Willa Amai just finished school for the day. She leaves one virtual meeting, with the dean of her high school, for the next, this interview. The 16-year-old shows the webcam her neatly organized, pink daily planner — which seems necessary for a student who’s balancing course work and studio sessions with the likes of Linda Perry and Dolly Parton. “I’m an anxious person, and I’m an organized person,” she says. “I just have this need to control everything around me.”
When that control slips, some of her most vulnerable songwriting happens. Take her latest single, “Not a Soldier.” Amai sings “I’m in deep, I’m in far, I’m in head over heels” in a way that suggests knots in your stomach, building towards a soft chorus that is equal parts surrender and begrudging acceptance: “I guess I’m not a soldier.” “This song came to be at the time in my life when I realized that love, my emotion for someone else, was something that I couldn’t control,” she explains. This realization occurred to her at the ripe age of 13. “And it drove me crazy,” she adds. “I hated it.”
While navigating romance for the first time is pretty ordinary for someone in their early teens, Amai’s trajectory at the time was anything but. By age 12, she had already met and shared her music with Perry, the hitmaker who’s written and produced for Christina Aguilera, Pink, Adele, Miley Cyrus, and many more. She expected their first meeting, arranged through a mutual family friend, to be casual: “I would meet her, she would give me a pat on the back, and be like, ‘Hey, kid, you’re gonna do just fine,’” Amai recalls thinking. Instead, she remembers Perry sitting in silence, wearing her signature over-sized hat, while Amai waited — terrified — for the legendary musician’s response to her music. When Perry advised that Amai come back in a few months with more songs, Amai realized she’d found a real mentor.
“When I listen to Willa I hear rich words, classic melodies, and thoughtful consideration,” Perry says. “I see a prolific songwriter. I see an artist that wants to make a difference.”
What came after their fateful encounter was nearly five more years of Amai honing her craft as a songwriter and a musician. “I write a lot because I need to,” Amai says, “to survive, to stay sane.” Now, all of her time spent writing is giving way to something new: an album.
Her debut is set for release this spring, and like her latest single, it wades deep into melancholic waters. “Most often, the stories that you need to look in the face to heal are the ones that hurt,” Amai says. For all her dwelling on love’s darker feelings, she says she has found herself in a happy relationship. Romantic bliss just isn’t interesting to her as a writer — which makes sense, given her love for Fiona Apple and Edgar Allen Poe. “Even when I don’t feel the intensity of an inner struggle that I felt in the past, I still want to write about it, because I remember what it was like,” she says. “It hurts. I want people to be able to recognize that in my music and feel less alone.”
Most days, that’s the core of what Amai wants: to replace loneliness with recognition and connection, an especially tall order during a global pandemic. As the release of her album gets closer, though, her thoughts can’t help but sometimes oscillate towards worry and fear. Ever in control, she has a trick for when that happens. “I just tell myself… there are so many more important things than you,” she says.
It works: Amai becomes animated again. “There are people who have been living alone with no contact with the outside world since [last] March, and I have a duty to those people,” she says. “I have a duty to try.”