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Tayla Parx on Writing Ariana Grande’s Hits and Defining Her Own Narrative

‘Thank U, Next’ and ‘7 Rings’ co-writer is preparing a bold new project of her own

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Tayla Parx in Brooklyn, December 2018.

Caroline Tompkins for RollingStone.com

artist you need to know ayntkYou’ve probably seen Tayla Parx before. Subtract the chin-length, always-changing hair, and she’s the precocious Little Inez from the 2007 film adaptation of Hairspray. Or maybe you saw that same face in the background on Gilmore Girls and Everybody Hates Chris, or during her recurring role on True Jackson, VP.

There’s an even bigger likelihood that you know Parx’s songs. Today, she has two Number One singles under her belt as a songwriter — including “Thank U, Next,” the smash hit she co-wrote for her friend Ariana Grande — as well as a Grammy nomination as part of the team behind Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, which was up for Album of the Year.

“As a songwriter, I have a completely different hat,” says Parx, whose hair is pink when we meet at a cozy bed & breakfast in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She cites working with her mentor Babyface as one way she’s learned to be a more effective session leader: “I was able to see him treat these sessions like therapy and also learn just the craft [of] putting together an amazing song.”

tayla parx ayntkThis spring, Parx will release her latest project, We Need to Talk, a solid pop manifesto from a child-star-turned-pop-savant. In retrospect, she sees her early career moves as a path toward making music more feasible.

“Music came first, but acting helped it evolve into a completely different story,” she says. The Dallas-born artist got her start singing with her grandma, who played piano in their church, while her mom was away in the U.S. Army. Parx became a classically trained dancer around the age of eight. She recalls being put “through the ringer” with actress/director/choreographer Debbie Allen, who spotted the young girl as a potential triple threat.

“All of a sudden, [Allen] asks me if I know how to act, because she was casting for a play,” Parx recalls. “I was like ‘Okay, no, I don’t know how to act, but I’m down to try it.’”

From ages nine to 11, Parx performed at the Kennedy Center in the show Dancing in the Wings, for audiences that at times included people like Diana Ross, Will Smith and Denzel Washington. “It’s weird to be a 10-year-old and Denzel Washington comes and you’re like ‘Okay, cool, I’m acting now.’”

Booking Hairspray helped her career evolve, but her roles took her further away from singing. At 17, Parx moved to Los Angeles on her own to not only pursue music full-time but to also hone what was, at that time, her barely-explored songwriting. She ended up in the studio with Babyface, who helped her get in touch with her talent, and eventually signed a publishing deal with Jon Platt and Warner/Chappell. Starting around 2014, she began writing for major artists like Grande (“My Everything”), Fifth Harmony (“Boss”) and Jennifer Lopez (“So Good”). Since then, she’s written for Demi Lovato, Christina Aguilera, Quavo and Panic! At the Disco. Parx has also made sure to find time to focus on her own career as a budding pop star, releasing her debut mixtape, Tayla Made, in 2017.

“When I was younger, I avoided doing the artist situation until I knew who I was as an artist,” she explains. “I only recently discovered the type of story that I wanted to tell within the past few years.”

That story is a “particular thing,” she continues. She describes her sound as “quirky, colorful, happy,” a clear energy felt from songs like the pastel, feminine “Slow Dancing” or the New Wave synth-wash of “Me Vs. Us,” both of which are featured on the forthcoming We Need to Talk. The two songs represent some of the album’s main themes: the newness of falling in love and her own evolving concept of femininity.

“I’m growing up,” she says. “I know what I wanna sing about, I know how to dress, and I know what I want to represent as an artist and as a female artist.”

Parx sees the stories she’s helped other artists write in songs as extensions of her own. She’s learned to accept the rapid changes the music business can throw her way.

“Every time I doubt myself, I regret it. Whether it’s getting on a plane for a day which turns into a week and then I end up writing Ariana Grande’s album with her,” she says, speaking of Grande’s spontaneously recorded Thank U, Next. “I was tired and didn’t know if I was gonna make it.”

Taking an unexpected chance paid off: Parx’s second Number One single with Grande, “7 Rings,” celebrates the singer’s close friendship with Parx, among others.

“If you’re in the right mind-space and surrounded by the right people,” she says, smiling, “do whatever is the first instinct and keep running with it. You never know — you could make history.”

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