Linda Perry is reassuring Edina Menzel that she’s not making fun of her. In studio with the Broadway star, she’s taking a call with Willa Amai, an artist the producer and former 4 Non Blondes singer had been working with for the past four years. Perry is describing the young artist’s endearingly awkward transformation from the moment they met when Amai was 12.
“When I met Willa she was really upbeat while talking to me, and she couldn’t have been any more dorky, but as soon as she started singing it was sad,” says Perry. “It had a serious tone to it. It was somber. It was sober. There was an honesty and a soulfulness that was unique to me. It was just emotional, and that’s what grabbed me.”
Since capturing the attention of Perry, Amai’s manager and co-owner of the record label where she’s signed, We Are Hear, the now 16-year-old has flourished into her latest single “Unorganized Crime.”
Captivating in its broodiness, “Unorganized Crime” find Amai living vicariously through someone who doesn’t follow the rules, slowly crooning There’s no stopping me now / Screw the truth / I renounce love and it’s hurting / You don’t know who you can trust / Pure gold turns to rust.
“I always thought I was a rebellious soul,” says Amai. “When I realized I wasn’t I made this song in memoriam of that side of me that never existed.”
There’s something about Amai. She’s an old soul managing her own mental health. She has already shared the stage with Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile, as well as Perry—even covering the 4 Non Blondes 1992 hit “What’s Up“—while still working out all the intricacies of her life.
“Music is such a central part of my life,” says Amai. “Even before I was able to comprehend why music was so important to me, I was just so attached to it. Even if I wasn’t in the music industry, I would still be writing. It’s my way to express the way I feel. It’s my way to help with my anxiety disorder. It provides a whole other benefit to me other than just being a career.”
Revealing that she has written enough for five albums, “Unorganized Crime” is just one single Amai is releasing, following up to 2019’s “Trampled Flowers” and “Harder Better Faster Stronger” in 2018, and leading up to her debut album, planned for 2021.
“My songwriting, more than anything else, is a tool for myself to really better understand who I am and how I feel, because I’m 16,” shares Amai. “I’m still growing up. I’m still changing. I’m still maturing, so it’s hard to identify the more complex feelings as I begin to feel them because I’ve never felt them before. Writing music really helps me to understand how I feel and why I feel that way.”
Even if she’s writing a song from the point of view from another person, every word helps Amai move closer to understanding the inner workings of her own mind.
“It’s actually been such an important tool for me, especially now when mental health is so important and a lot harder to maintain,” shares Amai. “It’s really been helping me to sort of see the inner workings of my brain from afar and able to sort of give myself better help if that makes sense.”
In just a few short years, Amai says that surrounding herself with mentors who have treated her as an equal, not a child, has only helped her craft.
“As I go further into this business and get deeper in, there’ll be more times where people make assumptions about how deep I can feel or about my intelligence,” says Amai. “At this point, I enjoy it a little bit because when people make those assumptions, it’s only an opportunity for me to prove them wrong and that’s a really fun feeling.”
From the start of their working relationship, Perry decided to step away from Amai and allow her evolve organically as an artist instead of proselytising the idea of the type of artist she should be.
“She continues to improve, and she’s always reaching to go deeper,” says Perry. “She’s constantly growing. She just writes and writes and writes. That kind of work ethic is incredible. She’s not a normal 16-year-old. There are different things going on in her brain.”
Reminiscing to Amai, Perry recalls listening to “Unorganized Crime” in her car and reflecting on her evolution. “I was thinking about when you first recorded that, and then I was thinking about who are now,” shares Perry. “Oddly, we made a record that was before your time, and now you’re in it.”
Perry has somehow put into words something Amai says she hasn’t been able to express.
“I had really low self-esteem, and I really had no faith in myself and my music, my business capabilities, and my intelligence,” shares Amai. “Now, the music has begun to make more and more sense, and I’ve evolved into it. As I’ve gotten older and written more and worked more with Linda, I’m becoming more confident, so the music fits so much better with me.”
Like any song she writes, “Unorganized Crime” was written from Amai’s heart. “It was only that deepest part of me that expresses that level of emotion,” she says. “It took a little bit for that emotion to seep to the outside of me and really be able to shine through.”
When writing, everything seems to piece together like hodgepodge for Amai. “Half of the time, I’ll be having a panic attack, or I’ll feel an immense weight on my shoulders and I’ll sit down at the piano, not having nothing in my head and just write,” says Amai. “The other half of the time, I’m just going about my day and it’s an idea and there’s a spark and I have to get to a piano or a guitar, and it just flows out.”
Repeating something Perry once told her, Amai says she is constantly reminded of the foundation of good songwriting: “Songs are already existence somewhere in the universe, and songwriters are just the vessel to pull them through.”
Although the two haven’t written together, with the exception of a song Amai says she once presented to Perry about an astronaut on the moon, it’s something she’s open to exploring.
“Linda has the power and definitely the influence over me,” reveals Amai. “If she wanted to, she could change all of it, and every other producer in the world would. Even when I was 12 and we were just sort of recording a little bit for fun, she didn’t touch any of it—and she still doesn’t.”
With the exception of a tempo or key switch, or reworking the chorus, Perry barely adjusts Amai’s music. All the melodies and words are her own. “In her doing that, I’ve been able to keep maturing the way I should have,” says Amai. “I think a lot of producers are prone to forcing premature advancements on young songwriters. Linda has really removed me from that, and I’ve been able to really grow at my own pace, and I think that I’ve been better for it.”
Interjecting “you’re welcome,” Perry adds that she wanted Amai to live out her experiences, her emotions and tell her own story. It was never supposed to be about a seasoned producer trying to make Amai’s songs better.
“The fact is she had all these things to say, and it was my job to basically shelter her from people like me and to let her sing these songs that were hers, with her emotions, and have that feeling,” says Perry. “For the rest of her life, she will constantly grow and she’ll be telling a different story, so if I would’ve chimed in, I would’ve cut Willa to the tone of a 20-year-old. We would’ve skipped her youth. We would’ve went right to something very intentional.”
Admitting that she still has so much to learn, music is always Amai’s constant. As she’s gotten older, the level of fear around songwriting has declined, but finding that fine line of being completely open as an artist is still a challenge.
“It’s really hard to be that open, but that’s what songwriting is,” says Amai. “I was constantly walking this line of writing music that was emotional, but also being too afraid to fully crack myself open to say what I really meant.”
She adds, “Working with Linda, one of the biggest things that she’s taught me is that people will only connect if you meet them in the middle. People will give back to you, what you give them. If I want people to find themselves in my song, if I want people to see their own stories reflected in them, and if I want people to feel like they have found a connection in my music, I have to give it to them.”
Right now, Amai has no limits. Exploring more film and other compositions, continuing to write and release the collection of songs she’s written over the past several years are all on the table.
“Music is such a multifaceted art and that’s part of what I love about it,” says Amai. “The idea of scoring a movie or video games, writing for someone else, and just writing music—all of those things really interest me. Who knows what will happen. Everything that’s happened so far has been so organic, so I think that the unpredictability will stay strong throughout the next couple of years.”
Amai adds, “I’ve loved it so far, and it’s brought me some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, so I’m excited for what comes next.”