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Pop tastemaker Daniella Mason discusses new EP, influences, and ‘Riverdale’

Jun. 13, 2019
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I am in the middle of a thunderstorm when Daniella calls me, and through flickering electricity and snaps of thunder she tells me she’s getting over a gnarly sinus infection (or what she thinks is a sinus infection—she’s not really sure). It’s all good, though, because we’re both trying to play it cool. 

Daniella Mason is a frenetic pop musician with skin in the game, a head in the clouds, and her toes dug into Nashville soil. She’s rooted in her pop sensibilities, yes, but she’s uniquely independent as an artist: Mason not only writes all of her own music, but she does her own graphic design work, directs and edits her videos, styles all of her photoshoots, and works to keep her head screwed on tight. 

With her plush new EP Mental State freshly released, we discuss her ambitious four-part EP project, the warm, electrifying pop scene in Nashville, and the epic highs and lows of teen dramas. 

Adolescent Content: Tell me about the process of conceptualizing the EP.

Daniella Mason: I’m in the middle of a four-part project, and it has four EPs. The first of the four came out in the fall, and that was called Emotional State, and now we’re on Mental State, and after Mental State we’ll move onto Physical State and Spiritual State. I had a story I wanted to tell over the course of the four EPs, and the order of them was pretty important to me because it reflects my own journey of coming into a new wholeness. The only way I was able to go through that journey was when I started with opening myself up to my emotional space and dealing with some of my past pain and trauma, processing my emotions, and allowing myself to be human and broken. 

This EP is really about losing my way and finding [it] again, all of the things that come with being a chronic overthinker, dealing with the questions that I needed to deal with, and dealing with my memories and all of the things I was afraid of. I feel a lot braver on the other end of it. It opened up the rest of my life, physically, spiritually, everything. 

Adolescent: Were there any striking differences in production between your 2017 record and your newest release?  

Daniella: There’s a difference sonically. I would say Mental State is probably the weirdest of the four. I allowed myself to be a bit freer with the form of the songs and loosen myself when it comes to knowing the rules of pop music. There’s definitely still some of that in there because I am a pop writer and that comes out, but I let myself off the hook a little. “Deepest of Wells” is one of the singles off the record and it’s very stream-of-consciousness in style, and we just let it unfold naturally and didn’t try to make it conform to the larger pop space. It’s been fun to be a bit freer with this one and let things unfold as they will without changing it or overthinking, which is hilarious because “Get Me Out of My Head” is about trying to stop overthinking, and it was the one song that I was overthinking like crazy. 

Adolescent: That’s interesting that you mention letting the music take a life of its own. Pop often gets a bad rep for appearing factory-generated and disingenuine—being produced in laboratories by Swedish geniuses. But I find a lot of modern pop is innovative and completely experimental, even if it’s coming from artists like Ariana Grande, who are backed by these entertainment giants. Do you feel that as a pop musician you have to defend what you create and its authenticity, or is it completely the opposite? 

Daniella: I’ve had to defend myself a little bit. I do find that I have to defend myself less and less though, which is really fun, because there are more risks being taken in this genre, and the boundaries of the genre are getting wider. I think it’s because the listeners are so diverse now. There are just so many different interests and so many different ways to consume music, and people can really cater what they listen to to their own tastes, and curate specific playlists of exactly what they want to hear. It’s given us this new reason to be more creative because there are so many more people to reach. I think it starts with some of the indie-pop people who don’t have these big machines that they have to answer to—it starts with them pushing the boundaries, and a lot of times it ends up reaching some of the bigger artists, and they feel like they can start to take more risks because it’s the way that music has been going. For a long time there has been this groundwork made of some of these left-of-center pop artists taking these risks, and it’s starting to show up more in the mainstream pop world, which is really fun for someone like me, just because I float around between those two worlds and I have noticed that less and less people are confused by what I do. 

I had one review of a record I did back when I was on a label, and they assumed that everything I was doing came from the factory. What they didn’t know was that this was three people—we tracked my vocals in a closet. It was more than factory-generated. This was us being authentic. Pop music is changing and there’s an authenticity that’s coming to it, and you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. There’s a new hope. 

Adolescent: I think there’s something to be said about the fact that you have somewhat complete creative control over a lot of the individual elements of your music—from handling the graphic design to directing and styling the shoots and writing your own music. Why do you find it so important to be heavily involved in these stages? 

Daniella: It’s a few different answers. I’ve had to do it because I don’t have enormous financial backing, so a lot of these things I’ve learned how to do because I couldn’t afford to hire someone else to do them. But it’s really helped me to find these abilities. Had I had more resources, I would never have found that creativity that was hidden within me. 

As my career has grown, I’ve been able to collaborate more, which is so fun for me… But even as my resources grow, I still find myself being involved in almost every aspect because I’ve fallen in love with the whole creative process. I ended up hiring someone to do the graphic design for the EP cover—I did all of the graphic design for the singles, but I had this great illustrator collaborate with me, but even then, I met her at a coffee shop and went over every detail and moved things around. It ends up being really collaborative and fun for me because it gives me the opportunity to share my vision in so many different mediums. Whether it’s visually, sonically, in the videos, or in the music, I can tell my story in different ways and make sure that I do my part as a storyteller. I hope that in the future I can collaborate more because I have the resources to pay other artists and creatives. Though I look forward to growing my team and my community, I know I’ll always have that extra involvement, because now that I’ve had a taste of it all, I can’t stop all the way. I’ve got to be all-in, all the time. 

Adolescent: Though Nashville has this reputation of being locked in this twangy, Honky Tonk delirium, the pop scene and music scene in general is so diverse. There’s this crazy cross-pollination of hip-hop, trap, EDM, jazz, pop, everything. How much of an influence do you think Nashville has on your music? 

Daniella: When I first started doing pop in Nashville, there wasn’t a ton. Over time, it’s really blossomed. I love LA and I’m there a lot, but there is something so special in the soil in Nashville—it’s in the ground here. There’s this history of creativity and authenticity. This town has a history of storytellers. When you bring a pop sensibility to a storyteller city, you’ve got this interesting mix of the two worlds: sonically, it sounds like any pop music you’re going to hear from New York or LA, but there’s this deep quality that you’ll hear in pop music coming out of Nashville and I think it’s because it’s the thing that’s in the soil here. That’s why I live here. When I come back to Nashville, I immediately feel more grounded and more inspired to tell the truth. I love traveling to other places and getting sonic inspiration, but when it comes to the heart of it, I really get inspiration being here. That’s one of the reasons I’ve gone out of my way to help cultivate the pop scene, because I’ve felt there’s something to the combination of musicianship, storytelling, and the pop sensibility. 

Adolescent: What were you reading, watching, or listening to when piecing together the EP? Do you think whatever media you were consuming at that moment influenced it in any way? 

Daniella: I wasn’t listening to a lot of music at the time. I try to not oversaturate my mind with other music from my own genre, especially when I’m putting together a record, because I never want to unknowingly rip something off or mimic someone else. A lot of times, something I’ll do is listen to the older, more classic stuff that I grew up on. When I was putting together this record, I was listening to a ton of stuff from the seventies, and I know it doesn’t come across sonically, but there’s such a feeling about those songs—they’re so honest and brutal in a lot of ways. I put a playlist together of all of these songs from the seventies, and that was the playlist I was listening to when I sent my final email of the plants for the record. 

I try to keep my life inspired. I try to constantly keep consuming beautiful art because it keeps me on my toes—it keeps me thinking critically and creatively. Keep it exercising. 

Adolescent: Who are your musical and artistic influences? 

Daniella: Early on when I developed the sound that I have now, James Blake was a big influence for me. I just saw the risks that he was taking, and the amount of creative responsibility he had—you can tell he really took it seriously, his place in the world and his opportunities to say something, to create something that people would listen to. I’ve always been really drawn to these quirky storytellers—in high school I listened to Regina Spektor and Damien Rice and all these different acts that were so authentic and individualistic. I took a lot of notes from them. Now it’s fun because I’m part of this weird little pop corner where everyone is going out of their way to be creative and authentic, and I’m always, just by osmosis, taking in inspiration. 

Adolescent: You’re a musician, graphic designer, stylist, director, and writer. When you aren’t flexing your creative muscles, what are you doing? 

Daniella: I do like to cook. I grew up in an Italian family, so I was taught that it was a sin if a girl didn’t know how to cook by the age of eight. I wish I had more time to do it more, because it really is something that relaxes me. I am a pretty excellent Netflix-binger, and I have a unique talent of watching twenty hours straight of a show. I have adopted a new thing that I like, which is camping. I just went camping for the first time since I was a kid, and I was like wow, this needs to be a regular part of my life. Just unplugging and taking myself away from my beloved technology refreshed me in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time. 

Maybe I can do it once a year to remind myself there’s something bigger than me and these trees are older than me—they were here when I was born, and they’ll be here when I die. It’ll remind me of my place in the world and make me feel a little less important.

Adolescent: What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Daniella: I just finished a bunch of shows. We’re about to start Chernobyl. I honestly haven’t started it because I’ve been so stressed with the album release that I figured the show would make me more stressed. As soon as the album comes out and I have a chance, I want to dive into that show. My TV taste varies—I go through some of this deep, cerebral content, and then I love teen dramas. It’s a combination of HBO, Showtime, and Riverdale. I am here for the drama. My real life is not very dramatic, so I fill that part of my life with all the teen dramas I watch. 

Adolescent: If your new EP was a dessert, what would it be?

Daniella: I feel like it would be kettle corn. It would have the salty and the sweet, there are layers, it’s not just the same thing. I like to have that combination—in my life and in my music. 

Adolescent: Tell me what’s in store for you next.

Daniella: I’m working on a video from this record for “Girl in the Box.” Every once in a while I’ll write a song and all of the visual elements will come to me when I write it. I had the first pre-production call with the guy I did “Human” [Mason’s lead single from her previous EP] with—his name is Motke Dapp and he’s a filmmaker, and I love working with him on some of these more specific ideas I get because they need a specific skillset to tell the story really well. I sent him my ideas and he immediately called me and was like, “Okay, we have to do this.” We’ll be starting production on that in the next couple of weeks, and then we’ll be moving onto Physical State in late summer and into the fall.