Interview by Dean Sanders @dean__sanders

In this interview, we sit down with singer and songwriter Arlissa to discuss her journey as a musician and her experiences navigating the music industry. Arlissa shares insights into her personal and professional growth, the pressures she faced to conform to industry expectations, and her decision to release her own music during the pandemic. She also talks about her collaborations with prominent artists, her upcoming debut album “The Open Hearted,” and the influence of her queer identity on her music and representation. Join us as we delve into Arlissa’s unique musical journey and her unwavering commitment to authenticity and self-expression.

Growing up in London with your father playing piano in a Prince tribute band, how did this environment impact your development as a musician?

Well, my upbringing was quite intriguing. My dad played in a Prince tribute band. Meanwhile, my mom was involved in music as well, but she didn’t support my career aspirations at all. 

When I expressed my desire to become a singer-songwriter to my dad, he wholeheartedly encouraged me to go for it. However, pursuing my dreams came at the cost of my relationship with my mother, but fortunately, I had my dad by my side. 

I strongly believe that our life experiences shape us in profound ways. For quite some time, there was an underlying fear in my voice, fearing the potential consequences of pursuing singing. I worked through those fears and now I can think freely and embrace it all. 

Could you share your journey as a musician, from your initial studio experience to your breakthrough hit “Hearts Ain’t Gonna Lie”?

Back when I was younger, I remember stepping foot in the studio for the very first time at the age of 15. I was overflowing with excitement. However, things didn’t go exactly as I had envisioned. I was told to sing in a certain way, to conform to a specific mold, and it wasn’t the experience I had anticipated. So, it took a great deal of self-belief for me to navigate through that. Many individuals, including accomplished writers and producers, insisted on molding me into someone I wasn’t. And unfortunately, I bought into their opinions. This led to me signing a deal and all the trappings that come with it. But being locked into that deal didn’t align with my true self. It was as if I had been signed based on the façade I believed people wanted from me. And as we all know, such an approach never truly works. 

After breaking free from my previous deal, I gained authenticity by independently releasing a genuine single that reflected my newfound belief in myself. Its attention made me realize the value of trusting my instincts. Writing and sharing that song was undeniably thrilling, attracting genuine interest. However, life took a twist as another label came into the picture. They loved my work and offered a new deal, which I eagerly signed. Yet, I soon faced a familiar situation—being asked to change my style once again. Doubt crept in, and I questioned my own judgment, deferring to their supposed expertise. Sadly, I found myself altering who I was once more. 

Did you feel pressured to fit a certain image, like a typical Pop Idol? 

I often felt pressured about my appearance, especially during showcases. The people I worked with didn’t want me to go on stage if I didn’t dress in a sexy manner or conform to a certain look. Personally, I have a more understated style, although I do like to have fun with my outfits and explore different options. As a Virgo, I prefer to keep things a bit more low-key. 

When it came to labels, they tended to be risk-averse investment banks. Their approach was to find someone who already existed in the industry, someone who perhaps looked somewhat like me or shared a superficial similarity, and then they would mold that image onto me. It’s disappointing because they aimed for the least amount of risk possible. This happened quite frequently. I remember performing once, receiving positive feedback from the audience, but the first comment from my marketing manager was that it would have been even better if I had been in latex. It was disheartening to face such resistance. It was a peculiar time, and I often blamed myself, thinking it was my fault for not adhering to their expectations. It took me a while to realize that it was just a silly notion that had nothing to do with me. 

You signed a music contract at a young age. Looking back, would you make the same decision again? 

If I were faced with the opportunity again, I would likely sign that deal once more. Despite the many mistakes that occurred, the experience taught me invaluable lessons about my own identity. It’s challenging for me to deny that I wouldn’t have taken that path again, considering the immense benefits I reaped. It granted me a sense of freedom, both creatively and financially. Being independent and stable without relying on my family’s tumultuous relationship and having that financial safety net was crucial. Yes, it was a challenging and unsettling journey, but it provided me with tremendous growth and self-sufficiency. Life is a mix of wins and losses, and this was all part of my personal evolution. So, yes, I would probably make the same choice once more. 

During the pandemic, you curated your own EP “The Lovers” after facing challenges with your label. What was it like to release your own music during this time?

It was liberating, but it didn’t come without its challenges. For the first time ever, I had this newfound freedom to pursue exactly what I wanted. Parting ways with the label during the pandemic seemed like the perfect opportunity to embark on my own path. Finally, I could create without restrictions. However, it also meant that I no longer had the support of a big financial institution backing me. It was like a trade- off. Previously, I had the financial backing, but couldn’t release the music I truly wanted. Now, I had the artistic freedom, but lacked the financial resources. It was an intriguing and delicate balancing act, figuring out how to work with producers without a hefty budget and exploring revenue-sharing deals. I had to navigate the business side of things while still maintaining creativity and ensuring it was mutually beneficial for everyone involved. It was a learning experience, but a rewarding one. 

Your collaborations with BTS, Ariana Grande, and Zayn have been highly successful. How did you connect with these prominent artists in the music industry?

Yeah, I mean, collaborating with other artists is something I absolutely love. Most of the opportunities I’ve had to work with other artists have come through word of mouth. For instance, I might be in a session with a producer who happens to be working with a group like BTS, and they’ll be like, “Hey, can you help us write this song?” It’s always been this organic process for me, leading to things like publishing deals and more. Now that my album is finished, I want to explore that space even further. It’s a realm where I really follow my instincts and go wherever the universe takes me.

Your debut album, “The Open Hearted,” is set to release soon. Were personal experiences influential in the songwriting and creative process for this project?

 You see, I had actually written another album prior to this one, and it was centered around the end of my marriage. We had been together for nine years, the songs I wrote were filled with sentiments of love and remorse. It was like, “We still care for each other, but I’m sorry, it just didn’t work out. I have to move on.” There was this undercurrent of affection, but strangely enough, people didn’t find it relatable. I never officially released it, but I did play it for a few trusted individuals who responded with, “Yeah, it’s nice and sweet.” 

Then, I found myself in a subsequent relationship that ended in the most awful, sudden manner. It unleashed a whirlwind of anger, rage, and an array of emotions I hadn’t experienced before. It was a different kind of heartbreak, one that ignited a fiery energy within me. I had all this pent-up fury and resentment that I needed to channel into my music. So, I made a conscious decision to abandon the old album, which was still somewhat of a love letter to my ex, expressing sorrow and the inability to be together. Instead, this new album became a powerful, raw expression of my anger, shouting out, “Fuck you, motherfucker!” 

In terms of music, how does “The Open Hearted” differ from your prior releases? 

I had a lot of fun with this album, I really allowed myself to explore and experiment with different styles. You see, I’m quite an eclectic person. I don’t like to confine myself or put myself in a box in any way. I truly believe in the freedom to express oneself fully. 

You often see artists becoming known for a certain type of sound or style, and it works wonders for them. It’s highly marketable. Maybe that’s where I differ because I do a bit of everything. But with this album, there was this immense space to play around because it felt so raw, so genuine. When I write, it’s like I tap into a channel, you know? I don’t overthink it or let my ego dictate. I simply open myself up and let the music flow organically. Sometimes it leads to an afro beat’s vibe, other times it’s just me and a piano. The genre doesn’t really matter as long as I enjoy it and it resonates with me. 

That’s why you’ll find a variety of musical styles and genres on this album. But at its core, it’s undeniably me—my words, my melodies. It just feels like an authentic representation of who I am. 

Can you take us through the Album “The Open Hearted” and talk about your favorite tracks on there?

“Let You Go” is currently my favorite track on the album. It sets the tone right from the beginning. The first song I wrote, “Pieces” featuring Duckworth, captures the love and heartbreak of my post-marriage relationship. It symbolizes the beginning of the end. The album then explores the cracks in the relationship with songs like “Losing You” featuring Ram Dass, reflecting on the desperation of seeking love when feeling empty. But there’s a turning point with songs like “Therapist” and “Let You Go” where I finally see the red flags and let go. From that point on, the album becomes a celebration. 

How has your queer identity played a role in this representation? 

Being away and exploring the world has made me realize the significance of my queerness. When I was younger, certain family members, driven by their religious beliefs, made me feel ashamed of my attraction to both genders. Their words haunted me, and I lived in constant fear of being rejected and judged. Even though my dad was supportive, those negative messages still lingered. Growing up, I had heterosexual relationships while suppressing my feelings for women. It took a long time to accept myself, especially when there was little representation and limited acceptance. 

I had a relationship with a woman that made me question my identity and assume I was a lesbian. It wasn’t until later that I realized I can be attracted to both men and women, based on intellectual stimulation and connection. The lack of representation and relatable experiences contributed to my confusion. Now that I’ve found my true self, I proudly embrace my queerness and express my desires openly. It’s essential for me to speak up, build a supportive community, and create safe spaces for individuals who have similar struggles. The world is still broken in terms of acceptance, but by sharing our stories and being true to ourselves, we can cultivate a sense of belonging and freedom. It’s important to me to provide a safe space where people can be their authentic selves and find solace in the shared experiences of others.