After being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at 20, everything shifted for Kaya Stewart. “It was the weirdest time of my life,” said the 22-year-old artist, “because I had this life-changing diagnosis that explained so much for me.”
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Prodding around the angst and the acceptance of her diagnosis in the midst of a global pandemic, Stewart began writing the songs for her second album, If Things Go South (Bay Street Records), out Sept. 30. Co-written and co-produced with her father, Dave Stewart, the 10 songs of If Things Go South are a turning point for the 22-year-old artist.
“I wasn’t planning on making an album,” shared Stewart, who released her self-titled debut in 2016 and follow-up EP, Miss Kaya, in 2020. “I was actually thinking of taking a break for a little while. I called my dad, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just come to Nashville and record a couple of songs?’ By the time I left, we had ‘If Things Go South.’” She added, “I was able to be myself in the studio. The album is the most honest thing I’ve ever done.”
If Things Go South is a collective wave of emotions, punctuated by heartache, self-doubt and deprecation, and nurturing one’s mental health.
Swirling around alt-pop hooks, on “Honey” Stewart isn’t compressed by love. Feral, yet composed, “Honey” unleashes desires, vulnerabilities—There’s only so long I’ll stay tough / Is it all too much—and the palpable realities of finding yourself while with another.
I’m like the antidote / And like this song I wrote / I’m gonna take you home / Make sure you’re still keen / You’re not leaving me, sings Stewart cutting through excess, facing doubts, and finding out what sometimes happens when you fall in love.
Stewart spoke to American Songwriter about working through her recent health diagnosis, crafting the songs of If Things Go South with her father (along with an accompanying film), and how she found herself in the process.
“This record is one-hundred percent who I am now,” said Stewart. “This is the Kaya I was working towards all along.”
American Songwriter: What is the story behind “Honey”?
Kaya Stewart: I had felt that there were so many songs about heartbreak and falling in love, but not many about that weird in-between stage. Lines like I hate to see you cry, but when you leave my side / I love to watch you leave / You’ve got me on my knees describe to me that real and scary feeling of giving yourself to someone else. Not all love is a whirlwind romance. Sometimes there is a period of questioning yourself and that person you are talking to. There are moments of just trying to figure out how you really feel. “Honey” feels like the chaos and honest thinking that comes along with love.
AS: Following your diagnosis of OCD, was there a specific song that kicked off the remainder of the songs you ended up writing for If Things Go South?
KS: “Getting Closer” was the first song I’d ever written about my OCD and really solidified the start of creating this album. I finally felt like I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but I still had a long way to go. I always say that writing music is kind of like therapy to me and that couldn’t be more true when writing If Things Go South. As I was writing the song, I was motivating myself. I was thinking of all the little things in my life that kept me going and how much stronger I’d become in the past year. I really hope people take away some sort of strength from that song as it is so important to me.
AS: How does “Honey” tie into the remainder of the album? Is there a common thread through If Things Go South?
KS: I find myself describing the album like a story, which was part of the reason we made a film as well. Living alone in a big city in my 20s, coinciding with an OCD diagnosis was a lot to navigate, but is also super empowering. The album is truly a journey through all of that. I think the main theme I keep seeing is honesty. I feel like so many of us feel alone, but are all dealing with the same emotions. Honey is just an extension of all of that. It’s super raw and honest and I feel like a lot of people will relate to those emotions.
AS: What made you land on the title If Things Go South?
KS: If Things Go South felt like the overall message for the album. At the end of the day, I felt like the one person I could always count on was myself. That doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Appreciating the smaller things in life and truly getting to know who you are and what makes you happy on a deeper level has been so crucial for me. I had gone through so much on my own and pulled myself out the other side—Nobody knows me like I know me / How could I be lonely?
AS: How is the film footage accompanying the music around the album?
KS: I think the film really brings the story of the album to life. Each song has a visual that we spent a lot of time curating and it really helps pull out the story I was trying to tell. It was such an amazing experience to make, and watching it with the album really draws out a lot more emotion.
AS: Describe the dynamic of writing (and co-producing) the album with your father.
KS: My dad has always been my best friend so writing the album together was so much fun. I learned almost everything I know about songwriting and fell in love with music because of him, so creating this project together was so easy. We were both so excited and inspired and I’m so happy with how it came together.
AS: Sonically, was there something you wanted to approach differently for the album from the first?
KS: Making the album during the pandemic, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to play live again, and how much I missed live music. We really tried to incorporate real instruments and a live feel to the album. I really wanted something I could dig my teeth into on stage.
AS: Are you the same songwriter you were five or six years ago? Has the way you write and approach songs shifted since Kaya Stewart or your 2020 EP?
KS: I started writing songs at a really young age out of curiosity but also as an outlet. I’d like to think my songs are getting better and better as time goes on but I don’t think I could compare them as I was such a different version of myself in each stage of my life. What I was writing in 2017 felt right back then, but may not feel right now.
Every song I write always starts with me and a piano and I don’t think that will ever change. I think my sound will always evolve and change with me, but I don’t think I’ll ever approach writing music differently. As long as I feel like I am getting out what I feel and I am doing something that excites me, I’ll keep doing it.
Check out the trailer to If Things Go South below, and click here to watch the film beginning Nov. 3.
Photos: Tyler Lee Aubrey / Milestone Publicity