MC: We first noticed you as a songwriter, contributing tracks to Selena Gomez and Nikki Williams and co-writing “The Monster” by Rihanna and Eminem. Was it a transition to go from writing songs for other artists to writing for yourself?
Rexha: I was always an artist. I never had the right moment to put a song out for myself. When I was writing “The Monster” I was shopping it to be an artist. I played the song for a couple of big VP’s of companies, and they thought it was special and they thought it was cool, but they didn’t really stop in their tracks. Like “Oh my god, we could sign you with this record.” I was still underdeveloped as an artist. But I was never really writing songs for other people. These were songs that I was writing for myself that people wanted. I wasn’t wanted as an artist or a creative, so I began getting attention through my songwriting. That was a way to get where I wanted to be, to be an artist myself.
MC: As a teenager you won a Grammy-sponsored song contest. Did you attend a Grammy Camp?
Rexha: I couldn’t go to the Grammy Camp, as my parents could not afford that. I went to Grammy Career Day, which is like a long, 10-hour day where there were tons of workshops. You could meet lawyers and managers, and the surprise artist was Chris Brown, and his manager—a lot of really cool people that I met at that time. It was a really fun experience.
MC: It’s not unusual for executives and producers to have a lot of ideas for female artists. Is this something that you had to contend with early on?
Rexha: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes, especially early on, going into the music business and working with bigger producers and bigger songwriters, I probably turned a lot of them off. I think when you’re newer and work with a bigger songwriter there is a lot of ego in the room. I’d be like, “I don’t like this.” I have learned how to listen now. I think I’ve learned to massage the process. Now it’s more like, “We can try it that way, but I’d also like to try it this way.” When you start out, and you’re 18 or 19, you really go for blood. And you want what you want, and bigger producers and songwriters don’t appreciate that. But I think it goes full circle and now a lot of people want to work with me again. And I think it was really good that I had that attitude, because it helped me develop into the person and the artist I wanted to be instead of getting caught up in the wrong world.
MC: How do your collaborations evolve?
Rexha: I might text somebody, or meet somebody at a party and say that I have this idea for a song that I think is amazing but I don’t know how to fix it. I think the production works and I think it could be incredible for you. And we get together because they love the song. Or I will get contacted by someone’s management. And I say no a lot, but if the song makes me feel something and I’m excited, then I will do it. Sometimes it’s a publisher or a manager––it’s always different. It depends on being on the same wavelength as the other artist.
MC: You are featured on Louis Tomlinson’s new single, “Back to You.” Did you reach out first to the One Direction member for his solo project?
Rexha: I spoke with the producer and he spoke to Louis and they reached out. Anytime any song comes in I get my songwriter hat on. There is something interesting about the song, the way it starts. It felt really cool to me. I’m excited to see what happens.
MC: Who would be a dream collaborator for you?
Rexha: I'd really love to work with Kanye West.
MC: We have been reading reviews of your shows. Audiences seem to appreciate your spontaneity.
Rexha: Yeah, sometimes I get into a little bit of trouble for saying things I shouldn’t say (laughs). I don’t know what happens when I get on stage and I do a show, I guess the emotional thing––when I write a song I do this thing in the studio where I have all of this emotion inside of me and I need to get it out. It’s just passion, you know. And when I’m on stage sometimes that kind of comes over me too. Sometimes I see young females in the audience, and it reminds me of me when I was younger. And something happens and I let it all out. I might have a four-minute speech about loving yourself. And not saying that I always love myself. I tell my fans, it’s an everyday battle, I have my issues too. And I tell them that nobody’s perfect.
MC: There is a review of a New York show where you called out members of the audience—presumably industry types—for not being involved.
Rexha: It was so misunderstood. There were five people in the music industry that I recognized. Everyone was having fun, but these five people were not moving. I was like, “You better fucking move right now––why are you at this show? What is the point of you being here? Just let go and enjoy yourself.” I can’t make everybody happy, but I just say whatever I want to say.
MC: In April you were in Los Angeles at an ACLU benefit show organized by Zedd where you proclaimed, “It does not say you have to RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.” How did the audience react?
Rexha: Nobody really noticed; they were kind of clueless. And I thought it was great. My father is from Albania, and I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now if it wasn’t for my father being an immigrant, and coming here when he was 21, and having a dream, this American dream. He still might be a blue-collar worker, but as his daughter, I know he’s very proud of me. He really celebrates with me. Anything I get, it’s for my family, my mom, my brother and my dad.
What makes this country great is that you can be who you want to be: If you’re gay, if you’re bi, or a lesbian, or if you are transsexual, or you’re straight, you can love who you want to love. Right now we are in the time when we need happy songs more than ever. We need real songs more than ever. We need honesty. We either need songs that help us get anger out, or songs that help us forget a little bit.