic. “He comes up with an idea, and he’ll send it to me. We go from there and figure out how the song wants to go based on if it’s acoustic or to a track.
“He’s definitely taught me a lot about music and how to be a musician. I’m also starting to learn how to produce music,” she continues, “and he’s taught me a lot about the programs we’ve been using, like Logic Pro X, and how to understand the process of writing a song through the instruments and not just the lyrics. Because we are a family, there’s always those ups and downs. But I definitely think because we’re a brother/sister duo, our relationship is definitely stronger. We understand each other and know what we want when we’re writing.”
“Gold” comes in the aftermath of Basco’s debut feature film, Birds of Prey starring Margot Robbie. It’s not her first rodeo, of course, having performed in front of the camera since she was only six months old, but the role showcases her true superstar potential. Born into a family of actors, including her father and uncle Dante Basco, who started as Rufio in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, her destiny seems preordained.
Growing up in the industry has “definitely been stressful and very emotional,” she reflects. “My entire family has been so supportive, and because they’ve been in the industry so long, they understand what we’re going through and how the process goes with auditions, callbacks, and things like that.”
Naturally, songwriting has been a cathartic escape, a way to “help me express my emotions,” she says. A multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, and ukulele), Basco began writing songs very young. “It’s kind of blurry,” she says with a laugh, “but I think I started around five or six years old. My aunt gave me a songwriting book and she told me, ‘You can express your feelings through writing poems and songs.’ I think I wrote my first song about peace and love or something.”
An early obsession with artists like Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and Lauryn Hill greatly influenced her own development as an artist. “It’s been the musicality they bring out in their songs and messages they have,” she says. “Beyonce loves talking about women empowerment, so that definitely inspires the music I write today.”
In tandem with her Birds of Prey role, as Cassandra Cain, Basco wrote a song called “The Ballad of Cassandra Cain” to not only celebrate the film but the character’s emotional importance. “While filming the movie, we thought it would be super cool to write a song about the relationship Cassandra has with the rest of the girls,” she says. “Once we finished writing the song, I actually sent it to Margot and she was so happy about the way it sounded and impressed actually. It played every night after wrapping.”