“I actually like this cold weather. I need something to, like, shake me up a little bit,” says singer-songwriter Tayla Parx, a sunny Texas native who just so happened to fly to the East Coast during a polar vortex earlier this year. She currently resides in Los Angeles, where the sun suspiciously never stops shining. But her positive attitude towards being forced to face the coldest week of the year in New York also nods to who she is as an artist: someone who is always hungry for ways to challenge herself.
“As a creative, I really crave something [that] takes me out of my typical everyday routine so that I can be inspired,” Parx says. “I love being here in the cold because like, ‘Poof!’ I would have never got this lyric in the summer! I wrote ‘High Hopes’ by Panic! At The Disco while in a jacuzzi in Aspen in the middle of winter and the song would have not been the same if I was out doing sunny, happy stuff.”
Parx has a resume most songwriters would kill for, claiming credits on songs by Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and BTS, as well as on the recent mega-hits “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings” by her close friend Ariana Grande. Within the past year, she’s also proven her ability to be a genre chameleon, delving into rock and country as well.
Parx recently stepped into the spotlight with her full-length project, We Need To Talk, which came out April 5 on Atlantic Records. After dedicating her time to helping other artists tell their stories, including the deep creative storytelling dive she took on Janelle Monae’s Grammy-nominated Dirty Computer, Parx’s debut album is her chance to show and prove. With classical music and acting training growing up, Parx’s skillset undeniably developed into a perfect storm for making music. The training also gave her the solid technical foundation in music, while her acting background helped her be able to step into someone else’s shoes during the songwriting process.
Tayla Parx stopped by Billboard to speak about We Need To Talk, getting a co-sign from Missy Elliott and how she plans to shake up the music industry.
How has your classical music background helped shape you as an artist today?
It was interesting when I was first learning. I knew how to sing, but to learn the particulars of vocal control and controlling your vibrato and like the difference between legato and staccato, all of these different things just you don’t realize [during] the journey within a musician’s vocals, unless you really know about the backstory behind the craft of it. I was around seven when I started singing classical music, and then probably nine or ten when I started to play classical piano. It was a challenge for me musically, because my parents really wanted me to learn my craft.
You got that real training.
Yeah, exactly. And then I ended up being like, “I like this.” And then it wasn’t until years later that I was like, “Wow, I still remember this friggin’ song in Italian.” [laughs] I didn’t know that they would become the building blocks for what will come effortlessly later on. Because of that, I have a solid foundation in music.
Then acting came along and you landed some notable roles, including in Hairspray. But clearly, the music path kept tugging at you. What’s your advice for people who may be going through the same thing in terms of picking between two passions?
I think the biggest advice is timing is everything. I had to make the hard decision. It was time to say I’m going to give up on acting even though it’s going well, to do something that I love. It doesn’t mean that you’re never going to come back to acting, it just means you need to take the time to perfect what you love first, and then I didn’t realize that my stuff and acting would actually be beneficial to how I relate to an artist [and] how I get their story across. As an actress, I was just jumping into somebody else’s skin anyway, you know?
Imagine doing that and doing method acting when you’re working with artists. You’re saying, “Okay, so how did you feel when you did this?” or “How did you react when you do that?” I’m that person. When I’m writing for Janelle Monae, I am Janelle. When I’m writing for Ariana Grande, I am Ariana. Acting really helped with that. But I really had to make that decision and say, “You know what, I want to do music.”
Are there any specific steps you take to get to know an artist who you’re not as familiar with before you have to write a song for them?
Whether you’re a new artist that I’m working with, or whether it’s somebody I’ve worked with all the time, I’ll always start the session off with like, “How are you doing? What have you been up to? Who do you love? Who do you hate?” It’s like a therapy session. Even with Ariana, those are things that you have to talk to somebody, especially with songs like “Thank U, Next,” you really have to talk to them. When I said we should do a song about her exes but we should be thanking them and all this stuff, I had to ask, “Well, what did you like about Big Sean and what did you not like? What did you learn?” You have to really treat it as a therapy session and really take yourself out of your own emotions and your own actions and what you would do, and really say “How are you?” Ask them the questions that you can actually build the song around.
I saw recently that Missy Elliott tweeted you, and I know that must have been crazy because I know she’s one of your biggest inspirations. What was going through your head?
I was going nuts. Nuts! I was sitting here finishing the album and all of a sudden, I get a DM from a fan like, “Missy has some words for you.” And at first I was like, “Oh no.” Then I opened it up and she had retweeted this interview and then she responded to somebody else and said tell her that she’s been killing it and basically gave me that cosign. Then, she retweeted it and followed me. I was just like, losing my mind because this is one of the few female creatives that has really created the blueprint for a creative like me. Not only have you made your own little mold for yourself within the industry as an artist, but also Aaliyah, and tons of other artists. In music videos, these are the things that if you look at my videos, I’m like, “Okay, what is my way of doing my own quirky things to take this to the next level?” I know that she’s one of the few who’s done that and been unapologetic. From being a label executive to everything else, it’s so many different facets to why she’s a legend. And people have got to start respecting that.
Your album title is We Need To Talk. Whenever someone says that phrase to me, it makes me nervous. Why’d you decide on that?
[Laughs] Yes, I picked it because first of all, it made people nervous. I wanted to capture the same way it made me feel like when I had to send that text message or when I’ve received that text message before. I’ve been on both sides of the equation. You know that something serious is going to come out whether it’s something happy, or whether it’s “We need to talk. I’m in love with you,” or “We need to talk. I don’t love you anymore.” It could go either way. Right now, this album is kind of a paragraph on what’s been happening for the past year and a half in my own personal life. Whether it’s love, or whether it’s me having internal records like the one called “Tomboys Have Feelings Too.” So there’s really this sense of discovery about a lot about what I feel like we need to talk about. Then, I want to hear other people say like, okay, we need to talk about feminism, or we need to talk about this or that. Everybody has something that they feel like we need to talk about. I hope this album is a conversation like that opens up on what else we need to talk about.
My personal favorite on the album is “Disconnected,” about being in the “in between” stage with someone.
So, it happened out here actually in New York at the studio called Grey Noise. I was sitting with [songwriter] Mike Sabbath, and I wanted to write a song that’s like, “You know when you’re talking to somebody and you’re trying to understand what the fuck they’re saying and you know that you’re missing out on something important.” It also went back to the “we need to talk” side and being like, we’re losing connection here. We’re in this strange middle ground of talking and not dating. I feel like most people within our age range are probably in that same situation. The talking versus dating thing, it kills me. It’s dumb but I’m also looking to find out who this person is.
I definitely wanted to write a song about that. I’ve had “situationships” that have lasted for years. At a point it’s like, “Okay, boom. What are we doing exactly?” And you always get nervous to be that girl that’s like, “So what are we? What is this thing? We need a title.” You never want to be that girl, but you don’t want to be that “I’m just happy to be here” girl either. So that’s what “Disconnected” was. It’s just being like, “Sorry, I can’t hear you. And it’s either because you’re being dumb or you’re not telling the truth.” It’s all of these other conversations that kind of have to come between the talking phase or dating phase where you realize, “Yo, I’m going to say this one time, and if you don’t understand it, I’m gonna have to walk away.” Now I’ve told him that it bothers me that we don’t have a title, and it seems like we’re not on the same page here.
And that’s kind of the turning point of the entire album. In the beginning, it’s very much like, “I want you and you and you and you,” and then it gets closer and closer of saying “Now, I only want you.” You go into this phase of being happy in this talking phase, and then you realize this might not be the person that you want to be with for the rest of your life, which leads us to songs like “Easy.” And at the end of it all, I get hurt. That’s why we have to be like, “We need to talk.”
We can name drop all day all the legends you’ve worked with, like Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey. Which collaboration has challenged you the most?
I think the most challenging [was] Janelle Monae. It’s because she’s a left-of-center artist, where she really takes the time, like years in the making this album, and she really takes time to push the creative boundaries. My style of writing is very quick, very straight to the point. I blurt out great ideas, I blurt out terrible ideas, and we land on the right idea right along the way. But with her, it was really a thing of where it’s not off the top of the head. It’s “Let’s take the time to think about this and really piece together the story that we’re trying to tell.” It’s different than just girl talk, which what happens in the studio with Ariana and some of the other female artists I work with. It’s just a bunch of girls drinking champagne, crying, laughing, and you hear that in the music. It’s a completely different vibe that you hear with Janelle’s because it’s calculated and thoughtful in a different type of way.
It was definitely the most challenging where I had to approach it completely differently than I would approach a pop star or typical R&B star, and that was why I did it. That was why this one of the most fun projects for me to work on because I like challenges. That’s why I was like, “Okay, this year, I’m going to be writing a lot of country music.” Most of the things I do in my career, I’ve done because somebody told me I probably couldn’t, or because I felt like it was a challenge to push me as a creative and make me evolve into some different or better.
Another favorite record of mine that you helped make happen is “Tints” by Anderson .Paak featuring Kendrick Lamar. How was that studio session?
Me and Anderson .Paak met through the Christina Aguilera session, because we did a song with her and he was great. He knew that I was going to be in the studio with Christina that day. He was like, “I need to I need to get in in that session with you guys.” We had like two or three sessions and one day after we left her house, we just were like, “Yo, should we just go and write another song for you?” And then we ended up doing it. I invited Syd from the Internet and we just had a jam session. That was one of our first sessions by ourselves, a that’s where “Tints” happened. I was super excited about and then all of a sudden, he sends me a link and it’s Kendrick’s verse and I was like, “Oh my God!” Anderson .Paak is really just one of those super genuine people you meet. He’s constantly putting people on and supporting you like no other.