I'd thought my year was over, that it was time to pass the baton. But I guess I get to hold onto it until the end of the year [laughs]. It's truly a lovely compliment. Seeing who has been honored in the past-Beyonce, Taylor Swift and others-I'm in good company.
With such an honor comes talk of being a role model. How does that make you feel?
I'd like to change the phrase "role model" to "inspiration." "Role model" puts you on a pedestal that no one can really live up to. For me, aspiring to be an artist at a young age, I didn't think about being a role model. But I definitely thought about being an inspiration. So I hope that I am an inspiration, especially with my work ethic and my ability to overcome obstacles.
It might mean inspiring someone to be more creative, more honest or have more integrity. All I want to do is encourage people and make them feel. It's not always going to be feeling good. Shometimes it's going to be, "We need to push that out, we need to get through that." And the only way we're going to get through that is a bucket of tears.
Which female artists inspire you?
Patti Griffin and Jonatha Brooke are among my favorites. I just listened to [Brooke's] 10 Cent Wings from top to bottom. It gives me the same inspired feeling as the first time I listened to it. And I'm really into Bonnie Raitt right now. I tried to cover "I Can't Make You Love Me" for a couple of charities: the Hammer Museum and AMFAR. I listened to a couple of her records when I went to Asia for a few weeks. There was an opportunity to take a three-hour hike up this volcano. And the whole time I was hiking-starting at 3 a.m. and seeing the sun rise at 6 a.m. on the mountaintop-I was only listening to Bonnie.
I listened to a lot of Edith Piaf when I was growing up; my mom speaks French. There was a very weird "hall pass" with Piaf, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald-that type of music-because there was this idea that that music is more harmless than Madonna. But really, Billie singing about heroin-and Edith was probably singing about that or something of that nature even if was in a different language [laughs].
In terms of current artists, there's Sia and another new artist I love, Jessie Ware. She's English and has the most incredible gospel kind of voice. One of my friends is in this side project called JJAMZ, lead vocalist Z Berg from the Like. She's a frank person. I love her style. And I've always loved Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette. Those are my heroes.
Why are they your heroes?
Fiona because she's a little bat-shit crazy and not afraid to show it. We're all a little bat-shit crazy: She just takes the words out of your mouth. That's the thing with songwriters. When they succeed it's because it's on the tip of everybody's tongue; everybody is feeling the same thing. And Alanis has always been one of my favorites because Jagged Little Pill was the most perfect female record ever made. There's a song for anyone on that record; I relate to all those songs. They're still so timeless.
What have the last two years been like for you?
It feels like the record that never ends [laughs]. I'm glad I'm still alive-27 has been a very testing year. I feel I'm in the same position I was in after I made the first record. I toured [on] that and then made the second record and toured that. Now I'm at an in-between position again. But I'm not scared or feeling uncertain. It's still about coming from a very honest place to reconnect with my core.
What elements are essential to you as a songwriter?
Color. I love idioms and old sayings, puns and humor. I love language. I'm one of those people who is really interested in the definition of a word and its synonyms. Every day I'm asking everybody I'm hanging out with what something means and what it means to them. Even if it's a word I've heard over and over. I'm a hoarder of words. I have a little recorder that I put everything on and have it transcribed by someone I trust because it can get very interesting on that recorder. I have lists of titles, whatever I'm feeling.
I've had pretty intense arguments with producers and others about lyrics. Some people don't think that they matter. I'm like, "You've got to be crazy." There is kind of a math and science about a perfect pop song. But I would prefer doing math, science-and heart. Lyrics can end up on T-shirts, on the inside of wedding rings. They're important. Anyone who says beats are more important obviously doesn't have a heart. They are tin men [laughs].
Hearing any new trends?
Women in pop music have been ruling the game for a while. But I feel there's a stripped-down, 1970s vibe that's coming. How many more songs can we hear that sound like a monster truck rally? I enjoy some of it, but radio is starting to sound a bit the same. Like I'm excited for "Begin Again" by Taylor Swift. That's my song right now. It's so genius, so perfect. I feel there's going to be a bit more heart, hopefully. I don't mind the dubstep stuff but there's no emotional connection. I just want to actually hear a song that has no "swell" even for just one minute. Can you imagine?
At one point, didn't you receive offers to sell your publishing?
Yes, someone was offering on the lower scale of six figures. My car was impounded and I couldn't get it out. But I didn't do it. I'd given myself a plan: If I didn't have the opportunity I wanted by the time I was 25, then I was going to do something else. Or maybe I would have taken a publishing deal then. But I've always had this really blind ambition. That has been my compass. When people in the industry were telling me "no," all the people in the audience were telling me "yes."
And the industry doesn't buy the records. The audience buys the records. I'm very happy I didn't take the quick money. I don't have a 360 deal and I don't have a publishing deal so I feel like I'm a rare bird. And I never really got big advances with my other record deals.
And if things hadn't worked out by the time you were 25?
I don't think I would have ever left music. Music is my sixth sense. But maybe I would have let go of the game of it all, trying to participate and win. Maybe I'd have gone into the woods and had babies, wearing no shoes and playing on my guitar. But I think I'll still actually do that. I'm very excited to get to that part of my life.
You've announced plans for your own label. Any details yet?
There are some artists in mind, but I'm not ready to talk about the label just yet. I don't have time to sign whatever is popular at the moment and see if it sticks. People are offering me a lot of K-pop, J-pop, Z-pop, whatever pop is happening. I'm like, "That's cool," and I enjoy the fun factor of it. But I need the music to translate. I need the music to be able to be sung. I want lyrics where it doesn't matter what language you speak. Those are the songs I want. Those are the artists I want. I'm open to a lot of stuff. But I will be really selective.
You've said you want to take time off to recharge. How much time?
It's a bit of a different game because we have some new [corporate] parents. So I have to respect that. But I'm also an adult and what I'm not going to do is hurry up to fail, to shoot myself in the foot. I need to live so I have something worth singing about. That's always been the case for me.
So at this point are you even thinking about the next album?
I have lots of songs and ideas. I know exactly the record I want to make next. I know the artwork, the coloring and the tone, but I'm not in the studio yet. So it's a little like painting the baby's room blue before knowing it's actually a boy. I have to let the music take shape first. I even know what type of tour I'm doing next. I'll be very pleased if the vision I have in my head becomes a reality. But I have to honor the music.
I won't try and duplicate what I did last time. That would be silly. It's not of any interest for me to try and outdo myself at every corner. Eventually you just like pop, explode. It's like a Jenga game. How tall can you get before you just fall the fuck over?
I am doing little things here and there. I was just in the studio with another artist and it turned out all right. I'm going to start dusting off the wheels just a little: [I'm] going in with a couple of people in November and try out fun collaborations that maybe people wouldn't imagine.
Is one of those people Rihanna?
There's a lot of talk around that type of thing for me and her. It couldn't be just like whatever. It has to be great because she and I don't really like to lose.
Looking back, what was the best and the worst thing to come out of the last two years?
The best thing was being able to see my vision realized, the thing I stood by for so long that was constantly knocked. Not all of my songs are important because they're not. Some are just fun, bar-hopping songs. But I know "Firework" is important. I know those nuggets are really why I've written all the other songs and gone through all this other stuff.
I see the effect it has on people. I love that I'm able to dream up things and make them reality, whether it's pink cotton candy clouds floating across the audience or that I get to donate a quarter of a million dollars to MusiCares.
The worst was it being a test of my sanity. You just have to always keep one foot out and be aware of all the people you're putting around you, their intentions and motives. I try to never let my intuition be muddled. I keep all the same people I've had around me. I love my family, and my sister is a ball-buster. She's my warden. She and my best friend, Shannon, are why I have lived through this year. It's a bit of an estrogen fest with me. I keep a lot of females around me. But I love that. I love a woman who can be friends with a woman and isn't afraid of another woman. I believe in sisterhood.
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