Saya is creating her own fantasy

The rising Toronto artist talks about her love for Ashanti, the beauty of shock value and paying her dues.

March 15, 2018

On her debut EP Chills & Thrills, Saya’s sensual pop vocals are hard to ignore. Clocking it at 23 minutes, tracks like “No Pressure” and “Paid” are neatly packaged, arousing tales that highlight her penchant for casual erotica. With lyrics like “My body’s your language, written all over your skin like a blanket, just sayin’ me and you could really do some damage,” Saya teases intimate moments that feel like consensual eavesdropping.

When Saya talks about intimacy, which she also sometimes references as “body blessings,” it’s in the hopes of inspiring others. “I like to write lyrics that are colourful, striking and make people feel sexy and empowered,” Saya tells A.Side over the phone from Toronto. “I always like to write from a place of empowerment, even if it’s vulnerable.” 

Saya grew up in a household where her father, a blues guitarist, and her Sicilian mother, who has a reverence for Italian music, encouraged her to discover music on her own. “We had pianos, guitars in our house…, my dad was always working on his own stuff and they were always dancing — I grew up surrounded by music so I wanted to create too,” she says. “It was always just my own passion.”

Growing up, Saya admits to not being a fan of middle school and instead of diving into school-facilitated extracurriculars, the singer retreated to make music. “It started with me writing over Soundcloud, and in the past three years I’ve really grown into my own person, knowing more about what I want to say and how I want to say it.” “What I wrote back then was pretty fearless,” she remembers. It’s a similar ambition that can be heard on songs like “Paradise in Trouble,” which teems with the type of fierce emotive spirit that feels self-taught.

“It’s funny ‘cause for that song at the time I wrote it, I was angry with my boyfriend so I just went into the studio and it came out. I turned to my producer and asked “can I say all that” [referring to some explicit content about body blessings again] and my producer said “I respect you so much for saying that.” For Saya, explicit wordplay is a tool and while she understands it might be unsettling, it’s a trade off she’s happy to make, “I think I like things that are uncomfortable, I like the shock value—I like to incorporate that, and I genuinely think vintage aesthetics and erotica are so cool,” she adds. “I love fantasy, I love playing off fantasy, and I’m just really drawn to love and romance too. I think I thrive off it.”

Is it any surprise that one of her favourite films is the Stanley Kubrick-directed Eyes Wide Shut? Or that the track to grabbed everyone’s attention in 2016 was, the aptly titled “Wet Dreams,” has a salacious video to boot? With lyrics like “drawing circles with your fingertips” and “drowning in a fantasy, come through like a wet dream,” Saya is vivid and assertive when she describes her sensuality. It’s reminiscent of tracks like Dead Prez’s, “Mind Sex,” that flip the usual hook-up script and highlight the feelings  that drive sexual encounters. 

I never want to take anyone’s else’s thing, especially on the come up. You can’t take other people’s concepts or their brand, so that’s why I like to grab from the past.

While she says she’s never heard of “Mind Sex,” Saya’s quick to share her love of both R&B staples like Ashanti, Justin Timberlake and of course, Beyoncé alongside rap’s crooning class like A$AP Rocky, “early days Wiz Khalifa,” citing them all as artists who inspire her to blur the boundaries between genres. In grade four, she loved Ashanti so much that she performed the artist’s famed 2002 track “Happy” (decked out in a baby blue tracksuit no less).

For Saya, it’s all about authenticity, staying in her lane, paying her dues and knowing her place. “I just want to keep growing and expanding, and I think [the music] is always going to be based around the same stuff —old movies, relationships, you know…I never want to take anyone else’s thing, especially on the come up. You can’t take other people’s concepts or their brand, so that’s why I like to grab from the past. It always starts with an experience which I can then turn into an exaggeration of that experience.

Saya says this is just the start of her music catalogue and the next “sleeve of songs is even more vulnerable,” and she wants to work with more Toronto artists like fellow vocalist Kris (who is featured on Saya’s track “Paid”). “If I like your music and it happens to work that we can collaborate, I’ll do it. I like to do work with music that I like rather than go, ‘here get on my track’ because then it becomes so transactional.”

But Saya’s artistic influences extend beyond musicians. She’s an open admirer of Toronto artist Petra Collins, whom she went to high school with. “Everyone is so quick, putting out the same thing on Instagram and she’s  always been doing something different, I really respect her for that. You get lost in her world and her photos are so beautiful that you just keep looking.”

It’s akin to Saya’s own social media presence, where the mix of muted colour, horror film aesthetic and sensual prowess are interspersed between random notes on her phone and daily scribbles that fuel her creativity. She admits that she draws inspiration from basic, everyday experiences:

“I actually write better music when I have a boyfriend, you know, or ‘in love’,” she says with a snicker. “I write better when I’m happy rather than when I’m sad…it’s just how it works for me.” That doesn’t mean that she’s not interested in past, but rather unpacking slowly which is process she’s come to cherish. “I can’t write about things that just happened, I have to wait until later. I need to process it and take time with myself first.” 

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