After opening for Katy Perry in Mexico, Cynthia Nabozny, decided she could do even more to improve her songwriting chops and spike the trajectory of her already rising young career. The Michigan-born, L.A.-based pop singer-songwriter known as CYN spent the majority of the summer in the studio, writing new songs.
Though two of her most recent singles look back at a painful break-up, CYN is healed and looking to the future now. She’s even writing about love again.
“I want to say things, even if they are unexpected or weird. If they aren’t usually said in a pop song, I want to say them anyway,” CYN said last weekend, from a tour stop with Years & Years in Pittsburgh.
Pop is a crowded field, and CYN intends to succeed by avoiding all efforts made to get her to blend in and fit a mold of other young women singing about love or heartbreak.
“The only way I can really stand apart is if I’m gonna be myself,” she said. “That’s something that I really tried to emphasize in this new music. I’m not trying to smooth out my personality at all. If the words are strange and the melodies are even more strange, I don’t care because I’m listening to my instincts.”
Katy Perry tapped CYN as the first signee to her fledgling label, Unsub Records, in 2017. Besides being her boss, she’s also become a mentor to the younger artist. The relationship was sealed before the two spent a week on the road together in Mexico. CYN has also opened for Børns, and more recently for alt-pop singer-songwriter Sigrid. Over the summer she also made her festival debut, playing at Bonnaroo in June.
CYN also released several singles about a breakup of a three-year relationship that took place last fall. “Believer” is a club-ready anthem about overcoming jadedness and looking for a way to love again. The accompanying video shows her on a date with someone without ever showing the man, making him a ghost.
“I’ll Still Have Me,” meanwhile, is a more contemplative, bittersweet and overall hopeful take on the matter: Even without her lover, she hasn’t lost everything, CYN sings to herself. The video for the slow ballad (which was directed by Ben Richardson, the director of photography on Beasts of The Southern Wild and The Fault In Our Stars) has elderly people describing their first loves.
We talked to CYN about learning from her role model and her heartfelt new video, as well as her most recent single, “Moment of Truth,” which is featured in new animated film Smallfoot, starring Channing Tatum.
RIFF: What have you been up to since we saw you in San Francisco early in the summer?
CYN: Right before summer started I was on tour with Katy Perry in Mexico. After that, I said to myself that I felt I needed to “up” my songwriting game. So I spent a lot of time in the studio, telling myself that now is the time to write those thongs that will take [my] career where [I] wanna be, and that there is no reason to be shy or worry about being judged. It’s cheesy, but [I decided to] follow my heart and help make production decisions that I really felt represented me best. Watching my mentor on stage, do her thing, I was, like, “This is the time to write those songs that represent who youare.” Not that I need to be like Katy in any way at all, but to put in the amount of effort that she puts in. … I just kind of felt a new motivation after that tour and I spent the summer writing a lot. I finally feel like I have my EP complete. We’re going to try to release a new single by the end of this year … but I definitely want the EP to come out early next year.
It sounds like by watching Katy, you were inspired to take bigger steps or more risks. What was it like being on the road with her in Mexico?
CYN: Exactly. I mean, I learned that it’s all business, no matter what. It’s 10 minutes before a show and we’re talking about what single is coming next, and what video. It never stops, no matter the situation. We’re doing it with a healthy mindset. We’re able to talk about this stuff and thengo on stage. It’s our passion, you know? I’m also really impressed that she spends so much time with her band and her dancers. We went out to dinner; we went to Frida Kahlo’s house while we were in Mexico. Not a lot of superstars do that. When I think about the way she acts on tour, it makes me feel that one day, when I’m there, I want to do fun things like that with my band. It’s really inclusive. It’s not like, “I’m the big superstar doing my own thing; you guys figure things out.”
You wrote two recent singles, “Believer” and “I Still Have Me,” about the same relationship that ended last fall. What was that time like for you, and how has your view of that time changed between then and now?
CYN: It’s hard, no matter what. I was dating this person throughout college, for nearly three years. All of their mannerisms, their culture, they become [a big part of your life]. So when they’re not part of your life anymore, it’s jarring. You don’t know, like, who you’ll talk to when you wake up in the morning. You have to figure all these things out again. That was a very difficult part of my life. It was my worst heartbreak so far. And I’m only 25, so, maybe there could be another one [laughs]. … I just feel so thankful that I don’t feel as devastated as I did when I was writing those songs. I’m in a much better place and I’ve moved on. I don’t feel as fragile. I can go to bed and I can wake up without thinking about that immediately. And it took me a really long time, but I feel better about it, and I have a really healthy perspective on love, having gone through it. I’m really thankful for all of the love that the [“I Still Have Me”] video is getting on YouTube. I feel like I’ve expanded my reach of my music because of that song. So I really can’t be too mad at the experience.
Tell me about the making of the video; whether you worked with actors or went to a real senior center and asked to speak to people about their loves. Whose idea was the video?
CYN: I’ll start with the song. I wrote the song with one of my friends, Matias Mora. I went over to his house a December ago. I was fighting with my ex. I didn’t want to write this song. I wasn’t brave enough. It’s really hard to go there, you know? … I was crying the whole time, and … you can hear me crying in some of the first takes. I had to stop between takes and make sure that my breathing was right. But I had the idea for the top line on my own in my apartment. I was singing the lyrics, “If I don’t have you, at least I’ll still have me.” … We built the whole song around that melody. Honestly, when I first wrote it, I thought “this song is so slow; why would [the label] ever want us to put it out—I’s beautiful but I don’t know if it will be a single…” The encouragement is to release uplifting, fast, exciting music at the moment. But I was really happy to be encouraged to release this song because … I just thought, “I don’t care if these words don’t rhyme, I don’t care if this melody isn’t exciting, I don’t care if these people have heard this story before—this is my story and I’m putting it out.” I’m not doing this to impress anybody, I’m just doing this to have some kind of therapy through it. The fact that it was able to come out and that we created such a great video for it; it’s so fulfilling. It’s one thing to have something go well and be aware of what you’re doing, but it’s another thing to have it go well and know that you were just following your heart. That’s a different kind of reward.
When we started thinking about the video, we literally went through five treatments. My managers, my A&R and I all wrote a treatment. … It was [A&R rep Lauren Glucksman’s] idea to have the interviews and the old folks’ home. But it’s really a collaboration. Every little detail was some person’s idea. … We held a casting for the elderly individuals and we interviewed them, asking about their first love. All of the things they say in that video are true to their story. We didn’t script it. We just topped up what we believed were the best parts for recording the song. The woman who dances alone is actually a widow who had been married to her husband for many years … When he passed away it was very difficult for her. To have her be the person dancing alone, I think, was some kind of fate. … I think that emotion is obvious when you watch it. Her story relates to the song as well.
How did you get to record a song for Smallfoot? What was it like recording a song that you had not written?
CYN: When I got the song I thought it was really cute. I have a 12-year-old brother, and I used to babysit a lot in college, so I knew it was a sweet little song. If I was still babysitting I would put it on. The message is undeniable. It comes down to being true to yourself and being true to other people. I loved the message. Recording the song, even though I didn’t write it, mostly I’m thinking, “Am I fulfilling the vision they have for this?” In the booth, I’m saying, “I’ll take any suggestion you tell me.” That’s usually how you can secure a job; being like, “I’m not going to leave this room until you guys are honest with me. Let me know what I can do. Let me get it right.” I wanted them to choose me. I wanted them to put my version of the song in the movie, so I’m sitting there, like, “I can literally sing anything again. If we didn’t get it, I’ll come back tomorrow! Just tell me.” And that’s what ended up happening. I came in for a second round of cutting some vocals, and we ended up getting it right. It’s really surreal watching a movie and hearing your voice come on. I actually teared up a little bit.
For the video they gave you a yeti character. Is she in the film or is it special to the video?
CYN: She’s in the film; she doesn’t have any speaking lines, but you see her. …. I call her my spirit yeti. It’s like a version of me, in a way.
You probably had to put yourself in her shoes for the song. Can you tell me who she is?
CYN: I would say she’s lighthearted, optimistic and kind of just watching this story happen from afar—but knowing in her heart [that] if things are going to change, there has to be a “moment of truth.”
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.