Donna Missal Discusses Embracing Change and Getting Personal on Sophomore Album ‘Lighter’
Singer-songwriter Donna Missal made a major impact with her breakthrough single “Keep Lying,” and built on its momentum with her 2018 debut album, “This Time,” a record full of soulful swagger, with a distinctive emotion and edge. Two years later, she has traveled down unanticipated avenues with a bold freedom of artistic instinct, arriving at something new altogether. Her sophomore album, “Lighter,” is a hefty, passionate release that sustains the spark of the debut, but fleshes it out into sounds both broader and more nuanced.
With an appreciation for the lost physicality of music, and an enthusiasm for angsty ‘90s alternative fare, Missal has released a record that finds her at once newly vulnerable and powerful. Rather than coyly courting pop sensibilities, she embraces them with a new relish, in an album full of memorable tunes with beaming choruses, new sonic colors, and a fresh vitality. Missal spoke with Entertainment Voice about her quarantine creativity, artistic evolution, and the concept and craft of “Lighter.”
Your sophomore album, “Lighter,” channels the raw emotion that demanded attention in your breakthrough single “Keep Lying” into a range of new musical avenues that capture a different strain of the same spirit. How would you describe the direction, lyrically and musically, that you took on this album?
With my first album, I had just been doing years of songwriting, to figure out what I liked, what inspired me, what I wanted to talk about, and that album was very much a reflection of that. I was listening to a lot of playlists, and listening to a lot of different genres at the same time, and pulling from all that to ultimately create what would end up on that first record, and I really wanted it to embody that. I think with the second album, “Lighter,” I wanted to create a really tight framework sonically, to work within, to inspire the writing choices I was making and the concepts. I think it really helped me to find a sound for this record, in a very different way than I had approached my first album. I think I’ve recognized that I’ve grown and changed a lot from the person that made the first record, and I would hope that for anybody — for any artist, for any person (laughs), to take part in their own evolution, and be open to changing artistically and creatively, as you change your ideas and perspectives as a human being.
I’m in a different place, and inspired by new things all the time. I really had a specific idea in mind, what I wanted this to feel like and sound like, and I really set out to make something that felt like it could be timeless and classic, just forgoing any concerns to make it cool or trendy, and really just trying to hone in on something that felt like it could be considered classic. I wanted the songwriting to embody that, and the production, and the inspiration for the production. I listened to a lot of records that preceded me, and informed so many of the sonic decisions that were made on this album. I was listening to “Jagged Little Pill” by Alanis Morisette. I was listening to lots of Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Nirvana. I was loving Shania Twain records and Sheryl Crow records. I really wanted this record to sound like if all of those artists were to get together in a room and make something. What might that sound like? And that’s sort of where I started with the framework for this album.
Some of your new songs, such as “Bloom” and “Who Loves You,” especially seem to have something of a ‘90s singer-songwriter sensibility to their sound. Was this intentional, and where do you suppose it came from?
I don’t know. I bought a bunch of CDs (laughs). I love physical, tangible music because I think it’s more experiential. You get to read the liner notes and look at images, along with listening to songs. That’s how I grew up. I was born in 1990. My first introduction to owning music was owning CDs, so it’s beyond nostalgic for me. I kind of wanted to get back to that, and as I was making this record, I thought that would be a great way to re-experience being influenced by something, so I bought a bunch of physical CDs, and as I was on my way to and from the studio, making all these songs, I would listen to the physical CDs. I kept them in my car, and I would bring the booklets sometimes into sessions, just to surround myself with that inspiration. It just started to really inform the way that I would make this record, not only from a lyrical perspective, and melodically how it came together, but how I wanted to package it and promote it.
I really wanted it to feel like this tangible, physical experience that could make people feel really involved in the record, in a real way. I think I’ve always tried to make music that way. The industry right now is very much single-driven and EP-driven, and that’s how new artists are promoting their work, and I think because of the meaning that I place in listening to a body of work, I’ve always just wanted to make music that way. Some of my most serious songs on the record are inspired by my childhood, my influences growing up, and about things that are so vulnerable and so personal to me. In writing this record, I really wanted to connect deeper, and just go there, and let people know, as they were listening, exactly the kind of place where I was when I wrote these records — definitely my most vulnerable work in a while. That’s certainly totally scary. It’s also really exciting because I feel like it’s an opportunity just to know people better, just through music.
One thing that stands out is a preponderance of beaming choruses, with a more overtly pop direction than the generally R&B-centered focus of your earlier work. How did this come to be?
I really think that I always approached music in the past feeling like pop was some dirty word (laughs), something to avoid, and I feel like I’ve just grown up a bit, and grown beyond that, and come to really appreciate pop, and come to recognize pop as an all encompassing thing. Pop is so overarching, and pop, to me at least, just means relatable and listenable and accessible, and I really cared about making this record — just as much as I wanted it to feel personal and vulnerable, I wanted it to also be singable and be reachable, so that people can have a more hands-on experience with it than maybe other things I’ve made in the past.
I was touring a lot while I was writing these songs, so of course, the concept of singing songs with a band really crept into the process of making this record in a really heavy-handed way. And I think I’ve just evolved as a songwriter. I’m just more interested right now in making things that feel like someone would want to sing along with me, and I’m not really sure where that comes from. I did a lot more intensive writing on this record than I have in the past as well. I wasn’t just accepting of the natural, visceral thing that was happening inside my body at the time that the music was playing, so to speak. My session work for this album was so much more intentional, and had so much work involved — writing and rewriting, and really being curious and questioning my choices, and then requestioning those choices, and just making decisions that I felt like I had really, really thought about, and I think that that naturally just concluded to songs that maybe had bigger feeling or touchier feeling hooks, and parts of songs that just felt more accessible for those reasons. I really worked on this record. There are a few songs, for sure, that have visceral moments, but as a whole, this is a body of work that I intentionally put a lot of thought and effort into.
About the album title, “Lighter,” you have explained, “It represents the concept of burning shit down all around you and rising from the ashes.” Please elaborate a bit further.
Sure. Well, all of these songs were written at a time in my life where I just felt like shit was fucking falling apart, and not just falling apart, but literally on fire. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, but where you just feel like I can’t even see myself because I’m just engulfed in something that really seems all encompassing, and really damaging, and hot (laughs), and painful. And, I don’t know, just that metaphor of feeling like there was smoke and fire everywhere I looked, and questioning whether it was me, and whether it was because I was the one burning it down. That’s where the idea of using that word started to surface for me — the idea of literally standing in the middle of a fire, watching it burn, and feeling like you were the one somehow responsible.
I think there are a lot of themes within this record that sort of embody that, but it was also really important for me to write myself through this experience, and come out of the other side of it. That may have been painful and scary, but at the end of the day, now that I’m through it, now that I’ve taken steps away from it, and I can see it behind me, the fire is gone, and the smoke is gone, and what’s left there looks like an opportunity. Maybe this is fate. Maybe this is autonomy. Maybe this is freedom. Maybe this is just room for growth, and for change, and for coming out the other end of it stronger and better because I was in the middle of it at one point.
Your first album, “This Time,” was largely focused on the idea of taking time for yourself, and letting artistic instincts follow their natural course. How did your creative process compare while working on this album?
I think the concept of time was so relevant to me while I was making my first record because I was writing those songs for so many years, and I had what felt like a really long windup to finally being able to have the opportunity to make an album. I’ve been playing in bands since I was fucking like 17-years-old. I didn’t make that record ‘til I was 27 (laughs). It felt like a long time coming, and of course, within that experience, especially in my womanhood, there’s this kind of emphasis on the concept of time being an enemy, and something to be afraid of. And, the singular experience of being a woman and aging, there’s such a societal structure just around that alone, and to also consider trying to exist in an industry that is so ageist, and puts such an emphasis on youth, and youth equating to value.
I think that my first record, “This Time,” really helped me come to an understanding that all of that was totally bullshit, and I did not have to buy it. I didn’t have to live my life in that way. With this record, I just have been free of that, and it allowed so much more opportunity to write about things that weren’t so broad, and that were so much personal. Because, I had already worked through that shit that felt so broad, and felt like it applied to literally every woman (laughs) that I had come in contact with. I felt like, with this record, I had just progressed above and beyond that, and it gave me this space to create something that was so much more personal, and so much more cathartic, and spoke to my individual personal experiences in a way that maybe I hadn’t delved into before with my songwriting. That’s what I think “Lighter” has that is so intrinsically different about it, in its writing, than my first record.
How does the music video for “Let You Let Me Down,” relate to the theme of the song? How does the swimming, jumping, strikingly revealing bodysuit, and the old school VHS aesthetic all factor in?
(Laughs) Well, frankly I made that video in quarantine, and there was absolutely no plan to make a video that way when the record was written, or when the song was written. None of my intentions or plans for this album had anything to do with the situation that we all collectively find ourselves in right now. The environment has changed so drastically, that along with it, in order to continue to create things and to promote this album, I needed to change all of my intentions so that I could keep up with the shift in the environment.
I’ve directed videos myself in the past. It’s something I really enjoy, but I’ve never really done so within the parameters of — you cannot leave your home (laughs), you can’t have a crew, and you can’t hire people to come do this with you. If you want it to happen, you kind of just have to fucking do it. This video is just a result of that. It’s such a DIY video just out of pure necessity, but also, all of the decisions that were made creatively in the video were also out of pure necessity, and I think what that ends up creating is something that would not have come together if I didn’t have those restrictions. I think the restrictions ended up informing the creation of video in a way that really opened me up creatively. It was the first time I edited my own video, start to finish. I’ve never done that before. The video, to me, is having full, complete, and total autonomy making something, but also being restricted by all these parameters that I’ve never worked in before. And, the result is just seeing what happens when you put yourself in that kind of situation, and for me, it was a real growing experience, at the same time as being really fucking fun. I had a really good time putting it together because there’s a real “fuck it” mentality when you’re making things that way — like this is going to be what it’s going to be — like fuck it. And I think that it ended up playing to the benefit of the video, because I think you get the sense that I really don’t fucking care. I’m not sure that the video would have come together in such a fun way if I were able to just do whatever and make whatever.
It often conveys volumes when a singer works the name of another artist into a song’s lyrics in an offhand, casual manner. In “Best Friend,” you sing about “when you showed me Mazzy Star.” Why Mazzy Star?
Oh my god, I love Mazzy Star (laughs). I wrote that song with my sisters, and when we started writing it, the only concept that I had in mind was a melody for the chorus, and I knew that I wanted to say, “You are my best friend.” But, I didn’t have any ideas what to talk about, and my sisters were just like, “What if we just talk about moments that we remember with our exes?” And, I had this really vivid memory of my very first girlfriend. I was living in New Jersey, she was getting ready to go to college, and we would drive around in her teal pickup truck. It was a ‘99 pickup truck, and she would just drive me around, and she made me a mix CD, and it had Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” as the first song. I had never heard them before, and it was an introduction to a kind of music I was not listening to at the time.
I was like a Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera, TLC head (laughs). I was blown away by it. I didn’t even know this kind of music existed. It was very profound for me, that memory, so I just worked it into the lyrics, because that song is very much about those experiences of feeling like when you’re with someone, they’re your everything. They’re your best friend. And, losing that is not just losing intimacy or a relationship, it’s losing the person that is absolutely closest to you in the entire world, that has informed who you are, and what you’re into, and what you do. I had never really worked another artist into a song lyrically, but I knew that other people could relate to that experience of someone showing them music for the first time.
The new album is an emotional rollercoaster, in which you run through peaks and troughs, using your voice to its maximum expressive range. Was there a particular backstory that inspired such emotion?
I think I just really wanted to embrace vocalizing on this album, in a way. I think in the past, after I put out my song “Keep Lying,” I felt a pretty intense pressure to just continue to make different versions of “Keep Lying.” And, it was very important to me, maybe it was rebellion, I don’t know, but I wanted to do the opposite, so I spent a lot of time honing in on what felt like different colors. It felt like the easy way out to just continue trying to build an entire career off of one song. I’ve gotten over myself so much in the last couple of years. I really feel like I’ve checked my ego in a way where I can appreciate my own abilities in a way that I couldn’t before, because I was afraid of them, or afraid of what it might look or feel like to others if I were to embrace what I’m passionate about, which at the end of the day, is singing. And, it’s singing with every color of my voice, and just with power and with intention. So, with this record, I was just like, “Fuck it, I’m going to sing on this record,” because that is me, and that’s what I love. I hope that it comes through. But, also, it felt good to make music that way because it’s something that I shied away from for so long.
Your single “Let You Let Me Down” is about rebuilding yourself stronger than you were before, but the title seems to relish the downfall part. What is your overall statement in this song?
For me, I think throughout the entire record, there’s an emphasis on, “You did this, and I feel this way because you did this,” and I thought that at a certain point in writing this album, it was going to be really important to acknowledge there are two people here, and there are ways in which you can allow for the dismantling of your own heart. You are fucking complicit in the things that happen to you, right? I just thought that that was an important sentiment.
I didn’t mean it tongue-in-cheek. I very much meant, “I let this happen, and I didn’t stop it, and that’s why I’m where I am.” Taking responsibility is very vulnerable, but because of that, it’s very powerful. And, I think being able to recognize the things you can do personally to advance, to do better next time around, if you don’t acknowledge those things, you’re going to end up in the same patterns, like “How the fuck did I get here again?” It’s because you didn’t take the time to acknowledge your role in your own life, and I think that’s moreso what this song is meant to be about. And, it was important to me that that sentiment existed within this body of work, so that it wasn’t a record about blaming someone else, but a record about the whole, all-encompassing experience of loss, and what’s on the other side of that.
The final track of the album, “I’m Not Ready,” rings almost as if it means the opposite, ending the album with a rather conclusive ring. How did you intend for this song to figure into the album’s dramatic arc?
Well, I wrote that song pretty deep in the record-making process. I came into the studio one day and was just like, “You know what I haven’t said yet that is a very important part of this story? I haven’t said the part that I was not ready for fucking any of this.” (Laughs). I thought it needed to be said. And, the reason for it being at the end of the record was I kind of had this idea that you could listen all the way through the record in the opposite track order, and it would take you from the beginning to the end of the story, and all the way back again. And, so that was the intention in the way the tracks are ordered on the record. Some of my favorite albums, they encompass concepts that go beyond the songs individually, also in the way that the songs relate to one another, and how an entire story is told. I really wanted it to feel like an album. I didn’t want it to feel like a bunch of singles strung together in some haphazard way. I thought it would be really cool if even just one person came away from the record like, “I think this is backwards.” (Laughs).
How did the Covid-19 pandemic factor into the making of this album, if at all? Were there lyrics or frames of mind that made their way into the recording? And, how have you adapted your live performances to these most peculiar circumstances?
I would say absolutely not did the circumstances of Covid-19 influence any of these lyrical choices. The entire album was finished before we went into quarantine. Interestingly, I was on tour for an entire month prior to arriving home the very last minute. I left the tour early because I was in the UK, and they started to close the borders. It was an arena tour. I was opening for Lewis Capaldi, and it was the very first time I had ever played arenas, so you’re going from being in the same space every night, with ten thousand other people, directly into quarantine (laughs). So, it’s very disorienting. Luckily, I had finished the album before I left for that tour. I would say moreso the experience of figuring out how to put this thing out has been very much informed by the change in the environment, and by the circumstances that Covid-19 has created for all of us.
None of us have ever been in this situation before. The vastness of the unknown, at times it can feel like it’s literally swallowing you. If I hadn’t made a record and was putting out a record, I don’t think I would be feeling the same level of fear because there wouldn’t be any pressure to do something unprecedented like this, where you can’t tour, and you can’t visit radio stations, and you can’t leave home. So, what does that leave you in the world of promotion? It’s not just me experiencing this. It’s literally the entire industry that I’m in. The paradigm shift is so extreme, and I’m trying to put something out that has classic sensibilities. It’s an entire damn album (laughs). How do you put it out and promote it without having any of the same resources that you were counting on being there?
I think that concept has really scared the shit out of me, and I’ve certainly spent plenty of time thinking about not putting it out. You can really start to self-sabotage when things feel like they’re closing in on you, and your options are so limited. I think in the conversations I’ve had, where I’ve said these things, it’s been like — listen, people need music, period. People need music when they’re sad, people need music when they’re hopeful, people need music when everything else feels scary and isolating. Music can be one of those very, very few things that we have to make us feel more connected to one another, more connected to ourselves, and therefore more connected to the world around us, to the way we experience the world around us. At the end of the day, I am very grateful that despite everything else, I can still put out music, and that is an amazing thing.
“Lighter” is available July 10 on Apple Music.