“I’m finally learning the guitar,” admits Rebecca Black.
The pop star has been trying to convince herself to pick it up for seven years. Now in quarantine with her family, like most of the world, she’s using her time to not only reflect but expand her musical skillset. With a new pair of singles, the inky “Self Sabotage” and the chipper “Closer,” Black uncovers the next level of her songwriting voice.
We all know the girl in the “Friday” music video, bopping along to her friends in the backseat of a convertible. It was the definition of viral sensation; released nine years ago, it has racked up 141 million YouTube views. “Gotta get down on Friday!” is burned into our collective conscience. But Black is no longer that girl 一 and she hasn’t been for a very long time.
Her latest batch of music, including last year’s undeniably tart “Sweetheart,” proves she’s more than an internet meme.
“I struggled for a long time with feeling like I couldn’t even find my voice before anybody had heard a word out of my mouth. They thought they knew exactly who I was,” Black tells American Songwriter over a phone call last week. “[That’s] understandable because this song went so far. I don’t consider my songwriting career to really have started until I was 18.”
The “Friday” stigma became very real.
As she posted on Instagram earlier this year, in reflection of the video’s ninth anniversary, the industry nearly turned its back on her. Every possible opportunity slipped further out of her grasp; many leading songwriters and producers refused to work with her. “The people I could find, I had such a hard time finding the strength to say a single thing,” she confides. “I’d walk away from a session 一 sometimes you’re in there for eight to 10 hours 一 and I’d think, ‘Ugh, I didn’t belong there.’”
Four years later, Black has learned to command the conversation. She is still learning, but she takes ownership over her work. “Now, I can say with the songs I’m releasing I am such a big part of all of them. I’m walking away from every session, even if I don’t love the song or know if I’ll ever put it out, and I think, ‘That was mine!’ I’m proud of myself for sticking through it.”
Her experiences also brought deeper knowledge of song structure and an inquisitive nature. “I tried to soak up as much information as possible. There are so many different kinds of personalities. I’ve been really lucky with people who don’t make it hard to ask questions. I remember the first time I heard someone say the word topline,” she recalls. “It was a writer who’d been doing this their entire life.”
“People would much rather you ask questions than pretend to know what you’re talking about. There are no rules in songwriting. People can dislike a song for whatever reason they like,” she continues. “Of course, you can put music theory into consideration, but so many of the world’s biggest songwriters right now couldn’t tell you a single thing about music theory.”
The most important songwriting sessions, she says, have been “the worst sessions I’ve ever been in,” she notes, with a laugh. “By worst, they are the ones where we either don’t come up with a song at the end of the day or I write something I don’t feel totally satisfied with. Those are important because it doesn’t matter how many successful sessions you’re having versus unsuccessful ones… are you learning from them? Are they teaching you things so hopefully you become a better writer?”
Her first undeniably terrible session came early in her career. “I went in with somebody, and it was a miscommunication. He wasn’t really somebody who wrote lyrics or anything, and I still needed a lot of help bringing that out. He was just somebody who made beats. At the time, I was so scared shitless to write something on my own. It forced me to do it. I will never release that song. I was able to do it and go, ‘Ok, I can make it through.’ That gave me a lot of confidence.”
From instant “Friday” fame to proving her worth and working with Finneas O’Connell on 2017’s “Satellite,” Black has been busy carving out her own path. In her journey, she has turned to such influences as Charli XCX to mold her own burgeoning repertoire. “Charli was one of the first people who was writing for other people and also had this really cool artist project. I didn’t start that way, and she taught me so much about what you can learn from writing for people,” explains Black.
O’Connell is another obvious influence, demonstrating an effortless gift in songwriting and production. “He’s incredibly talented. Ever since I’ve known him, it comes so naturally to him. Seeing someone so unbothered by what other people are doing and just focusing on what feels good to him was so important.”
With “Self Sabotage,” a moody, plaintive downtempo, she wrangles her anxieties as best she can. “Why do I keep fucking good things up? / Runnin’ from the ones I love the most / Show me how to let somebody in / 700 nights I’ve spent alone,” she laments on the hook.
The song, which also reads as a statement piece on pressures of fame, began with the intro’s sonic swirls and grew outward from there. Written with Prince DCF and Nathaniel Motte (one-half of 3OH!3), her first session with either songwriter/producer, it leads a new musical chapter for Black. “I was just about to come out with ‘Sweetheart.’ Because I was still in development and focusing on new stuff, sometimes I’ll go and play things I’m working on just so people get an idea,” she says. “Some people have no idea what the fuck I’ve been up to since ‘Friday,’ which is totaly fine but it’s not my vibe anymore.”
“They really dug the song. I knew I wanted to write about the subject self-sabotage and to show something that was really consuming. Lyrically, I had the concept. The sound started so naturally. It was one of those things where the first thing they played, it sounded so cool. We mucked it up as much as we could. By the end of the session, the song was almost exact to how the song is now.”
Around the 3:39 minute mark, the sticky synths fall away to reveal a lone acoustic guitar, leaving an imprint on the listener. Those intricate choices not only give the song a full-bodied arc but allow the listener to be surprised. Also the song’s producer, Motte is “a monster when it comes to the pace at which he works,” says Black. “You can go away for 30 minutes, and all of a sudden, you’ll be like, ‘WTF did you just create?!’ What I really appreciate about him is that he’s very quick to give ideas, but he’s never one to be married to or latch onto something.”
“You have just to keep up to speed with how he moves in order to have any input. It was a fun challenge. Very quickly, I can say something or Prince can say something, and Nat can come up with something that feels like a finished version of production in an hour or two.”
Black also leaves her fingerprints on production 一 in “any way I can,” she says. “I’m not somebody who studied music, but I’ve tried to pay close attention to what anybody is doing in any session and have as much input as I can, so I can learn. I’m pretty specific when it comes to production and things I like or don’t like. I’ll never let something I don’t like stay in a song.”
A polar opposite, both in structure and ambiance, “Closer” allows Black to eye the light at the end of the tunnel. Written with Paris Carney and Micah Jasper (The Revivalists, Violet Skies), the chewy uptempo leans unapologetically into electric hyper-pop forged by such artists as Sophie and Slayyyter. “I wrote [both] these songs pretty close together. I find when I’m doing a lot of sessions like that back-to-back, and something really specific is happening, it takes a few songs to get out an entire picture of what I have to say,” she explains.
“Both these songs were unusually easy. We didn’t have to fish so far into what we wanted to say. It’s so easy to overthink and get stuck 一 and not just trust it’s something cool.”
“Closer” manages to layer on specific textures, too, particularly when it comes to the outro. “This song lived for a while as just verse-chorus, verse-chorus. Nothing struck us for whatever reason. There was even a conversation about writing a bridge. In pop, maybe less than usual now, there’s always a bridge moment and then your last big chorus,” says Black. “I wanted to do something special and really play around with my ideas for production. Micah and I took an entire day to build this outro for the rest of the song to give it a shift and something that would really be fun to play live.”
While Black would love to say she writing for a body of work, the state of the world would have other things in mind. “Everything right now is moving minute-by-minute with what is going on in the world. I’m less focused on what this means for a bigger project. I have so many ideas, and it will come. I don’t know, honestly, whether it’ll be in the form of an EP, several EPs, or an album. Nobody knows. For these songs, I’m still not finished giving their individual worlds and their world together.”
“As an independent artist, you’re always balancing what you want to do versus what is practical, so you can keep releasing and supporting yourself. That was always such a big part of creation. Now, there’s a lot more freedom in the way people are releasing. The music industry has shifted, and on my side, there’s less pressure. I love albums, but I’m also trying to give myself freedom to try it all out and see what fits best for me.”