When she was in high school in Phoenix, an arts academy, Taylor Upsahl had a backup plan. If the music thing was not going to turn out, she was considering medical school. That’s what the aspiring singer-songwriter said in an interview with a hometown newspaper. Now, Upsahl, who goes by her last name and became the first artist signed to the reborn Arista Records in 2018, laughs at the thought.
“How old would I have been? Like 14 or 15. … I was under the impression that … ‘you need your Plan B,’” she said. “By my senior year, I had applied to all the schools.”
Since she was 10, Upsahl planned to write songs and perform for a living. Her dad played in bands her whole life. Her grandmother taught her piano. Her grandfather was a high school band teacher, and her aunt is also a musician. She just didn’t know how realistic of a goal that was, even after self-releasing her first album of guitar-based songs at 14 and gaining momentum in the Phoenix music scene, playing clubs that regularly host larger acts. So by the time she was finishing high school, and even after getting accepted into several colleges, she decided to instead sign a publishing deal and move to Los Angeles.
In 2018, Upsahl released several singles that highlighted her throwback singing style with modern production, which—even though she’s decidedly a pop artist now—has retained a base in rock guitar instrumentation.
She ended last year by releasing her catchiest single yet, “The Other Team,” about chasing unrequited love, the video for which was set in a high school. Other singles like “Can You Hear Me Now,” “Rough” and “Kiss Me Now” have set her up for a busy 2019. Her newest single, “Drugs,” tackles image-obsessed and disingenuous hangers-on. Upsahl also signed with Arista Records, releases her first major label EP on March 8 and heads out on tour with Max Frost next week. But first, she’s playing Popscene in San Francisco.
“I definitely want a degree at some point in my life, but now is not the time,” Upsahl said. “I feel like I’m in a weird version of school right now, where I’m learning new things every day, but it’s in the real world.”
RIFF: What struck me most about “The Other Team” was your Brill-Building-like voice, and then I read you were classically trained to sing since school. How long have you been singing and pursuing it as a career?
UPSAHL: I grew up in a very musical household. My dad was always in bands. I was always making music. We had a band room in the house, so it was pretty natural for me. My parents put me in a performing arts school when I was 10 and in the fifth grade. I stayed there until I graduated high school. It was academic classes in the morning, then lunch, and in the afternoon it was all arts classes. I did choir for eight years, guitar for a few years and piano for eight years. It was amazing getting classically trained every day from the day I was 10.
What kind of musical influences did you pick up from your dad?
He was playing in punk bands when I was a little kid, and then rock bands. He’s still playing in punk bands. I definitely grew up around that sort of music scene, and I think that with my first couple of songs that I released [in 2018]—“Can You Hear Me Now,” “Kiss Me Now” and “Rough”—that sort of alternative edge is in there naturally because of that influence from my dad. … Aside from the music thing, my dad is one of the biggest reasons I do music. I’ve had access to a bunch of instruments and I’ve been hanging out with musicians. So yeah, I’m super-thankful. … I was singing before I could talk. I was always messing around on piano. I asked for a guitar for Christmas when I was 6. I was obsessed with it because I was surrounded with such positive musical energy from the time I was born.
I read that in the third and fourth grades you were playing Beatles and Foo Fighters covers at school talent shows.
Those videos are probably still online in the depths of YouTube. [laughs]. Foo Fighters were one of my favorite bands, and obviously the Beatles. I used to learn all those covers on piano and guitar and play them at little talent shows. It was fun.
Where did the switch from rock to pop happen?
It happened pretty naturally. I had been doing left-of-center music all throughout high school, releasing albums and playing a bunch of live shows. And then I switched my artist project [name] to just “UPSAHL” after I graduated. I started working with a bunch of amazing producers in L.A. I got so much pop influence from them. The people who I’ve been working with have made it a very easy thing. We all combine our skills; me being from a more alternative background and them having a pop producing background to make this piece of art that’s a mixture of a bunch of different worlds.
You do feature guitar in your songs more prominently than traditional synth-heavy bass.
Totally. That’s important to me because I’ve been playing guitar live forever and I love having that as an aspect of the live shows. I’m trying to incorporate that into some songs, for sure.
What advice have friends and relatives in Phoenix given you on adjusting to life in L.A.?
When I moved, I got the biggest piece of advice from people in the music industry and my family: to learn how to be comfortable being alone. I was not, at all. When I moved here I was … going to sessions alone, going to events alone… I had no one in L.A., and that was a real slap in the face. It’s such a big city and it’s full of so many amazing people, but I’ve never felt so isolated while I was surrounded by people. I had to realize that it was mind over matter. It took me a sec, but I’m finally in a place where I’m very comfortable in my own company, and I’ve learned to love myself. I’m out to go out and do anything alone confidently.
I heard you work on your writing up to six days a week. What does that entail?
I guess it depends on the day and where the song takes me. Some days you’ll go into a session with people you’ve never met and write a song in two hours. … Some days it takes 10 hours. You just never really know. That’s kind of what I love about it. I wake up and I have no idea what to expect out of the sessions. This past year has been a year of speed-dating with as many producers and writers as possible. … It just depends on how quickly you come up with a good idea that’s worth writing a song about.
Was it your idea to work with as many people as possible or were you convinced that’s just the way it’s done in the industry?
When I first moved here, I signed with David Gray at Universal Music Publishing Group. I was signed as an artist, but my goal was to work with as many writers and producers as possible. … It’s definitely very exhausting dealing with strangers every single day. But it’s also very exciting because nothing ever gets old. I’m never running out of ideas, and I think that’s because I’m with so many different people. I’m starting to find my people I know I work well with. The producers and writers who will have songs on my upcoming album I’ve been working with a ton.
How did you become the first artist signed to the reborn Arista?
I met David Massey at the beginning of 2018 when he was still at Island [Records]. We were talking about music, and he was one of the people that really got what I was trying to do as an artist—this pop thing but not having it be straight down the middle pop. … We stayed in touch and when he announced he was re-opening Arista, he approached me and said, “Do you want to be the first artist signed to Arista?” Of course! It was the craziest opportunity ever. … He lets me be as creative as I want. It’s the best situation ever.
What about the songs you wrote and self-released as a 14- and 15-year-old? Do they have a place in your shows? Are you thinking about re-recording some of them?
Those songs mean a lot to me because they were songs I was writing by myself in my room when I was in high school. Those are the songs I played live a ton in Phoenix. They’re very representative of Phoenix for me, and how I got into songwriting. … It’s really fun going back and listening to that music. I still would consider playing some of those songs live.
How much touring have you gotten to do outside of Phoenix, where you grew up performing?
I have not. I’ve only played one show in L.A., and we start touring in March. So this is all a big first time for me. I’m so excited.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.