L.A. singer/songwriter Willa AmaiAt just 17 years old, Los Angeles singer and songwriter Willa Amai is making great strides towards bonafide stardom. Both musically and in conversation, she displays a maturity that utterly belies her tender years – raw and open qualities that are at once relatable and impressive. Credit is due to herself, her family, and mentor Linda Perry.

“I met Linda through a mutual friend,” Amai says. “She set up this meeting with Linda, and all it was supposed to be was that Linda would give me a pat on the back and say, ‘It’s a hard business but you’ll be fine.’ Then we would go our separate ways. But I played a song for her, and after sitting very silently for a while she finally told me to come back in two months with five songs. I came back in two months with six songs, and I played them for her at her studio. She came out of the booth and she was crying.”

Perry was impressed, and wanted to record the tunes. So two weeks later, when Amai hit spring break, she returned with seven more songs and they recorded the 13 song album.

“She let me be me,” Amai says. “If I wanted any other instruments on it I had to learn the parts. She sent me home with a bass once so I could teach myself a bass part for one of the songs. That’s where it all began.”

It’s just reward for a young musician who has been singing for as long as she can remember. Describing herself as a “late walker but an early talker,” Amai says that she was penning rudimentary songs in preschool.

“During recess, I would walk around the perimeter of the playground and sing made up songs,” she says. “But I started playing piano when I was four. My teacher, even though I was taught classically, was also so encouraging of creativity. She simultaneously taught me how to read music and play classical music, and also how to figure out the chords to the songs I would write. So then the songs I was writing became real songs in third grade-ish, when I would learn about poetry in school. That’s when they became recognizable as songs.”

The desire to create continued through elementary school, but it was that meeting with Perry when she was just 12 that changed everything. That’s when music started to feel like a real career. Now, the world’s her oyster and her current and future successes all stem from painfully honest lyrics.

“I love so many different genres and I really like to open myself up to them,” she says. “But I think the common thread is that I want to be as honest emotionally as possible. I think that the best music is the most relatable, not because we’ve all been in the same situations because we haven’t, it’s because we all have the same emotions effectively. When you strip away the facts, the evidence and the specifics of the situation, it’s sadness, grief, jealousy or spite. So I think the more honest I can be with myself when I write, even if it’s difficult, and oftentimes it is, I think that’s what makes the best music.”

So that’s what she does, and those are the themes that run through her album, I Can Go to Bed Whenever.

“The album came out of, I was so anxious about growing up,” she says. “I’m in-between childhood and adulthood, and I didn’t feel like I knew where I was supposed to go. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act. Who I was supposed to be. I wanted to be an adult. I wanted to have the maturity of an adult, but at the same time I wasn’t prepared to let go of my childhood and all the things that entails. I was really grappling with it. Out of that anxiety came jealousy, anger and fear but also love and joy, connections with other people. You can hear all of that in the album. It all documents the emotions that I went through, in that difficult time.”

Amai was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at an early age, and music has proven to be a healthy outlet over the years.

“Especially because a lot of my anxiety is rooted in my fear of the unknown,” she says. “Not understanding my emotions is really difficult for me, and writing music helps me understand the way that I feel. So it’s always been an outlet. It’s been a way for me to understand who I am. This album did exactly that for me. I’m in such a healthier place now mentally than I was when I wrote that music, and I think that the album itself is a huge reason for that.”

She was fortunate in that her album was effectively recorded prior to the pandemic stopping the world for a year, leaving her to just deal with the mixing, mastering and marketing during lockdown. She says that she feels she was in a luxurious position as a result, despite being able to perform live in front of a crowd and properly promote the album.

“I was really lucky to be able to do a lot of virtual shows, but it’s not the same,” she says. “You don’t get to connect with the audience in the way that you do in person. So it did present its challenges, but I’m definitely really lucky for the situation that I have been in.”

Fortunately, the world is starting to open up and touring is a real possibility again. That presents its own challenges though, as Amai balances her career in music with school.

“I go to a pretty intense high school,” she says. “I actually love school and I’m good at school. I’ve always loved to learn. So I’m going to high school and taking SATs, ACTs and AP exams simultaneously while releasing this album. Music has to coexist with school because school creates a lot of stress that music can alleviate. But also, school has to coexist with music because school provides a structure and stability that music will never have.”

That’s how level Willa Amai’s head is.

L.A. singer/songwriter Willa AmaiThe album I Can Go to Bed Whenever  is out now.

LA Weekly