When Vanessa Wheeler began learning to play the guitar as a child, she did it as an escape from the world. As an only child and a natural introvert, she used to take her guitar into her room to have some peaceful alone time.
Today, Wheeler still plays to have her own quiet time. But she also plays for audiences of fans coming to hear her music, both live and on the internet. Performing under the name VAVÁ, Wheeler blends the various musical genres that she grew up into a distinctively unique sound.
An example of that sound can be heard on “The Other Side,” a haunting, groovy track from her upcoming EP of the same name, coming out this spring. The song’s video, premiering below, takes the narrative of the track and blends it with a mesmerizing visual of a Wheeler playing the guitar while depictions of Los Angeles cover her body.
VAVÁ talked to Billboard about her love of the guitar, describing her sound and more.
What was the inspiration behind writing this song?
Well, the song was originally about how ghosts — or the idea of them — manifest in our lives. The first verse discusses briefly childhood fear, and how because kids don’t have language, it usually comes out as monsters. I use the imagery of God because I was raised in religion and that was sort of the thing that I was sort of subconsciously afraid of, though I didn’t know it. [laughs] The second verse kind of deals with outside pressures, trying to meet expectations for family and friends and really anything else because of the repression of who you are. I used the imagery of those things, those repressed feelings sort of being prisoners, and eventually those prisoners die and they turn into phantoms and they come back to haunt you, and the third verse kind of plays on that imagery again. The chorus is sort of this proclamation saying “I can’t really do this by myself,” so I used it and treated it like a seance, you know, joining hands with people and trying to get through the nitty gritty of what’s on the other side of all of that.
How was this song based on things that you’ve experienced?
I tend to draw pretty literally from my own life in songwriting, so I think that I’ve, over time, I’ve gone through a lot of noticeable periods where I’ve been very angry. I would also shut down because I wasn’t really ready to acknowledge certain core issues. And it became really evident to me that I needed to reach out for help, to sort of move on and move past those, you know, various things that I’ve gone through. And when I did that, things got a lost easier, just by talking about it, and it turns out that I was already pretty cognizant, you know, of the things you need to sort of adjust. Because a lot of it is just adjusting your perspective. It’s sort of skimming the surface of the deep psychological wounds that we all go through.
Your music has been referred to as “genre-smashing.” Are you trying to defy genre, or is that just what happens with your music?
I really try to not make things necessarily more complex than they are, it’s just that … it’s sort of my own artistic ongoing fight. I’m going to ultimately write music that is satisfying to me, because what happens when I play music that isn’t satisfying is I get extremely bored. [laughs] It’s a really terrible flaw, but I get so bored, and so I end up trying to complicate the narrative of a song. I try to do it and tell it in a raw and simple way, but there has to be still something musically interesting that I have to grab on to. On the other side — so to speak, not necessarily on the song — but on the other hand, I just sort of have absorbed a lot of different musical languages over time. I grew up in a Brazilian household, listening to Brazilian music, I studied avant garde and classical music, and I really love soul music. I’m just a lover of that stuff, and it’s sort of a delicate process to put it all into one song, but you know, I think that’s just something that I want to hear and I’m not really gonna stop doing it [laughs]. It’s just about what I’m hearing, it’s not really about trying to piss anybody off for being weird [laughs].
You’ve gained a following on Instagram by posting videos of you showing off your guitar skills. Where does that love for guitar and its tech come from?
You know, I’m an only child, and also an introvert, so I crave solitary time. I started on the piano, and that was great, but there was always somebody around. Because the piano was usually, like, in the house somewhere. My mom is very musically inclined, and she’ll feel a real need to really tell you what she thinks [laughs]. Oh, god. So, you know, I love her, but I needed to go into my room. And so I grabbed an old, crappy, classical guitar, and sort of plunked along on it, and ended up liking it enough to take lessons. My love of guitar comes from literally needing to have quiet time. It’s a very intimate instrument — despite how I now play electric, it was still, initially, about that time for me. I think that the tech part is not necessarily like, “Ooh, I love tech,” but it’s more about, “I need this sound, I want this sound, what is going to get me there?” And so, in a way, I’m sort of like my own producer. I’m just looking for the right delay, the right … you know, thing. And then of course I want the thing that sounds the best, and that’s a whole other issue. [laughs] But yeah, I think now the funny thing is that I’m an adult, I have funds than I’ve never had to ever play with, like, what I would really like in a guitar.
That’s almost ironic how it started out as something that you did to kind of get away from everything, and now you’re performing your music for an audience.
Yeah, it’s a happy accident that that’s the case, but I’ve really met a lot of amazing people that way.
When you worked with Sarah Hope in LeoLeo, you were promoting for and donating money to causes supporting animal cruelty prevention and ovarian cancer research groups. Is that still a fundamental part of what you do?
Yes. When I play shows, especially if they’re bigger shows, I will advertise, and always try to give some aspect of the of the ticket price, like a percentage if not all of it, to a cause. I think that that’s important. And it’s a very easy way for me to give back.