Exclusive Interview with Singer and Music Producer Alina Smith
Alina Smith is one half of the internationally acclaimed female writing/music production duo LYRE. The mega-producer has earned over 200 million streams, co-written and produced chart topping songs and Billboard & iTunes number 1 hits for a plethora of digital, traditional and KPOP artist like Kenzie, Gabbie Hanna, Red Velvet, Niki & Gabi, Betty Who, Nikita Dragun and Fall Out Boy. But now, after producing for today’s biggest stars, Alina is releasing her first single in over 5 years titled “Girl That Was Perfect”.
I got the chance to talk to Alina about how she first got into making music, why now was the right time to release “Girl That Was Perfect”, whether she approaches writing for herself differently compared to writing for other artists, her podcast and so much more. Keep reading to see what she had to say!
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into making music.
So, growing up I studied at this very strict, very Russian music school. Russians take their arts education SUPER seriously. Like, one step away from hitting your hands with a ruler for playing the wrong note on the piano seriously. It was also a deeply classical school. I remember one of my teachers blatantly abusing pop music for how distasteful the performances were, in her opinion: “All those degenerates, gyrating in smoke.”
Even though I was super young when I started – probably 5 or 6 – I always knew I wasn’t meant to be in the classical branch, because I constantly keep challenging my teachers and trying to do something “different.” By the time I turned twelve, I quit music school and took some time off to channel my creativity into writing and visual art instead. My parents thought I was done with music. So, I think we were all surprised when a couple of years later I picked up the piano again and started writing – surprise, surprise – those gyrating, smoke-drenched pop songs. I think I was always meant to make music, just not in a restricted way my teachers tried to force on me.
Was there a specific moment or person that made you realize that music is what you wanted to pursue professionally?
As a kid, I had a personality that easily got obsessed with things. For about two years, I did nothing but make Xena – Warrior Princess costumes, write Xena fanfics and ask everyone to call me Xena. If I liked something, I liked it a lot [laughs]. So, when I first came across Michael Jackson’s music, it became a full-on obsession within days. I would put on his music and dance for hours – sometimes five at a time. I had these dance shoes and I legit wore holes through their soles because of how much I was dancing to MJ. It wasn’t a big leap from loving his music to going, “Sweet, I’m now gonna make music like that too.” Most kids don’t overthink things, they just do stuff. I’m glad I didn’t pause to think about what this path might mean because, if I did, I might not have been as brave about it.
Let’s talk about your new single, “Girl That Was Perfect”, which is your first single in over 5 years. What made now the right time to release this song?
To be honest, I wasn’t planning on releasing any music as an artist at all. I was comfortable being a writer/producer and thought the artist stage of my life was behind me. But that’s the funny thing about art/creativity. It can waylay the best-laid plans. I remember sharing with my life coach back in March that, although I loved writing and producing for others, there was something missing for me. I was always catering to what the artists I collaborated with wanted to express – as a good producer should – but I was never getting a chance to express myself. The life coach suggested I should write some songs for myself, and I was a little sketched out by it because it seemed like such a waste of time to write for someone who doesn’t have a project. But, not wanting to disappoint the coach, I dutifully sat down with a guitar the next night just to “screw around”. That’s when “Girl That Was Perfect” arrived. It came almost in its entirety. All I had to do was put on the recorder app on my phone and capture it.
Creativity is funny that way. Sometimes you’re trying to launch a sputtering rocket off the ground, hoping it doesn’t blow up on you. And sometimes you’re already out in the universe, floating among vibrant nebulae, bathed in starlight. I strongly believe in inspiration as an external force. Who knows, it might even be sentient. So, when that force gave me “Girl That Was Perfect”, I immediately knew I had to put it out, whether I wanted to or not.
What’s this song about?
This song is about overcoming body image issues and leaning into self-love. As a young girl from Russia, I had some seriously unrealistic standards around how I looked. I noticed everything that was “wrong” with me: from the slightest puffiness around my eyes, to the extra pound I gained around my waist, to the smallest acne scars. I lived in this self-assessing, self-commodifying space for years, thinking I had to be this perfect-looking human to achieve any level of success. Well, fast forward to now, and I’m now a size 8, not 0, and I’ve achieved more than I ever have when I was abusing my body. I just remember sitting on that couch the night I was writing “Girl That Was Perfect” and bawling over my guitar. I hadn’t had an eating disorder for years, but it still felt so cathartic to release this part of myself in this form.
Something I’ve always been curious with songwriting is how topics come to mind. Did you know what you wanted to write about going into the song session that birthed “Girl That Was Perfect” or did the idea just come about organically once you were in the session?
Sometimes things just pop into your mind, and it’s legit impossible to trace their origin. Sometimes, you hear someone say something or read something and feel like, “Ah, song!” As I mentioned, with “Girl That Was Perfect”, there was no session, no plan, no idea. It just tumbled into my lap. There are other songs on my project though that were written from a pre-mediated title. Songwriting is truly never the same; it likes to keep me on my toes, for sure!
Do you approach writing for other artists differently to writing for yourself? Or is it all pretty similar?
My production partner Elli and I try to go into our sessions with other artists already having ideas: titles, at least, or maybe even track vibes started. It really helps to have a jump-off point to get the session flowing. Also, usually in those sessions, I try to focus on the song’s production to make sure we get a good-sounding demo by the end of the day.
Of course, with me as an artist, none of that applies. As I mentioned, “Girl that Was Perfect” just came to me on the wings of inspiration. As did several of the other songs I’m planning to release. I also don’t produce any of the songs the day I’m writing them. I let the song speak for itself as a crappy guitar or piano voice note, and, if it speaks eloquently enough, I take it to production stage. It’s for sure a less stable way to write, and it feels kinda like plunging off a cliff. Are you gonna learn to fly mid-jump or are you gonna splat? The uncertainty is scary, but it’s what also makes it fun.
Were there any major changes made to “Girl That Was Perfect” once you got into the recording studio, whether it be in the lyrics or something sonically?
So, the funky thing about “Girl That Was Perfect” is that I actually captured almost the entire production process of that song on video. Elli and I have a Youtube channel for our production team LYRE, but normally, when I make song production videos, it’s postpartum: I go inside the sessions and show what I did. This time though, I set up my camera to film me and my computer to capture the screen as I produced the entire song. You can watch me record guitar, lay down scratch vocals, write the bass line, struggle with finding the right high-hat sound for like a half-hour [laughs]. There were a few changes. For example, I hadn’t written the bridge in my initial session, so I wrote it right there on video. And it’s fun to watch the track come to life too, growing around the initial guitar/vocal vibe, bringing an energetic twist to what was at first more of a ballad.
I’m going to be releasing the entire process as a video series, so please tune in on YouTube!
Aside from your own music, you are also part of the successful female production/writing duo LYRE and you guys have worked with some of the biggest acts in music like Kenzie Ziegler, Kirstin Maldonado of Pentatonix, Gabbie Hanna and many more. What have you learned from them about what it takes to be a successful artist in this industry?
The main thing I learned is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for success in any creative industry. What worked for one person might not work for anyone else. We all come with our unique traits, gifts, and energetic footprints. So, the way to zero in on that success is to know yourself as well as possible. Just as an example, when I was first starting to produce, some people were telling me not to bother. That I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a woman, and that I’d be better off focusing on looking pretty and singing. Well, the funny thing is, being female has actually been a huge part of our success as LYRE. Nothing against guys, but a lot of young female artists feel more drawn to working with us because, as women, we understand their struggles, hopes, and dreams on a more intimate level. The thing I was told would be a hindrance ended up being a strength. So, the moral is, do what your soul calls you to do. It knows better than anyone else.
You’re a 100% self taught music producer, which I think is so cool. Do you have any advice for aspiring music producers on where to start?
Thank you! I think this really depends on who you are and how you best learn. Personally, I’ve always thrived more in self-driven environments as opposed to formal schooling, so it made sense for me to teach myself. I started out by just poking around with different DAWs. Back in like 2005, I was recording my vocals into Cubase by plugging a dynamic mic directly into my laptop (the horror). I taught myself Pro Tools a couple of years later by simply reading the manual, making notes, and practicing them. Later on, I started studying more advanced techniques on Youtube. Youtube generally is a treasure trove of knowledge; there are a lot of cool producers and engineers on there, freely sharing their techniques. Also, one of the things I never had but wish I did is any sort of mentorship. You can grow at lightning speed with a good mentor. Which is why, if you already know how to use a DAW, I strongly recommend hitting up producers and offering to intern for them. A lot of producers need help around the studio, and you can learn a ton from them.
You also started a podcast called Crossover Creative that explores the processes, joys and challenges of being a crossover creative or polymath. What made you want to do something in a completely different medium from music?
So, funny enough, even though I’m known as primarily a musician, it’s only a part of my identity. I’m also an author, editing my first YA novel, and a visual artist. When I was younger, I tried to conceal some of these other facets of my identity, thinking it would be “too much” for people and that I would have an easier go of it if I could shrink myself, like Alice in Wonderland, to fit through one small door. Now I’ve come to embrace and celebrate my multi-hyphenate identity. I strongly believe that some of us came to this Earth to be more than one thing, which is what I explore on Crossover Creative. In some episodes, it’s me alone, sharing my thoughts and feelings on the matter. In others, I interview other Crossover Creatives about their journeys. It brings me so much joy to connect with others like me and makes me so excited for the future world, where we can all be as large and beautiful as we were born to be.
Lastly, we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?
To be real with you, I’m always nerding out about something. Right now, because I’m editing my novel, it’s sentence structure and punctuation. Apparently, you can shrink a 110 page act to 70 pages with the right editing touch, so that’s been freaking me out in a good way. Also, I’ve discovered a really late (I’m about to turn 33) blossoming of love for graphic novels. I never did read comic books as a kid; it wasn’t really a thing in Russia. But I came across this deliciously delightful book called Nimona about a shape-shifting girl in the alternative middle ages, that have very advanced modern technology. Yeah. Talk about creativity. It made me want to drop everything I’m doing and write a graphic novel haha!
But truly, I think the trick to staying creative is to never lose excitement about the world. Even in a time like this, there’s so much to learn and discover, so much to rivet and uplift our souls. So, I let myself fall into that childlike wonder every day, as much as I can. I hope, when people hear my music, that energy is transferred to them. I hope it makes them catch that inspiration by the tail and write that book, draw that artwork, record that song. I hope it makes them brave.
Make sure you follow Alina on Twitter and Instagram.
Photo Credit: Patrick Walsh