Dreamy L.A. based singer-songwriter Leila Sunier joins us at the delightfully floral Bia Coffee in Koreatown, CA to discuss her debut EP If Only To Bleed Out The White Noise, how the instant gratification market adds to creative pressures, and not letting anyone define who you are.
You’re riding the highs of the release of your debut EP If Only To Bleed Out The White Noise. Care to give us a little insight as to what inspired the lyrical themes and instrumental elements you decided to include?
Leila: Yeah, for sure. The largest lyrical theme that was going on was this idea of ghosts. It wasn’t really a theme that I had planned originally, but I had this song that I wrote earlier called “Ghost” I wrote completely without thinking about this lyrical concept. But then as I started getting into collecting these songs and deciding what would be on the EP, I think it was actually when I was writing “A Little Longer” that I realized that I purposely wanted to reference this idea of ghosts. I was going through a hard time at the beginning of last year, and it was a particularly hard time for me because a large part of it had to do the fact that I had to end a relationship, not because I didn’t care about the person, but because I had to figure out how to care for myself and prioritize myself. I think that’s a really hard thing to do, especially for young women, and it’s hard to kind of recognize when the situation is not the best anymore. So that, in long answer, was what where the idea of ghosts came about. And then sonically, white noise kind of pays homage to that. I had some troubles with the recording process with being able to get actual white noise, but it also kind of worked as a metaphor for all this undercurrent of emotion that I was feeling.
I feel like 2019 was everybody’s shit year.
Leila: It was definitely interesting. 2019 definitely started off like this big middle finger.
That’s a good way to put it. *both laugh* And which song would you say was your favorite to write and record?
Leila: I think one of the most rewarding songs that I’ve ever written and recorded and produced is probably “Cut A Smile,” because for me, that was such a cathartic release of energy and emotions that I felt. It was really rewarding to sonically shape that be what it was. I’m sure you’ve felt times where you feel immense rage and anger, and then you don’t really know how to express that in person, and I’m very much an accommodating person, so I always try to make sure people feel warm and welcome. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not an inner battle going on, especially when you spend all this time accommodating to other people and they don’t give the same to you. So that song remains to be one of the most rewarding things, especially when I get to perform it, because I get the chance to challenge people’s perception of me of being very docile and quiet, you know?
I totally feel the same way. It’s like, you put on a smile on the outside, but inside it’s like a volcano erupting.
Leila: Yeah. If somebody is upfront and outwardly not nice or not good to you, or there are all these things piling up that are not going your way, for me, I tend to kind of go back into myself. And even just with being a woman, there isn’t really a space where you’re always accepted or can express that anger.
And kind of moving into the topic of women in music, do you feel that women in the music industry need to portray themselves in certain ways in order to be successful?
Leila: I think traditionally, yes. Right now, everyone is pointing to Billie Eilish and the Gen Z people for the smaller shift in it, and that’s cool because at least it’s something in the right direction. Like Billie Eillish is not sexual in what she’s wearing. She’s wearing baggy clothes and stuff, but if she takes off the baggy clothes, people go crazy, you know what I mean?
They’re, like, mind blown and don’t know how to handle themselves.
Leila: Yeah, and I think for women, it’s been hard to have a multi-dimensional character because everyone’s so focused on this idea of brand. Branding is great and all, but that branding also seems to limit how human and how complex and how many different things are going on. So yeah, I think we do ourselves a big disservice in limiting ourselves with what we can portray about the human experience. I do think it is shifting for the better for women. I don’t think it’s quite as sex driven as it has been in the past. Maybe that’s me being very optimistic and being very much like, ‘No, that’s not what I’m going to do,’ but I’ve noticed a change.
I think there’s definitely been a shift. I mean, just seeing my own favorite artists from when they first started to where they are now, they’re much more open, especially when they start writing their own songs. That makes a huge difference in terms of the song catalog, I’d say. As someone who’s not a musician, it’s definitely been awesome seeing changes for the better.
Leila: Yeah. It’s definitely slow moving, but steadily moving along like an inchworm tapering. I think the Me Too Movement had a huge part in that and pointed out all the struggles women have faced in the industry.
And it was very much needed.
Leila: Very much needed!
I think it forced men, and women too, to be put in their place for their behavior.
Leila: Absolutely. And it is definitely weird because I think there are still certain groups that try to put certain expectations on you as a female artist. My entire EP is co-produced by myself and my old roommate, Dan. I have a lot of respect for Dan, he’s really into it and knows what he’s doing. And it’s always interesting because when you go into a room, people don’t really expect that you’re a producer as a female artist. Going back to that multi-dimensionality, people want to limit you as to what you can do and when and where you showcase your skills in your little sphere.
Going back into your EP, why did you choose “Let Me” to be the lead single?
Leila: I think “Cut A Smile” really shaped the sound of the project, but I think “Let Me” also played a hand in that. Those two songs are kind of the pillars for what happened sonically on the EP. I knew I wanted “Let Me” to kind of be the lead of the project and to be one of the more accessible tunes. So that was kind of my whole reasoning, I wanted it to be something that clearly stated the sound of the project but also equally accessible in driving the energy.
So a fun little question for you. If you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Leila: That’s such a good question! Fiona Apple would definitely be on the tour. I love her writing and her sound. I think her writing is brilliant and so challenging, and when I discovered her as a junior in high school, it just completely opened a whole world of music to me. Who would make sense of that bill I think would be Sharon Van Etten. She’s incredible! Her last album, Remind Me Tomorrow was a huge saving grace for me at the very beginning of last year.
The power of music everyone!
Leila: Yes! And then I think the last person I would bring on would be Andrew Bird. All three of those people challenge the direction of my sound and songwriting and where I want to go with it. But what would we name it? Gosh, I don’t know! *laughs* Maybe something incorporating all the most recent projects from each artist.
And going into modern music listening, right now it tends to be a lot more focused on the streaming aspect, and with that comes shorter releases like EP styles and single releases as opposed to like a full-length album with, like, thirteen songs. Why do you think music listeners are kind of preferring those types of releases now?
Leila: I think because it’s such a fast-paced, instant gratification market that people are constantly looking to be entertained. It’s like, yesterday’s news really is yesterday’s news, and there’s just so much media out there to consume that I think the way people are consuming it is always rabid fast. Art is pretty much trying to keep up with the way people are consuming stuff, and as an artist, you’re now really buying people’s time. With streaming, it’s not about getting sales, it’s more like, ‘How many hours can you get that person to listen with you?’ It’s interesting to think about, you know? Just thinking about how much time people have because there’s so many options out there. I think why you have to also keep in mind that since the beginning of the music industry, it has pretty much always been singles driven. A lot of people point to The Beatles and like, not everyone knows every song off of Revolver, but you probably know at least the big singles, right? So I think people are always going to be drawn towards singles, but that doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to projects and collective works. Maybe we’re moving more towards shorter EPs, but make sure that it feels like a solid, cohesive little home for your listeners. I like to think of it as this little box for people to dig into and find experiences because I think that’s what builds longevity and a career. Like, you could look at someone as big as Taylor Swift who had all her songs off her last album land onto the Billboard charts. That’s not because of a singles-based market, that’s because you’ve got a fanbase that really wants to go back and hear every single thing from every single song, and it’s like, ‘Of course they’re all going to make it onto Billboard because she’s literally the biggest idol of the world.’ *laughs* That’s the kind of thing that you’re trying to go for, so you have to just keep up, continue to put stuff out, and have a constant output. I think you also have to expect that people aren’t there just for a hit, like, I think people are also there for a character in this weird art form that we call the music industry.
Yeah. And I feel like listeners, especially now, are even more aware of what’s going on in a song, especially the lyrics. I mean, I’ve gone back to some albums that I thought that I loved, and I’ll be like, ‘Hmm, this song doesn’t fit. Maybe it should’ve been on this album.’
Leila: It’s weird how that happens right?
Absolutely! Or even sometimes the arrangement of the song lists can make a huge difference in how it makes you feel overall.
Leila: Yeah, for sure. And that’s the thing that you can’t forget when it comes to music. It’s like, ‘Yes, everyone is trying to put out a single thinking that it’s going to make an instant change in where you’re at in your career.’ If you get a hit that’s going to make your career, cool. But going back to what you were saying about releasing full projects, I think it’s really rewarding when you can go back to something that feels cohesive. The future probably isn’t going to be littered with massive albums of like eighteen songs, unless you’re Taylor Swift or Drake because they know that they’re going to get a million streams on each song so they don’t need to worry about it. But if you’re trying to break through the noise and everything that’s going on, smaller projects are probably going to be the thing that works better. I’ve seen people do double single releases, which is actually really cool to see because it’s an homage to when you had the A-side single and then you flip it over and have the B-side. I think it’s cool that you can do that with technology now because it’s kind of vintage, I mean streaming itself is really not vintage, but it’s still exciting that there are so many options of releases we can do. I think we keep on recycling old ideas more than we realize, but I think we need to realize where the technology changes and shapes it so we can adjust accordingly.
And there’s nothing wrong with going back to a system that works, but to utilize the technology to make it better.
Leila: Yeah, exactly! It creates a lot of opportunities, and it’s also smart to do that because it is a streaming industry and people are focused on the singles. Of course, you can get twice the number of streams, but it’s also not like a full time commitment, and I think that one of the hardest things is figuring out how to make people be committed to you.
Playing to the Audience: The Musician’s Story.
Leila: *laughs* For sure!
So with social media pretty much being the prominent form of marketing nowadays, do you feel that it makes it easier or harder for artists to make a name for themselves?
Leila: I feel like it definitely changes the landscape a lot because I think, traditionally, you had these select gatekeepers of radio, labels, and whatnot. It can be a challenge, but it’s also an exciting challenge because it creates a level of unpredictability, but because it’s become such a part of your strategy, it kind of feels like it’s a little tiring to keep up with it. I don’t know if it makes it really necessarily harder for us to promote ourselves, I think it probably opens up possibilities for a lot more artists, as well as some positive changes like not needing to have a few key shareholders telling us what the market is, but the challenges still remain.
Do you feel that it also kind of puts on a pressure for artists to constantly be doing something, like, doing shows or having constant releases, or even portraying yourself in a certain way to your audience that you might not normally do in person?
Leila: Yeah, it definitely does. Every single medium is so open, so you do feel this need to, like, vie for attention or vie for people’s time. You’re on this platform where people have become the ‘influencers,’ and then you see the artists that are always posting something new. I myself don’t share a lot, and I feel like if I’m going to tell you my life story, you’d have to be really close to me, you know? It can be a challenge of wanting to become accessible and showing yourself as brand, but your brand is, again, limited on what you are allowed to put out. It’s definitely tiring, and I think creatives are just not naturally able to put out this ‘creative content’ all the time.
Honestly, it takes a very special person to be extremely social media savvy.
Leila: Right?!? For me, it’s very mentally draining, and if I’m not careful with it, it can quickly plummet my self-esteem, which is ridiculous because it’s just, like, nine little squares that show up on your screen, and you’re still trying to make a business model out of it and create something to present. It’s an interesting little love-hate relationship.
Yeah, social media definitely has been a double-edged sword.
Leila: It definitely is, like, I think it has a lot of benefits, but then sometimes it just comes back and bites you in the ass.
Yup, I’ve definitely been there. *both laugh* It’s always hard to figure out what people are actually going to react to.
Leila: Certainly. When you think about it, it’s like, ‘What’s the whole point of creativity and stuff when you’re constantly worried about how people are going to react to it?’ I guess if you’re going to make money, that’s what you have to do, but to constantly be thinking about how people are going to react to something as simple as a picture, that’s a lot of mental hoops to go through I think. It’s kind of like putting on this extra layer of presentation that you think is necessary.
Yeah, it’s definitely tiring, and no one actually has the amount of time to successfully do all of it.
Leila: Yeah. I think it all comes down to what kind of lifestyle you want to have, which again, is hard in terms of balancing what’s personal and this idea of what your ‘job’ is.
So speaking of balance, how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Leila: How does anyone? *both laugh*
We don’t, and we accept it! We are that meme of that dog that’s surrounded by fire saying, ‘This is fine.’ *both laugh* When that meme came out I was like, ‘This is my life! I will claim this for my own!’ Everyone should claim a meme. Memes for all!
Leila: I love that! *laughs* I actually really like The New Yorker’s little comics. They’re great! I feel like I need to get more into meme culture. *laughs* But yeah, personal life, work life, I feel like you just need to keep going, and you need to make sure that the people that care about you and look after you feel cared for in return. That’s all you really can do because everyone’s life is always moving, but as long as they know that you’re there and they feel cared for, it makes a world of difference.
Absolutely. And if you could give your younger self any advice in regards to your music experience or what you’ve experienced in life in general, what advice would you give her?
Leila: Gosh, where do I start? I’d probably tell her, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself.’ I think a lot of people say to not be so hard on themselves, and then I also want her to know, ‘Don’t let other people’s impressions of you fool you into thinking that you’re something else.’ I do think people have a way of saying things that make you think that you’re something that you’re not or make you feel apologetic. You can’t take somebody’s assessment of you as truth, that’s a hard thing to learn, and you can’t let them shape who you are, you need to be strong enough to stand up and be like, ‘No, this is who I am and I’m not going to compromise that for anything.’ If you don’t understand who I am, that’s fine. If you want to say that I am X, Y or Z, that’s fine. Prioritizing yourself and taking care of yourself is really hard. It’s an uphill challenge, but then you reach the top from climbing.
What do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Leila: Going back to the idea of being multidimensional, I hope they take away that it’s ok to be human and flawed, and to not be ok and then ok and then not ok again. That’s kind of how it goes in life, and if they can relate to anything that I’ve said in music, I hope that’s what they take away. I think the biggest role for a lot of artists is that your words and your lyrics resonate with somebody emotionally where they can see their story, so if somebody can see a little bit of their story in my music, I feel like I’ve done my job.
Very well said, and to end us off, apart from celebrating the release of your EP, what other big, exciting things should we be expecting from you?
Leila: So I’m scoring a couple of indie films with the girls that helped me make the “Let Me” and “Ghost” videos, so I’m really excited about that. They’re just so creative and smart, and writing music in that sense is its own little challenge. And then I’m also working on another EP, like another follow up project, which I’m excited for. It’s going to be another collection of probably five or six songs. And then I’m hoping to be doing a lot more painting. For this EP, all the album artwork and everything I painted myself.
I’m jealous. I wish I had your painting skills!
Leila: Thank you! It’s really fun to be able to do your own work. I always tell people that artists don’t know how to make friends because we spend so much time alone doing our own projects. It’s like, ‘I don’t know how to make friends, so I guess I’ll do this instead.’ *both laugh* I was thinking of doing this little challenge for this upcoming EP of giving away one of the paintings for that. So lots of artistic things to look forward to on many different aspects!
About Bia Coffee:
When a high-end florist to the stars becomes a well-respected and Insta-worthy coffeeshop owner, you’ve got to give credit to where credit is due. Founder Silbia “Bia” Lee found success in the floral industry until she came over to the coffee capital of the U.S. – Seattle. Almost a decade of hard work went into creating a name for herself in the coffee industry until the stars aligned to connect her with her business partner Moses Choi, who would bring his upscale food experience to the table. Together, Bia Coffee was born, and it has garnered much-deserved praise from an extensive array of publications and a plethora of social media posts.
It should come to no surprise that floral-themed recipes are the focus of Bia Coffee’s menu, in both liquid and solid form. Dessert consists of cookies (with my personal favorite cookie flavor – Oreo), and rose and lavender cakes in mini size or full-sized with fresh cream. Talk about yum! Unique drink options like flower milk and a variety of sparkling ‘ades give their menu a fun edge among the teas, cold brews and lattes, but the real scene-stealer is their impressive handmade flower syrup. I splurged in the most delectable way possible with their Bia Saffron Cherry Blossom Latte, which not only features their homemade flower syrup but also the most expensive combo of nerve stabilizing, stress-relieving saffron flower and detoxifying cherry blossom. Did I do it for the gram? Maybe. But I will say it was worth price and something you don’t want to go throughout life not having.