By Anita Malhotra
Twenty-year-old Toronto-based singer-songwriter Dani Kristina wrote her first composition when she was only five years old, her first break-up song when she was six, and since then has written more than 600 songs in a variety of genres and released several music videos.
In October, she released her first EP, Aura, which features her soulful and powerful voice in five evocative songs chronicling her inner conflicts and journey as an artist. The EP was co-produced by Grammy nominated producer Trevor James Anderson, who also produced her 2019 debut single, “I Wanna Belong.”
Anita Malhotra spoke with Dani Kristina about her music via Zoom on December 21, 2020.
AM: How did you get started in music?
DK: I started playing piano and writing music at the age of five because my sister started taking piano lessons and I always looked up to her. And just as I started, there was this competition for compositions in my music school. I ended up writing my first composition at five and winning the competition, which was really good for my self-esteem.
Since then, I started adding lyrics to songs, and eventually singing without any formal training. By the time I got to age 12, 13, I started taking professional vocal lessons to refine my technique. And I took 15 years of piano. So it all started with wanting to be like my sister. Eventually we performed together, and to this day she’s my go-to when I’m producing or singing.
AM: Can you tell me about that first composition?
DK: It was an abstract piano piece called “Thunder and Rain.” It was taking advantage of the spectrum of the piano, with the low end being the thunder and the high end being rain.
AM: Are you parents musical too?
DK: My dad is, and my mom’s quite artistic as well. They’re both dancers. My mom’s an artist so she paints and draws, and she also took piano lessons. And my dad actually won a national music festival back in the day.
So they were both really pushing us to express ourselves artistically, and they’ve always been really supportive of doing music as a career.
AM: How old were you when you wrote your first song with words?
DK: I was six.
AM: What was that song about?
DK: Funnily enough, it was a break-up song. I read a lot of books when I was young and I listened to a lot of music because my family always had music on in the background. I recorded it professionally when I was about seven and it was released when I was 10.
It’s called “One Day” and it’s exactly what you’d expect from a breakup song. As a six-year-old I knew nothing about relationships, but at a young age I was really fascinated by this idea of writing stories about people who I didn’t know.
AM: How did your songwriting develop over the years?
DK: I always like challenging myself, so I went through a phase where I would write songs only in the key of C. Sometimes I’d write only rock songs, sometimes only jazz, sometimes pop. I did a bit of poetry, spoken word.
Now my songs have become a bit more mature. I like exploring different kinds of themes in my writing. So, in one phase I was fascinated with this idea of death and loss, which sounds morbid, but I looked for the nuances of that.
And right now I’m in this nuanced area of relationships. It’s not just two people who lose each other – it’s that grey area where people aren’t all good or all bad. So that’s how it’s evolved – very much in this kind of storytelling manner.
AM: Can you tell me a little bit about your debut EP, Aura?
DK: I like to think about Aura as a kind of story. I went about choosing the songs based on which ones I liked when I was first going into the studio, and then my sister did the production for most of them.
I wanted to tell the story of this character who’s seemingly living this perfect life, but there are a lot of power dynamics at play that are affecting their ability to make their own choices. And eventually everything kind of falls apart and everyone is casting some kind of judgement. And then this journey to self-acceptance – realizing you can make your own choices.
And then it’s metaphorical in a lot of ways. “Burning Parachute” is a song about being hung dry, but it uses fire imagery. And in the “You Don’t get to Choose” music video, there’s a lot of water imagery. I really like playing around with these contrasting parallels.
AM: Most of these songs are accompanied by music videos. What is the process of making a music video like?
DK: I usually go in with a rough concept, but when I’m working with other people who are creative, I don’t like limiting them. I really believe in collaboration. For example, for “Burning Parachute” all I told them was, “I want fire.” And they said, “We were thinking of going to a field, and throwing stuff in a fire, and burning a guitar” and I said, “Yeah, that sounds cool.” I think when someone’s really passionate about something, it’s important to give them a creative voice – otherwise the end product can be a bit dry.
Then, the day of the music video is usually a very long day. “Burning Parachute” was almost 20 hours. It was filmed in February at minus 17 but we decided we wanted to do this. We just played the track in the background, did a bunch of takes, and then it went on to production.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about another of the songs on Aura, “Drift Away”?
DK: I actually wrote “Drift Away” in the Spotify Secret Genius Studio in Toronto with the producer on that track, Trevor James Anderson. He worked with me on my first single and then I got a call from him asking me to come to the studio. I went in, and he had this song that he’d been working on for quite a while but had never quite finished.
It was such an honour to be asked to even collaborate with him on this. We wrote out the song – laid down the vocals that night – and we never revisited it. That song was recorded, written and everything all in one night. It was definitely a super cool experience to work with someone who has so much knowledge in the industry and who has worked with so many incredible artists like 5 Seconds of Summer and Andrea Bocelli.
AM: When writing your songs, how do you choose the genre of music to work in?
DK: I actually started off writing my EP keeping this kind of country-roots-folk sound in mind, but that’s nothing of what came out. I don’t tie myself to a genre because I don’t want to limit myself when I’m in the studio.
If there’s a really cool trap drum that’s going to show up I’m like, “Yeah let’s put it in. Why not?” Same with a banjo. On “See You” there’s this really intense hip-hop drum and vocoder paired with a banjo.
I don’t necessarily write my songs in the style that they are released in. A lot of times it’s just piano and voice, so it’s way slower than it’s heard, for example, on the EP.
And then I’m like, “Okay, if this is going to be a single, I want people to be able to drive along to it.” So a lot of thought goes into how people are going to be listening to it, and that’s how I build things around it.
AM: What are some of the challenges of building a career as a singer/songwriter?
DK: The biggest thing is putting yourself out there. It’s really, really hard to be so vulnerable. That’s why I go to songs of storytelling very often in my music, because I have this fear of exposing myself to everyone – that’s my life I’m putting out there for everyone to comment on, whether it be a video or a song.
But through the creation of this EP and working on music videos I’ve decided that it’s worth opening up to see even a glimmer of positivity from other people and see other people resonate.
For example, with “You Don’t Get to Choose,” I got so many personal messages from people telling me how much that song means to them. So I’m definitely making it my goal for my new releases to let myself open up a bit more.
AM: Over the years, what have you learned about songwriting that you didn’t know at the beginning?
DK: What I’ve noticed the most is that the beauty is in the details. When I used to write music I would be very broad. For example, I’d write, “I was sitting in my room and I was sad.” But now I’m more like, “I was sitting in my room on the white sheets looking through the window at the cityscape feeling sad.”
Adding those extra details helps people imagine themselves in your situation, and I think being a good songwriter is being able to make other people feel what you’re feeling.
AM: Is there a trick to writing a good hook for a song?
DK: I don’t necessarily follow a formula when I do this. For me it just comes to me, and if the song sticks with, let’s say my mom and I hear her singing it in the kitchen the next day, I know that song is good.
But I’d say you have to employ certain mechanisms like repetition, but still adding enough variation so that it’s interesting, as well as sometimes simplifying it. A lot of times a catchy hook. If you think of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” there’s nothing really to it, but you keep singing it over and over again because anyone can sing it. So if it’s singable to an audience of non-singers, a lot of the time that’s a hook that will stick.
AM: What is your typical week like?
DK: My life is extremely hectic. I usually work four to five jobs regularly. They’re freelance jobs, so I’m a contract worker. I’m also a student at Wilfred Laurier University. I find school really important, so I dedicate a lot of time to that.
I enjoy spending time with my family as well, so I always make sure to slip in a coffee time with my parents and my sister. And I song-write whenever I have a free moment. I have a grand piano in my house, so if I have a little break I will sit down and play a few chords. If I’m feeling inspired I’ll write a song. If not, I’ll call it for the day.
But a lot of the time, if I’m feeling overwhelmed with any kind of emotion – whether it be happiness, sadness, stress, anxiety – I just go to the piano. And a song comes out because it’s what I need to do in order to alleviate that stress and let myself feel emotions.
I think that’s how I learned about the world – through seeing my reflection of how I perceived something, and then hearing it back as I’m playing it and understanding, “Oh, that’s what it means.” So a lot of time, I’m making sense of the world through writing about it.
AM: Do you have plans to reach a wider audience?
DK: I think a big challenge for all artists these days is growing your audience on social media and not only relying on performances and your talent. There’s a lot of business savvy that’s involved and a lot of time spent marketing yourself.
Everyone is trying to make their art more accessible to everybody, and I think that’s on my priority list for sure, but first and foremost it’s a means of expression for me. As long as people are feeling that emotional connection to my music, I think that it will resonate with more and more people.
AM: Can you tell me about the new music you will be releasing next year?
DK: I have it written already and most of it is recorded, which is really exciting. I’m in the pre-release stages right now. I’m also going to be doing a lot of music videos next year because I think it’s really cool to use different mediums to tell the same story. There will be at least three new singles coming out next year – probably double that. So I’m keeping super busy during this COVID time. I think it’s a good time to be creating.
For more information about Dani Kristina and her music, visit danikristina.com.