Maggie Szabo pounces like a ferocious lioness. Her new song “My Oh My,” out today (April 23), finds the rising pop star and go-to topliner “breaking my own rules and being free from expectations I put on myself,” she says. “I wanted to write a song that was fun and felt like freedom, especially considering the last year.”
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You, it’s the way you own the room / From the first moment I knew / I’m about to change my ways / It’s not like me to chase, sings Szabo. Handclaps lap up like waves before crescendoing into a sugary spray and an irresistible chorus, and along the way, the Toronto native lives as authentically as one possibly can in her own skin.
Co-written with frequent collaborator Chaz Mason, the breezy, thumping summer track burns through the ether with the rush and thrill of new adventure, as well as Szabo’s own journey into self-empowerment. “I learned a lot in the first couple of years when I got to LA. I was pretty lost in the beginning. It’s stressful for anyone who moves to a new place,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call, “and they’re trying to build a career in entertainment. LA can be overwhelming. I was still struggling to figure out who I was as an artist and find my place in town. A lot of my writing comes from that place.”
With the forthcoming visual (out May 7), directed by Ruben Cortez, Szabo culls influences from Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears videos. “All those old school pop girls, they had just fun music videos. I wanted to feel like we were in a club but with just me and a couple girl friends ─ and we’re dancing and having our own fun,” she says, a self-proclaimed Spears stan. With choreography by Kayla Janssen, Szabo is joined by dancers Chani Bell and Mina Huynh.
In addition to her solo work, Szabo works extensively in film and TV, having written songs with placements on Disney, Netflix, and NBC. Such experiences have further strengthened her ability to craft addicting earworms. “At the end of the day, I have to write a song that fits the project. It’s great practice as a songwriter. It’s always great to wake up to be inspired but when there’s something you have to write specifically for, it’s great to pull together your skills or finesse them to put it into a specific direction.”
Surprisingly, it’s far less stressful than one might imagine. “It’s nice having a direction and outline and something you’re running towards. I love having a goal. It makes things so much easier. Of course, it can be hit or miss. That’s with anything in the music business. I could be writing a song for another artist or for myself, and it just might not fit,” she says. “Of course, with film and TV, they can end up not picking it up, but we’re so used to that now. You can’t count on that. It’s actually so much less stressful going in knowing what I have to write about. Oftentimes, we can get paralyzed by choice. If I go into the studio, and I’m feeling a million different things and don’t know what I want to write about, it can be really difficult to focus.”
Even when collaborating with new co-writers, Szabo makes sure never to allow even the most “awkward” sessions to damper her spirits or the work. “Sometimes, I’ll walk into a room and I’ve never met these people, and we’re expected to sit down and write a song. Obviously, songwriting can be very personal. A lot of the time, we’re writing from past experiences, and you have to be really vulnerable,” she reflects. “It can be scary throwing out ideas and concepts with people you’ve never met before. Most of the time, it’s great and amazing. There are a few times I’ve gone in, and the vibe just wasn’t there. Of course, it’s really awkward, and if you’re not feeling it from the beginning, you have to sit there for six hours to finish a song.”
Originally from Dundas, lying outside Toronto, Szabo lived the typical small town life. As young as three years old, she knew in her bones music was her destiny. Growing up on a diet of Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child, she began performing quite early on and “that evolved to me writing songs, and it kept growing from there,” she says.
Legendary singer-songwriter Carole King and her 1971 landmark album Tapestry became another influential moment for her. “That album forced me to study her songs and writing. As I grew up, I really learned to appreciate the fact she was a female songwriter and an artist. She wasn’t just writing songs for herself; she was writing songs for other people,” reflects Szabo. “When you can look back at people like her, one of the greatest songwriters of all time, you can use that for pop music today. It’s a really great way to learn how to be a better writer.”
In her youth, she also performed in a jazz band and sang the National Anthem around various local sporting events. But a writing retreat to Nashville when she was 15 changed everything. She’d always loved songwriting but “being from a small town, there wasn’t a huge songwriting community. There weren’t other people I could look up to and learn from. I started trying to find camps or retreats where I could go and be around other people who loved songwriting as much as I did,” she recalls.
Fresh off a Toronto-based retreat, she ran into a young woman named Margie from Texas, and the two became quick friends. Szabo then begged her parents to let her make the trip down to Nashville. “I did go on my own,” she admits. It was the kind of life-affirming experience that further underscored her need to write.
“Going on these writing trips is a really great way to dip your toe in the water and figure out if you love a place. Initially, I had picked Nashville because it’s the home of the best songwriters in the world. I wasn’t really sure then what kind of music I was going to make. It was only a 13-14 hour drive from my hometown, so I could pack up my car and drive there.”
Szabo landed back in Toronto, signed a deal with an indie label, and issued her first record. Despite such early success, it “didn’t feel like I was where I wanted to be,” she says. Years later, another writing trip, this time out to Los Angeles, once again changed the course of her life. “I always liked the idea of California, but I’d never spent time there. I remember in the first week, I called my parents and said, ‘Ok, guys, sorry but I feel I need to move here.’ Everything about it was my vibe. It felt like home.”
Bursting at the seams, “My Oh My” is a next-level career move, the kind of electrifying ultra-pop moment that signals Szabo is here to stay. With all her successes and solo ventures, there remains particular songwriting elements she continues to strengthen. “I love really poetic lyrics that tell an amazing story. Sometimes, I find it difficult to find that in my own writing. I’ve figured out a group of people here, and we all have our place in the room,” she says. “When I write with Ellis [Miah], his lyrical sense is amazing. The longer you spend in LA, the more you find your people to work with. I find it a lot easier to work on lyrics with someone else, throwing ideas back and forth. It’s so easy to second guess what works and what doesn’t.”
“My Oh My” samples her forthcoming EP, Rebuild (out July 30), which includes an acoustic version of the track, as well as a new iteration of “Sail Away.”