Billboard Cover: Pop-Star-Next-Door Meghan Trainor on Why She Still Doesn't 'Feel Famous'
Two years into sudden stardom, Meghan Trainor's redefining "maturity" for young female stars (less skin, more trumpet playing) and creating an approachable role model for girls: "I don't really have a choice"
Meghan Trainor is one of those famous people who still can't believe she's famous. So when she spots a 40-something woman lying in wait, grinning at her through the glass doors of New York's Greenwich Hotel, she just makes a mental note. Who has time for paranoia, anyway?
"Ain't a thing," she says and steps outside, flanked by her publicist, manager, assistant-slash-best-friend JoJo (real name: Jordan Federman) and a single bodyguard. Then the waiting woman makes her move -- a dance move.
" 'You know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass!' " the woman sings, proudly shaking her own ass to the lyrics of Trainor's ubiquitous curvy-girls empowerment anthem, "All About That Bass." "I thought it was you! You go, girl! Did you lose weight? You look good!"
As soon as she's in the car, Trainor, 22, bursts out laughing. "She scared me, looking in there and staring at me. I was like, 'Eeeeehhhhh!' All she wanted to do was tell me I look good! I feel like someone paid her to do that."
Today, with vibrant red hair and wearing all-black everything, the real-life Meghan Trainor most resembles the vixen she plays, writhing around an industrial future devoid of men, in the video for "No," the lead single from her second album, Thank You (released in May), and her fourth Billboard Hot 100 top 10 (it reached No. 3). It's a stark contrast to the blonde, pastel-clad, oversize-bow-sporting Meghan Trainor from the '50s time-warp video for "All About That Bass," her breakthrough smash, which spent eight weeks leading the Hot 100. In the two short years between those hits, Trainor -- who writes or co-writes her own songs -- has notched two other No. 1 singles ("Lips Are Movin' " and "Like I'm Gonna Lose You" with John Legend), won the 2016 Grammy for best new artist and two Billboard Music Awards, and saw her debut album, Title, and Thank You debut at Nos. 1 and 3 on the Billboard 200, respectively.
“I don’t feel like I work more” than male stars, says Trainor, who wears a Dolce & Gabbana dress, vintage Chanel ring and AMIClubwear earrings. “I guess glam really adds time. They don’t have to put fake eyelashes on, and I do.” Miller Mobley
"I've never met anyone so prolific," says Epic Records chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid, who signed Trainor in 2014. "People know that she's a hitmaker and that she's cut from a different cloth. But the depth of her talent runs deeper than most."
"I always say, 'I shit hits,' " boasts Trainor, who has also written singles that charted for Jennifer Lopez, Fifth Harmony and Rascal Flatts. "Because they come out so quick I can't even keep up with myself."
Trainor is headed toward Long Island City in Queens, where she will pre-tape a couple of songs for NBC's Fourth of July celebration with the Empire State Building as a backdrop. The coming weeks will be consumed by prepping for her North American tour, which kicks off July 14 and will be the first stage show she has shaped creatively. She had to cancel her last tour partway through to have surgery for a vocal cord hemorrhage, so "I literally had no voice," she says.
Trainor has had a fairy-tale rise: As a teenager she attended songwriting seminars, self-released two albums and signed a publishing deal on her high school lunch break, then recorded a demo of "All About That Bass," which she wrote with producer Kevin Kadish, when no other singers would take it. But her young career hasn't been without its hiccups. The hemorrhage and canceled tour came at a terrible time for a new star seeking to solidify her stardom. Her first-week album sales slid from 238,000 for Title to 107,000 for Thank You, according to Nielsen Music (although Title's opening week did benefit from a special iTunes promotion). And when she briefly pulled the music video for "Me Too" in May, claiming that her body had been altered to look thinner without her knowledge, some wondered whether it was all a publicity stunt. (It was "not at all" a stunt, she says. "It did get more press, but it wasn't on purpose. The whole thing is embarrassing.")
"At first I was like, 'This is easy!' " says Trainor. "Putting out songs that only go to No. 3 and then fall, I'm like, 'Gosh.' Now I see it's tough to get a No. 1."
Still, "No" and "Me Too," the second single from Thank You (top 20 on the Hot 100 and climbing), are bona fide hits that have carefully built on her retro sound and image, advancing it from novelty-tinged doo-wop to more contemporary R&B. As unapologetically -- or is it winkingly? -- sassy songs, one about dismissing male suitors and the other about loving life as a "dime piece," they can feel a bit like Beyoncé Lite. In fact, Trainor excitedly says she has requested "Beyoncé air fans" on tour, so her hair will whip around just like Queen Bey's at a recent concert she saw.
Of course, no amount of windblown hair will transform Meghan Trainor into 'Yoncé. Trainor admits that she's not much of a dancer, and sassy though they may be, her lyrics aren't groundbreaking so much as they are nostalgic for '90s girl power. But all this obscures -- or, perhaps, underlines -- Trainor's true significance: as a singer girls can fully identify with. With each new hit (even "No," with its blandly racy video) she sidesteps the trap that ensnares virtually every young female pop star who finds the maturity of her career measured by how alluring she has made herself to men, or hunks she's linked to in the tabloids.
On this tour, at least, Trainor refuses to pander to anyone. What she intends to do is play trumpet -- along with piano, guitar, ukulele and percussion. "I'm not good at trumpet," she says, "but I played it from third grade to senior year!" Trainor says the tour will be "really about showing me off as a musician. I just said, 'Put me on every instrument you can find and make it look cool.' "
Trainor's chops have defined her career since the beginning. She spent most of her childhood on Nantucket, a Massachusetts summer destination for the wealthy and preppy, where from the age of 6 she sang at her family's Methodist church with her father, Gary, who played organ and was also a high school marching band teacher. (He's still married to her mom, Kelly; they're now jewelers who run their own shop on the island.) By age 12, she was performing Bob Marley covers at local bars with her family band, Island Fusion, which included her dad, her aunt Lisa and her younger brother, Justin. Once, when Trainor was 13, they opened for Jamaican dancehall reggae king Beenie Man. "His eyes were so bloodshot," recalls Trainor with a laugh. "I remember being like, 'Man, he's tired! Poor guy.' "
When Trainor was 7, Lisa married a Trinidadian soca star, Burton Toney, who introduced his niece to the genre. Trainor pulls out her phone to show me a photo of a gorgeous black man with washboard abs. "I'd show [photos to] people in high school, like, 'That's my uncle!' And they'd be like, 'What?' " she says. "I always say, 'I'm Trini to the bone,' which means you have Trini blood. I don't. I just wish I did."
Reid noticed the influence right away. "I've always asked her, 'Is there somebody black in your family? Because you've got a lot of soul for a white girl from Nantucket,' " he says.
Memphis rapper Yo Gotti, who contributed a verse to Trainor's "Better," says, "She's got that strong voice. To me that's soul. In Memphis we call it 'pain.' "Though a recent MTV.com hot take accused her of affecting a "blaccent" while singing "No," Trainor tells me she comes by her voice honestly. "It's the Gary Trainor thing," she says. "My dad thinks he's James Brown sometimes. He's very soulful. He'll just go, 'How you doin', baby?' "
Trainor is utterly at ease with herself as a singer, but she's not as politically savvy as some stars. While she's outspoken about LGBTQ rights and gun control ("I think it's ridiculous that random crazy people can buy guns"), she tunes out whenever anyone brings up the election. "I should be way more aware, and if it was [Clinton] or Trump, I'd definitely vote for her," she says. "But I've never voted and I don't have any desire to." On social media, where she commands the millions of followers one would expect, Trainor's range spans from upbeat to goofy, with little soul baring or soapbox lecturing.
If Trainor indulges few of the prerogatives of modern fame, it may be because, as she says, "I still don't feel famous." Discussing Justin Bieber's recent decision to take a break from fan meet-and-greets, she says, "I'm nowhere near as famous as him, but I've had creepy stuff sent to me. A guy sent, like, a picture of his eye socket and was like, 'You're my favorite.' So I can't imagine what [Bieber] gets. I mean, even when he vacations and wants to be naked, people are like, 'I'm going to get that pic.' I feel for the kid."
Trainor got into songwriting because she didn't think they let chubby girls be pop stars, but when Reid signed her -- the very day she played him "All About That Bass" on her ukulele -- she could finally glimpse the life she had dreamed of since first discovering Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. "I wrote songs about [my idols] when I was younger," she says. "That's the creepiest part." One was called "Who I Wanna Be," with lyrics like, "I'll go to the Grammys holding hands with Adele and the family" and "I'll write like T-Swift and I'll do all this -- one day." She has since run into both of those women at awards shows, but hasn't dared mention the songs. "I met Taylor a couple times," says Trainor. "She was so sweet to me. She likes kissing my forehead, because she's so tall." She has also met Beyoncé twice. "She floats. I feel like she doesn't walk," says Trainor. "She told me her daughter likes my music videos. I was like, 'I'm honored!' "
Trainor recently bought a new home with a pool to share with JoJo and her two brothers -- Ryan, 24, who travels with her and does her Instagram videos, and Justin, 20, who's in film school -- but won't say which Los Angeles neighborhood it's in because she's worried about pranksters calling in a SWAT team for a fake emergency. ("Kathy Griffin just told me about Miley Cyrus getting swatted.") Her inner circle also includes the actress Chloe Grace Moretz, 19. "I really love the girl," says Moretz. "She's such a bright soul and really makes me happy." If Trainor and Moretz are out at red carpet events or getting chased by paparazzi, Moretz says, they're usually making fun of the situation: "That's why we get along so well, because we know how dumb [fame] is, and also why we love what we do."
When she's not in the studio, Trainor likes to play ping-pong ("She's the master," says Ryan) and watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia with her brothers, and Girls and Broad City with JoJo. She can't get drunk because if she does she might yell and damage her vocal cords again. Her recovery from the surgery, which Sam Smith recommended ("He was like, 'Just get it done. You'll feel better, I promise' "), required her to be absolutely silent for five months, and not just for medical reasons. "If you hear your [unhealed voice], you will mentally freak out and be like, 'I'm broken and dead,' " she says. She coped by painting pottery at Color Me Mine every day and buying a hypoallergenic micro-Maltese puppy, whom she named Biggie. "I freaked out, yup," she says, laughing. "I would text [my parents] and be like, 'You know what depression is? Because I finally do, and this is it!' " Wasn't the silence good for self-reflection? "I don't know how to meditate," says Trainor, and when she tried yoga she wasn't into it. Vocal issues aside, she did recently venture out at 1 a.m. for karaoke with Moretz, who reports that Trainor belted out Whitney Houston and Beyoncé without seeming like a show-off. "She doesn't intimidate because she's so welcoming and so open to having a good time," says Moretz.
Inside her trailer at the July 4 taping, Trainor is getting her hair and makeup done, raving about the popcorn with maple syrup and bacon she ate at dinner and conducting business over the phone with the creative director of her tour ("I want that to be a crowd-participation, hugging-their-friends, 'Kumbaya' moment..."). Her manager bursts in to tell her it's go time and that the autistic daughter of an NYPD officer is waiting outside for a hug. "Give me her name," commands Trainor, who then jumps down with open arms. "Hi, Lilliana!"
If Trainor's fans are generous with their love, the men in her life seem less so. Thank You mainly consists of I-don't-need-a-man anthems or sad tales of being friend-zoned by a guy she likes. And she doesn't see her perpetually single status changing anytime soon. "I've barely had relationships," she says. "I had one real one when I was, like, 16 to 18, and the other ones were just meh." Her last boyfriend, a freeloader she wrote about in Lopez's "Ain't Your Mama," broke up with her because he didn't want to date a pop star. She had discovered he hadn't even downloaded "All About That Bass." "I don't care if you hate pop, but support the person you claim you love," says Trainor. "Pay that $1.29!"
She has since come up with a few requirements for any man she'll date: He has to at least pretend to be a fan, he has to have a job, and, perhaps taking a cue from her parents' 20-year age gap, he's probably going to be at least a decade older than she is. "I tried to have a fling with a 29-year-old, and I thought that was old," she says. "And it wasn't. It was very much like a little boy in the brain. So I'm looking [at] 35 and up." Guys don't usually approach her, and she freaked out the one time she tried Raya, the online dating app for celebrities. "I was on it for a second and I got off. I was like, 'Ugh, I can't do this.' I immediately bail when someone is like, 'Let's meet.' I'm like, 'No. Too scared.' "
(The day Moretz and I talked, she had plans for a bowling double date with her boyfriend, Brooklyn Beckham, Trainor and a man she wanted to set Trainor up with. "I want nothing more than to get her a good guy, but we'll see. So I'm setting her up with everyone good I know.")
For better or worse, Trainor's image has largely been defined by her "curves," although in truth, it's less that she's curvy like the gravity-defying Nicki Minaj or Kim Kardashian West and more that she's not model-thin like many other stars -- and therefore easy for young girls to see themselves in. Still, she's ambivalent about being a spokesperson for body positivity. "I don't really have a choice," she says. "It's not like I'm trying to go out there and be a famous person who's all about being a role model for curves. I mean, if it's helping other people, then that's amazing and I will be that role model."
Trainor's goal for the new album and tour is to model someone who is cool with herself, which might, ironically, be best illustrated by her least cool moment, when she toppled over in sparkly high heels while performing "Me Too" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She had just finished the song and lay there in shock for a minute before Fallon joined her on the floor and they started laughing. The show let her record the performance again, but when she looked back at it, "I noticed on the second take my face looked really worried, like, 'Do not fall,' and the performance just wasn't as good. So I told them, 'Take the first one, give them the fall, let 'em have it.' " If there's one thing Trainor can't do, even when she sets her mind to it, it's make success look easy. "I was like, 'I'm going to fall eventually,' " she says. " 'So why not do it here?' "