Kristen Jan Wong / Warner Records Press

Nessa Barrett – “I Don’t Want to Put Myself In a Box”

Nessa Barrett is here today for a reason. She knows, we know it, and the world is slowly, but surely getting to know it.

With just over a year of professional musicianship under her belt, Nessa Barrett is coming up as the Gen Z blueprint for what artists are sure to become once they find the confidence to be themselves through-and-through. Raw and realistic, melodic and memorable; these are the making of a star in the 2020s. It’s not an easy task to be any of that, especially with a larger-than-life platform smack dab in the middle of the public eye, but it’s one that Barrett is navigating with her heart on her sleeve. The rising artist may be the blueprint from the outside perspective, but on the inside, she has her own course of action that she’s keen on sticking to – be herself and do what she loves. It really can be that simple.

Nessa Barrett’s sweet and soft-spoken nature teeters on the edge of bubbly during our Zoom call. Her honesty is expected given what we know of her, but it is her warm, upbeat disposition that is notable, which both juxtaposes her increasingly vivacious stage presence and beautifully underscores the intimacy of her music. She’s 19 and a beguiling pop rock songstress of sorts, but the singer admits to The Aquarian that she is more than a social media personality, TikTok creator, or anything else. Right now, she’s a strategic, thoughtful singer who is uniquely inspired by modern hip-hop and R&B with no limit as to what piques her interest or finds it’s way into an upcoming song or two.

Still, the empowered and all-encompassing truth behind many of her released (and unreleased) tracks has her dabbling in the young new world of Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish; all while steadily merging into the pop punk lane with hits “i hope ur miserable until ur dead” and collaboration with boyfriend jxdn [Jaden Hossler], “la di die.” (Both of which are mainstays on alternative rock radio – if you’re still cranking that in your car, which both of these songs are perfect for. This is not to discredit Barrett’s multi-million listener count on Spotify and their own placement of her songs, which include the aptly titled playlists “Dark Pop” and “hype me up I’m a bad b,” among others.)

Nessa Barrett wants to be there for the world at large with the music, words, and overarching media she becomes part of. She is, in a way, setting out to be both the angel and devil on your shoulder, reminding you that pain is meant to be felt, but so is joy.

Turmoil ranging from bullying and breakups to emptiness and depression are positioned appropriately on her debut EP, Pretty Poison, and the handful of singles released prior to that. Nothing is too heavy nor too despondent – Barrett, as well as the narratives at hand, are as substantial as they are approachable. In this day and age, there is peace in that. She is not hollow. These stories are not hollow.

In between light-hearted giggles and personable back-and-forth during our interview, Nessa Barrett proves to us (and everyone reading this) that throughout everything – including living out her biggest dream – she is not out of touch with reality. She is one of us… just with a serene voice, an understated flare, and some tens of millions of followers to her name.

Barrett and jxdn for “la di die” / Photo by Kristen Jan Wong

There is so much to talk about with your music, but we have to start off by talking about some really fabulous collaborations you have going on with brands at the moment, including DC Shoes and Steve Madden. How does fashion intersect with your music, if at all? Do you think the two work hand-in-hand for you?

Oh, yeah! For me, I feel like I had to do things a certain way to get to the position that I am. You don’t want to break out of that social media world fully, but I used to only make money from social media. Now I’m doing music, but I still have to pay rent, so I like to be very picky on the deals that I make. I work hard to really try and figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t for me as an artist, not just me as a brand. I don’t want to really be associated with the influencer worlds, because I’m not really a part of that. When I do these amazing brand deals, it’s with brands that I’m obsessed with myself and ones that obviously fit my vibe and aesthetic so that it makes sense.

Steve Madden and DC – I thought that was perfect. Some people might be like, “Oh, it’s weird that you’re doing two different shoes,” but for me, it’s like how I can be two different types of people with style. I like to wear my heels and my boots one day. I also like to wear sneakers and skater shoes another day. My tomboy side is seen in the DC collaboration. The girly-girl in me is in the Steve Madden one.

I’ve always loved Steve Madden. My mom has been wearing them ever since I was little. She’s even on their email lists, so when she got the email that had my name in it, she was freaking out. [Laughs] She like, “Oh my God, how is this real? This is my daughter!” It was so cool. I was a fan of their first like really huge campaign that kind of popped them off back in the day – the ‘It Girls’ and the ‘Big Heads.’ I thought that was sick. When I heard that they were bringing it back, I was like, “You want me to be a part of it? Yes, of course!” That was awesome and it did make a lot of sense. I feel like I have to be very careful as to what line I walk on when it comes to my brand deals, just because that is who people are going to associate me with. DC and Steve Madden are both incredible brands that also work to inspire people and their customers to be themselves and wear what they want to wear. That’s me. The whole DC Shoes thing was around this idea of “push your story.” That is so cool. It’s all about creativity and I’m all about creativity. I’m all for that because art comes in so many different ways. Not only does it come in music, which is what I love doing, but also fashion, so I love showcasing myself and being a part of that.

Of course, because fashion is art and a way to express yourself. These brands may be starting trends, but they’re also allowing people to take turn trends into something else – something their own.

Exactly! That’s what I love. It’s not really about what you’re wearing. It’s the type of thing about how you’re wearing it.

You don’t want your clothes to wear you. You need to wear the clothes.

Yes, yes. I love it.

You talked about this idea of being true to you and using music to express yourself. You are evidently vulnerable in everything you’ve released. You’re giving fans strength and hope and comfort knowing that they’re not alone in these feelings or situations. How does it feel, to you, to know that the art you are creating is resonating so strongly and so vitally in people all over the world?

It’s pretty freaking surreal. I’ve been doing music my entire life and the reason why I was doing it was because that was therapy for me. That was how I coped. I dealt with a lot and at that time, I didn’t really know how to express myself other than with music. That was the only way that I felt comfortable expressing myself. It started off with me really just trying to cope and heal for nobody but myself, but the second that I realized that I was helping other people feel through my music, as well as help other people cope…. Well, that is now the reason why I’m doing it – more so than for myself. That’s what I am here for.

Everyone else feeling something because of my music is as powerful as it gets. It doesn’t really scare me because if there’s one thing that makes me feel like I have a purpose in the world, it’s that I’m helping other people. I know how it feels to be in the darkest of times and I can only imagine what others go through, as well. If I’m only helping one person with what I do, that is enough for me. I just like to be as vulnerable as I can be, because what good are you doing if you’re not telling your story? That is me, that is my vibe, and I mean it – this is the world to me. I could make songs about whatever, but the personal route is the way that I like to go because it helps me and can help others. There is realness to it and it’s very strong. That is how I can get people to connect to me and understand this world. If someone listens to my music, I want them to be able to take a breath and be like, “Ok, I’m not alone.”

You’re already doing just that. I keep reading online about how your fans are looking at you and your songs for strength. I also remember that when I personally listened to Pretty Poison the first time, I noted immediately that it encapsulated every inch of your heart It’s a timeless body of work, which is hard to do on a debut EP.

Yeah? Thank you so much. Especially in today’s society, I think it’s so important to be raw because there [are] so many false realities being put into everyone else’s heads whether it is beauty standards or how people live such a perfect life and it just makes other people doubt themselves and compare. It’s not fair. There’s more than that in this world. If I can kind of break that mold as much as I can with my music, then that’s really the biggest thing. […] I try to create something around what my mood is in that day in that moment. Whatever that song is based around comes from that, even if it’s just the song title or the whole concept or some of the lyrics. It is all telling a story and what helps tell that story is the lyrics and production and feeling around that. It all has to fit me and feel the same from that first session to the day it comes out. I don’t want to put myself in a box. I derive from everything I know and love. I love Kanye and I love hip-hop and I’m a fan of so much that is in there. [Laughs] It’s all behind-the-scenes influence, but it’s cool to see where it leads a song.

It must be so much fun to see how it all ties into what you are trying to convey. There are layers within all of that, though, especially a song like “scare myself” or even “Pain.” Pretty Poison as a whole package has become this haunting visual album. Every song is this enchanting and harrowing look at reality in the modern era. How much of a part do you play in bringing these songs to life to the stage and screen? Because even a quick music video like your latest, “sincerely,” fits the Nessa Barrett aesthetic.

Thank you! I am a very hands-on with every aspect of my music. I creative directed all the videos, so that was really fun. I sat down for like two hours with this amazing team of directors and kind of told them ideas and showed them my treatments and everything that I wanted from the camera shots and angles to every outfit throughout the whole video. I’m very hands-on and visual with my work. That’s kind of what helps me write my songs and create them. I have always been a very visual person, so being able to create my own world and make it feel as cohesive as the songs already are on the project is very important to me.

Honestly, I kind of felt like it was pretty easy for these songs. I am excited for like my next project coming up because it’s a lot broader and bigger, so I’m trying to figure out what’s next. I’m thinking “What world am I now going to create?” I like to create my own little Nessa world, so every time I come up with something new, it’s going to feel like it’s its own universe.

Why not challenge yourself, especially if you love doing it? That actually reminds me a bit of the early days of Marina, when she was still known as Marina and the Diamonds and each album had its own storyline and character, but if you listen to her whole discography today, every era still sounded like it was coming from her heart.

Yeah, it’s all still myself in everything.

How are these songs going to translate on stage? How are you preparing to do that with your New York shows just a few weeks away?

I’m really excited. Right now, the whole stage production and all that stuff is being [kept] very simple. I am starting at these small venues to work myself up because I am new in the life and scene of live performances. I’m very excited for it, but because this EP is so personal to me, I really want it to feel intimate and real rather than be disguised by outfits and visuals and all of this stuff. I want to be there in front of everyone and just kind of pour my heart out alongside them, you know? I want people to come out and have fun, but also take my shows as a therapy session, as well. That’s how I’m going to take it! Every time I sing some of my songs, I cry, and so I expect to cry then, too. I just like to vibe, so even though it feels like there’s a lot of pressure on me, I know there’s not because everyone that is going to be there loves and supports me. They came for a reason and I am so excited for that. I’m just going to try and make it as best as I can – as we all can. Then hopefully whenever I go on tour, that will be wild. I know it will. For now, I’m just so excited for these shows because it is gonna be something that no one will forget. It’s my first ones ever and it’s for all of us.

Intimate is the perfect word because your fandom is close knit and this EP is so personal. A small, intimate show will benefit the songs that you have out and your purpose as an artist to show your true self and be there for everyone. You definitely don’t need things like pyrotechnics just yet, because while that’s fun and great, I think this is your time to hone in on being a headliner and, like you said, bare your soul.

100%. That’s why I am so, so excited. I loved performing at [Lollapalooza] and I performed this past weekend at EDC and it’s been incredible. At the same time, I do miss that intimacy that my music does bring and the vulnerability that I feel I can’t really project as strong as I’d like to in front of tens of thousands of people with just one song. That’s another thing! I can’t wait to perform a whole set myself because I haven’t done that either.

We’re so close to experiencing that with you. How special of a moment that is sure to be and how commendable are you for wanting that for everyone involved? As another young person in the industry, I have to say that this approach to storytelling and creating an expressive community is everything this generation could have asked for. Why is being yourself, showcasing your personality, and directing your professional narrative important to your music? Outside of it being for your own therapy, is it as necessary for the art as we think it is?

It’s very necessary for the art itself. You want people to love your music, but you also want people to love you as an artist and understand you as an artist, because that is the way they can actually understand your music. I’m creating them and recording them as if no one is ever going to hear it. It’s just for me. Then when it comes to the time where it’s released, I’ve had my peace with it for months and I have molded it into the place that it has to be. I’ve worked with it and listened to it for months that as soon as it’s out, it’s not mine anymore. It’s everyone else’s story that they can tell and that they can relate to and that they can sing along to. These songs are my heart, but they are not mine anymore once they are out – they’re everyone else’s.

I think the personality thing is very interesting, because it’s easy for me to be vulnerable about my mental health issues kind of based on how I go about tackling them. As far as my personality, I feel like I kind of struggle with that a little bit because deep down, and even reality, I am shy and I am scared of what people kind of think of me. Like many others, it can be hard for me to open up and fully be myself. When I do have interviews or any type of shoots or videos and stuff like that where where I could showcase my personality, I feel like I almost hide it a little bit. I would much rather let my music do the talking. One day I’ll get very comfortable with doing both, but the music is what is connecting, so I believe that is the story getting told right now.

Being open and honest, showcasing my personality where I can, and being vulnerable about me and my life is everything – it’s how people are going to understand why I am doing what I am doing. It’s how they’ll relate to Pretty Poison. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but people can love my songs or they can also love me as an artist. I would love if people loved both… or at least one for now.