CHIT CHAT: RISING SINGER-SONGWRITER POLLY A DISHES ON NEW MUSIC AND HER GHETTO GOLD DREAM (EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW)
You may not know her name yet but Meleni Smith, aka Polly A, is someone you’ve likely heard before. Somewhat of a chameleon in the music industry, the singer-songwriter has written songs for notable artists like Alicia Keys and J. Cole but is finally stepping out of the songwriting shadows and into her own, beautiful spotlight armed with a new record label deal, a soon-to-be released (and highly anticipated) EP and a tour booked on the calendar.
During my interview, I was struck by how warm, confident and smart this Milwaukee-bred and Harlem-based songstress was. Self described as an “artist changing fear into love” and an “alchemist,” Polly A is proving that she has the staying power to turn her Ghetto Gold Dream into a reality.
Full interview below.
Girl That’s My Song: You’ve written songs for huge artists like Alicia Keys and J. Cole. What is it like to move from songwriting somewhat behind the scenes to being fully in the spotlight as a solo artist?
Polly A: It feels great! That was always the overall vision. I kind of, I wouldn’t say got thrown into songwriting, but it was a blessing to be able to you know write songs for myself that eventually other artists wanted to record and perform. And of course, obviously collaborating with J. Cole was amazing as well but it’s always been my overall mission to sing my own creations and share what I’ve written myself with other people. So, it’s amazing.
GTMS: This has been a huge year for you! You premiered the video for Ghetto Gold Dream exclusively on ELLE.com, signed with Adam Levine’s record label and performed at Lollapalooza just to name a few milestones. What else is in store for 2016?
Polly A: Wow so many (laughs), so many things. I’m gonna release the EP in a couple weeks – on the 26th of August actually to be specific!
GTMS: Very Exciting!
Polly A: Yes! Then I’m going on my first tour supporting this amazing artist named Selah Sue who is super dope and then I got big plans for New Years – I don’t even know if I can announce that yet – but yeah I got big New Year’s Eve plans. I’m gonna be working that night, which is gonna be amazing and yeah just hopefully more shows, more tours – you know all that good stuff. I’m gonna close out pretty strong.
GTMS: Great! Who was the artist that you mentioned that you were gonna be touring with?
Polly A: He name is Selah Sue, she’s popping in Europe. I just actually was listening to her music all day yesterday and she’s amazing. So it’s a really good click, a really good match up. It’s gonna be a great show and great tour.
GTMS: People may not know that your real name is Meleni Smith, that you were born in Flint, Michigan and raised by a Jamaican mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or that you went to an Ivy League school. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your path to where you are today?
Polly A: I was born in Michigan but I really didn’t spend a lot of time there. I was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My dad was a radio host at the time and he was like traveling a lot so that’s kind why we bounced around a lot. But my parents split when I was like really, really little, like an infant and my mom kinda just stayed in Milwaukee because it was, you know, just quiet and she was just tired of moving and it was in a good public school system and all that stuff. So yeah, I was raised there. Pretty typical Midwest life – my mom was just like very typical, I guess you could say, of a West Indian or foreign born mother.
GTMS: I’m Jamaican too, so I get you!
Polly A: Oh Okay! Yeah! She was very big on education, all that stuff and getting all the greatest opportunities even though we come from a very humble background and her being an immigrant and single mother. So I literally went to all the best schools because my mom was just amazing in that way – just making it happen. I was afforded a lot of great opportunities as a kid. I went to private school […] and then that kind of what helped me get into the Ivy League world because my school has like 100% graduation college rate. It’s one of those college prep schools. But I always knew I wanted to do music from a very young age. I have a family member who is a singer, her name is Melani as well, and she kind of like introduced me to signing and music at like 6 years old. I always wanted to sing from that point on and kind of having this like mentor teach me all of these things. I didn’t really know that I was receiving something special until I got older and could do things with my voice that other people couldn’t and that I learned when I was under 10 years old. So, yeah, it was just kinda like I knew I really wanted to come to Columbia. I know it’s an Ivy League school, but it was really just to be in New York (laughs). I know people laugh whenever I say that, they’re like, ‘oh really? You chose a hard, very difficult school.’ But again, I think that when you just have a vision of what you wanna do […] it was just something that I always knew would happen so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me when I sought out to do it. That’s what led me into music. It was being able to go to Columbia and do the school thing but also have access to just New York and the art scene in New York.
GTMS: Right. So did those experiences inspire your EP title Ghetto Gold Dream? What does that dream really mean to you?
Polly A: Yeah that’s exactly what it is. The whole journey from being from Milwaukee where there just isn’t a lot of opportunity. I mean especially now because it’s on the forefront of everyone’s radar because of all the things that are happening in Milwaukee in the recent past. You know, the rioting and just people are starting to see just what it is like for people of color in Milwaukee. It’s very much a glass ceiling and there’s just not a lot. […] I always knew that I couldn’t let where I come from hinder me or define me so Ghetto Gold Dream is essentially that. It’s taking the little you may have and making the most out of it. My mom is a prime example of someone who’s done that her entire life. She raised three kids by herself. She eventually after she raised three kinds went to law school. She’s the prime example of just flipping life and making lemonade you know um out of lemons – like Beyonce (laughs). She coined that, now that it’s a Beyonce thing, even though it’s been around since like forever! But yeah just that whole mentality is just like what Ghetto Gold Dream is all about. It’s just Ghetto Gold … and it’s just fake jewelry but you still wanna feel regal so you wear ghetto gold. You want to still by fly so you wear ghetto gold. So it’s really just that idea of making the most of whatever life may give you.
GTMS: The video for Ghetto Gold Dream features some powerful visuals, notably of African-Americans. What was the inspiration behind the video?
Polly A: David Sabastian is an amazing artist, an amazing visionary. It was shot by an amazing cinematographer Byron Atienza and we all just kinda brainstormed. I always wanted to do kind of like a surreal dream. I wanted to make the dream in Ghetto Gold Dream more of a literal thing and bring to life this surreal reality so to speak. Through brainstorming, David kinda came up with this idea of me following this sort of inner child through this … you know, down the rabbit hole. These worlds that we can bring to life. These dreams, these actual visions and then actual surreal dreams. It was important to us, and we wanted to be it slightly diverse, but it was important to us that we show our people in a way that isn’t always seen. Especially in music now. There are a lot of images that tend to glorify, I don’t want to say negative aspects, but not as positive aspects of our world and our community. So it was important to me to use a beautiful little black girl with natural hair because it’s just not very often seen and represented. I wanted to show people images that are in my world, that I see every single day, that I experience, that are a reflection of me and what I find to be beautiful. It was kinda just organically brought to life between the three of us.
GTMS: That’s amazing. Sticking on that same trend … so you also are very active on social media discussing the black lives matter movement and racial tensions in our country. What do you think your role is as an artist in the spotlight in terms of shedding light on social issues?
Polly A: I think everyone has a platform to speak so it’s not even just artists although we are looked to, to be the storytellers and hold up the mirror to society. But I think essentially like my own personal responsibility is to just tell the truth. When I’m writing music, when I’m living life I just wanna show people ‘hey this is my truth, this is my reality, this is how I see what’s happening.’ And I think it’s great as artists that we do have this platform to affect change because I think that there are a lot of people, especially younger people, who are so confused that they don’t really know how to process what’s happening. It’s easy to kind of just ball up in this fearful little ball when I want to encourage people to like take control of your own life and actually know that you have the power to affect change and inspire someone else to view something a different way. … I’ve always on Twitter just been like, ‘Yo this is messed up, what’s happening. This is what’s going on and this is how I see it.’ When I just see injustices or whatever happening … literally when all that stuff with Alton Sterling was happening I was literally balling in tears and that’s when I was writing on Twitter. It was just frustration of thinking, ‘Man we’re all here, human.’ You know what I mean? This isn’t even about race at this point this is like, we’re watching a man die on social media. […] I don’t want to raise a child in a world where a person can be murdered on social media or TV and that’s normal.
GTMS: It’s so insane. Alright, let’s switch gears to a lighter note. Your debut EP, Ghetto Gold Dream, drops on August 26th. What can fans expect to hear on the EP?
Polly A: I worked with amazing producers. Synematik is one of them and then Gabriel Lamberts who is an up-and-coming amazing talent. I chose to work with fewer producers because I feel like you can kinda catch a vibe and get more of a singular vibe going. That was very important to me. To kind of take listeners on a journey where we’re not just bouncing around all of these different places. You’re going on a ride with me and through my world and observations. So [it’s] just five songs of me studying the human condition and of me studying things I go through in love. Most of the record, when I wrote it, I was in a relationship so a lot of the songs are optimistic about love I guess you could say. I was in a very ‘love’ space. It was a good space to be in as far as how the songs came out. It’s really just a reflection of like how I see the world and how I see my life. I try to make it universal to what I feel like we’re all going through – the same things just in different ways. So every song is relatable I think.
GTMS: Okay, we’re gonna wrap with a fun one! What is one thing that people may not expect or know about you?
Polly A: Hmmm so many things! (Laughs). I don’t think that many people know that if I weren’t a singer then I would want to be a travel photographer. A couple years ago I went on a five country spiritual journey by myself. I visited Kenya, Egypt, Thailand […] there is something about travel that introduces you to yourself.
Interview by Anna-Kay Thomas.