The first time Jessica Darrow listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s demo of “Surface Pressure,” she was hunkered down in a corner of her friend’s basement during Thanksgiving break in 2020. Just a month earlier, the 27-year-old Miami native found out she had booked the part of Luisa, the strong older sister of the Madrigal family, in Disney’s Encanto, an animated film featuring eight original songs by Miranda.
As a fan of Miranda since her early days as a teenager, it was nerve-racking to think she’d have to replicate what she heard on the demo. But to her relief, Miranda didn’t expect her to sound like him, or anyone else for that matter.
“He told me, ‘You don’t have to worry about sounding perfect: just ride these notes on the song and see where it goes,’” Darrow tells Billboard. “[That] is what I ended up doing and it’s ironically Luisa’s journey: you don’t have to be so perfect, stop being so rigid.”
The subsequent success of the role has come as a surprise to Darrow, who notes that she didn’t expect that “the first thing I booked as a struggling artist was going to be an immortalized Disney character who sings about generational trauma and mental health.”
“Surface Pressure,” in which Darrow sings about the weight many families put on elder siblings, is just one of the many songs currently thriving from Encanto. The soundtrack is spending a third nonconsecutive week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 on charts dated Feb. 5, while breakout hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” leads the Billboard Hot 100, marking just the second time ever that a song from a Disney animated film has topped the chart (“Surface Pressure” reaches a new high this week as well, at No. 9 on the Hot 100).
Below, Darrow reflects on the recording process of “Surface Pressure,” the global success of Encanto and her upcoming musical projects.
What was the recording process like for “Surface Pressure”?
When it was time to go into the studio, they gave me so much room to be creative. It was my own creative process working on the song — I wasn’t given any lessons beforehand, and they wanted to see what I would do with it. I just winged it, and it was pretty good.
I did three total recordings. My first recording of the song was before I did a lot of the dialogue, so it colored the rest of my performance and creation of Luisa. The third time I went to record it, I had a month’s space in between — I thought about the song even more, and I realized how much I needed to let myself lean into the lyrics. I [thought about how I] get to tell this very important story through this beautiful art form that is safe and through the lens of a Disney character.
Lin gave me notes that encouraged me to bring out the texture in my voice and lean into the emotional message behind [the song], and what it made me feel emotionally and viscerally. He told me, “You don’t have to worry about sounding perfect just ride these notes on the song and see where it goes,” which is what I ended up doing, and it’s ironically Luisa’s journey: you don’t have to be so perfect, stop being so rigid. The beautiful thing about Disney is that they touch on deep messages that will penetrate whether you realize it or not in their music, especially with the writing of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Did you expect “Surface Pressure” to be such a big hit?
I had no freaking clue! Every single day someone from my family or one of my besties texts me saying, “Dude, why are you on my TikTok?” I felt nervous because of my insecurity about how I wanted my voice to sound — and wondered if I even sounded good singing this style of music. I just hoped that people resonated with the lyrics, the message and Luisa, because it’s so important. But I realize it’s also such an explicitly emotional song and it’s hard to vibe with something like that. I thought people would listen to it and think it’s cool, but never did I think it would be so catchy. I did not expect this attention and I’m honored by it, and it has opened doors to music in a way now that I would never have imagined. I’m very grateful. It’s brought music back into my life in such an amazing way.
What has struck you the most about the international success of Encanto and its soundtrack?
How universal the message is no matter what language it’s in. People understand why it’s so important to speak up and talk about how you’re feeling. It’s also coming at such a perfect time because we are all stuck inside and we’re seeing sides of family members we were able to avoid before. It has a global presence because the message is something we’ve all felt in the past two years so poignantly.
I also think it’s amazing that it’s Latinos at the forefront. We rule the world! I love that in this representation of my Latino culture, you can find yourself regardless of where you come from. The colors, the food, the characters, the type of personalities, it’s what it means to coexist. When life gets hard, you just turn the music up and shove food in your mouth — and when that’s not enough, you start talking about things.
What can we expect from you in the next couple of months?
I am currently working on an EP. It’s crazy to say that. I was not expecting that sentence to come out of my mouth any time soon, but this movie has made a lot of sentences come out of my mouth that I never expected. I’m working on that with a couple of producers. I also put together a single which I hope I can get out by the end of February, which will also be coming with a music video.
What has been your biggest takeaway from being part of this experience?
How important it is to continue to be purposeful in the art that I make. I didn’t think that the first thing I booked as a struggling artist was going to be an immortalized Disney character who sings about generational trauma and mental health, and it translates to kids. It has brought into my sphere this new platform that I realize I am so fortunate to have. Although it is a huge responsibility and feels overwhelming at times, it has been the most inspiring thing I’ve experienced in my life thus far. I really want to make sure that I use it wisely and continue to tell stories that make me feel good and other people feel good and, more importantly, seen.
A version of this story was originally in the Jan. 29, 2022, issue of Billboard.