We sat down with London-based musician Elyss Daya for a chat about her upbringing, ambitions and confusion about what kind of music she even makes.
‘I really like writing poetry and I’ve always written, just, random words since I was really, really young,’ Elyss remarks, telling the story of how she got into making music, ‘then, when I was 12, I got a guitar and that just naturally got me into songwriting. I was writing songs about, like, friendship and just being really curious.’ She’s only 20 now, but that hasn’t stopped her developing a sophisticated sound. ‘I really enjoy writing about my life, in a way… analysing myself. Writing music is like therapy for me.’
She may have picked up guitar at 12, but her creative ambitions came even earlier. ‘I remember when I was seven, I was involved in this performing arts. I’m not sure if it’d be a school, but it’s not a club. It’s very trained. So, when I was eight I was there learning how to perform and stage presence.’
'Writing music is like therapy for me.'
Since December 2017, Elyss has put out three singles, the most recent being “Nothing New”, released in October. When we asked about the meaning behind the track, she told as that all three of the singles are essentially chapters of a story. ‘I really like mystery and making puzzles and trying to code things, so it all started with “Ignition”, which is actually about the urgency of wanting to connect with someone, “Unspoken” is not really saying how you really feel so you supress it and “Nothing New” is a reflection of how often I do that. Like, the cycle of me never saying how I actually feel about a situation, about a person.’
With that kind of thematic progression, they’d be a natural fit for a longer release, so we asked Elyss if she had any plans. ‘I really hope to release an EP soon,’ she tells us, ‘but I’m not sure those three songs would be part of it. It’s quite, like, a generic narrative, and if I did an EP I’d want it to be a bit more specific. I think it’d be more concept. It’d be very cohesive, talking about one specific idea.’ She’s got grand plans and passion in bunches, and when we asked her about the possibility of making more videos to accompany the music, it turned out she also had methods in mind for those grand plans. ‘I've got friends who are involved with short films. An independent film organisation. So maybe something like that collaboration. There’s not really a specific plan yet, but it’s something I’m really excited to happen.’
Despite the consistency in her songwriting, Elyss is a bit more ambiguous when it comes to the genres she fits into. ‘I try to go for dream indie-pop. More, kind of like, ambience. Sometimes I just say singer-songwriter because singer-songwriter can be anything now. Ed Sheeran does that too; he’s in the singer-songwriter genre but he’s in the pop mainstream, some of his old stuff especially.’ Our mention of Lorde as someone who blurs genre boundaries provokes an excited response. ‘Yeah, she’s kind of the poster child of this new sound, because technically she’s kind of urban but she’s also pop. Pure Heroine was like my soundtrack.’
'Growing up, my parents really listened to different types of music, which is why I’m always so confused what genre I’m actually doing.'
Elyss is of Filipino descent, and though it isn’t immediately obvious in her music, it’s had a big impact. ‘I actually grew up in the Philippines and then I moved when I was really young. I think I was ten. When I was growing up, my parents really listened to different types of music, which is why I’m always so confused what genre I’m actually doing. When I write music, I don’t actually think of it as one genre until the very end of the production.’ When we asked whether she feels the need to define herself by her heritage, she gets a little introspective. ‘This is gonna sound really pretentious,’ she begins, with a nervous laugh, ‘but I kinda just wanna identify as Elyss Daya who writes songs about her life. I’m not gonna get offended if someone says “oh, she’s from the Philippines, she’s not really British” if that makes sense. It gets complicated.’
Her perspective also raises the question of industry diversity, so we asked for her views on progress made, and whether she thinks there’s still a long way to go. ‘I think we’re slowly getting there, but we’re not that close yet. Because I didn’t grow up here in England, I haven't really looked up at anyone who looks like me. I've never actually seen a Filipino who's actually "made it" in the media. Do you know the Miss Universe pageant show? The Philippines won, and it’s the first time I’d seen anything from there go viral. That was the only time.’ Her response isn’t entirely surprising, but it’s worrying that we’ve reached 2019 without that significant change. Followed up her answer, we asked whether she thinks it could be around the corner. ‘I’d like to think so, I wish someone would just break through the noise and become a role model for girls like me.’
'I wish someone would just break through the noise and become a role model for girls like me.'
Young, creative and passionate about diversity — it sounded to us like Elyss fits the bill herself, and she was excited at our suggestion that she could be an industry role model. ‘I’d like to be one. I remember in school, when I was applying to become a music representative, on my application I was like “I will be an inspiration for any girl who likes to do music”. And then I got it and I remember the only thing I did was to make sure the headphones were put away properly. I was like “great, this is good”.’ A disappointing experience as a ‘representative’ hasn’t slowed her down, at least.
She’s still relatively new to the music scene, but Elyss is adamant that she wants to have complete control over her output. Despite that, she’s remaining realistic about the writing process. ‘I tend to focus on actually executing. That’s when I could use someone’s advice to step in and tell me if I’m doing anything wrong. Obviously, I don’t like people walking over me.’ Still, Elyss is hopeful about the prospect of being signed. When we asked if she had a label in mind, she told us that Spinnup was her goal. ‘Their parent company is Universal music, so I’m like…. going for that. Also, when Taylor Swift moved labels, and she wrote about how she wanted labels to pay artists actual royalties from Spotify fairly, I was like “ok, she’s a role model, go Universal”.’ But whatever happens, she’s also not picky. ‘I’m happy with whatever. It’s just like, if the label is right for you. If you’re an artist and you don’t like the music you’re selling people…I’m not sure how I’d feel about that. Because it’s a career.’
Steering back towards more concrete plans, we ended by asking Elyss if she had any future gigs or tours in the works. ‘I haven’t toured. I’ve done gigs but not proper touring. It was mostly private gigs. Like, people book you for parties. I’m interested in doing more gigs this year. I’d love to. Maybe I’ll make that my goal this year, or maybe I’ll just do more gigs and call it a tour.’