Being represented by Linda Perry before your debut album is released is validation in and of itself. For 16-year-old Willa Amai that relationship is just the start of her story.
Amai began to blaze her own trail with the message of hope and love with a haunting, wise-beyond-her-years, soulful pop vocal performance on her single, “NOT A SOLDIER.” It helped push her to new heights – with over 6 Million YouTube views and nearly 5 Million streams – in advance her June 4 album release.
As Amai continues to rise, the industry will undoubtedly notice, and the fans will soak in her honesty. She offered the readers of American Songwriter a glimpse behind the writing of her album.
Push play, and give it a read!
“Fallout” takes you through all the emotions that you’d hopefully feel throughout the album as a whole; putting it first was integral to the album’s story because it’s this song that best introduces you to all the characters and themes.
The production and performance of this song are incredibly important to the build I wanted to achieve with it. I wanted to build the listener up to the highest peak so that, once there, they can see how far there is to go if they hit the ground. This feeling of standing on the precipice of something big, bigger than yourself, I knew could only be achieved by a cooperation between the lyrics and everything around the lyrics. The mixing, production, and band were all so important in making this song as impactful as I really wanted it to be.
The vocals on this song also embody the song itself. They morphed and adapted greatly between when I first wrote it and when I sang the last take into the microphone, but it gave me a freedom that is really what the crux of this song is, and it made me happy that the heart of this song was exhibited in the process of it as well as the finished product itself.
2. Not a Soldier
I’ve always seen “Not a Soldier” and “Fallout” as friends, so I thought it was only fitting they stand next to each other in line. I think I’ve believed they were reflections of each other; “Fallout” is about purposefully letting go of someone to free yourself, and “Not a Soldier” is about being trapped by the uncontrollable nature of love.
In terms of production and performance for “Not a Soldier”, I think that each band member is accentuated in a way that really reminds you of each individual being part of the whole. The drums, bass, and guitar each have their own moment of shining through, almost to create the image in your head of all of us playing in the studio.
“Puzzle” will always hold a special place in my heart. It isn’t, by any means, my favorite song I’ve ever written or even my favorite song on the album. But this song is from my first album ever, the one we didn’t release. It’s a part of the time capsule that I recorded when I was 12 with Linda Perry, and I knew that I wanted a piece of that version of myself on this album because it was her who started my music career in the first place.
Lyrically, the song is simple but very figurative, and it ultimately reconciles the fact that, especially when I wrote it, I had no clue who I was but I was desperate to find out. It’s almost like at the time I wrote the song I wanted to meet my future self so badly so I could know who I would become, and the fact that I had to just be who I was was difficult for me, so that’s how the song came to be.
It was so fun recording this song a few years later because I can both appreciate how much I’ve changed and better appreciate who I was then. I wasn’t able to be proud of myself then, and I am now, and so having this song on the album is a reminder of that.
4. Like I Want You To
“Like I Want You To” was such a fun song to write. I wrote it as if I was writing for a movie to see what kind of cinematic song I could end up with, and I’m genuinely proud of how it ended up. I wanted to write a song that was comforting in its melodic repetition so that the listener can really dissect the lyrics in a new way, so there isn’t a ton of vocal variation, but I’m hoping that the lack of vocal and performative distraction helps the listener to hear the lyrics instead of just listening to them.
The production on the song is just as cinematic as I was hoping it would be, full of swells and decrescendos that give the song the drama I was really looking for.
The lyrics, what I feel is the most important part of the song, are very story based. They tell a detailed account of a relationship full of love but wrought with uncertainty. The truth is that the story isn’t mine, or anybody’s in particular. I just thought of these two characters in my head and came to love them so much that I had to write a song for them.
5. Too Close
“Too Close” is probably the starlet of the album; it’s the most up front about the emotion that created all of this music, which is my anxiety around getting older. The whole album is my coming of age story and documents my emotions as I reconcile being in the interim between childhood and adulthood, but not all the songs come out and say that directly. So, because I feel that “Too Close” does, I knew it had to be at the forefront of the album’s release.
“Too Close” is also the most vocally difficult for me, which made recording it so simultaneously emotional and fun. It felt so freeing to let go of the cap I often put on my voice out of fear of failing, and it was emotional to almost watch myself from the third person, seeing myself overcome this fear of singing high and loud. This song embodies the freedom I’ve craved these past couple of years, and performing it allows me to actually experience it.
I think of “Twice” as my Carnegie Hall song. In my wildest dreams, I would get to perform at Carnegie Hall, and this is the song I would perform. The drama and love in the abundance of strings makes this song so incredibly important to me; watching a string orchestra play this song in the studio was the first time I’d experienced classical music and my own songwriting combine in that way, and it was such an important moment in my musical journey that the song now reminds me of the joy I felt while recording it.
The song itself is about how easy it seems to be for humans to make mistakes; someone told me once that the first thing the human brain forgets is pain, and I thought that was so profound and so truthful that I had to write a song about it. Out of necessity, we forget what pains us, and the
more wounded we are the quicker we forget that feeling. So we are bound to make mistakes multiple times. I’d go so far as to say we’re programmed to do so. And I thought that was tragic and beautiful, and deserving of a song.
7. The Beautiful
I’m realizing as I’m writing this that all of these songs hold a special place in my heart for different reasons, but “The Beautiful” is special in a different way than the other songs on this album are. “The Beautiful” is my sister’s favorite song on this album, so whenever I perform it I think of her, knowing she loves it, and that makes me so indescribably happy.
This song is an observational commentary on what it feels like to grow up. I lived on the outskirts of social life for a long time, especially in middle school, and so I found it especially interesting when those who I felt were at the top of the social hierarchy revealed their own darkness to me. Even though intellectually I always knew that beautiful people have darkness, it was somehow still shocking to me when I saw that in action. So I wrote the song firstly to comment on the way the most beautiful people tend to be the saddest, and I end the song to remind us that there are things in this world that transcend even the most suffocating sadnesses: love.
The production on this song is meant to convey the very emotion the song speaks about. It’s real, and raw, and true, and I think that it makes the lyrics hit harder when the instrumentation and vocalization embody that in their own ways.
“Hurricane” is my romantic movie song. It’s one of the only songs I’ve ever written that I didn’t write with the intention of putting it in a movie but found myself imagining it as a movie as I wrote it. It’s one of my most visually vivid songs, and I will forever be proud of the figurative language in the lyrics.
“Hurricane” has strings the way “Twice” does, and thus I’d love it for that reason alone, but I think the strings in this song add something different than those in “Twice”. To me, “Twice” has strings to add drama and weight, while “Hurricane” almost needs the strings for the tone. I felt like with violins, violas, and cellos, we could almost achieve a tone that would mimic the howling wind; I wanted the instrumentation to be the hurricane the song talks about.
9. Blows By
“Blows By” is by far the most upbeat song of the album, and it comes from a momentary excitement I felt about the speed at which life moves. Normally I feel terrified at how fast time
can pass us by, but as soon as I felt myself get excited for the ride I knew I had to write a song to commemorate the moment.
What I love most about “Blows By” is that when recording and performing the song, my heart beats quickly, along with the scamper of the drums and bass, and it reminds me of the excitement that birthed the song in the first place.
I love this song because it’s a reminder of an emotion I sometimes struggle with; it’s a reminder that it’s possible not just for me to surrender myself to what life is but to enjoy it.
10. Unorganized Crime
“Unorganized Crime” is different from its peers in that it’s both about me and couldn’t be further than who I am. The song itself is about who I thought I would be when I was younger. When I was little, a part of me always believed one day I’d be rebellious and free, shake off the shackles of structure and run wild. The truth is that I’ll never be or do that, though, so as I came to terms with that fact “Unorganized Crime” was born, almost to memorialize that unachievable image of myself.
I’m hoping that the production and performance of the song serve the lyrics in that they convey a level of freedom and danger that the lyrics talk about. I knew that in order to do the song justice, I had to believe I was this person in every aspect of the song, so the guitar, bass, and drums all give off the energy of liberty and intoxication.
11. I Guess
“I Guess” is a sort of reassurance for myself, if I’m honest. The song uses each verse to describe a different type of character I imagined in my head, all of whom had a beautiful exterior but broken interior. I use the choruses, then, to talk about how “we’re all a little broken”, and go in between reassurance that it’s normal to have cracks and ragged edges and describing characters I hope listeners can relate to.
The song also has the most pronounced acoustic guitar, which I felt was so fitting for the reality and tempered optimism the lyrics promote. I wanted there to be a sense of presence when people listen; as if, when you turn the song on, you’re instantly transported into the room with me.
Recording this song, even though it doesn’t sonically sound the most upbeat, makes me feel the most positively about the people and world around me.
12. Tell Me
“Tell Me” is one of the most important songs on this album. It’s incredibly quiet and understated and different from all the others, but it’s the realest and most emotionally vulnerable I’ve ever been in my music.
The whole song is one, single take that was recorded with just me and a guitar player, sitting across the room from each other. We played without a click, so we looked to each other to determine the tempo, starts, and stops, and it’s exactly what I wanted.
The song is, lyrically, about the way I seek reassurance from everybody, but especially my parents. The song sounds like it’s about love at first listen, but the truth is that at it’s crux it’s about the way I fear disappointing the people around me more than anything. I’m still proud of myself for putting it in the album, and I really hope people can listen to it and relate to it.