The Miscellany News: Did you write this album by yourself?
Ilana Frost (IF): Yes.
The Misc: How do you approach writing? Is it an intuitive process or do you have to develop your lyrics over time?
IF: It’s different every time—but if I want to sit down and write a song, I can, but it probably won’t be that good, when I’m forcing it and not feeling it or anything. I feel like the best ones usually come from some intense feeling or moment, happy or sad. A lot of songs would be written after an argument or after a party or something specific, and it would just come out that way. Sometimes I would just think of something before I go to sleep and I would write it down, or I’ll randomly record a voice memo.
The Misc: What is your musical background? Did you start making your own music as a musician with a music education or were you an avid listener?
IF: Both. I started playing piano when I was five, and I was really into viola for a while, then I started playing guitar when I was 13 or 14. I took voice lessons for a few years. I was definitely musically trained, but I’m not a big music theory person and I never really liked that aspect, I always just liked playing by ear and writing my own stuff rather than playing other people’s stuff. Like, when I was younger, I would go to the talent show and play the song I wrote on viola or piano. I didn’t write pop songs until later on, so the first things I ever wrote were classical pieces.
The Misc: Are your tastes regarding your own discography and your “everyday” music different? Do you make music you would listen to in your everyday life?
IF: I would say now, definitely yes. Exactly yes. But when I was first starting to write pop songs, they weren’t very good yet, so at that point I would’ve said no, like, Oh, I think this is good for me. Obviously since I was 11, I’ve become a better writer. But now, I would only put out a song that I would listen to—something that hasn’t been said a lot. I draw a lot from two of my favorite artists [Julia Michaels and Sasha Sloan].
The Misc: Your music sounded very familiar because it was so euphonic and pleasant to the ear, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint who you were channeling. Who are some of your older influences, people who are past their peak at this moment?
IF: Not really, to be honest. When I was 12 or 13, there was no one that I knew of writing songs about mental health. Just in the last five, seven years, I feel like it became a thing with so many artists. That’s the first thing I wrote about because that’s what I needed to write about. I feel like I didn’t really know who my influences were when I started writing because I wasn’t really looking to anyone. Now, I see those people in the industry and I’m obsessed with them. And I’m generally more inspired by newer artists, I’m not one of those people who listens to a bunch of classic, sophisticated music. I’m just really into this new style of underground pop artists, like pop artists who aren’t necessarily on the radio but have a pretty solid following on Spotify.
The Misc: This could apply to indie pop or top 50, but do you think this genre or genres are flourishing right now? That’s definitely something I’m perceiving. I feel like it’s something that lost momentum around the time we were in elementary school, and then with figures like Marina and the Diamonds and Lana del Rey, indie pop or alt-pop started to reemerge.
IF: I think that’s true, and I always talk about how much I love and respect pop as a genre, and how it’s not respected. For a lot of reasons—partially sexism I think. But I think what’s unique about [pop] is that it’s very direct, it’s very powerful, it’s about a certain topic. If you’re listening to a rock song, an indie song, it might be unclear what the message is (they’re both great genres). With a pop song, there’s always an extremely clear message, whether it’s about love or heartbreak or struggling. It’s very direct and it makes people feel something. But with indie pop you can do more. Like with a pop song on the radio, you can’t swear a ton and, still, a topic like mental health might not get played on the radio. With indie pop on streaming services, you can have the direct message but also swear and be a little freer with the structure and talk about whatever you want to talk about. So it’s an even more honest version of pop.
The Misc: How do you approach production as an indie artist or as someone who releases their own music?
IF: Not all me. I’m not a producer and I hate producing, but it’s about half and half on the album between me and two other people I worked with. I don’t think people realize how much of a whole different skill set it is. In pop, especially, you’ve got to have tons of equipment and tons of knowledge about the program you’re using. People go to college for this. Of course there are a lot of self-taught ones too, but the top people have spent years and years learning and mastering that. So while it’s cool that it’s becoming more accessible to a lot of people, if you’re a musician you’re not necessarily a producer. I always feel like I should stick to my strengths and I know what my weaknesses are, and I want to do whatever’s best for the song. Sometimes I’m like, I should really hand this song over to someone who knows what they’re doing. With “NYC,” for example, I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound but I knew I couldn’t create that sound, so I decided to work with someone. One of them, we connected on Instagram. The other—I did a lot of research to try to find a female producer.
The Misc: A lot if not all of these songs are highly personal, and you mentioned how a lot of these would come about by basically transcribing your own experiences right after this inspiring event occurred. Of course, this can be a confessional and vulnerable process. I would be scared to put something like this out there. Have you tempered the fear of putting your feelings out there over time? Do you care at all?
IF: I really don’t care that much about what most people think. What is hard is my family hearing it because they don’t like it. They do not like the lyrics of my songs, so whenever I put stuff out, I’m mostly worried about what they’re going to say. People I don’t know or my friends—I don’t know why, but I don’t care. I am pretty open just in general, outside of songwriting. If I’m close friends with someone, they probably know about a lot of the stuff I talk about in my songs. To me, that’s the whole point of songwriting: to be as personal as you can. Why put it out if it’s half-assed or isn’t totally honest? I feel like it’s the only place you can be totally honest, and that’s what I’ve always loved about it.
The Misc: As we see in Taylor Swift’s most recent album, there’s definitely a way to be impersonal and super personal at the same time. Her songwriting remained confessional while she was playing characters. In your songwriting or even your mentality when you’re performing, do you ever assume the perspective of someone else?
IF: In high school, I did write a musical. I would write songs for characters and stuff, which I found was way easier than to write for yourself. It would just come out so fast. I guess when you’re writing for yourself, you don’t actually know exactly what you’re writing about or how you’re feeling at first because you’re in it. But if you’re writing for a character, you know exactly from an outside perspective what’s going on, though I haven’t done that for my own songs because the theme of my music is how personal it is. It’s very much about my own life.
The Misc: Is songmaking for you ever an outlet for your feelings or a way to analyze them? Does trying to allegorize or write a song about certain emotions or situations help you come to terms with them?
IF: A hundred percent. It’s strange how it happens because you’re the one who wrote it, so looking back and listening to, like, “Dead Ends” and “Hotel Happy” especially capture exactly how I was feeling at the time. It is more clear in those songs than it would be in my own head. It’s like Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
The Misc: If it’s a negative feeling associated with the song, does writing a song about it make the load lighter?
IF: It is kind of a relief to have a song or multiple songs out at this point that express exactly how I feel often because you can’t really explain it to people in conversations, talking about mental health specifically. You can’t articulate some of the lyrics. You know that Okay, all of my friends, everyone who knows me is listening to this and they can just get it. In that sense, it’s mostly for myself but it’s also for others because I want others to understand it.
The Misc: Would you describe this album as more a musical experiment or perhaps a diary or record of a certain period of your life?
IF: It’s definitely a chapter of my life that I think is coming to a close but it’s hard to say in the middle of it, of life. The first song was written in the middle of freshman year. All the songs were written in the first half of college, and then recorded over quarantine. It’s kind of about—I was really really sad, basically, before college. And then I got here and for a second I was like, Oh, it’s all better now. And then of course I realized it’s not. The title Dead Ends is about this period where things are close to good and close to happy and close to perfect, ideal, but then I run into these obstacles because I didn’t just run away from everything from before college. A lot of songs are about a different dead end I still run into, but college did improve a lot of things.
The Misc: Do you anticipate your feelings toward this album changing in the future, as you grow up?
IF: I don’t think so. It’s really really special and important to me, largely because of the content and the fact that it’s the first full-length project I’ve ever put out. It’s kind of the type of thing where I was like, I could die peacefully knowing this is out now. I just needed to get it out and have other people hear it, and I needed to explain myself and why sometimes I’m quiet or leave things early or anything. It’s kind of an explanation of my behaviors.
The Misc: As an active member of Vassar’s music scene, have you made music explicitly to carve a niche for yourself in this scene? Or in any stage of song making, did you consider how to differentiate yourself from others in the ecosystem?
IF: It was definitely more of an organic process, but I am very aware of Vassar’s music scene. [It’s] obviously male dominated and band dominated…my songs would not work at the Halloween show, for example. I’ve been conscious [as a member of StuMu] of trying to make it inclusive and invite women and queer people and people of color and work with them and encourage them because I want to see more representation in the field. People who are not white men have interesting things to say in their songs. A solid third of my songs are either explicitly about feminism or reference it. That’s something I started thinking about more when I got here. I’m definitely aware that I’m not the typical act, and I do get kind of self-conscious about that and don’t want to perform in front of the guy bands who are like, Why is she talking about that? But Vassar’s music scene isn’t the whole world’s music scene. I know my music has a place in both.
You can listen to Dead Ends on all major music platforms.