Donna Missal Tells Us the Story Behind Her Music and Debut Album ‘This Time’

There are only a small selection of artists who are classicists, merchants of nostalgia who manage to preserve musical heritage while still sounding fresh and exciting. Donna Missal is one of these few. Missal has the type of voice that commands attention in a single syllable. And once the voice draws you in, the songs can take you to dizzying heights.

After Missal premiered a demo of her lead single, “Keep Lying” on Zane Lowe’s “Beats 1” radio show, the song instantly rose to the top of the charts. An immediate and infectious track with an epic chorus of full diva theatrics, it’s a promising introduction to her signature sound. Now, after much anticipation, she has released her debut record, “This Time.” titled in reference to the time needed to find one’s self and let things develop naturally. The songs explore various issues of the present day and personal life, but cluster around the central message of being willing to take your time. Judging from the music, whatever time Missal took was time well spent. The album is a modern spin on a classic sound, with loads of bangers, emotional rushes, fine songsmithing, and some serious singing chops.

Missal spoke with Entertainment Voice about her story and her music. We talked New Jersey, growing up in a musical family, and looked into the sounds and meanings of the new songs and the new album.

One thing that stands out about your new record, “This Time,” is how it sounds both classic and contemporary. It strikes a nice balance between organic instrumentation and studio trickery, as you play with live musicians, but then do things like sampling your own voice, like in the song “Driving.” The songs seem to evoke a feeling that this type of music lost probably after the ‘70s, but without seeming throwback-ey. Is this something you deliberately set out to do, and how did it come about?

Absolutely. It was as intentional as could be. My inspiration comes from all different genres. My background is theatrical, and all of my training is in theater, but I’ve played in bands since I was a young teenager, so I wanted the record to pull from all of my influences, and it’s influenced by live musicianship, and getting in a room with a bunch of friends and writing and recording that way. That’s so close to my heart in terms of where I come from in music. But I wanted it to feel really futuristic and modern, so yeah, that idea of taking live instrumentation and manipulating and running things through cool synthesizers and drum machines definitely was a really fun process. But it was super important to me that it felt old and new all at once.

A lot is being said about your “smoky” voice. Would you say that’s your natural singing voice, or is it a sound that you’ve cultivated over the years?

Oh man, who knows? I don’t do anything to manipulate my voice when I’m recording or when I’m singing live. I think it’s some combination of my classical voice training mixed with years of singing in rock bands. I’ve had to project over a lot of noise, and be loud enough to hear what I was doing, singing live. I think that’s why my voice sounds the way it sounds now.

You grew up in a musical family, and used to use your father’s recording studio to make things like Christmas recordings for relatives as early as age 4. What equipment was the most fun for you to play around with when you were little? And can you think of something specific you discovered in the studio back in those days that made its way into the recording of this album?

I remember how much I loved his microphone. He had a microphone from the ‘60s, and it was so big, and I was so little, and I could barely fit my two hands around its base. It sounded so beautiful, and I was just obsessed with the thing itself that you can hear yourself loud afterwards. I thought that was so magical. I remember being really taken by his microphone. I was just a kid, and it was the most beautiful, expensive piece and was very rare. I’ve always been really into microphones, I think, since then the idea that you make some noise from your body into this thing, and then you can manipulate it or hear it back, and different microphones pull different things out of your voice, and highlight different things from your voice. I just find that so interesting because the voice has always been my instrument. I play a little bit of a lot of instruments: I play a little bit of guitar, I can mess around a little bit on the bass, I play a little bit of drums, I play a little bit of keyboard, but I can’t really play anything like I can manage with my voice as an instrument, so it’s always been the most natural way of expressing: singing this idea that the voice is an instrument, and that definitely came from having that microphone growing up.    

No one really ever reps Jersey. Having grown up in Jersey, how has it made its way into your music? Or is there anything else you’d like to say about it?

Oh absolutely. I remember being in New Jersey bands, in a house in East Brunswick, and we would go to New York, and we would play all of the venues that everybody that was in a band in New Jersey played, and every band every single band would say “We’re from Brooklyn,” or “We’re from Manhattan.” I think there was this embarrassment around New Jersey as a place to represent, but I’ve totally outgrown that. I love New Jersey.

I don’t think I’d be the same person if that’s not where I grew up. I think it had a lot to do too with developing my personal style, and my sort of brash attitude. I think New Jersey kind of breeds that in people. I remember spending so many years bartending, trying to support myself. I would bartend as a way to pay my rent, and you have to be really tough to bartend in New Jersey. There are a lot of weird dudes staring at you all the time, and you work late nights, and the hours are insane. I remember I was in this scene of women in New Jersey that were getting covered in tattoos because it would toughen up their appearance and scare off unwanted attention, so I think that had a lot to do with why I started getting tattoos as well — to keep the wrong people from messing with you and talking to you. I think it has so much to do with how I view the world as a young woman that I’m from New Jersey, definitely.

Your new album is called “This Time,” and you’ve spoken of how it’s about taking the time to figure out exactly what you want out of life, and letting things develop in a way that feels natural, rather than always being in a rush. How did you realize that this was the way to go? Was there an “A-ha!” moment somewhere along the way?

I don’t think so. As a young woman, I was so inundated with the concept that time needs to ruin your life. And I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, and realizing that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was pursuing a career in music. I think that there’s this natural pacing to the music industry, how it looks from the outside like maybe everything suddenly happens. But it’s really not like that, at least for me. In my personal experience, I really had to learn patience, and I really had to apply that to myself every single day in order to just remain sane in trying to pursue this as a career, because it really does take such a long time for things to come together for you to get people on your team, to get people on board with your vision, and to even develop what that vision is. It seems to pertain to everything, not just the music industry getting to know yourself, developing confidence, going after the career you want, reaching different milestones. These things really do take time, and it’s ok to admit that, and to remind other people of that, and to sort of be a proponent of that to say “Yeah, that’s ok.” We don’t all need to be in such a rush. The best things really do take time. That would have to be the biggest takeaway message of the album.   

Most people feel like time speeds up as they grew older, but it seems like in your case, it might actually be slowing down? Do you agree?

I don’t know. I have the same voice that I think everyone hears in their head, that’s like, “Time is ticking. You’ve got to keep going.” I still hear that. I think that’s part of our societal view, the way the world works. And I think there’s not some magic equation that you can give yourself to say, “Ok, now we’ve figured it out.” I’m constantly reminding myself to slow down and to take a second.

The opening track “Girl” really sets the mood for the album, launching listeners in headlong. What is this song about?

“Girl” is about woman on woman conflict. It’s about interpersonal conflict between girls. I know this is not something that only women feel, but I know that it is something that women struggle with on a more pertinent basis. It’s about two women having a problem with one another. I think it’s important, as an artist, to talk about things that I understand, things that resonate with me, that stem from personal experience. And that’s what I hope to bring to all my songwriting. It’s all coming from an introspective place. I talk about things that I know, that I understand, or that I want to understand concepts that are relevant to me. And one extremely relevant concept, I think, to all women is this natural pitting against one another. There seems to be something woven into the fabric of our society that says women need to be in competition with one another.

I think it’s been really incredible to see that there’s starting to be this really beautiful shift in our culture that’s being reflected in media, in music, in fashion, in magazines. It’s a dismantling of that idea that women need to compete, or that you need to compare in order to get ahead. And I want to be a part of that incredible change that I’m seeing happening. Music is so indicative of what’s going on right now. It talks about society, it talks about our culture, and it really has the ability to define our culture. So I want my music to reflect these inspiring changes that I’m seeing all around me, and I want to be a part of those changes. “Girl” is meant to be a part of this conversation about women not needing to compete with one another, or to find fault with one another.  Just feel good about ourselves. And the more that we stand together as women, and say, “We’re not going to do that anymore,” I think the more chance we have of being heard on other issues that we believe in, so it’s really important for me to be a part of that with my music.

A lot of the emotive weight that your songs carry comes from bluesy vocal traditions that are so deeply rooted in our musical heritage that in moments like the chorus of “Keep Lying,” when you’re bellowing in full intensity, all of these internalized musical memories come to surface in a huge rush, and people feel like they’re listening to music they’ve always known. Who are some singers that you would say have especially made their mark on you?

Oh my god. Well, growing up, I was really fascinated with female singers, especially of the soul genre, so I listened to Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Billie Holiday. And my dad was always playing records. We also listened to a lot of classic pop music, which is where I think my songwriting sensibilities come from. First discovering vocalizing, definitely what sticks out the most is my memories of listening to soul, blues, female powerhouse singers, and that sort of evolved into other genres. My fascination sort of persevered. In my teenage years, I was really into female R&B girl groups like Destiny’s Child, TLC. I love Mariah Carey. I would listen to Mariah Carey and learn how to sing by trying to do the same runs. Her music has always been really influential to the way I sing, definitely. But it started with the greats, as they say.   

You’ve called your genre “feminist stripper music,” among other things in a tweet. Expand on that genre description.

(Laugh) Well, I find that, obviously, when you tell people that you make music, one of the first questions is “What’s the genre?” and I’ve always had trouble fitting my music into a particular genre. It doesn’t really seem to fit in any category that’s already there. It’s not quite pop, it’s not quite R&B, it’s not really alternative. So I decided that the best way to describe it was to make up my own descriptions. I had noticed, when I first started releasing music, people check out what you have to say, and share something back with you that’s inspired by what you’ve done. And I was having a lot of pole dancers making videos to my music. And so, I thought that was really interesting these super strong women, exhibiting such strength, also with beauty and poise, and I just thought that that was so cool, that it seems to be some weird way that I was connecting with people. So that’s where that definition came from, and so now, whenever I’m asked to describe the music I make, I always say “feminist stripper music.” (Laughs) It’s a fun way of describing it without really describing it at all.

“Driving” is, in your own words, about “that  feeling of seeing something you want in the  distance and making the decision to go for it.” You’re based in LA, which is notorious for its traffic, so “driving” seems like a strange metaphor for expressing this. How did this come to be?

(Laughs) Well, I’m from New Jersey, and I drove myself everywhere. I think the metaphor is more about feeling behind the wheel of your own destination, saying “This is where I want to go,” and if you’re the driver, you get to take yourself there. And maybe it takes a long time to get there, or maybe you’re having some car trouble, and you have to figure it out, but whatever it is, whatever obstacles, you are the one that has to take care of it, and you do.  

You have a couple headlining dates coming up, followed by a run of shows with Bishop Briggs, and a set at Austin City Limits. Tell fans a little about what they can expect.  

Well, we’re playing two headlining shows this month right after my album comes out. I’m really excited to play New York again. My little brother will be playing with me for the first time. He just joined the band as my guitarist. My whole family will be there. And then, we’ll be playing the Troubadour up here in LA. I’m just excited to play theses songs from the record. I’ve been holding on to them for so long, and I think it’ll be really exciting to finally be showing something that’s out there. Until now, I’ve been playing songs from the record that aren’t released, and it’ll be really fun to have them released by the time I’m playing these shows. And the Bishop Briggs thing is super fun it’s two women out there, playing their own music, kind of a dream come through, and she’s really very cool. Austin City Limits seems like an amazing festival, and I’ve never been, so I’m super excited to be back in Austin. It’s such a good city. And I love any opportunity to play, so I think it’ll all be really fun.

This Time” is available Sept. 7 on Apple Music. Missal’s tour runs from Sept. 10 to Oct. 13 with stops at NYC’s Rough Trade on Sept. 10 and L.A.’s Troubadour on Sept. 25. All tour dates and tickets are here.