JBL Emerging Interview: Arlissa embraces heartache on The OPEN-HEARTED

In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, L.A-based, German-British pop singer-songwriter Arlissa talks about coming into her own with her forthcoming debut album The OPEN-HEARTED – her first full-length project since going independent.

The product of a German father and Louisiana-born “army kid” mother, Arlissa moved to London at six months old. At 15, she set foot in her first studio, though she would take the next few years of her life to perfect her artistry. 

Label interest was there, as Arlissa signed to a major UK label on the spot at 19, though the fit wasn’t quite right. Arlissa fell victim to marketing machines, driving her in a different direction than she imagined.

In preparation for her forthcoming debut, Arlissa entered the studio and simply let her creativity flow, reflecting on her journey - positives and negatives. Here, she talks about writing The OPEN-HEARTED, embracing grief and heartache, letting go of her ego and why she’s done people-pleasing.

Which artists inspired you to want to make your own music one day?

One of the first people that I listened to that actually made me want to be a singer-songwriter was Linda Perry when she was in the 4 Non Blondes. I had never heard such a distinctive voice before and I had been told – and actually made fun of from a really young age – about my voice; people would always say it was really unrecognisable. 

When I was younger, it wasn't a good thing! So when I heard that I went, ‘Oh, you can have an interesting voice and it can be a great thing.’ That was something that catapulted me into pursuing music.

the songs are about keeping your heart open amidst all the BS of the world.

What is the story behind your new single, Hard To Be?

I'm really excited about this song because it is my most vulnerable song that I've put out. It is about a past relationship – my whole album is basically about this past relationship. All the songs are about keeping your heart open amidst all the BS of the world and they have this very empowering vibe like, ‘I'm good, I'm great. I can do whatever. I'm a powerful queen.’

However, this was a song where I was like, ‘You know what? This actually really broke me.’ It was a difficult thing and I was really sad and heartbroken about what could have been. I was really vulnerable and very in my feelings, and I wrote about it. It's the only one that really gets into that pain.

We have to take people for what they are, we have to take situations for what they are, and we have to take a moment – whatever we're doing – for what it is. 

You can't really be disappointed and you can't have expectations when you just see it for what it truly is, because then you're just flowing. It's something that I have only started to practise now. I call it futuring. I'll meet someone and I'll just ‘future’ immediately. I'll be like, ‘Oh, I wonder…’

When you people-please, you burn yourself out because you're catering to the needs of someone else before your own.

Do you usually tend to draw from personal experiences when it comes to your songwriting?

The last album that I wrote – that I never released – was actually also about a past relationship. I was once married, and I wrote a whole album about that and I basically did a whole Eat Pray Love moment and dove straight into the next relationship, and then wrote a whole album about that. 

Before I always tried to have an idea of what I was writing about, like, ‘I want to write a song about this because I'm angry today.’

I have learned this is not the way to do it. Now, when I go to the studio or if I just feel like writing, I let whatever comes out, come out; I like to be a channel because it's not really me anyway – as a person who uses my words and my voice – that's a gift that I have in this realm.

I like to talk in terms of planes and realms and spirituality, so if I limit myself to an idea of what I need to write about, I am not allowing any of the things to come out from the ether into my throat. So now I just see what happens. A lot of the time, I have learned something new about myself through allowing information to pass through me.

I used to do everything on my own because I had an ego issue.

Do you write alone or with others?

I used to do everything on my own because I had an ego issue. I was like, ‘I want to do everything on my own’ – because I felt in control. It's scary to put yourself in a vulnerable space where you don't know how other people work, and maybe they won't think I'm good.

Now I collaborate a lot and I always work with incredible producers. Sometimes I work with other topliners, like on this album. It's amazing to do because you're accessing someone else's brain, and sometimes if I have a block, their channels are wide open and they bring it in. You just piece together. It's like Picasso – an amazing creation.

How did you embrace this new, fluid approach to songwriting on Hard To Be and when writing your new album, The OPEN-HEARTED?

I just flow. The album that I've written is very much going through the five stages of grief – it mostly features anger or regret. At that moment in time, I was ready to face those emotions; the heartbroken ones – you can't force it – they will eventually come out.

The really important thing is to allow them to come out in their own time. We always try to force our healing. Well, I do! I'm a Virgo, so as soon as I had the breakup, I was like, ‘Okay, so I'm gonna meditate every day, I'm going to eat well, I'm going to stop drinking alcohol, I'm going to do all these things.’ Because those were the things that I could control during a period of things I couldn't control. So I was like, ‘I'm going to speed through this healing.’

But I realise you can't, because I did all those things and I still had lessons to learn. Just because I was doing the right things didn't mean I was ready to face what had actually happened. It's like someone who goes on a diet and sneaks potato chips. They're like, ‘I'm gonna eat so well,’ and then at night they sneak a chip or a burger.

That’s what I was doing: I was going to feel so good and then at night, I'd sneak on Instagram and see what was going on. You have to face it all and allow the moments to come when they're ready. I was just ready to write that song.

The album is very much going through the five stages of grief.

It sounds like processing grief has been a big part of what has shaped your music…

The really important thing is to not distract yourself from grief because it is a part of you. When you experience grief, it's normally to do with how much you've loved, and that's a beautiful thing. You have to feel it so you can let it go.

I sing, and that allows me to process my emotions very well, because then they no longer have to live in my body. The feelings I feel, I put into my art, and now it doesn't live in me anymore. 

I can look back at it and go, ‘Wow, I really felt a certain type of way, and I'm so proud of the beauty that I've created from it. I don't have to feel that way anymore.’

The OPEN-HEARTED is your first full-length project since going independent. As someone who has experienced being signed and then independent, what have you discovered?

If I had spoken about this a year ago, I would have been like, ‘Labels are the worst. I hate labels.’ Now I see that labels essentially are just like investment banks. They're going to see an artist, take them in and be like, ‘What is the least risky option that I can do?’ Then they'll go, ‘This idea worked with this artist, let's put it onto this new artist and hopefully it will give us the same results.’

And it just doesn't work that way because you're putting the same dress on someone who has a completely different being – which is why it's taken me so long to find out who I am.

How so?

When I was with labels, there were always people who said, ‘I think you should look like this, wear this, act like this.’ But that's not who I am. I tried it and it was so inauthentic – people can see right through that. Especially as a musician, music is so personal and vulnerable and the only way to relate is to get to the core of the person. It didn't work.

My whole life, people threw ideas at me. I had to remove myself completely and be like, ‘Who am I?’ We're always like, ‘I'm a writer. I'm a doctor, I'm all these things.’ No – those are just things that you do. Who are you as a human being?

I had to remove myself and ask myself all these questions: ‘Why do I do music? Why do I like to sing? Why do I like to write? Why am I the way I am? Why am I moody sometimes?’ 

It was this huge discovery and I really found out who I was and what I wanted to say. I went, ‘This is me. Now I just have to be it.’ I don’t have to try and do anything, I don’t have to wear the latest thing. I don't have to have my hair a certain way. Now I'm just existing.

That was my experience. I just didn't know myself yet to be a part of that machine. I am now in the process of really loving who I am and putting out my music independently.

labels essentially are just like investment banks.

Would you say there was an element of people-pleasing feeding into everything when you were signed?

I absolutely was a people-pleaser and it's something that I have been changing over time; it has always been very hard for me to say, ‘No, I don't want to do that; no, that doesn't feel good to me.’ 

Now I'm finally able to express myself. When you people-please, you burn yourself out because you're catering to the needs of someone else before your own. That's exhausting and draining – and you can lose yourself.

You’ve recently started using JBL 305P MkII powered studio monitors. How has your experience been working with them?

They're amazing. I have a little home studio set up at my house that I use to record something if I have something that I've written really quickly. I record, sit there and send it. They're perfect. 

They're just powerful and I love them. They're amazing! It's funny because I had to write a verse really quickly because I just came back from New York. It was so easy to do and then to listen back and be like, ‘This actually sounds really good; I can trust this and send it on.’

My JBL monitors are perfect. They're just powerful and I love them.

What’s next for you?

The OPEN-HEARTED is out in the springtime, because to me, that's the start of the year. Everything's awake, everything's open. I'm really excited because it's my first album ever. I'm really proud of it. It took a lot of getting to know myself, getting to know who I am and what I want my message to be.

I always talk in planes. I always talk in realms, but this is my gift and I wanted to know how best to serve the world I live in. It took those three years of stillness to figure it out and now I really want to raise the vibration. 

I love being open; that happiness will always be within you and it's very important to find it within you. But sharing that energy is very powerful for the world.

Interview conducted by Will Hawkins. Harman L.A. experience centre photography by Michelle Shiers.