The Berlin-born singer-songwriter talks accidentally discovering her calling and how cleaning out her bin sparks inspiration
Rising indie star THALA has a momentum behind her that doesn’t seem to be dying down any time soon. The German singer-songwriter has garnered a lot of excitement over the last three years, backed by Rough Trade and BBC Radio 1 and loved by a passionate contingent of fans. Now, she’s about to embark on her first UK tour, including a stop at London’s Camden Assembly.
“I think it’s everybody’s freaking dream to play a headline show in London,” she says. “I’m super happy. I’ve been only doing music for three years, so this is kind of crazy.”
Three years have been long enough for THALA to mold an assured, experimental sound that sees her express herself as much through her production as her words. She’s about to release her second EP, twotwentytwo, another frank and often confronting look into her mind set to dreamy shoegaze and psych-tinged rock. We caught up with the singer ahead of her UK shows to talk about getting ‘nerdy’ in the studio and how her music career was kicked off by a bet.
What can people expect from the EP?
Obviously, the first one is very personal and very vulnerable. Thematically, it’s definitely about mental health, my upbringing and the way I see the world. And the second one is goes deeper into what I feel; how I cope with memories; and into the stories I’ve picked up about other people, friends and loved ones that I then somehow combined. I would say I definitely experimented a bit more in this second EP. When I’m in the studio I’m super nerdy, and I’m even happier when I have a producer who likes to be nerdy as well – together, we can figure out weird sounds. One time, for one of the songs, we were on the phone in a queue to order pizza. And they had such a funny melody that went kind of like [hums a jingle]. We recorded it and then we reversed it. And it’s in one of the songs.
No one’s ever gonna know. Well, now people are going to know… But yeah, I love to do these little gimmicks and little tricks. Just build in some ear candy and get more experimental. I’ve started using a bit of a vocoder effect on stuff, those layered vocals, and I’ve done much more of that. I started getting into changing structures too, so things happen that you don’t expect. There are a few really nice rocky shoegazy outros that I love. And I’m just excited to play them on stage because I haven’t played most of them yet. We rehearsed yesterday and I was just so happy with the way it sounded, and we were drenched in sweat after we finished. That’s what I want.
It’s definitely a good sign when you’re really excited to play music live.
I don’t know though, it’s a first tour, right? I said to myself, if there are only three people, you’re gonna play like it’s 30,000. It doesn’t matter. Like, I’m gonna own that sh*t. In the case of there being not as many people as maybe one would wish for, I will not make that demean the work I put into it. The effort, sweat, blood and tears – everybody says that, but it’s so true. And I’m starting to really feel like that is really true.
Are you feeling that more than you were with the first EP?
Yeah, I am. It’s a funny mixture between the heat being on, but then also more like finding the path of the thing that you really want to do, and feeling more secure in that path. When I first started out, I was just writing for fun. I lived at the beach three years before. I didn’t really have a care in the world in that sense, not about music. I was like, yeah, cool, grab a guitar sometimes and play some covers, nice. But I didn’t think I would ever make it my career. And now it’s dawning on me: this is what I’ve chosen. This is the career that I want; this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, ideally. And so it becomes more and more serious in that sense. But it’s also more interesting, because I get to tap into different types of production.
I get way more creative in moments where I didn’t used to get creative. I’m walking down the street and I hear a funny sound on someone’s bike, which would just pass me by back then, but I get so excited about it now. Yesterday, I recorded something on my phone when I was cleaning out my trash bin. It’s a metal trash bin. I know it sounds funny, but when you come from above with a water hose, and you go in the motion of a circle, it sounds cool. And I recorded it, and I sent it to a guy that I’m working on a song with. I never used to do that, but now I do. So, I feel like all I breathe, all I feel, all I talk, all I am, is becoming more and more what I do.
Have you always been interested in production and being involved with that side of things? Or has that been a more recent interest?
No, I’ve always had an intuition of, “We should stop here. The drums should come back in here. We should put this here”… But since I never learned any of it, people that don’t know me are surprised, because I jump out with these ideas. I see the sensation in every little sound and every little detail, and I get really excited, like a child. Like a grown woman child, I think. I love it. It’s the best f*cking thing in the world. Studio, and then stage. There’s nothing better than that for me.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in music?
I think that came silently. Remember those books at school, where you can write in what you want to be when you’re grown up? I remember that I wrote “rock star”. But it’s like putting “astronaut” – you want it, but you don’t think that you could ever get there. Some people I guess do, but how many people who write “astronaut” actually become an astronaut? I always wanted it and it’s always been a part of me. It was a bit difficult growing up because it wasn’t really liked amongst my family. The idea of being a musician is not really something that parents usually welcome. I get that maybe you want to shield your child from this really hard industry, especially when you’re in it for 10 or 15 years and you just don’t get there. It must be really frustrating. So I do understand that.
But yeah, it came silently. During the lockdowns, I went to a lot of sessions. And I learned a lot. I had a lot of people that mentored me, telling me things like “when you record with this microphone it sounds crispier and if you use this preamp, this is what it does…” I’m like a sponge. I like to remember everything, so I learned by doing. Once I put out one single, and then a second one, I just decided to keep going because it was fun. I didn’t care about streams.
It kind of crept up on me. I realised when I started playing live shows how much I loved it and how it made me feel like I had a purpose. And it never stopped feeling like that. I’d never felt that in my life. People tried to get me into talent shows but I was never ready. I didn’t know how to say stuff then, but now, I do. I think it’s a very powerful tool that I made my own, and now, to think that I would have a life without it is impossible for me. It’s the main thing in my life. Maybe one day that will change, but right now, this is all I want to do.
When did you start writing songs?
Three years ago. I was living in Spain, playing cover songs and learning how to play the guitar. I’ve played the guitar for five years. One night, all of us got very drunk on the beach. It was beautiful: sunset, beers, it was great. And then my friend goes, “Thala, you sing. Why don’t you play an instrument?” I was like, “Dude. Learn an instrument, now? I would never. That makes no sense”. And then he was like, “Well, I bet if I taught you four chords, you would remember them”. And I said, “Nah, man, I don’t think I would”. And he said, “I bet you that if I asked you in an hour, no matter how much we drink, you’re still going to remember the chords”. It turns out I remember sounds. I had no idea, but apparently I do. I remembered all the chords he taught me just once. The bet was that if I remembered them I had to start playing guitar. I’m an honorable woman, what can I say?
It was so hard sometimes. I always sang, but always just for myself. I’d harmonize over songs and stuff on my own. I did like YouTube karaoke, you know? It made me feel a certain way. Then playing guitar, suddenly there’s another type of rhythm added to what I’m doing. I was so overwhelmed by it. I was so close to taking the guitar and throwing it against the wall, but I never did. I continued, and then I moved back to Berlin in 2019. I started doing open mics and started playing in the streets. But I never played covers – I only played my own songs. It made me feel good, and I think that’s why I never stopped doing it.
To do something that you love and then realise, in the process of doing it, that you’re good at it is so good. It’s gonna sound ridiculous, but it’s good for your ego. There’s an ego in all of us, as much as we’d not like to have it sometimes.
The industry gave me a lot of backing. Artists reached out to me and started following me on Instagram. I know it sounds superficial, but Instagram is necessary. It’s like an ID card for an artist: this is my photo that I posted today, this is how many likes I have, which means I’m this popular. That’s obviously exaggerated, but I just got a lot of positive feedback, from producers as well. They would tell each other about me, and then they would reach out to me and ask me if I wanted to write and work with them. And I always felt so honored, even though imposter syndrome kicked in immediately. I walked into these rooms with all of these instruments that I wasn’t even able to name and I was like, what the hell am I doing here? But now I walk into those rooms and I love it. It’s shifted from insecurity to security.
It’s so interesting that this all began from a bet. Is there a world where you never discovered that you even had this talent?
Maybe, yeah. But I think I knew. I think I had key moments. My mom had the CD of the Titanic soundtrack. I remember one time it was still in the CD player, and she was in the kitchen or something. I pressed play. And I heard ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion. I know it’s super tacky. But I heard the song, and I just made the living room my stage. I probably didn’t hit the notes. But it was such a moment. And I was like, what was that? Why did I feel so good doing this? Then everything just kind of went back to neutral and not so good. I realised that it gives me so much dopamine and such a high. I always continued after that. I tried to do the school choir and stuff like that. But I think nobody ever thought that I would be a musician, that was never in discussion. Except for my grandma. She was always like, “I know you’re gonna be a singer.”
How did that conversation go with your parents when you told them this was what you’d decided to do?
That conversation never happened. I mean, I was older when it happened, I was 26/27. It was quite late. And also we’re not as close. So that never really took place. I just always did what I felt was right. And so far, listening to my gut has always been the right way, and it got me this far. So I’m going to continue doing that and see what happens.
Do you have a song that you’re proudest of so far?
I’m proud of all of them, because they come from very personal spaces. I think one of them is definitely ‘In Theory Oppression’ from the old EP, which I also then named the EP after, because I think that’s the darkest and most honest song I’ve ever written. And even though its chorus is such a simple repetitive element of the same sentence, it was such a feeling I had in that moment when I wrote it. It went so deep, and it shook me, which usually happens, but not the way it happened with that song. And even when I play it live, I tap into this old self again, and I get really sad when I play it. But it’s good that I managed to put it into a song, which doesn’t mean it’s gone, but it’s just an outlet. And I’ve noticed that it resonates a lot with people when I play it live.
Do you usually write about your own life? You mentioned that you write about your friends’ experiences sometimes.
It’s mostly my own life. But there are definitely parts in songs where I’ve had conversations with friends, and then they say a sentence to me, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great line”. And then I write it down, and when I remember it, I work it into the song if it fits. I would never use something like a story that isn’t mine without telling the person who the story is about though.
Looking five years ahead in your career, where would you want to be by that point?
They just opened this new venue in Las Vegas, and it looks crazy. That would be sick. I would not be against that. But I think anywhere I go in the world, I’d like to sell out a capacity of like, 200. In the bigger cities, it could be 500, 1000, to dream big… And I do. If it’s bigger than that, hey, I’m going to be so happy and grateful, but I’m already so grateful for what I have.
Honestly, the most important thing to me is that I still want to have fun making music. I don’t want this business to destroy me or turn me into a different person. I want to stay the same as I am, I want to be genuine. I want to keep writing songs that people can connect to. And hopefully have a hardcore fan base that stands in front of the venue with signs of lyrics that I wrote…