S/T 010: Dallas Is A Pop Star Without Even Trying To Be One

Pop music as a genre is unique. Every other category of music is defined by one or more shared characteristics; the guitar licks of the blues, the improvisation and instruments of jazz, the, well, rapping of rap. You can hear any of those qualities in a song and immediately know that you’re listening to a certain genre, which is something you can’t do with pop music. Pop is short for popular: it’s literally whatever sound is trendiest at the time. What was considered pop music in the 1980s is now called synthwave, and it was only a few years ago that dancehall went from having small, dedicated fanbases outside of its home countries to being the backbone of hits that have been streamed billions of times.

The malleability of pop music as a genre is also the greatest challenge to those who want to be part of it. You can be on top of the industry one day, and called washed up on Twitter the next, if you can’t learn to evolve your own work with what is currently “in”. Almost all of the world’s longest-standing pop stars have found a way to excel within the genre’s constantly-shifting nature, and they mostly fall into two sections. The first group are the shapeshifters- think Madonna or Jay-Z, people who have mastered the art of finding the next trend and adopting it in order to stay relevant. The other group are the trendsetters- these are the likes of Kanye West and Joni Mitchell, who are born with the generational talent to think outside of the box enough to formulate completely new ideas while being able to stay within conventional structures and melodies, amassing millions of fans who wait patiently to see what they do next, and how it’ll change what the rest of their personal playlists will sound like going forward.

Toronto singer and songwriter Dallas is destined to be a trendsetter. While what she makes is within the realm of pop music (four-chord progressions, catchy hooks), there’s clearly more to what Dallas is trying to do. You can hear the edge of early-2000s pop-punk, the smooth deliveries of contemporary R&B artists like SZA and Summer Walker, and production that incorporates underground-electronic timbres and hip-hop bounce. Being a fan of hers is exciting, because you never really know what you’re going to get when she puts a new song out. Her newest track, “Shark”, isn’t like anything she’s put out before, but it doesn’t sound like an attempt to experiment for the sake of experimenting, and it should put anyone who isn’t listening, including the biggest artists on Earth, on notice. Because the more Dallas experiments and the bigger the number of supporters she has grows, the closer she’ll get to finding the sound that will define what “pop” music is for the next generation.

For this week’s Sound Over Time interview, we spoke to Dallas about how she’s arrived at her current sound, her feelings on collaboration, her creative process, and more. Read down below, and remember to check out her new track “Shark”.

Sound Over Time: Growing up, what was some of the music your parents and other older figures in your life were listening to?

Dallas: Nobody in my family outside of me is really musically inclined, but the biggest one would probably be my mom. She would play music really loud in the car on the way to school, and I found a lot of stuff I loved from that early on. Evanescence was a big one. That band still has a really big influence on my writing style to this day. Blink-182, as well. Green Day, Avril Lavigne; I found myself drawn to those pop-punk acts. There was a completely different side to it, though; I loved the Dixie Chicks, which is the complete opposite from those acts. It was all over the place.

The common factor between those acts, even when the genre isn’t the same, is a very raw style of songwriting and lyricism. Do you think that’s what appealed to you, and do you think it rubbed off?

Absolutely. I think of myself as a songwriter first, and a performer second, because I’ve been writing songs since I was six years old. Granted, they were pretty shitty [laughs], and I was writing about things that I hadn’t experienced yet. It was mostly just making songs about movies I’d seen or books I’d read. As I got older, I naturally started to incorporate more of my own experiences, and the music improved from there.

It sounds like you’re much more comfortable in the realm of writing. Like, you’d rather be a songwriter for other artists than be a vocalist who has to sing other people’s songs.

The bands that I named before, I think they connected with me because they wrote their own music and performed it. It’s not the same now, where a lot of the big stars have seven or eight writers on each song they release. I couldn’t see myself doing that. So as far as that choice, I don’t know. I call myself a songwriter first because I’ve been doing it longer, and I feel at-home working in a studio writing for other people or myself. Performing is something that’s much newer to me, and so it’s less instinctive at this point.

I understand what you mean, and I don’t think that’s a jab at other artists who choose to have people brought in to help write. Hiring Max Martin to write a song for you is a very smart decision, business-wise and creatively.

Don’t get me wrong; if I had the chance to write with Max Martin, I’m taking it, ten times out of ten. [laughs].

Of course! But you said with, and I said for; that’s very indicative of your approach. You can’t even think about making music without actively being a part of the writing process.

Yeah, definitely. That’s funny.

You mentioned that you’re working on growing as a performer. Are there any performances you’ve witnessed that have provided a blueprint for what you want your stage presence and performance to be like in a live setting?

The first moment where I saw someone live and immediately knew I wanted to perform in a similar way and get a similar crowd reaction was when I saw Rihanna. She has a type of energy that nobody else can emulate; the way she performs and her style of music is incredible. It’s insane to watch.

I feel like she’s one of those people who grabs everyone’s attention the second she steps into the room. There’s a supreme confidence about her.

For sure. I’ve watched interviews with her, and it’s not an act; she has that aura on and off the stage. That’s not a knock against anyone who puts on a stage persona; Beyoncé does it with Sasha Fierce, and she’s one of the all-time great performers.

It’s similar to different types of actors in movies: some actors basically play themselves in every movie, and then there are method actors, who do everything they can to become someone else. Both can be excellent; one isn’t objectively better than the other.

That’s a good way to put it.

Which one are you?

I would lean towards the latter. Acting was a big part of my youth, and so I’m used to turning into someone else when I’m onstage. It’s funny; when I’m on stage playing a role, I’m not nervous- I’m excited. But when I’m performing my own music, the nerves really kick in. What you see on stage from me is still authentic to who I am, but by imagining myself playing a role, it creates a feeling of familiarity.

It’s a whole new world to have to be yourself up there, and from what you’ve said, creating a character is your way of relating your shows to acting, a space you’re comfortable in.

Yeah! It helps. But it’s not like the persona I have on stage isn’t me. That would be impossible, because the music I write is based on my personal experiences. Going on stage to perform songs based on my life, it’s a very vulnerable state to be in, and it’s tough to be vulnerable, especially in front of people you don’t know.

How do you think living in Toronto affected you, and are there any Canadian artists you base a part of your sound on?

Working in Toronto, it’s a pretty cutthroat scene. Since there are massive acts that have come out of the city — Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber — labels and A&Rs are always on the hunt for the next big thing, and it’s resulted in a lot of new artists taking an in-it-for-themselves approach that lacks collaboration. I do the opposite; if I’m working with someone, it’s for mutual benefit.

You don’t necessarily believe in the idea of racing to the top.

Yeah, or using anyone to get ahead. The music industry is a dog-eat-dog business, and a lot of people can be very shady. They’ll try and take points away from you, whether it’s publicity or money. I’ve experienced it already, and I haven’t even gotten close to where I want to be in my career. It’s nuts to me, having to get a lawyer and manager to handle everything this early. It’s why I don’t let a lot of people in the room when I’m writing for myself. It’s just me and one or both of my producers.

As far as the effect that living here has had on my work, I wouldn’t say it had much, just because I grew up around forty-five minutes from the city. I also don’t think I have a traditionally Canadian sound, which is a bit different from a lot of my peers. I’m trying to branch out and push the boundaries of genre. I’m not a Canadian pop star; I want to blend everything I love together and make something fresh.

Did trying to blend genres have a hand in choosing to work with the two producers you talked about? What genres are they?

I’ve been working with my main producer, Atom (@createdbyatom), for a long time now. He’s guided me a lot in terms of what I want to hear on a song. At first, I’d go into sessions with an idea of what I was going to sing, and let him or my other producer Blvxz (@blvxz) create the instrumental around it. Now, I’m more confident in being more active in their process. I’ll sit beside them and talk about exactly what I want, and help them get there. It’s gotten to a point where we’re now constantly challenging each other to make the best, most unique song possible.

You’ve surrounded yourself with like-minded individuals with the same goal. That’s not an easy thing to do in music.

Yeah. I think that’s so important. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t find people that you can trust and have chemistry with, you won’t get very far. I’m very grateful to have the team I do, because we’re constantly supporting each other.

Are there any new artists in recent years that you’ve discovered that have changed the way you want your music to sound?

Banks. I’ve known of her stuff since high school, but it didn’t really resonate with me until two-to-four years ago. I think she’s unbelievably talented with lyrics, and her melodies are insane! I’m obsessed with how she writes her song.

There’s a pretty clear similarity in the tone of your music and what Banks has put out. Especially the more electronic-based ones you’ve released recently, as opposed your more acoustic catalog.

My music has definitely changed in the past three years, and she’s been a part of that. “Sour Cherry” was my attempt at making a song that reminded me of Banks. I tried to emulate the whispery vocals under her vocals and the harmonies she uses. It’s something I’ve been trying out lately; I know what I like my own songs to sound like, so it’s fun to challenge myself to write like someone I admire.

Are there any songs of yours where it felt like the process in making it was a result of everything you’ve done coming together perfectly? If so, what was it?

There are two that stick out. When I wrote “Strangers”, it felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. It was the fastest I’ve ever written a song; it took less than 10 minutes, and we didn’t change a single thing about it afterward. It was surreal. When we finished, I felt like I had been dreaming. It was like everything went in fast-motion

The other one was the song coming out this Friday, “Shark”. It came after a 2019 meeting with a powerful person in the music industry. After listening to a few songs, they looked at me and said, “you sound good, and you look good. But your music’s all over the place”. It really upset me at the time, but looking back, they were right. I would write something that was super R&B, then I’d do punk rock, and then singer-songwriter. My mindset at the time was, “why can’t I make anything I want? I listen to everything, so I want to write and perform everything”?

That same week, I went to the studio and wrote “Shark”. It was a really pivotal point for me, because it’s the first song I wrote in the style that’s now what I’m known for. Writing “Shark” is what made me realize who I was as a pop artist, and how I was going to stand out from the rest.

Did you do anything different in terms of structure when you wrote these songs? Have you tried to emulate these experiences since?

Not really. I generally write very fast. I’ll get in the studio, and write my melodies and lyrics at the same time to either a four-chord progression or a very simple sample. I find that once I’m in the zone doing that, I write my best stuff. I think that process is also why I struggle to find that same zone when I’m performing. I’m hyper-aware of the emotions I’m feeling when onstage, and so it’s hard to dial in the same way I can in the studio. It’s either that or the complete opposite- I’ll get into a complete autopilot mode where I’m onstage and I’m not even paying attention. Falling into a lull like that is dangerous, because once you snap back into it, you can forget where you are in a song and mess up the entire thing.

That autopilot problem is probably why some artists choreograph dances for their performances. It forces them to focus the whole time, so they don’t drift away mentally.

You nailed it on the head. It allows you to focus on something, so you aren’t too focused on any possible mistakes in the music.

Let’s say, twenty years from now, an up-and-coming artist is doing this interview, and you’ve reached huge success. What do you hope they’d say if they listed you as an influence?

I’d hope that I promote taking risks in your work. Taking risks is the most important thing to me in the creative process, and the music that I’m going to be releasing in the near future embodies that. I don’t want to just be known as a pop star, but as someone who brought all the genres and acts that I love to the table and blended them into a cohesive, signature sound. If even one person twenty years from now says my music helped them do the same thing, I’ll be happy.

You want your music to get people to embrace being uncomfortable with what is expected of a pop star.

Yeah. I’m really grateful for the person who told me that my sound was all over the place. I still think my sound is all over the place, but it’s much more consistent. I’m bringing elements into my tracks instead of trying to emulate them all separately.

It sounds like what you took from that meeting was, “why would I make three good songs in three different genres if I can take my favourite parts of those three genres and make one amazing song”.

Basically. I feel like I’ve finally found my sound, one that isn’t afraid to work anything that I’m inspired by into one core aesthetic. And it feels good to have figured that out.

Basically. I feel like I’ve found my sound, and it’s one that will take anything that I’m inspired by and find a way to integrate it into what I’m doing at the moment. And it feels good to have figured that out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Follow Dallas on Instagram and Twitter @dallasrodin,

Follow Sound Over Time on Instagram @soundover.time and on Twitter @soundover_time.

Dedicated to learning about the music that inspires the musicians.

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