Interview: Somewhere Between Erykah and Jhené is New Zealand's Villette
She's made beats for Tapz and competed in battles with some of the country's best producers. Today she releases her new track "If You Go."
When I sit down with Villette over Skype, she's still recovering from her sister's wedding. She's almost finished her upcoming release—"we're calling it a 'mixtape'"—which is coming out soon. She's just shot her first ever music video. She's about to release her new single. She's been flying to LA and recording in studios where Michael Jackson once stood. She's 21.
The New Zealand producer and singer-songwriter, full name Villette Dasha, has by all accounts come bounding out of the woodwork in the last twelve months. The voice of an angel—somewhere between Erykah Badu and Jhene Aiko—and the productions chops (do they call them chops?) of, I don't know, a very good one, Villette's late-2016 single "Beige" helped her carve out a top spot in 'Ones to Watch' lists all over.
Speaking to Villette is a little unnerving. She's seven years my junior but there's something disarming about the confidence and calm in her demeanour. Talking to her early on a weekday morning is like talking to an old friend at a bar late at night. She has big goals. She's collected about their absurdity. That doesn't make her any less determined. And why should she be, considering the run she's already had…
Villette's parents met when her dad auditioned for her mum's family band, and got the part, joining them on guitar. Which, of course, meant Villette's family home was a musical one. There were instruments of all kinds being mastered at home, the family sang in church. When they moved to Hamilton, a small town on the North Island—"It's known as the Chlamydia centre of New Zealand"—Villette joined school jazz choirs and played parts in musicals.
She was so sure about music that she left school when at sixteen and she went off to study contemporary music theory. "I was just over it because I knew what I wanted to do." She'd been writing songs and entering talent competitions—"Which I never won"—since twelve, and it was becoming more of a surety all the time. But she wasn't going to be an acoustic singer-songwriter.
"I was always into rap, so I wanted to learn how to make beats." She enrolled herself in the electronic music production course at Tai Poutini Polytechnic. "I thought I was so cool. But what kind of really sparked it was this one assignment where I had to hand in three songs. Up until then I'd kind of been fluffing around, because everyone I knew was back in Auckland and I was about to turn eighteen so my head just wasn't in it. And so two nights before the assignment was due I went into this studio they had available at the school and made two or three songs. And I just thought, wow, this is cool. I can do this. I mean they're terrible. Listening to them now is disgusting to me. But at the time it was amazing and it made sense."
It was around that time that she started DJing on the side: "I needed the money and I wanted to go out to clubs and get into the scene, but it got a little bit too much for me. I was around a lot of alcohol and all of the hype around it sucked me in a bit." So she turned back to producing and songwriting. One night, New Zealand producer MZWETWO turned up to one of Villette's showcases—"One of many, usually attended by probably ten people"—and invited her into the studio, where she showed him her stuff, and ending up making beats for Tapz. "That was weird. I was sitting there at the desk and they were actually listening to what I had to say…"
Villette's competitive in her craft, and that's probably the most convincing part about all these colossal dreams. That her insistence on refining her thing makes that one-in-a-million success story all the more believable. "I'm most competitive with myself, always trying to one-up the last thing I did. But I'm competitive with the men out there doing what I'm doing, too. Because I know I'm better than a lot of them. Why do they have more followers? Why do they have more plays? That's a drive for me."
That drive may well be fueled, at least in part, by the time she entered into a beat battle, a boxing-like competition where contestants play beats for a crowd one on one, back to back, one person knocking the other out, on and on until there's one winner. "It's really intense, there's a lot of energy. My DJing background really helped me with that because in DJ battles you'd get a sample that said like 'fuck you' or 'I'm the shit'. So I made beats with like Nicki Minaj and Busta Rhymes verses in them." Villette's only goal was to come third, and she did. She beat 20 dudes.
She's only been a year in the industry, but Villette is already keeping a backlog of music: some for herself and some that she shops around or has people approach her for. "I have a collection of beats that rappers or a singer can use so I'll send it over to people and say 'this is my catalogue, pay me.'"
So where's the album? "I don't want to do an album with limited resources and then, you know, do a mini-tour of Australia and New Zealand and that be it. So I'm going to keep making mixtapes and EPs that sound like albums, and I'm going to be patient."
Today marks the release of Villette's new single "If You Go." Listen to it below.