UPSAHL: “Being scared to p*ss people off is what makes music fun”

Meet the rising Gen-Z star bringing her biting lyricism to alt-pop

Even if you haven’t heard UPSAHL’s music, you’ll probably know her face. The singer-songwriter carved a niche for herself on TikTok a couple of years ago by singing and riffing over popular sounds and rants to camera from other users. The videos are equal parts entertaining and impressive – they demonstrate not just a sense of humour, but an innate musicality and an ability to make everything sound like a hit.

Explore Upsahl’s discography and you’ll come to the same conclusions. Her riotous, volcanic brand of alt-pop is full of witty lyrics and tongue-in-cheek hooks, packaged with effortless vocals and insanely catchy production. The daughter of punk musician Mike Upsahl, Taylor has been in the music game since long before she decided to drop her first name, drawn to it, as she tells us, seemingly from birth. But it’s the last four years that have seen her really explode into the pop scene, gaining her a legion of devoted Gen-Z fans. On her first European headline tour, her international popularity has taken UPSAHL by surprise.

UPSAHL - Into My Body (Official Video)

“Our show in Berlin was rad,” she says. “I had super low expectations coming to Europe. I’ve only been here one other time, so I thought like maybe four people will show up to each show. I didn’t know like what the ticket sales were like at all and then I walked on stage to start our set and the room was completely packed.”

UPSAHL kicks off the UK leg of her tour on Saturday 19 November, visiting Glasgow, Bristol, Birmingham and London. We caught up with the rising alt-pop star ahead of these shows to talk her journey so far, making friends in the industry, and why she decided to pen an ode to Monica Lewinsky.

UPSAHL - STOP! (Official Video)

Your debut album, Lady Jesus, came out a little while ago now. You wrote it in the pandemic and it’s about a personal journey after a breakup. Lockdown was already such a lonely time – was it difficult to work through those emotions at the same time?

I think that that’s honestly the only reason that album exists. Because I had no other way really to deal with my emotions. We were in COVID – I couldn’t go out and distract myself from how I was feeling. I was just throwing myself into the studio as much as I could and writing about however I was feeling that day. I would write, like, three songs about it.

And the process was fun too, because I got to make it with my friends. Because it was during COVID we would do quarantine writing camps where we would get an Airbnb, all COVID test, and lock ourselves in a studio for a while. That’s how most of the album was made, just drunk nights at these Airbnbs, writing in these little makeshift studios. And I think through that process the album that started being about a breakup turned into Lady Jesus, which is very much just about this rebirth and me kind of finding myself again. I credit that a lot to the writers I got to work with on that album because they made a sh*tty time in my life actually really fun and inspiring.

Do you have a favourite from the album?

I think my favourite is ‘Lunatic’, which is funny because it’s a very angry song. It’s the most angry song on the album but it’s so fun to do live. Every night we do it towards the end of our set and I hop in the crowd and jump and dance with them. That’s always my favourite part of the set.

Do the crowd always give you the right energy back?

Yeah, it’s great. It’s so crazy, because when I wrote that song I was having the worst day ever. I was crying, I was so upset. And I remember writing some very aggressive lyrics that I thought would never actually make it into the final song. I was like, we’re gonna have to take these out – I can’t say “punch you in the tiny d*ck” as a real lyric in a song. And then we just released the song. And now it’s really cool going to Europe and playing shows, and everyone’s screaming, “Punch you in the tiny d*ck!”. It’s amazing.

UPSAHL - Lunatic (Official Video)

I feel like that’s a big part of why people have connected so much to your music – you don’t shy away from saying how it is.

I think that’s by accident. Just because when I’m in the studio, I’m so comfortable with the people I work with that we just kind of say whatever the f*ck we want. There’s always this tiny voice in the back of my head that’s like, “We’ll change that when it comes time to put the song out.” And then we never change it and then the song just ends up coming out.

You’ve said before that you feel like if you’re a little bit scared for a song to go out into the world, that means it’s a good song. Is that how you feel about this album?

Totally. I feel that way about my EP that’s coming out. I felt that way about my album. I felt that way about like my song ‘Drugs’ like years ago. I think that’s what makes music fun is being a little scared to piss people off or make people feel something. I think that’s why we listen to music. So I always get scared for every release.

You wrote a song called ‘Monica Lewinksy’, which is this alternative feminist anthem. What made you want to write an ode to Monica?

Honestly, it started as a joke with my friend Johnny, who I wrote the song with and he produced it. We were writing a bunch and one day we made a joke, like, we want to make history like Monica Lewinsky. And we were like, “Oh, that rhymes. Write that down.” And so we wrote it down and forgot about it.

Then one day, weeks later, we were writing and couldn’t really think of anything that day. We were kind of sitting around just talking and then he was like, “Wait, what about that Monica Lewinsky idea? We should just make that.” We kind of started writing the song as a joke: we’re making history like Monica, we’re talking about Britney and Miley, we’re name dropping all these like badass bitches, mostly from the early 2000s. We made the song, and we said whatever the f*ck we wanted on it. And then a few weeks later, I listened to it and I was like, “Wait, this actually slaps.”

All these women went through so much scrutiny in the public eye and the media, and they came out the other end stronger and better than ever. They really also paved the way for women like me to exist in pop culture now, where I feel like I can be unapologetically myself and feel comfortable in my sexuality – and feel like I can say whatever I want. It’s because of what they had to go through in the 90s and early 2000s. So what started as a joke became actually very real underneath it all.

UPSAHL - Monica Lewinsky (Official Video)

Is that quite a typical journey with a song for you?

Totally. I just love a clever lyric or something that has like a ring to it. So whenever I think of something like that, I’ll write it down on my phone, and then base a song off of that and find the meaning somewhere along the lines. I wrote this song called ‘Time Of My Life’ where I came up with this lyric that was like, “How come all the worst days are in the time of my life?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s so clever, I love that,” and then I wrote the song and didn’t think much of it. Then about a year later, when I was putting together Lady Jesus, I heard it back and I was like, “Whoa, I actually understand what I’m saying there now because I feel that way now, a year later.” And that’s when I decided to put it on the album.

What about what most people would consider your breakout single, ‘Drugs’? Where did that originate?

That was another one that started as a joke. I was new to LA and I was in the studio with a producer and a friend, and I was just bitching about how it was really hard for me to make friends in LA. I was like, “Everyone I’ve met is fake. I’m so lonely. This sucks.” I was saying how I’m going all the parties, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, but nothing’s happening. And Sean [Kennedy] made a joke. He’s like, “Well, I only go to the parties if there’re drugs there.” And we were like, “Are you gonna write a song called ‘Drugs’? Let’s go!” He came up with the “I just came into the party for the drugs” lyric. And then we just started singing it over that melody and that guitar line.

I feel like a lot of the time lyrics and songs stem from just having an open, honest conversation with the people that you’re writing with. And then somewhere along the line, someone says something that then inspires the whole song. It feels like a therapy session. And then somehow we get something done and have a song done at the end of the day, which is fun.

You self-released some projects early in your career. What was that experience like?

My dad was in punk bands all throughout my childhood and I was super inspired by him. He was always into music. And I started writing songs in my room that were like, pretty bad. And then my dad, since he had been doing music forever, had a lot of connections to studios and stuff in Phoenix. He brought me into the studio to record all of my first albums that I put out in high school. It would basically be me writing songs by myself, on a guitar, and then my dad’s friends who are musicians were my band. We would all go into the studio and just spend a few days recording an album, and then go and play a bunch of shows. It was such a fun time. I’m so grateful for my dad. He was there every step of the way.

Do you still play him everything that you’re working on?

Always, yeah. Especially with mixes and stuff. Once the song is done, and once we’re working on finalising it, I’ll always send it to him to get the final approval, because he has a good ear for that stuff.

Growing up in such a musical home, was there ever a question that you were going to do something else?

No, it’s funny. Because people are always like, “when did you know you wanted to make music?” And I don’t think there ever was a moment. It was always just what I was gonna do. At the end of high school, all my friends were going to college and I was like, “I guess I have to go. Maybe I’ll go for like music business or something”. It was my parents actually, who sat me down and they were like, “Don’t go to college. Just do music, go figure out a way to move to LA and just write songs.” And I was like, “That’s not what parents are supposed to say!”. But like, “f*ck, yeah, thank you!”.

Who are the songwriters that you really looked up to growing up?

I mean, my dad, definitely. I think I listened to a lot of punk bands growing up, a lot of this band Jawbreaker. I loved The Shins, although they weren’t really punk. And I just remember really appreciating their songwriting. I knew the words to every single song and every single album.

UPSAHL - MoneyOnMyMind (Official Video)

What drew you in the pop punk or alt-pop direction rather than punk?

I think moving to LA, honestly. Because before then I was just writing almost folky songs that I would then make sound like rock with my band. And then when I moved to LA, I got introduced to pop writing, which is so fun. And that’s now my whole life.

But I think now that I’m making pop music, you can still hear bits of where I came from and what I grew up on, just sprinkled on top of it, you know?

What was it about pop writing that you enjoyed?

I think it was just the importance of melody. Writing songs growing up I would always just kind of riff on a guitar loop and be like, “That’s good. Let’s release it”. And then going into sessions where you’ll spend two hours perfecting one line of a chorus melody and you don’t even have the words yet, you’re just figuring out the melody… I think the time and care that’s put into pop songwriting is amazing. When you have a finished song that everybody sat in the room and banged their head against the wall all day to figure out, it feels so good and so rewarding.

How involved are you in the production side of songwriting?

I don’t produce. I’m so bad at it. I’ve tried forever to learn how to produce songs, and I just need to put more time into it. I can vocal produce and make sh*tty demos. But I think just kind of knowing how to work Logic, or knowing the little terminology that I’ve learned from producers that I’ve worked with in the past, has made it possible for me to articulate what I want in songs better to the people that I work with.

I have such a close relationship with all the producers I work with though. We’ll spend days just sitting in the studio working on the production for a song. And it’s cool for me because sometimes if you have production notes as a female writer, male producers will be like, “whatever”, so fighting for that space, and having the people that I work with listen to everything I say, makes me feel super lucky. Because that’s not always the case.

UPSAHL - Time of my Life (Official Video)

You’ve also written a lot for other artists as well – you wrote Dua Lipa’s ‘Good In Bed’, among other things. Is it a different process when you write for other people?

‘Good In Bed’ is really the song that got me into writing for other artists. It kind of happened by accident, because I wrote that song in a session with my friends. 90% of songs I write just go in a Dropbox folder and never get released. But somebody on my team had sent it to Dua Lipa’s team and they heard the song like a few months after we wrote it. And I just remember getting an email one day from Lindgren and he was like, “Yo, this is not a drill – Dua Lipa is gonna cut this song and it’s gonna be on her album”. That release was what kind of what made me realise I could write for other people. 

Sometimes it’s a song I wrote for myself that then another artist hears and they make it their own. But any chance I can get to be in the studio with another artist, especially another female artist, is really, really cool and empowering and inspiring for me.

Have you ever written something for someone else that you kind of wish that you kept? 

There’re so many songs I’ve written that I love – even when I listen to ‘Good In Bed’ I’m like, “Damn, that’s a good f*cking song.” Or like, there’s the song ‘BOYSHIT’ that I did with Madison Beer that I love… It’s so special listening back and having a different appreciation for it than I would if I were to put it out because I get to hear what those artists did to the song. They make it theirs. It makes me feel almost removed from it. I don’t even like feel like I wrote it anymore – I’m just a fan of the song.

You’re part of this new generation of pop artists, along with people like Fletcher, Griff, Ashnikko… I know you said you struggled at the beginning with making friends in LA. But do you feel like you’ve got some good friends in the industry now?

Totally. I think COVID was such a humanising moment for all of us, and we had to lean on each other. And now getting to tour with so many dope artists… I feel like there’s so many cool creative people in my life who have now become my friends, that I can just go to for advice, because they understand, because we all have similar lives. But I also look up to and learn from them. I feel really lucky to have the friends that I that I have.

UPSAHL’s UK tour kicks in Glasgow on 19 November and will also visit Bristol, Birmingham and London. Get tickets here.