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  • Karly Ramnani

P&P Spotlight: Emily O'Neal (EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW)

It takes immense passion and determination to pursue a music career and college education at the same time, and Tennessee has recently found a new rising star who could do it. Emily O'Neal, a fresh MTSU graduate who took full advantage of her school's music industry resources and network, now thrives in Nashville's lively, diverse music scene. Through many of her latest releases, especially the poignant "Watercolor" from last July, Emily is continuing to cultivate her vivid writing and multi-dimensional artistry.

Mixing psychedelic production elements into an ethereal sound, Emily O'Neal paints a vivid picture of the healing process in "Watercolor." A masterclass in metaphors and characterization, the song contains some of Emily's best storytelling so far. "Watercolor" comes after a defining few months in this rising star's career, which included a sold-out show at the iconic Bluebird Cafe, as well as an opening stint for Olivia O'Brien. Recently, Playlists & Polaroids had the privilege of chatting with Emily about these experiences, the music she's been working on lately, and her overall journey. We absolutely love this young prodigy's innovative mind and optimistic outlook.

Image credit: Emily O'Neal, graphic created by Karly Ramnani

YOU'LL LOVE EMILY O'NEAL IF YOU LISTEN TO: Taylor Swift, Gracie Abrams, Baby Queen, Lizzy McAlpine, Bleachers, Clairo

How did you first get into music? How long have you known, and how did you discover, that this is what you wanted to do professionally?

I started piano lessons when I was 6, so that was my introduction to music. I was a Disney Channel kid and they would play music videos during commercial breaks sometimes and I remember thinking that I wanted to do that. I didn’t actually start performing until I was 13 and Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, along with a push from my mom, made me want to start writing.

How have the music scenes in both Florida and Tennessee influenced your craft? What drew you to Nashville, of all music capitals in the country?

I’ve experienced a lot of country music in both places, and I think the genre influences me to always put songwriting first. I chose Nashville for a few reasons, I have family in the area so I’d taken some trips here as a kid and teenager. Nashville always felt kinda magical to me, and still does in many ways, and I love the music community here.

Tell us about your experience as both a full-time college student and singer-songwriter. How did you navigate the Hannah Montana life, for lack of a better term?

I went to school for music so it felt very intertwined. I’m lucky that what I studied was relevant to my dreams and career. Also, a lot of my college experience was online because of COVID, which was frustrating for making connections, but it did allow me more flexibility to work on my own music.

What did you major in? How do you see yourself using your degree in the future - both inside and outside of your life as a performer?

My degree is technically Recording Industry with a concentration in Songwriting, which I received from Middle Tennessee State University. I learned so much about the music business, songwriting, and even took a couple audio classes, which are all essential to my career. I’ll use at least one element of my degree every day.

Image credit: Emily O'Neal

Who created the painting on the cover art of “Watercolor?” In what ways do you think that this pose, and this color palette, captures the essence of the song?

The cover is actually a photo that was digitally transformed to look like a painting. In general I think it looks dreamy and fluid, which is also what I want the song to feel like when you listen to it.

How did you come up with all of the metaphors in the song, particularly the titular “Watercolor” painting? I am in love with this songwriting technique.

Thank you! I had a bookmark that I bought from the Parthenon in Nashville, which was a painting, Summer Day by Edward Dufner. It shows two young girls sitting by a body of water, ironically not a watercolor painting. I owned it for months until one day I saw it and the idea for watercolor popped into my head. I was a little wary of writing it at first because I already had a song called “Paint Me,” but they’re about completely different topics so I figured it was okay in the end.

Who produced “Watercolor”? Walk us through how you built this airy, yet pulsating, and at times EDM-influenced soundscape.

I created a demo in December/January, mainly the foundation for the track. I started with the main synth you hear at the beginning of the song and the drum loop at the end, I wrote most of the song with that playing repeatedly. My main object was to make the song sound distinct, like if it came on shuffle you would know from the first second what song it was. I filled out the track as far as my mind would take me, and then I shared it with producer Brady Armstrong and he had some other amazing ideas that took it to the next level.

In what ways do you feel as though “Watercolor” builds on or contrasts from your previous work?

I think it’s more mature than my other work. I couldn’t have written this song any earlier than I did.

Is “Watercolor” set to be featured on a larger project, like an EP or album? What can fans expect from you next?

Yeah definitely! More music is definitely in the works, and I’ll be performing so come see me if you’re in Nashville!

Image credit: Emily O'Neal

What are some of your proudest moments so far?

Releasing Watercolor, opening for Olivia O’Brien, and receiving the BMI John Lennon Scholarship are definitely highlights!

What are some of your highlights and biggest takeaways from opening for Olivia O’Brien?

That show was so exciting for me because it was my first time performing my original music with a band. I learned so much about the process of doing a show and everything that goes into it, and I was just elated and humbled that the band wanted to play music with me, and that people actually wanted to listen. I also got to watch footage back and see how my performance skills can improve, much like my high school volleyball days.

Performing at the Bluebird - and a sold-out show no less - is a huge milestone for Nashville musicians. How did it feel to check this off of the bucket list? What were your favorite parts of the experience?

It was surreal, I remember driving by one summer when I was 15 and hoping I would perform there one day. So many of my favorite writers have performed there and it’s an honor to be a part of that group. The Bluebird is special because the audience respects the songs and performers, they’re truly there to listen and connect.

What would you say some of your biggest goals in music are, for the next couple of years?

In the next couple years, I would like to make an album. I haven’t felt ready yet but eventually I’m gonna have to jump in the deep end. And I wouldn’t say I’ve exactly felt ready for anything else I’ve done either, you just gotta do it. Hopefully I’ll do a lot more shows and possibly some touring.

And finally, the P&P Classic: Tell us your favorite lyric from “Watercolor,” what was going through your head as you wrote it, and how do you connect to it?

My favorite lyric is in the second verse, “Lost my grip when I lost you, lost some weight off my body.” I know it’s my favorite lyric because it was the one I was most nervous about. I felt very exposed, like I wasn’t sure if I wanted people to know that about me, but every time I showed it to someone that was the lyric that stood out. I think it resonated with other people because I wasn’t shying away from sharing specifically how grief affected me.

We're so grateful that Emily O'Neal got to share her heart with us, and we can't wait for that debut album! If "Watercolor" or any part of her story resonated with you, here's a playlist we've curated that we think you might like.

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