Donna Missal Heats it Up with "Lighter"

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Photo: Erica Hernandez

Photo: Erica Hernandez

Donna Missal is a powerhouse vocalist ready to become a household name in the music industry. Drawing influences from rock, soul, country, and 90’s classics such as Shania Twain and Smashing Pumpkins, the New Jersey native sees no genres when it comes to her own sound and style. 

The 29-year-old describes herself as a singer and sister above all else. “I’ve been making music for so long, it’s interwoven with my identity. I’m a writer and a person out here trying to exist,” she says with a chuckle. Donna currently resides in Los Angeles in a house with her four sisters, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

With a song like “Hurt By You,” Donna is proud to create the most perfect breakup song — helping listeners all around the world move forward in their life in a positive direction. Identifying as bisexual and carrying the mantra of self-acceptance and vulnerability, Donna is ecstatic for her forthcoming album titled Lighter. The project represents growth, maturity, and letting things go that don’t serve you. 

Flaunt caught up with Donna to discuss her musical background, her sound, her new project, her goals, and more.

How would you describe your sound?

I try to live between genres because that’s where I’m most influenced, a range of influence that comes into my writing and singing. What I make doesn’t exist within constructs of genres as we know them. A lot of music in the last 5 to 10 years has been that way because we’re so influenced by the culture of sharing music with friends. I grew up on mixing culture.

My sound has more feeling and less... I wouldn’t call it rock blues or pop. It’s loud, unapologetically so. It’s constructive about my feelings, so it’s very passionate. Most of my influences are women who scream with a lot of confidence and self-assuredness, so I try to do that with my own music. Inspire other people to be loud in their conviction, say what they want to say with ease of confidence and self-assuredness.

I’ve always described it as feminine stripper music, but the second record has definitely evolved more sonically. It feels very live, I use lots of real instrumentation. If I was to try to explain it to one of my dad’s friends, I’d say it’s rock and roll. [chuckles]

Being from Jersey, what was the household like growing up?

We were homeschooled, myself and all my sisters. There’s 6 of us, we grew up very close. I’m really close in age with all of my siblings. The environment was weird. We’re all home all day, we’re each other‘s best friends. I didn’t have any assemblance of anything different, I thought it’s super normal to be best friends with your sisters and sing together. We’d make mud houses in the backyard all day, I really thought that’s what homes were like. 

It was very creative, my parents had a bunch of studio equipment in our basement. I started making music using my dad’s equipment. Very strange but definitely the perfect environment for creativity to grow. There‘s very little fear of judgment because we didn’t go to school, didn’t know what that meant until I was a teenager. A really creative, weird environment where we’re encouraged to be ourselves. Creativity wasn’t dismissed at all. If we’re being creative, my parents were always fostering that which was really nice. 

At what point did you know that music could be a career?

As a kid, I was dead set on being a performer of some sort. I didn’t have other ambitions. I wasn’t a kid who wanted to be a firefighter, a vet, or a doctor. I didn’t have any of those ideas. Music, singing, performing for people — I didn’t know how to make it a job, but I knew that’s the only thing I was interested in. I’d make up songs, sing them around my house, play them for my family from a really young age. 

I started to be influenced more from my environment. I got in my head it wouldn't be possible to make music as an artist or be a front person of anything. I definitely discouraged myself given the information coming in from my surroundings, seeing everything as negativity and dismissal. When you’re a teenager, everything’s so fucking dramatic. I was so down on myself, I thought it wasn’t a possibility. I started learning about songwriting, realizing there were professional songwriters who weren’t artists, but would provide songs for artists to song. 

For a long time, I was pursuing that. That’s how I started making music at all and professionally. My first time getting paid for it was when I did it for someone else. I quit my day job bartending when I got a publishing deal. I’d release my own music, so the artistry followed the writing. I’ve been doing it professionally ever since. I’m really happy, I feel very lucky. 

In February, you released “Hurt By You.” Who or what inspired this record?

The first single off my second record, the first song I wrote with the person who’d become the producer of the whole record. This song started the experience of putting together a body of work. A few demos made their way onto the record but everything else was written and created in the environment that this song was created in. It laid the groundwork for where things thematically and sonically would live for the second record. It’s a breakup album. It’s about the experience of letting go of something, trying to get over something.

As time goes on, I’m realizing the themes of breaking up apply a lot less to one person singularly, but so much more on a bigger scale. To watch something disappear or fall apart in front of you, and how isolating, scary, confusing, hurtful that experience can be. The process of taking steps away from it to get better perspective, to give yourself some time. To one foot in front of the other process, to get some distance from this thing. You don’t emotionally react to it the same way. You get to a point where it doesn’t affect you anymore. There’s so much freedom, the concept of realizing you’re autonomous. When you get to a point of breaking up with anything — a person, a job, a place you’ve lived your whole life, a toxic friendship — realizing you don’t need it anymore and maybe you never did, it’s really freeing. That theme carries through the whole record. 

What’s the significance in your new album title Lighter?

I came up with the title before I had all of the songs written. It helps as a creative to create a framework, put things inside of it and see how they feel. The concept of Lighter allowed me to have this framework to start plugging my songs into, seeing whether it all felt cohesive and had a consistent point of view and perspective. It’s funny because I haven’t told anyone but my management, my A&R, people within my label. I’ve known the name for over a year. 

The responses are really interesting because the reaction was “oh cool, weightlessness. Having weight come off of you makes you feel lighter, that’s what this is about.” When I came up with the concept, I meant literally torching shit with a lighter. Using that as a metaphor for your life crashing and burning around you. I found that the dichotomy of that meaning really helped me create a different dimension to the record. It’s actually about releasing yourself of this weight.

How long have you been in LA now? How do you like it compared to the East Coast?

Almost 3 years now. I like it very much. It took me a minute to settle in, but I heard the whole time that’s normal. I’m super comfortable here, it has everything to do with my living situation. I live in a house in Pasadena that I’m renting with my 3 sisters from Jersey. They all came out at different times to LA, this is the first time we’ve all lived together since kids. It couldn’t be a better environment for feeling safe, comfortable, and calm. Extremely fortunate this is where I’m quarantined. We have a backyard. I’ve got my family around me, people that I love and care for. Before this, I lived in a studio apartment in Koreatown. I loved it, but I can’t imagine being there now. 

I’m from the Bay Area. When I first transferred to UCLA, I had no friends. It took me a while to actually understand LA.

Same. It works so much better as a string of suburbs rather than trying to consider it a city. Moving here from New York was really strange. I love the Bay Area, I started my first record in the Bay Area. I was there for 5 or 6 weeks starting the tracking process on my first record. I love it there, I love the people there. 

How did you end up in the Bay?

My manager had a lot of friends who made music from that area. He knew the guy who ran this studio called Different Furs in the Mission District. He was willing to help me. I had no money, I wasn’t signed to my label yet. I had no idea how to make a record. They’re like “you can come here, we’ll give you this great rate. You can start it, we can see what happens.” I don’t know many people with studio situations in LA who’d be that willing to help, I really loved the experience so much. 

How’d you find your way to your label, Capitol Records?

I was making my first record, doing a bunch of writing sessions. Didn’t know who was going to produce the record yet, writing a bunch of songs. I knew I wanted it to be an album, but I didn’t really know how to put it together. I’d done a bunch of tracking at that studio, started putting music down to the songs I made. I was bringing those songs around to different sessions with different producers to see if I could find someone not only interested in producing the record, but down for the creative process I was looking for. 

I wanted it to feel eclectic and mixtape-y. I want it to live between genres, be more experimental. I tried out a lot of different styles of songwriting at that time. I was looking for the right partner, not everyone’s down for a creative process like that. I met Tim Anderson at a session, who’d become my executive producer on that album. We made the entire record together. Once It was finished, he said “I work A&R at this label, it’s Capitol but it’s a subsidiary. I've brought a lot of stuff to their indie label called Harvest. It's a great team of people down to help develop artists.” No creative control, they let the artist do what they want to do, say what they want to say how they want to say it, then they’ll put it out. 

It's rare to find a company down to take risks like that. It made sense. Ever since, they’ve kept their promises of letting me do my thing and remain in creative control. Make my own decisions with the type of music I make, how I make It. I couldn’t be happier with the support I have over there. I feel very lucky I made the record before going to a label, it really solidified my position there with everyone. It’s a rare situation, I’m definitely really lucky to be in the position I am with Harvest. They’re awesome.

What are some goals for yourself at this point of your career?

I want to pay off my parents' mortgage with music. I want to be successful man, I want to be able to do it forever. The concept of success to me is really simple: can I be a creative person, explore different facets of what interests me and what I like to do? Can I do that and sustain my lifestyle, support those around me and connect with people? If all those things are happening, I’m happy. 

Being at home and watching the paradigms of the industry you’re in shift around you so drastically, everyone’s in a position to totally reimagine what it is that they want to accomplish — with their careers, with how to reach people. We’re in such a weird position. If I can continue to have as much connectivity with people as possible, I'll feel satiated. It’s hard, but I hope the music reaches people and that I continue to make it on my own terms. If you had asked me 6 months ago, I would’ve said “oh I want to play SNL, write a musical, and travel to Japan.” I’m learning to realign my goals to things that feel more immediate and more possible, so I don’t drive myself crazy. 

Anything you’d like to let us know?

I'm really excited for my record. I’m ready to put it out. I'm really terrified, but I’m really proud of it.