This week's entry of The Cultural Reset's Artist Interview series sees Nick Lee and Shay Ervin sit down with Alternative-Pop revolutionary Aria Wunderland. Aria joins TCR to discuss how quarantine has shaped her music-making process, the industry stereotypes used to stifle creatives, and how independent artists are working to reset the music industry's landscape.
Photo: "Aria Wunderland"
Click here to listen to Aria Wunderland's FULL INTERVIEW
Nick Lee: Welcome to The Cultural Reset and to another entry in our Artists Interview series. We are here with an incredible artist. And I would love for her to introduce herself!
Aria Wunderland: Yeah, thanks for having me. My name is Aria Wonderland. I'm a singer, songwriter, and musician. And yeah, I'm super happy to be here and can't wait to see what we're going to talk about!
Shay Ervin: Yeah, we'll dive into some fun topics. But first, we would like to get to know you a little bit more, if you could tell us when and where your creative journey began?
A: Sure, yeah. I was born in New York. I started music, I mean, for as long as I can remember. We lived in Washington Heights, all the way uptown. And we weren't really allowed to leave our home mom, We were always just in our apartment. And so a lot went on. And there was a piano there. And I gravitated towards that at a very young age. It started with piano. And I was pretty much obsessed with classical music. I did eventually study piano, but in the beginning, it was just playing by ear. And eventually, my mom realized, “Okay, maybe we should put you into piano lessons.” She hadn't had success with my brothers because they hated piano lessons. But it kind of stuck with me.
So I continued to improvise and eventually realized: with all of my influence from all the music I was listening to, I can start creating and blending everything. And I just started writing my own music. And in the beginning, it was mostly piano driven music with different influences in the melodies—like R&B and rock. Til this day, my music’s definitely very genre fluid.
That's kind of when it started as far as pinpointing the exact time. I mean, I must have been maybe five when I started playing and moving towards the piano. And then I started writing decent songs around Middle School. And then I started taking it seriously, like a career, right after high school. That's when I started to decide that this is something I really want to do. And I formed a band. And I started performing all throughout New York in the small, small venues. I hope those venues are doing okay. A lot of them were like my stomping grounds, you know? Like the ‘Bitter Ends’. That's a legendary rock venue…But yeah, that's kind of how it all started.
N: That’s really cool. I love that you shouted out those cool venues too. Because, quarantine really just stomped all over the music industry. Right? You know, there's some small businesses that are suffering right now.
A: Yeah, I was thinking about that a lot. Because at least restaurants are doing better because you can order food and there's a lot of outdoor dining happening still. But music venues are not. No one's playing. I miss performing actually.
S: Well, I'll tell you what—when it does come back, it's going to come back booming, because everybody is just itching to get out there and see some live music.
A: Oh, you're so right. That is so true. That's definitely a good way to look at it.
N: What has it been like for you navigating this music making and performing process while being quarantined?
A: It was definitely difficult in the beginning, when all of us were living in such uncertainty. We had false notion that it was going to be this quick thing that we were going to get over in a few weeks. But then we started realizing “…there's no end to this.” And a few weeks into quarantine, I did feel a little bit out of sorts and derailed, with my path musically. And a lot of my friends that are also artists and musicians. We were all sharing these same feelings.
I’m usually bi-coastal—so I record a lot in LA, I film my music videos in LA. So I was in the middle of recording music and about to go to LA when everything happened. It just forces you to focus on what's within your control. So I decided it was time to just go back to what I used to do, which was writing songs on piano. And I did, and I felt vibey anyway because of everything that was going on. I played around with that and honed my skills with Logic Pro and created some ideas and just learn to do things a virtual way. I would send it over to my buddy's, like, “hey, what do you think about this?” Actually, my most recent song is definitely a quarantine song.
So it didn't stop me from creating, if anything, it forced me to maybe think outside the box and do things that were outside of my comfort zone—like going live on Instagram and performing that way. And what's interesting is that my engagement was higher, because I think people are on their phones, and they're on their devices more because they're home. So I felt hopeful. I mean, I know that there's a lot to it. In the music industry, there're people suffering in different ways with not being able to perform. But I found my way in that regard. Of course, I would love things to be back to the way they were. But for now, that's what I've been doing—just trying to focus on what's within my control.
N: Yeah and there's so many musicians and other artists like you that are trying to do that too. Everybody in this time is trying to be as resourceful as humanly possible. And I think that it's really brought out the creativity in so many different people. A lot of people are reinventing their brands and reinventing themselves. It's incredible.
A: Absolutely. I mean there was a time when I felt like the world was going through so much. And I felt like maybe it was tone deaf of me to release music and that kind of halted me a lot for a while because I just felt like it was just not a good time to release music. I just felt like it wasn’t the right time. And then I realized so many people needed art and they needed, in some ways, a distraction, you know? So I thought about it differently. And I released my most recent song and it's doing great. And I realized, people didn't need this, but people are excited.
S: Let's talk about your most recent song, which I got the chance to listen to called, I Just Want Your Love, which I think is very relevant to a lot of people who are in quarantine right now. I’m definitely glad that you released it because a lot of people are kind of missing that ability to connect with their loved ones, or even create new love. So I was wondering if you could tell us your personal connection to ‘I Just Want Your Love’.
A: Yeah, sure. That song was inspired by the onset of a relationship and just a trend I had noticed in general. Even talking to my girlfriends and even past relationships that I had…in the beginning there's so much effort that people are making to try to impress the other person. While one person is courting the other person, there might be like fine-dining or going to these expensive places, or putting on like a big show that eventually ends. It doesn't go on forever. And I've always kind of felt like, I don't need that, like I kind of just like what's simple, you know? Just hanging out outside on a summer day, watching the sunset. I just felt like the most recent relationship that inspired the song made me feel very strongly about this. I'm like, “wow we're both great people, we're both awesome, and we could just get to know each other and get to the core of what actually matters.” And all the extra stuff is fleeting. It's not necessary. Like, let's just chill. Keep it simple. I just personally like what's real and authentic? And I just felt like a lot of people could share that. I've had a few people respond to it and say, “Oh, my God, I agree” because it's totally true. I just like what’s simple.
N: Would you say that, that type of theme that type of yearning for authenticity is something that governs all of your art and all of your songs?
A: Yeah, yeah. I definitely try to uphold authenticity, and just who I am, in general. And as an artist—maybe in the past, musicians might have been a little bit more gimmicky or prepackaged—I think we're in an era right now, where what's real is what people gravitate towards, you know? I feel like people can just feel when you're being inauthentic through your art.
There was a time where I really just didn't fit in the music industry, because it wasn't really tailored to people like me. And I took a seat on the back-burner, and I decided: Okay, I'm just going to song write. I think the music industry has changed for the better in that regard. And I think people crave what's real. So I've always tried to stay true to myself. And those themes do come up in my songwriting a lot. You know, it's like I wrote another song called Silhouette that was about that.
Artwork: "I Just Want Your Love"
"I definitely try to uphold authenticity...people can just feel when you're being inauthentic through your art."
N: Yeah I love Silhouette too! And I wanted to ask you too—what are your influences and the music that you make? Like, are there any specific artists or specific things that influence your sound or your words?
A: Yeah, I think as far as artists go, I'm all over the map with that. I've always loved Florence and the Machine, but I also like Kendrick Lamar, and I love Kanye, even though he's very controversial, but musically, he's great. I also love Mariah Carey’s vocal ability. They've definitely influenced me in some way or another. I also love Radiohead. So there's definitely a lot of those little things sprinkled into my writing.
Then as far as other things, I actually do try to find inspiration from things that are not music. I feel like I crave other forms of art to inspire my music. So something like watching a great film or even looking at old images or old magazines from the 60s and looking at visuals. I guess visually, I've been inspired a lot lately. I Just Want Your Love has like a little bit of a vintage feel. And it was very 70s inspired—I was just looking at old archives of 1970s art. And so the music video might have a little bit of that. And so yeah, I guess all different forms of art. Like before the whole COVID thing happened, I would go to the art museum and just like walk around. Because I make music and it's always on my mind, sometimes I need something else to kind of just reset my brain a little bit to get back to writing, you know.
S: I think that there is a certain level of connectivity in all forms of art because you have to have the ability to process your emotions in a certain way in order to put it into a form of art—whether it's music or it's painting, and you can see it in front of you, you can still have that emotional and creative process that goes into it. And so when I look at music and I see the art and the process there, I really respect it. I paint, and that's my creative process, but I have found many similarities in the process of this from start to finish of making a painting—very much similar to the start to finish of writing a song and producing a song.
A: I can totally see that I'm sure there's like some tweaking that's involved in it. Knowing when to stop tweaking…
S: Yes! Knowing when to be happy is so hard. Sometimes there's a painting where I'm just like, “that's done, I'm not touching that. It's done”. And then other times, I'm just like, “I'm not really happy with this, and I want to do that.”
A: It just happens, you know? And then there are others where you're just tweaking and tweaking. It's really similar. I mean, I haven't really dabbled in painting, but I can just imagine.
N: It's so fascinating to me how creatives can just find ways to be creative in so many different mediums. Like I love that.
A: No, it's true! And sometimes you really do need a break, because you can literally get stuck, because when you're feeling uninspired you think that it's permanent. You're like, “Oh, no. It's never gonna come back.” And I'll call a friend of mine—she’s an artist, too. And she'll be like, “Don't worry, it passes.” Because when I get writer's block, I'm like, “Oh, my God”.
When quarantine first started, everybody was feeling so anxious and I was almost putting too much pressure on myself before I realized, I have all this time in the world. I should be writing albums every day. And yeah, I remember saying “Okay, the whole world is changing right now, so you don't need to be writing a song a day.” I think for some of us, quarantine has just triggered this “Oh my God, we should be accomplishing so much right now, because we're home and we have all this time! Right?”
N: But it doesn’t have to be that way!
S: I've definitely started many different pieces. And I'm curious if this is something that you do as well: Whenever I'm painting, I might have three different paintings that I'm working on. If I get stuck on one, I leave it and I work on another or I have to leave all of them, all together, for a period of time. And I have to come back later. But I always have like several different projects that I'm working on. What is your creative process? Like? Do you have several pieces up in the air at once? Or do you like to focus on one at a time?
A: I totally do that. In fact, myself and both producers that I work with the most, we're notorious for doing that in the studio. Like we'll start an idea and then we'll just be like, alright, let's take a break from it real quick. And then we'll start another idea. And I do that even at home when I'm writing because I find that when I do that, it's more effective. Because unless I'm really honed into a song and it’s coming really easily, then I'll start it and finish it. But I find that it's really healthy for me to do that—to kind of just have multiple songs cooking, because it keeps me excited to do the other songs I haven’t finished. So in that way, it keeps the momentum going.
But it also helps with the writer's block, because you just do it—especially when you're writing a verse. Let's say you have it looped, and you just keep hearing it over and over again. You're like, “Okay, I can't anymore, like I need a break.” And then you go to the other song, and it feels so fresh. So yeah, I do this a lot in the studio. But like I said, not every song is written like that. Silhouette, for example, was a concept. I had the title and it happened very quickly. I Just Want Your Love, was random with other ones at the same time. But every so often, I'll kind of have a concept in mind. There's another song I have called Airplane Mode. And I had that concept for quite a while. And just didn’t want to execute it. I do this a lot. I'll start with a title. And then usually it's followed by melody. Melody is kind of...I don't know. It's not very cognitive. It's very emotional. Melodies have come out like streams of consciousness. In some ways, it feels easier. It's kind of like freestyle. That's the way I do it. I'll freestyle it on the mic. And then I'll do the lyrics. That's usually what I do. It's usually melody first, then lyrics. And then production, of course—that’s where we get really picky. and revise a lot and get the mix right.
N: Yeah, I feel like that’s always the part of the process that’s crazy.
A: Yeah. Creating isn't that hard, but editing gets a little tricky, because you're like, “Okay, what do I need?”
S: It’s very detail-oriented! I will say that for sure. It sounds like a lot of your music is very organic. It's very self-made, and comes from an authentic place. But something that we are trying to uproot in the music industry is that lack of control—that lack of ability to organically produce music as an artist? Have you ever felt like the music industry has influenced your ability to maintain the authenticity? Or be an independent?
A: Yeah when I first entered the music industry, I felt like there wasn't really a place for me. It was very tailored to more pop, like the Keshas and Katy Perrys--it was just that era and it wasn't me at all. And that was the time that I was kind of hustling. I moved to LA, with the big dream in my pocket, and I was just basically at the mercy of labels—trying to get their attention and their help and their support. And the feedback was always like, “Oh, you're a great songwriter!” But as an artist, it was never “we're gonna sign you! You’re the perfect card.” It was more “maybe you need to do more of this” or basically change myself into something that was more fitting at that time.
When I became more of a songwriter, I was like, “Okay, well, I'm just gonna write and I'm just gonna put my artistry aside and just become a writer.” For a while, I almost felt like maybe I wasn’t an artist. Like maybe my calling was to just be a songwriter. But things started changing. And there was one producer that loved me as a songwriter. But he said, “you're an artist…what are you doing?” And I appreciated that about him, because he was the first person I met in LA, that really believed in me at a time that I was felt so defeated by the industry and the lack of support. I had given up on myself as an artist in a way and it was a great transition for me. I said screw what’s popular right now. Let's just create music that we think is dope. And like, everything else will fall into place. And that's kind of what was like the beginning of my shift. And now I think the music industry has gotten a little bit better with being friendly to indie artists. Because now I can just go and release music. I'm completely independent. So I can go and distribute my music by myself. I built my own fan base; I have great platforms.
I definitely think that with the labels, they were just very pop. And while I do have some pop influences in my music, it just wasn't the right time.
N: We've talked about this in a couple of other interviews as well, too—how the music industry tries to create these carbon copies of what they believe will sell or who they believe will sell. And it's really not inclusive, or even reflective of the people that they are selling to. In a way, they're kind of selling a sort of pipe dream—a sort of reality of that people who are listening to this music should be and who you should be, and what you should look like. And I’ve found that a lot of the people that we've talked to in the Artists Interview series, so far, they've really found that really restricting. It's like, they're trying to throw you into a box that you can't get out of.
A: Yeah, it's crazy. Like, I mean, like, you know, I am of Latin descent—my mom is Dominican—and there's stereotypes that come along with that, I remember meeting industry people, and they're like, “Oh, we need to get you shaking your butt on stage” or something. And that's not really the music. I do. Like, that's cool, too. But like, just because I'm loud doesn't mean that, I'm gonna be getting up there and dancing salsa, even though it sounds great.
But yeah, it was just not understanding who I was. And like you said, they think they know what's going to sell. But quite honestly, I found it so much more informative, and so much more satisfying, when I shifted and was like, “you know, what, I'm not gonna be chasing after labels and A&R’s; I'm gonna tune into what matters—my audience.” And I started building my fan base and interacting with them. And realizing, wow, my focus was in the wrong place all this time. These are the people that matter—the consumers. I don't need to really get approval from an A&R that my music is good, because maybe he or she just won't get it. But if I have my fans saying, “hey, you've been quiet, when are you releasing music?” That's what matters, and it took me a while to learn, because my focus was in the wrong places. Just because that was the idea, right? You get signed, and that's the way you do it. And luckily, there’re other ways now. And I'm sure it's scary for them [the music industry].
S: I think that we can thank social media for that and these apps like SoundCloud and Spotify, that make it so much easier to search for artists that aren't just the first ones that pop up on our screen, or the first ones that come up on the radio.
Do you think that that should be the new music industry? Or are there other aspects that you think need to be changed? We are so much more connected through the virtual world. How are you going to stay authentic to your listeners once we come back around?
A: Yeah, I mean, I hope to just continue doing what I'm doing. I think in person, is even better, because I think that there's an energy that you feel when you're performing live. And that's why I love performing live. I don't do it as often as some people, because I give so much of myself when I'm on stage. It's such an emotional experience for me, and I really connect with the audience. And pour my heart into that moment. And it's almost emotionally depleting. Like, afterwards, I need to recharge. But I really just try to connect and pour all of myself into a performance. And I think that there's no better way than to feel authenticity than through a live performance. You know, that's when you can really tell when someone's being inauthentic. I feel
N: Definitely. I also wanted to ask you what emotion kind of fuels your art and your performance, because a lot of what you’ve talked about so far is authenticity. It's about being yourself. Is there some sort of mission that you want to fulfill with your art? What is your message to your fans?
A: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I think I’ve definitely felt like a little bit of an outsider growing up, just in the way that I thought. I was very cognitive and kept to myself. I was the youngest and the only girl, so I was kind of just in my head a lot. And I think that music for me was always like an escape and the topics that I bring up, like, I just wish to be that person for like a teenage girl or young girl and just make them good. My goal is to hopefully help somebody that might be in their bedroom going through a hard time to escape and feel like they're not alone in their thoughts. Because at the end of the day, like a lot of us, even though I might have felt like an oddball. A lot of us are feeling similar emotions, we're just not talking about it, you know?
N: That's what I love so much about your music is that you're just so open about the things that we don't really want to think about. You know, you talk about these things unapologetically because they are a part of who we are. And, speaking as one of those oddballs that didn't really fit in, I love it! I had friends, but you I didn't think I was what people expected me to be when they met me, and I love how your music really speaks to that experience very, very well. So I appreciate that.
A: You’re like a thriving creative! You know, what's interesting. It's always those odd balls are the ones who feel that way that are just filled with so much artistic ability and ideas. That's definitely been me. And I think like, you know, I was definitely too weird for the industry for a while, but we're just kind of like, being more and more accepted recently, which is awesome.
Photo: "Aria Wunderland"
"...people have ideas talents that they're sitting on, and they might be just afraid to go for it because they don’t have the right confidence or it all seems overwhelming. Even if you may not feel like you're the best...just start."
N: What advice would you give to aspiring creatives looking to kind of make their break in these industry? Because a lot of our audience members, there are people who are obviously industry professionals, but also young people that are just, you know, our age, who want to break in as a producer, as an engineer, as a singer, as a songwriter? So, you know, having your successful music industry, what advice would you give them?
A: Yeah I love this question! I think that number one: stay true to yourself. But also start somewhere, there's what I would say. I think that a lot of times, people have ideas talents that they're sitting on, and they might be just afraid to go for it because they don’t have the right confidence or it all seems overwhelming. Even if you may not feel like you're the best producer, like just start; embrace a messy start. It is always going to feel messy, it's always gonna feel like “what am I doing, you just keep building on that and you get better. When I did decided to go back to being an artist after taking a break, I felt really insecure, and I think it was because I almost felt more insecure than when I first started out, because the music industry chewed me up and spit me out. And I felt kind very insecure. I used to feel nervous, just posting an Instagram post. I used to be like, “Oh, I don't know, should I do it?” And then I said to myself, “you know what, I'm gonna post something a day, one thing a day” So, even though, it might feel kind of messy, and just all over the place, I'm just going to start somewhere. And that's what I did. And then I got better and better. And then I got more and more confident, and more and more comfortable with myself and built my audience. So that's what I would say to them. Just don't sit on any talent, don't get distracted also by everyone else and what they're thinking because obviously, when you're gonna do art, you have family and they're, worried, if you are gonna make a living? You know?
N: Yeah. Yeah, I can speak to that sentiment. I sing a song write, as well. And that's kind of what my passion was. And I definitely had those familial influences that were saying, “you're good. You sound good. You write good. But go be a lawyer so you can eat.” And that's always fun—eating and paying rent. That's great! But I love that you're just somebody who started and you got better and better and better, and you believe in yourself first. And then the success came.
Shay there’s something you said during the last interview that we had. And it was something about, having judgment in your head. Can you say that again? Because I think that's the best thing ever.
S: Yeah, um, I don't know who told this to me. But I mean, it's kind of logic: You are your biggest block from being able to be successful or being able to follow your own dream. It doesn't matter if everybody around you is telling you can't do something or if everybody around you is telling you, you can do something. If you say you can't do something, it's not going to happen. But if you allow yourself the opportunity, and give yourself that boost, have confidence and open the door for yourself, to follow your own passion and follow your own dream. That's the biggest roadblock you got to get past. You can't judge yourself first, you know, others will do the judging for sure. You can't judge yourself.
A: Oh my god, it's so true. It's so, so good to hear this actually. Because, you know, it's an ongoing thing. You're always working on these feelings, and I love that. I needed to hear that.
S: Yeah, don't shut yourself. Because there are always gonna be people out there that are gonna love whatever you put out, you know. I mean, we see your artistry, we see your talent. And we appreciate you.
And I'm really curious about your other projects in the mix that you are working on? Like your latest release? When do you think we can look forward to seeing something else from you?
A: Pretty soon, I have, as good three or four songs that are just getting tweaked. There's one that's ready to go. It was actually ready to go before I Just Want Your Love. It was just the vibe didn't feel right with what was going on in the world. It's a little bit more up tempo. But yeah, that one might be coming out soon, but I'm looking to release definitely something else by the end of the year.
N: Yes, please drop and save 2020, cause we need it! I want to thank you for hopping on with us. First of all, just having the opportunity to speak to somebody like you. So genuine, so passionate about your work and what you're trying to do for your audience. And for yourself, is just really cool. It's really humbling. And as somebody who is a fan of your music. It's just crazy to have this opportunity.
A: Thank you so much. I'll definitely keep you in the loop. I love the whole cause and everything you support and represented if there's any way I can support and help just let me know.
Connect with Aria Wunderland:
Stream 'I Just Want Your Love (I.J.W.Y.L.)'